Man's project aims to 'let them tell their stories'
While downtown one evening, David Quam saw an older man standing in front of the Freedom Fighters Veterans Memorial, intently focused on the World War II monument.
"I've been here all day and not one person has come here to look at these monuments," said the man, pausing. "Nobody cares."
Quam told him that's not true - and he has spent the last four months trying to prove it.
He immediately started planning for recognition of World War II veterans during the Jaycees Water Carnival Grand Parade July 3.
A special viewing area on the shady Historic Beltrami County Courthouse lawn was roped off for WWII veterans. The entire parade, led by Quam and the Bemidji Area Retired Military Club in their WWII jeeps, stopped in front of the veterans as the Civil Air Patrol saluted and honored them for their service. Certificates of appreciation were given out. The sound system announced their presence.
One veteran, using a walker, was heard telling another one that he couldn't believe the public was doing this for them.
"These guys were crazy over it," Quam said.
That moment sparked a new venture. Quam asked the Civil Air Patrol to gather the names and phone numbers of all the WWII veterans who attended the parade.
Quam, utilizing his career broadcasting experience, is videotaping each WWII veteran as he describes his experiences in war.
"I let them tell their stories," Quam said. He does not edit them.
Quam then posts the videos online at www.ww2bji.org for the public to view.
Quam has worked with PBS, but said he opted against that route this time because he did not want to limit the veterans to time frames. And, he wants the public to have access to their stories at all times.
So Quam instead purchased a domain name. Paul Bunyan Communications provided server space to host the videos in exchange for promoting the company on the website.
He also is working with Roger Paskvan at Bemidji State University to have them aired later on the BSU TV station.
In their own words
To get them started, Quam asks for their name and whether they joined or were drafted. By the time they get to where they attended training camp, their story has begun.
In one of the 15 videos now posted, Tom Van Brunt recalls being drafted in 1943 into the U.S. Army Air Service.
He served on Tinian Island as an electrician and mechanic.
One day, he said, a new plane arrived. It was the Enola Gay, a B-29 bomber. That plane, and its crew, got its very own, new runway, located right next to Van Brunt's plane.
The Enola Gay crew was not particularly loved, Van Brunt said. While others were going out every couple days on bombing missions to Japan, the Enola Gay remained still.
"Everybody wanted to know, 'Why don't you guys do something?'" Van Brunt said.
A few weeks later, things started happening, but existing crews were focused on their own missions. A bomb had arrived, but it was too big to fit under the B-29. A special trench had been dug and constructed to get the bomb loaded onto the Enola Gay.
Then, one evening in August 1945, the plane took off.
The others were not told what was happening.
"We got orders from headquarters that our planes were not to fly," Van Brunt said, noting that the planes were all loaded with bombs and gasoline. "All of a sudden we got this order."
So they waited.
Van Brunt heard something on the radio about a bomb that had been dropped that wiped out a whole city.
"I said, 'They don't make anything like that,'" he said, initially chalking it up to a tall story.
But as they learned later, the Enola Gay had dropped the first wartime atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.
When the Enola Gay returned, its crew landed and walked away. Van Brunt and two others just happened to have a camera and had a photo taken of them posing in front of the plane.
More to come
Van Brunt's story is one of more than a dozen, each separated by branch of service: Marine Corp, Army, Coast Guard, Navy or Army Air Service.
More will be added soon. Quam expects that he will have more than 30 when he is done, all featuring WWII veterans within 100 miles of Bemidji.
"I'll get as many as I can," he said.
Quam himself is a veteran, having joined and served in the Army from 1962 to 1965.
He, like a few of those interviewed, did not go overseas and did not see battle. Quam himself got out just before Vietnam escalated.
"You feel very fortunate ... and a little bit of guilt ," he said, noting that he had friends who were fighting in Vietnam. "And here I am sitting in New York City."
Click on any of the videos below to hear some of the stories from World War II veterans: