Eighty-eight-year-old Jerry Wolf's memories from a German prisoner of war camp are still sharp. How he existed on a starvation diet and lost somewhere between 30 and 50 pounds. The diarrhea and dystentary that ran rampant throughout the camp. How for months, he wasn't sure if his family knew if he was dead or alive.
"It's kind of hell to lay down in the cold, you're hungry, and you don't know if they know you're alive," said Wolf, a Springfield resident, as he told a small group of seventh grade students listening with rapt attention Thursday.
Wolf was one of the over 100 veterans and civilians who converged on Rocky Run Middle School in Chantilly on Thursday to share their memories of life during World War II. The eleventh annual World War II Oral History Day—nicknamed "the Greatest Generation Meets the Latest Generation"—was organized by social studies teacher and other faculty at Rocky Run. The participants had a wide variety of experiences, from a rabbi interned as a teenager in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, to an Air Force pilot who flew Roosevelt and Truman to the "Big Three" conferences, to prisoners of war like Wolf.
Wolf, a flight engineer and top turret gunner with the U.S. Army Air Corps in the European theatre, successfully completed 25 missions. He was hit in his arm and leg when his plane was eventually shot down. The camp was "dehumanizing." The prisoners lived on a few pieces of bread, potatoes and "something called soup." Many men starved.
"You had to have the will to live. Life had to have meaning or preciousness," said Wolf, who showed the students the Purple Heart pinned to his baseball cap.
Veterans came in throughout the day to share their stories with the students. Many visited with small groups of five to six students who had prepared questions beforehand. As the veterans arrived at the school, a large group of students cheered and held signs to welcome them to Rocky Run (much like at an .
The students were decked out in their Sunday best: shirts and ties for the boys, dresses for the girls. Some of the veterans, like Chuck Christenson, also came dressed in their military clothes.
Wearing the same summer uniform the Army issued him nearly 70 years ago, Christenson told the students about his time in London, working for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), an intelligence agency. Christenson, 88, the grandfather of a Rocky Run student, has traveled to World War II Oral History Day from his home in Schaumberg, IL, three years in a row now. Many of the veterans are repeat visitors to the school. And for the first time this year, the school decided to expand the program to include veterans of other eras.
At another table, students talked with Fred Adams, a veteran of the U.S. Navy, who served as a signalman in Normandy on D-Day.
"It was organized chaos, at the very best," he said. "Everything that could happen, did happen."
He remembered men dropping in the water during the invasion—their backpacks so heavy that "they fell flat on their face and drowned." But not all memories were bad. At the end of the war, he sailed into New York Harbor on his 19th birthday.
"That was a good birthday present," one girl observed.
"Yes, it was," Adams agreed.