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Decade-Long Project Has Preserved Tales From Local Veterans

Pictured are just a handful of the 350 local veterans who have been interviewed for the Defenders of Freedom project through the Robert H. Jackson Center. The project turns 10 years old today, the 82nd anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Photo by the Robert H. Jackson Center

Joe Panebianco remembered hearing something that sounded like bombing or gunfire. It was an oddity for sure because gunnery practices weren’t typically held on Sundays when most sailors slept in.

It soon became apparent, however, that the sounds weren’t coming from practice rounds, but rather the very real first strikes from Japan on the U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Indeed, Panebianco was far from his snowy hometown of Jamestown the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, one that President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously labeled “a date which will live in infamy.”

Panebianco was one of at least two men from Chautauqua County who were at Pearl Harbor that morning. Tales of their service were included in a book, “A Hometown Went to War: Remembrances of World War II,” and later on video in a wide-ranging project under the umbrella of the Robert H. Jackson Center to preserve the memories of hundreds of veterans.

Panebianco was interviewed in January 2014 as part of the Defenders of Freedom project, the brainchild of Greg Peterson in conjunction with World War II historian and writer Phil Zimmer; Rolland Kidder; Chautauqua County director of veteran services Gary Chilcott; and the late Ronald Cotton.

The first interview of Chautauqua County native Danny O’Brien took place Dec. 7, 2013, the 72nd anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor where O’Brien had been stationed.

Today not only marks 83 years of the surprise attack that propelled the United States into World War II, but also 10 years that the Defenders of Freedom project began collecting, on video, memories from local veterans to preserve their place in history.

Peterson said the Robert H. Jackson Center was created to advance the legacy of Justice Jackson. Part of his legacy, Peterson told The Post-Journal this week, was being the chief American prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trial that was the bookend of World War II.

It was Kidder, who authored a well-received book on the war and local residents who served, who helped plant the seed that would become the Defenders of Freedom project. Kidder also was the first full-time executive director at the Jackson Center.

In the beginning, dozens of local veterans were interviewed in videos that were posted online. Inserted in each interview are photographs and short films to enhance the story being told by the veteran.

“We thought maybe that’s it,” Peterson said after 25 videos were produced and shared. “Then the word got out that we were doing it, and people from Warren, Cattaraugus County, even a little bit of Erie County in New York and Pennsylvania, where they would reach out and want to capture the stories, which we were pleased to do.”

In the last 10 years, close to 350 interviews have been documented. Peterson estimates half of the veterans from World War II and Korea resided in Chautauqua County.

“It just grew. It just ballooned,” he said. “Here we are coming up on our 10th anniversary.”

In an interview with The Post-Journal in 2020, Zimmer said the project has given 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 said. “These men all came from different backgrounds, but rallied and joined together to defeat the Axis powers.”

In his 2014 interview, Panebianco recalled being on a destroyer the morning of Dec. 7, 1941.

“We were being attacked, so I called up to the captain there and said we were being attacked by the Japanese,” he said. “So, we got prepared for it. Of course, then we got into our battle stations and got prepared for that.”

Panebianco died in December 2014 at the age of 96.

Peterson said some of their interviews made his “jaw hit the floor.” With some veterans, the group had little knowledge of their background, whether they served in the Atlantic or the Pacific during the war. As such, tales by veterans often caught them by surprise.

“Some things they observed we could not have anticipated,” he said.

Take, for example, a story by Angelo Zanghi, a Portland native and veteran of World War II. In a November 2014 interview for the Defenders of Freedom project, Zanghi recounted being aboard the USS O’Bannon in April 1943 when it encountered a Japanese submarine that was unaware of the destroyer’s presence.

The USS O’Bannon found itself alongside the submarine after a decision to ram the Japanese watercraft was abandoned at the last second. As such, the use of weapons became limited.

“There was this potato bin out there where they had the potatoes stored,” Zanghi recalled. “The guys just picked those potatoes up, started tossing them while the Japs were running for their 3-inch deck guns. The Japs thought they were grenades and they were running back.”

The crew of the USS O’Bannon was later presented with a plaque from the Association of Maine Potato Growers to commemorate the potato incident.

“When we first heard this story, we were in disbelief. You cannot make it up,” Peterson said of Zanghi’s tale. “And there were others like that. Some people who were residing in Chautauqua County who really were on the front lines – the front line of D-Day; the front line of Pearl Harbor; the front line of the Pacific. And they are just part of the community.”

Peterson isn’t sure there are many veterans left to be interviewed. He believes the project has accomplished its mission of preserving history to families and the public.

“I think it’s a real benefit, because many of them have never told their story and yet had reached a point where they felt comfortable to do so since so many of their fellow veterans had done so for the benefit of their family,” he said. “We hopefully provided a vehicle to have that become a reality.”

Just recently, three new videos were posted to the Jackson Center’s YouTube page (youtube.com/@RobertHJacksonCenter) that compiles the memories of Pearl Harbor from veterans interviewed in the last 10 years. With 350 interviews conducted in the last decade, the three videos contain over two hours of veterans discussing the surprise attack.

“The most important thing is that these veterans were honored to serve their country,” Peterson said. “After Pearl Harbor, there was no hesitation, reservation, to do whatever they deemed appropriate to do. Almost to a person, they were honored to serve their country and they would do it again. I wouldn’t say that was surprising, but it was reaffirming to hear that aspect of it.”

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