As WWII vets leave us, so do their memories

 Library of Congress project aims to preserve firsthand accounts of the war

By Lisa Trigg

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (AP) — For Carl William Johnson, his military service during World War II is a fading memory.

Now age 95 and living at Meadows Manor East health care facility, Johnson served in the U.S. Navy and traveled to ports around the Pacific Ocean.

His daughter, Mary DeLong, said her father used to share stories about his military services, but time and health issues have clouded his memory about the events that occurred. Yet he said he liked some of the places he saw — China and Italy and San Francisco — which were a big change from his Hoosier roots in Terre Haute and Jasonville. He even crossed through the Panama Canal a few times.

“It was interesting,” Johnson told the Tribune-Star of his travels in the southern Pacific on a Navy destroyer where his assignment was as a welder.

Johnson said he joined the Navy because he had an uncle, Frank, who served. His own son, Don Johnson, later served in the Navy, as did his great-grandson, Danny Johnson.

Carl Johnson is one of a dwindling generation of World War II servicepeople who used to number among the largest subgroups in American society. After the war he returned to the Wabash Valley, working in factories, for the railroad and retired from Strand Steel. He and his wife, Helen, were married for 65 years.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reports that from 1941 to 1945 the United States had 16.1 million service members worldwide. As of May 2013, the number of surviving WWII veterans was 1.7 million. It is projected that by the end of September, that number will be down to 1,002,000.

Preserving the firsthand experiences of veterans and those involved in the war effort has been the purpose of the Veterans History Project of the Library of Congress American Folklife Center. The Vigo County Public Library has participated in the project as a collector of the oral histories and records that are sent on to the center. That database is available at on a website that currently features the 70th anniversary of D-Day.

The Vigo County Public Library also has its own collection of information on veterans. Several scrapbook volumes include clippings from the former Terre Haute Tribune and the Terre Haute Star that list news about service members during World War II.

Special collections librarian Sean Eisele has researched those records about local veterans involved in the D-Day invasion.

He got started in fall 2013 after being contacted by a man from Normandy, France, about two paratroopers from Indiana who landed near his hometown. Eisele continued the project after being contacted by another man in Saint-Malo, France, who was helping to organize a ceremony honoring a soldier from Terre Haute who was killed in action in France in August 1944.

That started his “70 men, 70 years” project to honor Wabash Valley men who were killed, wounded or captured during the war in Europe from June 6, 1944, to the end of the war. Eisele came up with the list, and among the clippings he found a published letter from a Terre Haute paratrooper.

Private Willard Hixon saw D-Day combat and wrote about it in a letter home on June 17, 1944. He tells his “darling wife,” Florence, in detail about the D-Day experience, and he mentions that he found a doll dress for his daughter, Jo Lynn, that he plans to send to her later. He also describes the hospitality of the French people who welcomed the Allied soldiers as they drove the Germans out of France.

Eisele said he was sad to find out that the 30-year-old Hixon was killed in action in Holland in October 1944.

The library also has its own oral history project, which includes some World War II era records.

To check out what is in the library’s local history collection, go online to and select Genealogy and Local History.