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Remember When: Stories and Songs of World War II

By CLAIRE HUGHES, Staff writer
First published: Monday, June 10, 2002

Bill Langevoort, a gunner on a B-24 bomber, flew 35 missions in six months and made it home by his 20th birthday.

Helen Ross Dunkle, married and three months pregnant, waited weeks before learning her husband -- whose plane was missing -- was all right.

Donald G. Harmande did all the grocery shopping for his family, carting a baby buggy to the store at age 11, because everyone else was working or enlisted in the military.

On Sunday, Kate Dudding told the unpublished stories of World War II, weaving together cumulative details of life on the front lines and here at home to capture an era for her audience.

Her presentation of "Remember When: Stories and Songs of World War II'' at the Shenendehowa Senior Center focused on the stories of seven people, but there were nods of general recognition and murmurs of agreement among the over 100 listeners, mainly seniors who lived through the time.

"This brought back so many memories for me,'' Dorothy Burnett, 79, a town resident, told Dudding after the program. "I was a Navy nurse back in World War II.''

Dudding, who in 1995 realized storytelling was a vocation, approached the senior center about a year ago and asked for volunteers willing to share their experiences during the 1940s. She had previously acquired interviewing skills and techniques by attending classes with the late Vaughn Ward, a well known folklorist. The impetus for the project came two years ago at the National Storytelling Conference, at which Dudding heard stories created from interviews with veterans (The Price of Freedom).

Dudding, a 51-year-old town resident and computer scientist at GE Global Research in Niskayuna, said the stories motivated her to learn more about her own family history: Her late father was a World War II veteran but never liked to talk about that time in his life.

"Why don't I save some of the stories from the people in my community?'' Dudding said she asked herself. "I can't save my parents'.''

Several of the people who talked to Dudding said they hadn't shared all of the details before, either. Among them was Frances Wasserman who had never told anyone else about a pair of nylon stockings -- rare possessions during the war -- she'd taken from a wealthy woman just to wear for a night.

Wasserman lived in a room of a Schenectady Stockade house belonging to a wealthy couple whose 12-year-old child she watched. The husband had bought the wife three pairs of nylons, and one night Wasserman took a pair to wear to a dance. When she came home, she washed them and hung them back where they'd been drying.

Later, Wasserman told the crowd that she felt justified in her "borrowing'' because the nylons could only have been bought on the black market.

"Wherever this man had gotten them, I figure he'd done wrong,'' she said, and the crowd laughed. "Of course, two wrongs don't make a right.''

Dudding also told stories about:

John C. Rucigay, a B-24 co-pilot who parachuted out of his plane and spent six weeks behind enemy lines.

Jack Turner, an infantryman who continued to eat his lunch after seeing his first dead German soldier. He credited his indifference to his military preparation.

Robert "Red" Wolf, a former B-17 navigator whose eyes welled with tears when Dudding told the story of his flak jacket stopping a 3-inch piece of flak.

Between stories, the Shenendehowa Senior Citizens Chorus sang songs from the time, including a medley of Irving Berlin tunes that had audience members humming and tapping their feet.

The seniors who shared their stories with Dudding said they wanted to pass their own personal piece of history along and, in some cases, to correct false beliefs some have of World War II. Turner, 77, said he is enraged when he hears people deny the existence of concentration camps where Jews were killed.

"I get so furious because I saw those people there,'' he said.

The program marked Dudding's first attempt to preserve the past through oral history. She has previously used books as the source for her stories. She made two visits to each of the seniors whose stories she told, spending up to four hours with them and recording her interviews. The original tapes and their transcripts, transcribed by Christina Gifford of Clifton Park, will become part of the archives of the town of Clifton Park at the Shenendehowa Public Library.

In addition, the copies of the veterans' tapes and transcripts will be donated to the Library of Congress.