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A Mile in Their Shoes

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Many World War 2 veterans also served in the Korean War, and some went on to serve in Vietnam. Three of the veterans Aaron Elson interviews in “A Mile in Their Shoes” served in all three wars. He also interviewed a father who was in World War 2 and his son who was in Vietnam after the son accompanied his dad to a reunion of Elson’s father’s tank battalion. This collection of interviews also includes a group interview with five 101st Airborne Division veterans who fought in Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge; a Medal of Honor recipient who was practically a human aiming stake as he directed fire from behind a tree at advancing German tanks; a survivor of the sinking of an LST in the ill-fated Exercise Tiger, a practice landing for D-Day that went tragically awry; a radio operator on the flagship of the Utah Beach invasion fleet; two tank drivers and a tank commander; and a prisoner of war who experienced significant PTSD. All great storytellers with great stories to tell.

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After the war, John Hawk attended the University of Washington, where he did fairly well except for German. One day the teacher took him aside and said that German is such a beautiful language and asked him why it was so difficult for him to learn. He told the teacher the people who spoke that beautiful language were trying to kill him only a year or two before. And they almost succeeded when a machine gun bullet went through the tree he was hiding behind and wounded him as he directed artillery fire at approaching German tanks, for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor. George Bussell drove a tank for 11 months in combat, but the most serious injuries he sustained were the result of a barroom brawl in Phenix City, Alabama. Angelo Crapanzano’s father was in the Navy in World War I and encouraged his son to go into the Navy. You’ll get three meals a day and a bunk to sleep in, his father said. “He didn’t tell me about torpedoes,” Angelo said when Aaron Elson interviewed him after finding Angelo’s name in a book about Exercise Tiger. Cleo Coleman was a gunner in the 712th Tank Battalion, with which Elson’s father served. Cleo’s son Doug was in the air cavalry in Vietnam. When Doug accompanied his father to a reunion of the 712th, Elson asked if they had ever talked to each other about their respective wars. They hadn’t. So Elson interviewed them together, another tank battalion veteran sat in, and they compared notes. When a dear john letter from Doug’s girlfriend arrived, Cleo didn’t send it on to him because he knew how it might affect him. As his 25th bombing mission approached, B-17 waist gunner Jerry Rutigliano wrote to his family that he would have a surprise for his 19th birthday, the surprise being that he completed his required number of missions and was coming home. Just prior to his 25th mission, General Jimmy Doolittle raised the required number of missions to 30. Jerry’s plane was shot down on his 27th mission and he became a prisoner of war. A few years later, at a 2nd Air Division reunion, the keynote speaker was Jimmy Doolittle. Afterward, Jerry joined the line at Doolittle’s table, and when he got to the front he told the famous general that it was his fault he became a prisoner of war. Doolittle gestured to Jerry to sit down, and spent several minutes explaining why it was necessary to have experienced crews, while the line grew longer and more impatient and Jerry started feeling guilty and embarrassed, because here was this great general who took off from a carrier for the retaliatory raid on Tokyo with no hope of getting back to the carrier, and he hadn’t intended his remark to make him feel guilty. These are just a few of the powerful stories you’ll find in “A Mile in Their Shoes.”


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