COLUMBIA, SC — More than 180,000 men and women from the Palmetto State served during the tumult of World War II. Now, as the number of surviving veterans continues to dwindle, the “South Carolinians in World War II” series is working to preserve their stories.
“The Rising Sun,” the sixth episode in the Emmy-nominated series, premieres at 8 p.m. Thursday on ETV. The project is a partnership between the ETV Endowment and The State Media Co.
The one-hour program opens with stories from Marines who trained on Parris Island and Navy veterans who lived at sea. It also shares veterans’ first-hand accounts of the early Pacific Theater battles including Pearl Harbor, Midway and Guadalcanal.
Many of the interviews touch on day-to-day military life: what it was like to sleep in bunks stacked six high, what sort of food was served on ships, and how it felt to be plagued by sand fleas at Parris Island.
But much of the subject matter is more harrowing.
Retired Navy Capt. John Hancock was a gunner on the USS Yorktown when it was sunk by Japanese torpedoes during the Battle of Midway in 1942. The Georgia native and Clemson graduate recounted the chaotic violence of the battle and the uncertainty of waiting to be rescued.
“I got separated from everybody,” Hancock said. “And it was getting dark and I looked down at the little tag on my life preserver and it said flotation ensured for 12 hours. I’d been in the water about six. And I’m thinking ‘somewhere during the night I’m going to sink.’”
For years he didn’t want to talk about what happened. But after moving to Athens, Ga., word of his experiences spread among local schools and invitations to speak began pouring in.
“We all tried to forget it when the war ended,” he said. “And I pretty much did until I moved to Athens.” Now, Hancock says that in addition to participating in “The Rising Sun,” he frequently speaks to students and other groups.
His story lives on, but many others are in danger of being lost.
More than 500 World War II veterans die each day, according to estimates from the Veterans Administration, and as they disappear they often take their experiences with them.
“It’s important that we retain these stories, that we tell these stories and keep them for future generations,” said Linda O’Bryon, president and CEO of ETV. “We don’t want people to forget. This was an amazing generation and what they did for this nation is truly incredible.”
More than 150 veterans have been interviewed so far, and producer Jeff Wilkinson, a reporter with The State, said more are still needed as the project continues.
“We’re looking for veterans who were bomber pilots in the Pacific. We’re always looking for African-Americans who served in any theater, and we’re looking for women who served in any theater.”
Director Wade Sellers of Columbia’s Coal Powered Filmworks said the project strives to collect a variety of perspectives on each battle or situation. And it’s that approach that makes each episode more than just a history lesson.
“We get a lot of interviews from a lot of different veterans and they have their different points of view,” Sellers said. “It gives you the feeling of being in that group. The ultimate goal is to preserve the histories of the veterans that we interview, not necessarily in a big picture WWII point of view, but the personal stories.”
Hancock believes those stories are helping to shape future generations. Since he started sharing his war experiences, he says he’s sensed a growing interest in World War II among young people.
“They’re really into it now. They’re into their country, that’s what’s important.”