North Augusta's corps of World War II veterans has dwindled dramatically over the past decade, and Augusta resident Fred Gehle has done his best to make contact with all of them, in an effort that is almost complete.
Gehle, an Augusta resident with a keen interest in WWII, has guided the local Veterans History Project since its establishment in 2007, and is now putting the finishing touches on the massive campaign to collect memories – on DVD – from those who experienced the pivotal military event of the 20th century, whether in the United States or halfway around the planet.
Dozens of the local stories are available in an award-winning book titled "In Their Own Words: Augusta and Aiken Area Veterans Remember World War II."
"About 40% of the overall interviews were done on the Aiken side," Gehle recalled. "Bill Tilt and Stan Schrader, who passed on about three years ago, were both veterans from the Vietnam era, and they were very much two of our leading interviewers, and they really covered the Carolina side, like a mop, so to speak."
Tilt and Schrader were both ATC faculty members, and both got on board with the project early, offering to handle the South Carolina segment of the project, while some of Gehle's other compatriots handled the Georgia side, focusing on Augusta and neighboring towns.
More than 850 veterans have come on board over the course of 13 years, focusing mainly on their memories from the early 1940s, en route to spending their senior years in Belvedere, North Augusta, Aiken, Wagener, Ridge Spring, Columbia or Greenville, or a few miles to the west, in Augusta or Grovetown, in Georgia.
The window of opportunity has not closed, but time is short, Gehle emphasized, noting that most World War II vets who are still living are at least in their upper 90s, and the general belief is that most of the local vets ready, willing and able to share their stories have already done so.
Gehle, a native of Glen Ridge, New Jersey, remembers the war himself but not as a combatant, having been 8 years old when Pearl Harbor was bombed. He is now 87.
"We are looking for any World War II veterans who may have missed our activity and/or been asleep at the time that the word got out that we are trying to find all that are still with us to have their stories in perpetuity," he said.
Among Gehle's most prominent boosters has been Janet Hicks, of Grovetown, Georgia. Hicks, a retired general known to many as one of Fort Gordon's former top leaders, interviewed vets on both sides of the Savannah River. She recalled that many interviews were conducted within earshot of a veteran's family members – possibly in a home, library or school – and the family members would point out that, "Dad had never talked about that before."
As a result of the memory-stirring effort, such stories are now recorded on DVDs, Hicks said.
"I called it a labor of love because it just was," said Hicks. "My dad was in World War II, and he's been gone a long time. It was sort of like sitting across from my dad, because he could have been telling some of the same types of stories."
Gehle noted that efforts are still underway to gather information from local servicemen who served in Korea and Vietnam, for stories to be recorded and sent to the Library of Congress on DVD, as is also done with the World War II recollections. A DVD is also given to the veteran and two copies remain at Augusta University, for "current and future reference," he noted in a 2018 interview.
His schedule still includes openings to speak to civic clubs and similar organizations about the past 13 years of collecting stories.
Details on the project are available from Gehle, at firstname.lastname@example.org and 706-738-8242; or (for information on the Korea and Vietnam efforts) from Augusta University, at 706-737-1532.