Recording their stories
When war is over, memories are left. In the 2nd Judicial District, court reporters are helping veterans preserve them.
The military experiences of Madelyn Swearingen, of Humboldt, who served in the WAVES at the tail end of World War II, and Jim Scott, of Stratford, who served in the Army during the Vietnam War, couldn’t be more different.
Swearingen came home on a troop train on which she was the only woman.
Scott came home on a stretcher with three Purple Hearts.
What the two have in common, though, is their service to their country, and their willingness to sit down with an interviewer, a court reporter and their memories, good and bad, to preserve them for future generations.
This took place Friday during a Veterans Oral History Project event hosted by the 2nd Judicial District members of the Iowa Court Reporters Association on the East Campus of Iowa Central Community College.
Scott served with the famous 101st Airborne. He was at the battle of Hamburger Hill.
“I was there the first time we took the hill,” he said. “That was before it got popular.”
Scott was blown up by a hand grenade booby trap and shot. He still bears the scars from those injuries.
“The doctor looked at me and asked what happened to you?” he said of a recent visit with a physician. “How much time you got, was my answer.”
While Scott saw some of the worst combat as an infantry soldier that the war had to offer, the fate of his squad mates is tragic almost beyond words.
“They’re all gone,” Scott said. “Henry, he went to drugs. On Hamburger Hill, he got both legs shot off. Dave, all of a sudden we stopped getting his Christmas card. Zar, he killed himself. Duke, he could still be alive. He lives in southern Illinois; he told me, ‘I’ll be moonshining.'”
That last time he saw all of them was 47 years ago.
“We all got together in ’70,” he said. “We had a big party for a week. We drank some beers — a couple.”
In the fusion of combat, they were, essentially, brothers.
“We were best buds, all of us,” he said. “I’ve got pictures of us in ‘Nam on the bunker.”
Scott married his high school sweetheart, Adele. The couple will celebrate 48 years of marriage on May 30.
She was shocked when he came home.
“We didn’t even recognize him,” she said. “He left at 210 pounds and 6 feet. When he came home he was 135 pounds and a couple of inches shorter. It was all eyeballs.”
Letters from home kept his spirits up.
“Every day we wrote,” he said. “Sometimes, I wouldn’t have any paper and I’d write ‘I’m OK’ on a C-ration box and send it off.”
Mail service in a combat zone wasn’t the most regular of events.
“Sometimes I wouldn’t hear from him for a week,” she said. “Then I’d get seven letters in one day.”
The regular mail also helped him dodge the foul taste of the local water.
“Some of our water came out of rice paddies,” he said. “Everybody that sent a package sent a package of pre-sweetened KoolAid.”
During his interview on Friday, one of the last questions Scott was asked was what message he would like to share with those reading his history.
“I have no regrets of what I did,” Scott answered.
Still, he endured the rejection that awaited many Vietnam veterans on their return home. He didn’t feel appreciated, nor was he treated well.
“Recruiters weren’t allowed to call the house,” he said. “I didn’t want my kids to have nothing to do with military.”
Adele Scott doesn’t think anything was accomplished there.
“It was senseless and a waste of life.” she said.
What she doesn’t regret, not for one second, is her life with Scott.
“It’s been worth it,” she said.
As court reporter Jane Smith took down Jim Scott’s story, the words she typed appeared on a nearby computer monitor.
“You can’t believe what this guy went through,” she said.
His interviewer was Fort Dodge attorney and Magistrate Steve Kersten.
“Imagine a 19-year-old kid is in ‘Nam for seven months and gets blown up by a grenade. He’s a true hero. He rose above it. I’m honored to have asked to do this,” he said.
WAVES were the U.S. Navy Reserves’ solution to a serious manpower shortage towards the end of World War II. WAVES is an acronym for Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service. Those women served mostly stateside in a variety of noncombat positions.
Swearingen, who is now “94 and a half,” served from Aug. 10, 1944, to Oct. 19, 1945.
“I’m very proud of being a veteran,” she said. “If you have an opportunity to serve your country it will be something that will affect you your whole life.”
She went for her training at Hunter College in the Bronx.
“You learned a lot of Navy history,” she said. “We did a lot of marching and there were a lot of restrictions. You weren’t free to just come and go.”
That helped ease the minds of those back home.
“Your parents knew you were well taken care of,” she said.
WAVES were exempt from one thing male recruits had to do.
“I never shot a gun,” she said.
When Swearingen finished her tour of duty, she was sent home from the west coast on a troop train with other returning vets. Their destination was Chicago.
“We had a nice travel experience,” she said. “I was to meet my husband at the train station in Chicago. The whole train was veterans going back to Chicago. I was the only girl. They were all jubilant they going home.”
On Friday, Swearingen ended her oral history with her own statement of whimsy.
“So,” she said, “that’s my story. I would do it again.”
Court reporter Shelly Phillips took down Swearingen’s story.
“Its been a rewarding project,” Phillips said. “It’s an important and necessary project.”
She particularly enjoyed hearing a Swearingen’s story.
“I just think it’s very interesting to learn a woman’s perspective,” she said. “I don’t know if I’d have the courage to do what she did.”
Mildred Torkelson was the volunteer who interviewed Swearingen. At 82, she remembers some of the war from stateside.
“The country was behind it,” she said. “You had to give up sugar, gas, and everything was rationed. Everybody just accepted it. Everybody was connected to the war in some way.”
After the war, when rationing was lifted, Torkelson remembers the return of one item in particular.
“Oh my goodness,” she said. “When we could buy marshmallows again, that was really something.”
Another thing she remembers is that silk stockings were completely unavailable. Lacking them, women would sometimes use makeup to darken their legs and an eyebrow pencil to draw a seam down the back of each leg.
“I remember my sister doing that,” she said.
In addition to Swearingen and Scott, eight more veterans with service in Korea and World War II shared their stories.
Once transcribed, each veteran will receive a copy and the stories will become a permanent part of the Veterans Oral History project and be archived in the Library of Congress.
Judge Thomas Bice, who also volunteered his time on the project, talked to the veterans who were interviewed.
“It can never be said enough,” Bice said. “Our heartfelt thanks for your service, your bravery, your courage. You preserve for us our way of life. Thank you.”