I love history. I love to read about history, I love to write about history and, most of all, I love to hear about history. And for a history buff, there’s nothing better than hearing about historic events from those who lived through them.
In recent years, I’ve really dove into World War II history. I’ve met many veterans of the war and helped to share their stories as told to me. I’ve seen these mature men break down while talking about how they feared for their lives or how they missed their families or how they lost friends in combat.
I’ve heard horrifying descriptions and looked at graphic black and white snapshots and held medals earned through injury. I’ve been able to witness something so many people don’t get to. I’ve learned about this era of history not just through picking up a book, but through hearing their experiences. I’ve heard pain and pride, regret and remorse, elation and relief through their cracked voices. To say I have felt privileged to have been the recipient of these intimate recollections is an enormous understatement.
This past week, I had the opportunity to hear two extraordinary men share their stories in a group setting regarding their experiences during World War II. There were so many facets of the war and so many stories coming from so many different angles. Each speaker had such a different story to tell.
The first was O. Lawton Wilkerson or “Wilk” as he likes to be called. Wilk was born in Chicago Heights and attended Bloom High School. Upon graduation, he went into the Army Air Force, training first at Chanute Air Field in Central Illinois and then at the Tuskegee Institute. Wilk was one of the first African-American pilots in the U.S. Army. He was part of an elite group known as the Tuskegee Airmen.
Wilk, now 88, was part of the first class to fly the B25 at the age of just 19. He finished his training just after the war ended and didn’t have the opportunity to serve in combat. He modestly emphasized repeatedly that he’s “riding the coat tails of those who came before me.” Yet he was part of an extraordinary group that changed the way things were done in the military and years before the Civil Rights movement was helping to pave the way for future generations. Although the role of the Tuskegee Airmen brought forth changes in the military, it was many more years before racial changes would be seen in the country. The Tuskegee Airmen who served in the war, proving their skills as pilots, returned home to be rejected for jobs as commercial pilots due to their race. There were still restaurants they couldn’t eat in and other places they couldn’t go.
Wilk showed the documentary “Who Says Black Men Can’t Fly?” which can easily be found and viewed on YouTube, by the way. As I watched it, I recognized two other men I’d met and saw the museum at the former Chanute Air Museum that I’d visited.
The second speaker was Dr. Alexander White, who visited South Suburban College for a lecture that was open to the community. White, 91, was born in Poland and was 16 when his hometown was invaded by Nazis in 1939. He was the only one of his family of six to survive the war. Of his extended family in that area of Poland, he was one of only three of 34 family members to survive.
White talked about several times he escaped death, the first being when the German Army first arrived demanding that all males from age 16 to 60 come forward. His mother said that he was only 14 and he was spared the firing squad death of many others.
“It was my first experience of the mass killing of perfectly normal, healthy people,” he said.
He described many other scenarios of horrific situations he faced and of how he lost members of his family.
After he made it through the war, White went to medical school and then came to the U.S. where he practiced medicine in Olympia Fields and Park Forest for about four decades before retiring. He now still works near his Arizona home and does speaking engagements to high school and college audiences.
Sometimes I am able to talk to these people because I’m interviewing them as part of my job as a writer or my role as vice president of the Lansing Historical Society, but there are many other opportunities to hear such interesting and significant stories. When you have the chance to hear them, don’t pass them up. Not too far into the future, those who lived through that era will no longer be here to tell these stories. Listen while you can.