Richmond "Red" Dillon seldom spoke of his time in World War II. His son Paul knew only the basic facts that his father enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1941, was shot down in a bombing raid over Munster, Germany, on October 10, 1943, and spent twenty months in a prisoner of war camp in Austria. When Paul, as a grade-schooler, became interested in model airplanes, Red confided that he'd been a ball turret gunner on a B-17 nicknamed Fritz Blitz.
Six years ago, at a loss to find his dad a Christmas present, Paul, now in his fifties, came across a newsletter at his parents' house in Maryland Heights. It was from the 95th Bomb Group, Red's old unit, and in the back it advertised windbreakers with the group's insignia fastened to the shoulder. "I sent in the order form with a short note saying who I was," Paul recalls.
A few days later, he got a call from a man named Jim Lewis, who was in charge of processing orders. "He asked if my dad had been Eldon Broman's ball turret gunner on the October 10 Munster raid," Paul says. "I told him my dad never really talked much about the war, but once when I was a kid, I heard him tell one of his friends that he thought he shot down ten planes."
There was silence. "I said, 'Maybe I misheard. It could have been a joke.'" It was no joke, Lewis replied. In fact, his uncle, Everett Lewis, had actually witnessed Red Dillon shoot down the planes. Later, he told the story to an Associated Press reporter. Lewis still had the news clipping and sent a copy to Paul. "It floored me," remembers Paul.
Red Dillon, now 86, is something of a smart aleck. He says he joined the Air Corps "because I didn't want to walk through the war." In the POW camp, he liked to torment the guards by pretending to be French. "Nobody wanted to stand next to me. They were sure I would get shot and were afraid the guards would miss." Paul believes his father survived the war because he was able to keep cracking jokes.
Gradually, though, Dillon began to talk at length about the hardships as a POW. He joined the Greater St. Louis chapter of the American Ex-Prisoners of War, which meets at Jefferson Barracks every three months. "We talk to each other," Dillon says. "It's easier. First we have to talk amongst ourselves. You keep talking about it and talking about it and more things come up."
Paul Dillon attended the POW meetings with his father and started to compile the veterans' stories. When he heard last summer that KETC-TV (Channel 9) was collecting St. Louisans' memories of World War II, he called the PBS affiliate to see if they'd be interested in what he'd found. "I was getting remarkable stuff," he says. "In the course of the conversation, they asked if the POWs would like to talk on camera."
KETC's project, called St. Louis: Your Stories, began as part of the run-up to The War, Ken Burns' seven-night, fifteen-hour documentary about Americans in World War II. It is estimated that some 1,000 World War II veterans are dying every day, explains Amy Shaw, KETC's vice president of education services, and the station wanted to try to collect some of their stories before it was too late. But the project grew into something much bigger.
"We anticipated small stories," Shaw says. "Instead, we found that guys were sitting down to write their memoirs." Some submitted their stories through the mail or the station's Web site. Others, like Red Dillon, came to KETC's studios for videotaped interviews.
Shaw and her staff have been inundated with all manner of memorabilia, from books by veterans to letters and photographs that had been moldering in attics and basements even combat medals. Although other PBS stations have engaged in similar projects, KETC's is one of the most extensive, Shaw says. So far, the station has collected 1,000 printed stories and taped 500 interviews and are posting them on its Web site. KETC president Jack Galmiche hopes to compile all the material into a digital archive for future generations.
Many of the submissions come not only from the veterans, but from their children and grandchildren. "These stories are family legacies," Galmiche says. "People want to know more about where they came from."
John Klaric, 85, a former Seabee who now lives in Wentzville, originally balked at sharing his war-time tales. "At first he said, 'No, I can't do this,'" recalls his daughter, Marion Herrmann. "I told him, 'You don't know what's going to happen next year.'" But after listening to Klaric talk about getting struck by lightning on Bougainville in the Solomon Islands, Herrmann realized why he'd held back. "He sheltered our family from a lot of the gruesomeness," she says. "He didn't enjoy telling those stories."
Roland DeGregorio, also 85, served with the Marine Corps in the South Pacific and acquired a number of souvenirs during the war: a saber, a rifle, a hand grenade, a pair of eyeglasses and a gold tooth, which he sent home to the Hill in spaghetti boxes. He never hid them from his children, but it wasn't until after they were grown that he confessed he had taken it all from dead Japanese soldiers. "Combat puts you out of your mind," he says. "You're surprised at what you do things you wouldn't do in civilian life."
Herrmann believes her father's silence was as much for his own sake as hers. "Not talking was a way to become more civilized," she says. "It was a way to forget and heal."
Some of the anecdotes in Your Stories are about veterans who never healed. Hilary Flanery of Crestwood wrote about her father John Smith, now dead. Smith, an artist, always signed his paintings "Winocki." "His buddies had asked him to sign his paintings that way, so when they all got back, they would know who he was," Flanery says. But they were all killed in the Battle of Peleliu. Smith was blinded in one eye by a piece of shrapnel.
"He never even talked to Mom about the war," Flanery says. "He really hated it. I truly believe he suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome. He would wake up with night terrors. He would relive the battles. He would swear that the enemy was behind the chest of drawers." Flanery was only able to piece her father's story together after he died, with the help of news clippings she discovered in her parents' attic.
Red Dillon was not so much traumatized by his war experiences as he was eager to put them behind him. "I didn't want to come home and be one of those barroom guys telling war stories," he says. "I wanted to live a normal life. No kidding, I wanted to settle down. I came home and started looking for a job."
DeGregorio threw himself into a life of frenetic activity so he wouldn't have time to think about the war. He worked two jobs to put his seven children through college and, on the side, coached soccer and gave guided tours of the Hill. "You wake up slowly," he says. "It takes years."
Now that the veterans have started to speak about their war experiences, some are surprised and flattered by the interest of younger generations. "It makes them feel special," Paul Dillon says.
For Red Dillon, meanwhile, it has become easier to talk about the war that claimed more than 400,000 American lives. "I went through it," he says. "Why hide it?"