Heroes and the Home Front
General Edward C. Meyer, formerly the United States Army Chief of Staff, points out in the documentary People of Honor—World War II that “an army doesn’t fight a war, a nation does.”
Or, in this case, a county.
Gale Largey, local historian, retired Mansfield University sociology professor, and documentary filmmaker, concurs. For his powerful 2001 film People of Honor—World War II, Gale and his students interviewed more than 100 Tioga County WW II veterans, and the documentary tells their moving stories of the county’s home front and its heroes from that “Greatest Generation.” The film has become a local classic, and Mountain Home magazine, the Wellsboro HomePage, and KC101 are sponsoring a special screening of it at 7 p.m. Friday, May 24, at the Deane Center for the Performing Arts in Wellsboro in honor of Memorial Day. Gale will be on hand to speak, and local veterans are encouraged to call (570) 724-6220 so they can be honored with seating in a special section.
A reception will follow with appetizers, refreshments, and a chance to meet with the filmmaker and veterans. Admission is free, but donations will be accepted, with proceeds going to Goodies For Our Troops.
Gale says he has always been “sort of intrigued” by World War II. He had five uncles in it, he had heard them talking about it, and he knew they hadn’t all had the same experiences.
“The experiences of war were quite different for the different ways you served,” Gale says. “Some were drafted and some were volunteers. Some saw action and some did not. There are many different types of veterans—we tend to lump them all together.”
That means the young ladies who donned their shorts (and sunburned their legs) to sit on the roof of the Penn Wells on a summer day to watch for enemy aircraft could be considered a kind of veteran. The kids who gathered milkweed for the military to use as flotation device stuffing were also veterans. The fourteen-year-old who worked, albeit illegally (no working papers), at a factory in Covington grading bomb pins for size—he’s a veteran, too. The “soldiers of the soil,” those folks who stayed on the county’s farms to help keep everybody fed, experienced the war as well.
“It was kind of a come together time,” says Jerome Copley, one of the interviewees reminiscing about how things were in Tioga County during the war years.
Another veteran, John Frazier, recalls that his father, who ran the post office in Liberty, where the family lived at the time, took him to Williamsport to sign up for the service. While they were there, his dad, then in his early forties, decided to enlist as well.
“Mother knew nothing about this,” John says, and notes that when the pair returned home, his father asked him who would be the one to tell her. “Dad, I’m not even going in the house,” was John’s response.
One of Gale’s favorite fun scenes in the film shows Blossburg resident Keith Lindie, who died last year, describing the many uses of the G.I.’s steel helmet. Gale had turned to Tioga County historian Scott Gitchell for help in procuring a helmet—it was all Keith from that point. Keith, who had been a tank commander, explains that the helmet’s liner could be removed, making it an ideal place to store something flat and flexible and oh-so-necessary: toilet paper.
“You had to go to the bathroom, whether you was in a war or not,” Keith tells the camera matter-of-factly. The helmets, he continues, also made great cooking pots, especially for the occasional chicken the soldiers were able to finagle; they worked as small but serviceable clothes washing pots flipped over, they made an ever-available seat, as Keith demonstrates with a big grin.
“It was an amazing piece of footage,” Gale notes.
Another favorite vignette, more poignant than humorous, involves a letter Tom Rockwell wrote to his Tioga County family after he went overseas. In the letter, he assures his family that he’s OK, that he’s pretty sure he won’t die but, if he does, says that he’s had a “wonderful life, either way.” He did die, on Christmas Eve, 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge. His mother’s ashes are buried with him, at her request, in a European cemetery.
Allen Scranton recalls his own Christmas Eve/Battle of the Bulge experience. The sounds of Christmas carols began drifting over from the enemy lines, and soon the Allies joined in.
“It was very touching,” he says, and adds, after a moment, that “those guys were there because they had to be, and we were there because we had to be.”
Then there’s Archie Watkins. Also from Blossburg, Archie had been a prisoner of war. He weighed around 150 pounds when he went in the service, and about seventy when he came out. He wasn’t looking for any special recognition, but he had always kind of wanted the Combat Infantryman’s Badge. Gale remembers that about three months after the movie was completed, he was able to help arrange for Rick Santorum, who was then a U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, to honor Archie with the badge. Gale included a photo of the presentation at the end of the film.
“That was quite an event,” Gale says. “Blossburg did it right. It capped the whole film.”
Archie died two weeks later. And so goes the living memory of those seventy-plus-years-ago days.
Gale says there are a couple of things he would do differently if he had the movie to make over again. One would be interviewing more veterans.
“Obviously we missed some, which we regret,” he says.
He would also include more stories about the “in-between.” “One of the shortcomings of the film is it shows the war front and the home front, and all that was in-between is not there,” he notes. There was also footage he could not use, as some of the subjects got very emotional. But, overall, making the film gave him and all those involved with its production an opportunity to learn how people look at things differently.
“It was a generation that had just come out of the Depression—they were used to hardship,” Gale says.
A century and a half has gone by, and many wars have been fought, since General William Tecumseh Sherman grimly opined that, “War is hell.” General Robert E. Lee echoed his sentiments when he said, “It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.”