Keeping our vets’ heroics alive
Bermudian paratrooper George Fisher walked 100 kilometres with two bullets in his legs during the Second World War.
In September 1944, when he was 24 years old, he was shot and captured during the failed British Market Garden Operation in the Netherlands.
He was sent to a German prison camp in Silesia, Poland, but when the Russians began to advance prisoners were moved, on foot, to a camp in Dresden, Germany.
Mr Fisher walked with his friend Harold (surname unknown) who had gangrene in his feet.
They survived the painful trek by encouraging each other the whole way, and sometimes physically propping each other up.
“Come on, you can do it. You can make it,” they told each other.
The two made it, but when they were liberated from the prison camp in Dresden in February 1945, Harold died during medical treatment.
Mr Fisher was devastated.
He told his story to amateur oral historian David O’Shea Meyer in 2012, two weeks before his death at 92. He still had the bullets in his legs. “Although Mr Fisher tried to stay upbeat through his story, I think he was bitterest about Harold’s death,” said Mr Meyer. “Sometimes it is difficult not to be overcome myself. Listening to war veterans can be very moving.
“The common thread through many war veterans’ stories is camaraderie. That bond between soldiers is something I have never known, only heard about.”
He has recorded about 15 Bermudian war veterans’ stories as a National Museum of Bermuda volunteer since moving to the Island in 2011. Previously, the 64-year-old worked in Los Angeles, California as an actor and tax advisor.
“I volunteered because I thought it might make me feel closer to the community,” he said. “And it has.”
It was Mr Meyer’s father Earl who first inspired him to start recording war veterans. His father, from Hamilton, Ohio, was in the 95th Infantry as a radio man for mortar companies.
For years, Mr Meyer half listened to his stories about getting lost in Alsace-Lorraine, France on the Siegfried Line, Germany’s first line of defence against invasion. “I thought it was stupid that he got lost,” Mr Meyer said. “I didn’t really understand.”
For his father’s 90th birthday, Mr Meyer recorded some of his stories.
“Finally, I understood,” he said. “Unfortunately, he died just a short time later due to colon cancer.
“While we were in the hospital, before his death, president George W Bush came on the television. My father sat up and said: ‘That man wants to start a war, but he doesn’t know what war even is’. I thought that was interesting.”
Not long after his father’s death, Mr Meyer was in an acting class when he had an epiphany.
“Our homework was to write three pages a night of whatever came to mind,” said Mr Meyer. “At first, I just wrote things, like ‘pick up the dry cleaning’.
“Then I wrote, ‘go to the 95th Infantry Reunion in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Bring the recording of my father and offer to make free recordings of anyone who wants to share their story’.
“I don’t know where the idea came from or whether it was a message from my father, but it was the best idea I ever had.”
Mr Meyer went to the reunion and taped several war veterans’ stories. For some of them it was the first time they had ever shared their stories.
“One of them talked about an ambush,” said Mr Meyer. “He said when they started out there were 14 of them, and three hours later there were only four.”
In 2004, Mr Meyer went with war veterans to France to revisit some of the places where they had fought.
“It was a moving experience,” he said. “One of the veterans was approached by a French woman and her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“She thanked him and said they all wouldn’t be there that day, without his sacrifice.
“The old men on that trip would just crack open. I don’t think those veterans had been thanked in a very long time. Some of them didn’t know if what they had done was worth a damn.”
Mr Meyer is largely self taught in oral history.
“I learnt to talk to people when I worked as a New York City cab driver in the 1980s.”
Before going into an interview, Mr Meyer always tries to eat something.
“It can take a while for the veterans to tell their stories,” he said with a laugh. “You don’t want to get hungry in the middle. When your interest flags they can sense that.”
He tries not to start out asking directly about combat.
“It was a nightmare for them,” he said. “I take them to the edge of it, and then I ask: ‘do you remember a time you felt nervous or afraid?’
“Sometimes they will talk about other people feeling nervous, and sometimes that question will open the door and they will walk forward into the combat part of their story on their own.”
He tries to get his subjects to talk about the smells and sounds of the Second World War.
“The late Kenneth Dunkley told me he tried to sign up to go overseas when he was 13-years-old,” said Mr Meyer. “Of course, he was too young.
“In the end the Navy took him as a trumpeter. He was a clerk, and his job was to wake the troops by blowing on the trumpet. Certain calls meant you are supposed to go here, or do this. I asked him if he still remembered his trumpet calls, and he did.
“I asked him if he could sing the calls, and he still could. I love to get people to sing during a recording. It is the best thing.”
The importance of his recordings really came home to him one day when he was in a library in Los Angeles.
“A 12 or 13-year-old came up and asked me what I was doing,” he said. “When I told him, he said, ‘Hitler, was that a baseball player?’.”
Suddenly Mr Meyer’s recordings took on new meaning.
“I realised how important it is to record these stories before the veterans are all gone,” he said. “A high school teacher told me this kid was no exception. Many of his students thought that Captain America won the war.”
Mr Meyer is always looking for more war veterans to interview. If you’d like to be interviewed contact the National Museum of Bermuda at 234-1333