Jerry Davison of Hokah, Minn., was inspired to join the U.S. Navy after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He served as a mine sweep officer - locating and disconnecting 300-pound underwater mines.
The 82-year-old said he never gave much thought to the danger he faced during World War II until he was much older. A commitment two weeks ago to be interviewed for the Veterans History Project, which is being archived at the Library of Congress and the La Crosse Public Library, brought it all back again.
"I didn't sleep that night thinking about it," Davison said. "Fifty years later, it bothers you more than at the time."
Twenty veterans of various wars were recognized Tuesday morning at American Legion Post 52 for participating in the Veterans History Project, which was created more than two years ago to honor the nation's war veterans through a collection of interviews documenting their wartime experiences.
U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, who came up with the idea for the project while videotaping the memories of veterans in his own family, attended the ceremony and presented the veterans with certificates of recognition. The videotapes of the veteran's stories are being archived at the Library of Congress and at the La Crosse Public Library.
Karen Schoenfeld, project organizer, said this is the second year LaCrossroads students interviewed veterans during field trips to the Tomah VA Hospital and the American Legion. Members of the Rotary Club of La Crosse North did some of the videotaping; and the Cooperative Educational Service Agency No. 4 provided funding so students could be transported, she said.
LaCrossroads is the La Crosse School District's high school for at-risk students, and students participated in the project as part of a community service component required for graduation. Last year, students interviewed 11 veterans, 20 veterans were interviewed this year, and 20 more are on a waiting list.
"You have no idea the impact you have on my students," Schoenfeld told the veterans. "It's so important to us."
Seniors La Toya Cooley and Melissa Kelber interviewed Gene Hull, a Vietnam veteran at the Tomah VA who taught them several life lessons, including the importance of staying true to personal beliefs. Kelber said she learned a lot about U.S. history during the interview.
"More than you would in a history class," she said. "It's more interesting when you hear it from someone who experienced it firsthand."
Donald Schoenfeld, 77, of La Crosse, who served three years in the U.S. Navy during World War II, said he was "forced" to participate because his daughter-in-law is the project organizer, but he was glad he did.
"My recommendation is that anyone who is graduating from high school who is not going on to college should join the service for two years," he said. "I think we owe it to our country."
Edward Wojahn, a U.S. Army combat engineer who was taken as a prisoner of war on his birthday in December 1944, said he relished the opportunity to tell the story of his capture and work detail at a furniture factory again.
"I've done it so many times, it's old hat to me," said the 80-year-old Onalaska man. "It was scary. You didn't know if you would ever see America again."
LaCrossroads senior Chris Gage said although he didn't learn anything new about American history by participating in the project, he still felt it was worthwhile.
"It's like (the veterans) needed someone to talk to," he said. "I learned to listen. If people listened more, it would be better."
Anastasia Mercer can be reached at (608) 791-8256 or email@example.com.