James Diehl is an award-winning journalist who has covered Sussex County for various media outlets and written two books telling the personal accounts of World War II veterans. He also created a documentary called Vanishing Voices of World War II. You can find out more about his project at his website World War II Heroes.
Your grandfather was a medic during the Second World War. Was he the inspiration for your books and documentary, or did you find it elsewhere?
Well it’s really two-fold if you’re talking about the inspiration, he was a big part of it. He was in the first book, but I wasn’t able to talk him into being in the film. He passed away in March. of this year.
His name was Carlton King and growing up, I heard all his stories and I wrote a couple of papers on him on some of his experiences in war during high school. But when you’re a teenager and you’re younger, a lot of types of those stories go in one ear and out the other and they’re basically just stories, you don’t really relate them to anything real. It wasn’t until later when they started to have more meaning.
When I was over at Public Relations for Delaware Tech, I was still doing some freelance writing. A publisher friend of mine who runs the Seaford newspaper, the Seaford Star, and I got together before about a month before veterans day 2007 and said ‘let’s write a series of ten or twelve [profiles] for the paper and honor some of our WWII veterans in the area.’
I wrote about a dozen of them, but the more I wrote the more I wanted to write because the stories kind of hit home and what really affected me more than anything was the humility of all the veterans. They did not really feel what they did was all that extraordinary—I thought that made their stories more interesting. I’ve done 102 of them now, and the film.
Is it difficult to find veterans to talk to, and how do you search for them?
When I first started this particular project, what I did was call the American Legions and VFW in the area and got contact information for members in that age range and that’s how I did the first dozen or so.
But after the started getting out in the paper, people started contacting me about them and I haven’t had too much trouble since then. In fact, I’ve probably had about 30 to 35 relatives of veterans calling me, saying ‘hey, write a story about my dad.’
I’ve probably had that many people turn me down just because it was too difficult for them to talk about. Finding the people isn’t that hard, but talking them into sharing their story can be.
Of course, it’s getting harder all the time. Of the 102 that I’ve interviewed, I’ve probably lost about a fourth of them and many others have Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia.
They’re getting scarcer and it’s a race against time. I’m certainly not going to be able to tell the stories I’d like to tell. This project is my hobby, it’s certainly not a money making endeavor. In fact, I doubt I’ll ever break even on this project, but if I had the money or the time I would interview a couple of them every day.
Your documentary and books primarily focus on personal stories told by the veterans themselves rather than illustrating their accounts using recreation. Why did you decide to choose that style, as opposed to other forms of storytelling?
I wanted the stories in the film and the book to be very personal and didn’t want to create something that had already been created. I didn’t want [people] to go to the library and read a book that said the same things as mine or my film.
I created the project to be more of an account of personal recollections.
There were a lot of personal things, one man talked about how he met his future wife while he was stationed in England.
Just different things like that, like how they lost people they knew or how they were under attack by mortar.
They were very personal things and I didn’t want to be just retelling history, I wanted the project to be a little more personal than that.
You worked with Senator Tom Carper, who has a personal history with military conflict and narrated your documentary. Can you describe that collaboration?
I’ve always said, regardless of what your politics are, I really think that Senator Carper is one of the good guys.
I’ve worked with him in the past, I’ve worked with Biden as well, but I thought that Carper had the personal connection and met the three requirements I had.
Senator Carper is well known throughout the state, which was the first requirement. He was someone who had a connection to WWII and he had that. My third requirement was that I was running out of money and I needed to find someone who could do it for free and Senator Carper was kind enough to do that.
I’ve always admired him as a senator and a person. As a southern Delawarean, I’ve lived here almost all my life and [Sussex] is a red county in a blue state. It’s kind of easy for our officials to sort of ignore the southern part of the state, but Senator Carper has never done that. He’s down here all the time and he’s involved in Sussex county.
When I read the foreword he wrote for Dr. William Carter’s book (Why Me, Lord?: The Experiences of a U.S. Navy Armed Guard Officer in World War II’s Convoy P Q 17 on the Murmansk Run) I knew right away that he was the person who I wanted to ask to narrate the film.
I did have a short list of people I was working off of, but I think I made the right choice.
I should really mention Bill Sammons (Watermark Productions) who helped me make the decision.
You have previously said that you had some difficulty convincing some veterans to share their stories. In this ‘race against time’ situation, how difficult is it for you when you run into that particular obstacle? How do you try to convince them to help you?
It Is difficult—I’ve convinced some of the guys who originally did not want to do it. I appealed to their sense of family by saying ‘hey if you don’t want to do this for yourself, do it for your children or your great grandchildren, or someone else might want to read your story some day.’
My grandmother’s grandfather or great grandfather—I don’t remember which—was an officer for the confederacy in the Civil War and I would love to be able to tell his stories today, but nobody recorded those stories. I’ve always had that in the back of my mind as well, that if someone doesn’t put these things down on paper, they’re going to be lost forever, and a lot of them already have been.
I’m really serious that when I say that if I had the time and I had the money and this was more than just a hobby for me, I would do this pretty much all day, every day and get as many of them down as I can but unfortunately I can’t because I have to make a living as well.
That bothers me because I’d like to be able to tell a lot more than I have, but sometimes that’s the reality of life, you need to do what you have to do, not what you want to do.
You’ve found a substantial amount of stories to tell after only talking to veterans in Sussex County and have not really examined Kent or New Castle County. What do you think that says about the wide-reach of the conflict?
One of the things that makes WWII so engaging from a readers’ perspective is that it was a world war, it was all over the world. With Korea or Vietnam, while the men who served in those wars were no less brave and no less heroic, I have a feeling that I would end up telling the same story several times because it was so concentrated.
With WWII we had men stationed all over the world, in Asia, Europe, Africa, here in America and even South America. I even talked to a couple of guys who were stationed in Antarctica who were mapping weather patterns for the D-Day invasions.
I was born in Sussex county and spent most of my life here, but up until about 10 years ago, I had never heard of Fort Miles. When I was in school we went to Fort Delaware, and while its getting more publicity now, I don’t know how many people above the canal even know about it.
But during the war, Fort Miles was constructed to protect Wilmington and Philadelphia from a German attack and a lot of people up North don’t really know about that.
Of the stories you’ve heard, can you talk about some of the stories which were particularly moving or emotional?
I’ve found that the one constant through the whole thing was the humility of the veterans about their work during the war.
In that respect I’ve talked with four African American gentlemen who served during the war and they had very emotional stories, because they were not only fighting the Germans, they were fighting their own people as well, as far as the discrimination and the inequality of life back then.
They’re very emotional when they tell them, and there’s often a little bit of anger and resentment in them.
John B. Hill is an African American voice in the film, who was in an all black unit, who told a story about how one of his buddies was told by a German prisoner, ‘you might have captured us, but we have more freedom than you do because we can go to America and go places that you can’t go.’
That was kind of what they went through back then. For them to not only fight the Germans but to overcome the [inequality] with their own troops.
Alex Deusa from Dover, the only person not from Sussex county, was in D-Day and was also in the Battle of the Bulge. He had a pretty vivid account of having pushed dead bodies aside to get the beach on Omaha around. He saw a whole platoon of soldiers killed because they didn’t give up during the Battle of the Bulge.
John Ross from Georgetown, he passed away about two weeks before the film premiered last year, he was on a ship during the attack on Pearl Harbor. He talked about shooting at Japanese planes.
There’s a Hollywood twist on a lot of these things, but to hear from the people who were there about what actually happened, you don’t forget these stories.