Book tells stories of local veterans
Richard Kells of Greenfield. Purchase photo reprints »
It was 1943 when Richard Kells of Greenfield was about to turn 21 and decided he wanted to join the World War II forces fighting the “popular war.”
“Everyone was going into the service and I wanted to join them,” said Kells, 90, who sat on the enclosed porch of his Mountain Road home this week talking about his experience as a prisoner of war.
Kells, along with four other Franklin County World War II veterans, as well as veterans of the Korean War, Vietnam and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was recently featured in Sunderland resident and author Elise Forbes Tripp’s latest book, “American Veterans On War: Personal Stories from WWII to Afghanistan.”
Kells said he had a physical and was turned down.
“I was devastated,” he said. “I was going to join the Merchant Marines, when I decided to try one more time — and he did.
The U.S. Army took him, even though he was color blind, he said.
“They were glad to get me,” he said with a smile.
Kells was sent to Fort Devens in Ayer and did 17 weeks of basic training in Florida.
“After that, I was ready to serve as an anti-tank gunner,” he said. “Those are the guys who shoot at enemy tanks.”
In July 1944, he left on the high seas for Italy, where he would run into his younger brother, who was also serving, before they parted ways for the rest of the war.
Kells had been heading north in France when he was captured by German soldiers, he said.
“I was a POW for five and a half months,” he said.
Kells said he and his comrades in arms were lucky — they ended up in one of the more humane prisons, though the stay was not pleasant.
“We were always hungry,” he said. “We’d get a slice of bread and some cheese or jam. That was what our meals consisted of.”
Kells said he was interrogated throughout his imprisonment and had to hike toward Berlin for many days.
“I only witnessed one instance of brutality during that time and it wasn’t as bad as you might imagine,” said Kells.
He said he and the soldiers he was with didn’t talk about what was happening to them — or what might happen.
“We stayed away from those subjects,” he said. “We did talk about food a lot. We all lost a lot of weight and we were hungry all the time.”
Kells said another big and irritating issue the POWs had to deal with was lice.
“We were infested,” he said. “It was awful.”
He said soldiers weren’t given toothbrushes, so he brushed his teeth with clean pieces of cloth for more than five months.
“When the war was almost over, we got moved and that’s when we were liberated by the Russians,” he said. “They were the first to get to the camp where we were located.”
Kells said he waited several days before American soldiers got there to take him home.
“We were put on planes and shipped back to France,” said Kells. “Then, I came home on a ship in 1945.”
Kells said the best news he got when he returned home was to find that all four of his brothers were safe.
Tripp said she dedicated the book to Leo J. Parent, who served as veterans agent for the Central Franklin County District for 25 years.
She said Parent’s help introducing her to the many veterans featured in the book was invaluable.
Tripp, a historian who taught history in high schools and colleges throughout her career, also wrote “Surviving Iraq: Soldiers’ Stories,” which was published in 2008.
“I talked to veterans and veterans agents for this most recent book,” said Tripp. “I collected narratives so that people would have something straight from the people who served in the wars.”
Tripp said most veterans were happy to tell their stories.
“We can learn a lot from their oral histories,” she said.
Tripp said she wrote about all of the wars since World War II in her latest book, because she feels that no war stands alone.
“I think these narratives put everything into context, so that readers can understand there’s a sequence,” she said.
Tripp said readers will get a feeling for what was learned in each war — and what might still need to be learned.
She said the book also makes clear the differences of each war from the point of view of those who served.
For instance, she said, after World War II, the entire country welcomed its soldiers home.
“Everyone came home and went on with their lives,” she said.
Tripp said veterans of the Korean War told her they felt like no one remembered them — and people still don’t today.
She said there was a lot of ambivalence about the “whats” and “whys” of the Vietnam War.
“Veterans encountered a lot of hostility when they returned,” she said.
She said the Gulf War was “very short,” so there’s not a lot written about it, and she believes people will learn a lot about Iraq and Afghanistan in the future.
Tripp said “every cent” she makes from giving talks and from what she makes in sales is given back to veterans through a program that builds accessible homes for them.
Other World War II
In her book, Tripp also writes about Charles Sakowicz (U.S. Navy) of South Deerfield, Paul Seamans (U.S. Navy) of Gill, Walter Kostanski (U.S. Navy) of Turners Falls, and Tom Herrick (Merchant Marines) of Sunderland, all of whom served during World War II.
Each told Tripp stories about their time serving their country.
Sakowicz told Tripp about how he was left holding on to a wooden plank miles from the coast of Japan after his aircraft carrier, the USS Franklin was bombed on March 19, 1945. More than 700 were killed and 300 were wounded during that attack.
“For days he drifted away from help, just holding on,” wrote Tripp.
She wrote that Seamans chased submarines and blew up mines.
“You’d be coasting along as part of a convoy and someone would announce, ‘There’s a floating mine!’” Seamans told Tripp. “Then it was like a shooting gallery.”
Kostanski was in the Navy Armed Guard and protected key shipping on privately owned vessels.
Kostanski told Tripp that, “In World War II, we knew that once we kill off our enemy, the war is over. Period.”
Herrick said he didn’t see battle — he served 1945 to 1947.
“I spent most of that time at sea,” he said. “We did see some of the aftermath, but I never had to feel fear, per se.”