This story was updated on May 21 at 1:15 p.m.
Eckehard Muessig was just 18 years old when he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps right out of high school in 1943. Trained as a machine gunner, he entered the Pacific Theater in late November of that same year.
“On December 26, I made my first assault landing on the beach at the island of New Britain [part of Papua New Guinea],” said the 89-year-old Muessig. “That was the first time I had hand-to-hand combat [against a Japanese soldier]. I was just a kid and it scared the dickens out of me.”
During his time in service, from 1943 to 1945, Muessig also would participate in the April 1, 1945, Battle of Okinawa in Japan. It lasted three months and resulted in the deaths of 12,513 Allied troops, more than 95,000 Japanese troops and as many as 150,000 civilians.
Muessig was wounded in June by an enemy shell and hospitalized for seven months before returning to the U.S., where he attended college at The Ohio State University.
Muessig’s story of survival and valor was untold until this past December, when a group of West Springfield High School students visited Greenspring, a senior living village in Springfield.
“I guess it was really the first time I thought of someone honoring World War II veterans. It was really emotional for me,” Muessig said. “It’s the first time I’ve really talked about my experiences. And I look at this young person, who was talking to me, and they were so earnest. It really touched me.”
West Springfield students are volunteering as reporters with the Friends of the National World War II Memorial, a nonprofit organization that supports and helps maintain the memorial, as well as the legacy of veterans, through educational outreach.
Former West Springfield history teacher Jim Percoco began working for the nonprofit group after retiring in June 2012. He now serves as the education director and created the partnership between students and veterans.
Since starting last June, students already have interviewed some 350 veterans — mostly at the memorial, but also at retirement homes.
“You really need to be interviewing these veterans at the memorial. It’s never happened in our history that veterans are interviewed at their memorial and [interviews are] catalogued and archived,” Percoco said.
Each interview lasts about 15 minutes. Students are trained on how to use video equipment and learn interviewing skills. They are also given a script of questions to ask veterans.
“The last question that the students ask is, ‘What can our generation learn from your generation?’” Percoco said.
West Springfield student Elizabeth Bowman, 18, has been involved with interviewing since this past summer.
“We had to learn how to set up the camera and all the white balance [of lighting] techniques and camera techniques to make the videos really shine,” she said.
On what advice veterans have for her generation, Bowman said, “Most of them say just stay in school. If you can, join the armed forces. There was one who said to keep exercising. ... He was 90 years old and still going.”
Percoco said the Friends of the National World War II Memorial is creating a searchable database, cataloguing all of the interviews, so that students, academics, teachers and many others will have access to the veterans’ stories.
“Our plan is to keep interviewing veterans until there are no more vets to interview,” Percoco said, adding that the youngest member of the “Greatest Generation” is about 86 years old today.
“Each day, somewhere between 600 and 1,000 World War II veterans die,” he said. “We were supposed to interview Sen. [Daniel] Inouye [of Hawaii] with the guy who saved his life. He postponed ... and then he went into the hospital and never came out again.”
Inouye died Dec. 17, 2012.
“I think it’s good for people who have been in a war to go out and talk about it,” said former Marine Corps Major Norman Hatch, 92, of Alexandria. “We often hear from [family of veterans] that, ‘My father never talked about what he did.’ ... There’s a need for it. If you don’t know what happened, you’ll be doomed to repeat it.”
Stories are getting lost, said Hatch, who served as a motion picture cameraman during the war. He was one of 72 photographical [Marine Corps] officers during the beginning of the war and among the five left by the end, he said.
“I was in the Pacific for most of World War II, in Iwo Jima, Tarawa,” said Hatch, who worked on a half-hour show produced by Time-Warner called “March of Time.” Some of Hatch’s footage from the Battle of Tarawa was included in a short documentary that went on to win an Academy Award in 1945.
“Because of the circumstances, I was the only cameraman on the shore during the landing and until 10 in the morning the next day,” he said.
West Springfield senior Claire Schindler, 17, interviewed Hatch and also drove him from his home to the memorial for the interview.
“He told me he had a partner who would carry the film and he said he had to really be careful about using the film because you could only capture a few minutes [with it],” Schindler said. “He also told me you had to stand up to film.”
Most of the West Springfield students interviewing veterans are graduating seniors, who would be around the age the veterans were when they enlisted and fought during World War II.
“I think the most interesting part is when we interview them, they tell us that either they didn’t graduate from high school [so they could enlist] or had just graduated. So they were our age when they fought,” Schindler said. “It’s kind of like meeting a celebrity. You read all these stories in a book, but you’ve never gotten to hear the person in the war tell their story. ... Some of them haven’t even told their families their stories yet.”
Fellow student and senior Heidi Ablu, 18, estimates she has interviewed about 100 veterans since last September.
“One of the most interesting stories I heard was a man who was a Marine and he said [German soldiers] were shooting at him and he had to hide in an oven,” she said. “He had to hide in that oven until they stopped shooting at him. ...
“Honestly, before all this happened — I was one of Mr. Percoco’s students, and I wasn’t a history buff at all. ... It definitely changed how I look at everything. Before, when we talked about World War II in class, I would kind of think, ‘Oh, another history lesson.’ But now I’m more interested.”
Students have interviewed Battle of the Bulge and D-Day survivors, shipyard workers, bombers, a woman from Woodbridge named “Rosie” who claims to be the original “Rosie the Riveter,” and many more with amazing stories to share.
Students visit the memorial almost every weekend to interview veterans flown in on Honor Flights, a nonprofit group that flies WWII veterans into D.C. to visit their memorial.
West Springfield world history teacher Cathie Boivin has several students volunteering to interview veterans.
“It seems to be a really nice reciprocal relationship. The kids are getting a lot out of it,” she said. “I hope they are getting a sense of the preservation of the past [methods and needs]. They are getting a sense of the past — that these young men, who were really not much older than they are now, were put in these really impossible situations.”
Friends of the World War II Memorial Executive Director Holly Rotondi said students’ work is going a long way to help preserve the legacy and memories of these veterans.
“One of the lessons and legacies that they hope the memorial portrays about that generation is the sense of unity,” she said. “And that’s one of the goals of the Friends — preserving that legacy.”
Learn more about the Friends of the National World War II Memorial at www.wwiimemorialfriends.org.
The original version of this story failed to mention that Time-Warner produced the “March of Time” documentary.