The generation that saved the world from fascism won’t be around much longer. And with them, go many of their stories.
“The youngest World War II veterans are in their early- to mid-90s,” says Todd DePastino, founder and director of the Veterans Breakfast Club. “Veterans are at risk of having their stories not heard, not recorded.”
To help remedy that, the Veterans Breakfast Club (VBC) is starting a new project called the Veterans History Project, which pairs volunteers with military veterans, and gives them a space to share their stories and experiences via free one-hour Zoom sessions. Each story is recorded for the veteran to keep, and friends and family members are also invited to contribute.
A Pittsburgh-based nonprofit, the VBC was borne out of a talk that DePastino presented in 2008 for his book about famed World War II cartoonist Bill Mauldin. Veterans were invited to talk about their own war experiences — and it turned out that they had a lot to say.
“It was magical,” recalls DePastino, a historian and writer. “What the veterans had to say was far more fascinating than what I had to say. I couldn’t believe they could recall things in such vivid detail — the emotional impact of events that had happened 60 to 65 years earlier. We invited them to come back. One of the spouses grabbed my hand and said, ‘Thank you for doing this. We’ve been married for 60 years and I’ve never heard this story.'”
Starting in 2008, DePastino arranged for veterans to meet for breakfast to chat, educate, inspire and heal — creating community around those who served, and those who love them. So many veterans told their stories at the breakfast club gatherings that DePastino decided to make a more concerted effort to record them for posterity.
They were veterans like “Bullet” Bob Daley, who recalled the brutal battle of Saipan in the Pacific and helped take the strategic island fortress from the Japanese at tremendous cost.
“He told the story of capturing a tank, and having the Japanese commander thank him for capturing him. He spoke perfect English — he had studied at UCLA,” recalls DePastino. “Only 500 (out of 32,000) Japanese soldiers survived the battle. They were among the few Japanese who surrendered.”
“Forty-five years later, ‘Bullet’ Bob Daily is an architect in Chicago, at a trade show,” says DePastino. “And a man walks over from the Panasonic booth and says, ‘You took me prisoner on Saipan.’”
It’s one of the countless stories told as the VBC hosted scores of breakfasts over the past several years.
“In 2019, we did 79 breakfasts at 39 locations in western PA, with about 7,500 people attending,” says DePastino. “The average size was 100 people.
“We serve some food, have some socializing and have a sponsor talk. I just walk around the room and ask the veterans to share stories about their services.”
“We’ve been recording these stories from almost the beginning,” says DePastino. “Sometimes with audio, sometimes with video. But it’s been off and on. This is our first time to sort of crowdsource it. Veterans from all over the country are invited to participate. We have about a dozen volunteer interviewers — trained a little in how to conduct an interview on Zoom. The interviewee has the choice to make the interview available only to family, or to the public.”
It can be any experience of military service, from any era — World War II to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“What they form is a collective portrait of not just our history, but our humanity,” says DePastino. “The good and the bad, the savage and the divine, the love and the hate. Every insight that you can imagine is borne through the voices of these veterans.”
The project is seeking anyone who wants to tell their story or who wants to become an interviewer. To learn more about the VBC and to participate in the Veterans History Project go here.