The ‘Greatest Generation’
Defenders Of Freedom Project Celebrates Heroism Of Local Veterans
They’re called the “Greatest Generation.”
Their stories are those of heroism borne of patriotism.
And, to local attorney and Robert H. Jackson Center co-founder Greg Peterson, they must be told and preserved before it’s too late.
“Having had conversations with (former assemblyman) Rolland Kidder and a few others about the fact that the number of World War II veterans are leaving us at a rapid pace is what generated the idea of, ‘Let’s interview those that we can, while we can,” Peterson told The Post-Journal.
Working under the umbrella of the Jackson Center and in conjunction with Kidder, Chautauqua County director of veteran services Gary Chilcott, World War II historian and writer Phil Zimmer and the late Ronald Cotton, the result became the Defenders of Freedom project, which has aimed to gather, on video, war memories from local veterans in order to preserve their place in history.
“We felt that its logical extension has Jackson’s principle professional highlight of being the prosecutor of the Nuremberg Trial and as prosecutor of the Nuremberg Trial, that was the bookend of World War II,” Peterson said of the collaboration with the Jackson Center.
To Zimmer, the project gives those interested an opportunity to understand the war through the eyes of those who lived it.
“I truly believe World War II was a closer run event than most understand,” he told The Post-Journal. “These men all came from different backgrounds, but rallied and joined together to defeat the Axis powers.”
Peterson and Zimmer then began working to find local veterans and were able to sit down with their first interview subject, Fredonia native Danny O’Brien, on December 7, 2013 – 72 years to the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor, where O’Brien had been stationed.
“We thought at first it was the Navy upon maneuvers, but then the ‘Rising Sun’ was on the side of the plane and we knew it was the ‘the real McCoy,'” O’Brien told Peterson on that day nearly seven years ago.
“They called me for assistance on that and we were working putting out the fires all day long,” he added. “We had a tanker that was all fulminate. It threw me off the tanker and banged up my knees. The medics looked at my leg and said, ‘Jeez, you should go to the hospital.’ They threw some sticks on my legs and I continued working all that day. The next day, I was in bad shape.”
Three hundred interviews later, Peterson and Zimmer have traveled the distance of Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties and throughout Warren County, Pa. to talk with those who saw the impact of the war up front.
That includes the late Rex Graham, a Warren native who passed away in 2017, and received a Bronze Star for valor under enemy fire, who talked with Peterson in 2014 about surviving a close attack by German soldiers while serving in the European Theater.
“I came back to camp, I heard tank motors and looked down the hill and it looked like the Germans were regrouping,” Graham remembered. “The tanks are coming. He had everybody dig their holes and get ready. He put me over a canal, so I was on the other side and so we just started to dig a hole, just enough to get under the ground. All hell started going. Everything went an array. I had to get down that canal to get across with the rest of the group, full of water, full of mud.”
He added, “To show you how lucky you could be, my squad sergeant, we were all dug in, I didn’t see him when it happened, but I saw this guy was dug in right next to him. We held them there and my squad sergeant got hit right in his foxhole, blew both of his legs off. We had regrouped there and held him and then we started pushing back again and then we ended up moving forward.”
The story of Falconer native Dominic Spitale, who passed away several months after sharing his memories for the project is one that still gives Peterson “chills.”
“They sent three of us to see where the Japenese were around us,” Spitale remembered in the interview. “Me and a couple of other guys went and one of the guys fell, I went up to him, he was a lieutenant and there was rifle there and another guy told us to get the hell out of there. We started to run and I suddenly I felt my head was really hot. I felt the blood coming down. I ran as fast as I could, fell in a foxhole and lost consciousness.”
When he was discovered the next day, Spitale was sent on a hospital ship to Guam and from there was sent to San Francisco, where he recovered, but still suffered from a loss of hearing and vision problems.
“We owe so much to guys like Spitale,” Zimmer said. “Countless lives like his were changed forever as a result of this and when we speak with them, they’re so modest especially in today’s day and age where self-promotion is taken without a wince.”
Some even received honors later in life, like Jamestown native Paul Arnone, a signalman during the D-Day Invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944 who received the French Legion of Honor last summer – the highest honor the French government can bestow on those who have achieved remarkable deeds for the country.
“We heard the announcement from General Eisenhower that the weather was not going to be a hindrance to our operation,” Arnone remembered during his interview in 2014. ‘“To be honest with you, I had too many responsibilities to think about what we were going into.”
And some have seen devastation beyond compare, such as Mayville resident Doc Malinoski, who passed away in 2014 and as a member of the U.S. Navy Amphibian forces experienced the aftermath of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“On our way to Japan, we were ordered to go to Kure Harbor, five miles from Nagasaki,” he remembered. ” Here I am standing out in nothing but rubble and waste and hundreds of Japanese civilians with everything they’ve carried on their backs walking out of this rubble and on one side and on the other side of the road were the same amount walking back in.”
“You kept feeling so sorry for those people because you didn’t know where they were going,” he added through tears. “They didn’t know where they were going. It was nothing but just rubble.”
“These were, essentially, 17, 18 or 19-year-old kids who felt a sense of patriotism and a sense that democracy is a form of government that needs to be protected and preserved and they were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice in fighting for our country during World War II,” Peterson said. “To understand where they came from, how or why they were motivated is a critical component to understanding our country today. You have to know where you came from to know where you’re going too. That’s important.”
“I’m hoping that we can all be thankful for those who served and reaffirm a determination to respect others we encounter throughout life,” Zimmer said. “When the occasion presents itself, never hesitate to step forward and thank a veteran for his or her service to the country.”
The interviews can all be found at https://accesschautauquacountytv.org/shows/defendersOfFreedom, a website compiled by Chris Burt.
And, the project is still ongoing. Those interested are encouraged to contact Peterson.
“We are still hoping to interview anyone who was a part of the Greatest Generation,” he said. “It can be someone who was active service or someone who was involved here in the states helping the war effort. We’ve interviewed a few people like that as well.”