Volunteers listen to war stories all day long from Central Coast veterans

Joy Becker interviews Herb Alloway, who served in the Air Force from 1959 to 1965, in San Luis Obispo as part of the Veterans History Project.
Joy Becker interviews Herb Alloway, who served in the Air Force from 1959 to 1965, in San Luis Obispo as part of the Veterans History Project. Tribune

When Japanese aircraft attacked the United States fleet at Pearl Harbor, Walter and Doris Stacy were engaged in the most innocent of American pastimes: watching a movie.

“When the movie ended, the newsboys were out in the street saying Pearl Harbor had been bombed,” recalled Walter Stacy, a Dover, N.H., native. “We were like, ‘Where is Pearl Harbor?’ ”

Walter signed up with the U.S. Navy and became a F4U Corsair fighter pilot in the Pacific. His then-fiancee, Doris, went to work for the U.S. Army Air Corps.

The Cambria couple recently shared their wartime recollections with Joanne Cargill, a volunteer with the Veterans History Project. Their story will join approximately 66,000 oral histories at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

“Future generations ought to know this was a different kind of war,” said Doris Stacy, 86. “Everybody got behind it.”

Preserving history

Created by Congress in 2000, the Veterans History Project seeks to collect and preserve the personal accounts of American veterans and the civilians who actively supported war efforts.

Locally, Cargill and fellow volunteers Joy Becker and Jerry Deitz have interviewed more than 100 Central Coast residents. At first, Cargill said, veterans are often reluctant to tell their stories.

“You get a lot of hesitancy,” she said. “Either they think they didn’t do anything or they don’t want to talk about it. … They just don’t think it’s a big deal.”

“(The goal is) to get the personal story of the veteran,” Cargill said, “not his unit’s story, not his commander’s story, but … what it was like for him.”

Cargill first heard about the Veterans History Project through a support group for the wives of Vietnam veterans.

Since 2000, the Santa Maria woman has interviewed 96 people, ranging from World War II veterans in their 80s and 90s to soldiers recently returned from Iraq.

Becker, a San Luis Obispo resident, conducted her first interview in January and has logged about a dozen since then.

“It’s been a wonderful experience,” she said. “With every (story), I feel like I have a whole life adventure to explore.”

Stories to be told

Most of the interviews take place in a cozy room in the Central Coast Veterans Memorial Museum, located at the back of the San Luis Obispo Veterans Memorial Building.

There, amid military recruitment posters, paintings and a framed speech by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, veterans share their stories on camera.

On Tuesday, Becker sat down with Herbert “Herb” Alloway, a U.S. Air Force veteran who served as principal at C.L. Smith, Monarch Grove and Morro Elementary schools.

Alloway described his experience as an airman, first class, between 1959 and 1965 — undergoing basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas and serving as a comptroller at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona and Osan Air Base in Korea.

Although the 69-year-old didn’t see combat, he remembers Cold War tensions running high.

“People’s nerves were really on edge,” recalled Alloway, whose duties included blowing up the Osan base’s finance building if North Korea were to attack.

Veterans’ stories can range from funny anecdotes about boot camp hijinks to harrowing accounts of battlefield bloodshed.

Cargill remembers interviewing one World War II vet who fought in the Battle of Luzon in the Philippines. Positioning his arms and hands as if he were holding a rifle, “He looked at me and said, ‘I had to shoot them or they would have killed me,’ ” Cargill recalled. “Tears were pouring out of his eyes.”

“The ones that really affect me are the ones that get really emotional,” she added, noting that many veterans are relating their experiences for the first time. “I feel very privileged to share in that emotion, in that vulnerability.”

Time running out

After each interview, which typically takes an hour and a half, the volunteers send one digital copy to the veteran and another to the Library of Congress. A third joins the museum’s public collection.

Becker and Cargill place a special emphasis on collecting the stories of World War II veterans — who, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, are dying at an estimated rate of 1,000 or more a day.

“I think these stories are precious and will be in the future,” Cargill said, just like letters from the American Civil War. “They’re all memorable. They’re all very interesting.”