Slowed by the years and hard of hearing, Curtis Outen’s grim yet sharpest memory of D Day almost 72 years ago is the color of the seawater on the beaches of Normandy.
When Outen returned to that shore for the first time since June 6, 1944 — on the 70th anniversary in 2014 of the biggest amphibious assault in military history — his most striking memory was the blue, clear water.
“What color was it that day?” asked cousin Mike Taylor, who strolled with Outen on the return trip to the famous battleground that claimed some 4,400 Allied lives. “He said, ‘Red.’ ”
Taylor recounted their conversation Friday during a Valentine’s Day event organized so Richland Northeast High School students could show love and respect to veterans.
Personal experiences with history like that of 94-year-old Outen’s is what more than 200 fresh-face students heard during the fifth annual Valentines for Vets event at the Richland 2 school. More than 45 veterans who lived through many of America’s conflicts since World War II chronicled their wartime experiences.
Albert Hamilton, 90 and wearing crisp dress blues, couldn’t immediately recall his mobile phone number when asked before the event began Friday morning. But the 20-year Army veteran enthralled students with a rich, detailed recounting of his time in Stalag 7A, a German prisoner of war camp north of Munich.
Hamilton choked back emotion as he recalled liberation day for about 1,100 prisoners during the summer of 1945. Memories of watching a Nazi flag, with its swastika, lowered and an American flag raised, “Still get me,” he told students gathered around him in the school’s Media Center. “We all stood at the barbed-wire fence and cried our eyes out.”
The five-time participant in Valentines for Vets wove his wartime tales into a language lesson. He used the German word for bread, brot, which Hamilton said prisoners returning to the camp from labor details would get from German women. POWs would tear the loaves into small pieces, which they tucked into their pant legs to enjoy the rare treat later.
“See, you learned a German word today,” Hamilton said. He also spoke of POWs who hadn’t bathed in nine months — some in two years.
Hamilton’s stories resonated with senior Sarah Kate Coleman, who took notes for her History of the Americas class report. “He was amazing. He was really into it,” the 18-year-old said.
The teenager was particularly struck by Hamilton’s love for Lois, his wife of 66 years whom he met after the war when he returned to his native Chicago. Hamilton teared up when he mentioned that he lost Lois on April 10, 2015. “That was really sweet,” Coleman said.
Event organizer Perry McLeod, a history teacher at the school, underscored to the students the opportunity that was before them. “This is your chance to learn some history from someone who was actually there,” McLeod announced. Then he told a visitor, “In our textbooks, it’s just getting smaller and smaller,” McLeod said of the shrinking accounts of WWII.
The veterans sat at tables in the media center telling their oral histories surrounded by groups of students, many of whom are members of the school’s Navy ROTC program. The students would move every half hour to another table and another veteran of another war: Korea, Vietnam, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan. It was designed to be like “speed dating” with history.
Isiah Passi, a 16-year-old junior, was rapt by Steven Diaz’s experience in Iraq, where shrapnel from a hidden roadside bomb robbed Diaz of sight in his left eye and hospitalized him for nearly two years.
“It just shows you’re really putting your life on the line,” the teenager said. “It encourages me, because if people can be strong like that, I can do the same thing — or I can try.”
Jim Fisher recounted the searing fight in 1967 for Dak To, one of the Vietnam war’s biggest battles. Fisher explained that unlike in WWII, Viet Cong soldiers had no boundaries in the jungles of the southeast Asian country. “There was no enemy line,” Fisher said. “The enemy was everywhere.
“Most of the time I slept on the ground. I didn’t even know what a cot was.”
When a student asked about “orange gas,” Fisher explained that when U.S. planes dumped the defoliant called Agent Orange to clear the dense jungle, American soldiers protected themselves only with ponchos. “Your poncho would be soaking wet” with the toxic chemical that years later was proven to cause cancer.
Fisher, who served 25 years in the military, underwent surgery for lung cancer that he said was caused by Agent Orange. Yet the veteran said he doesn’t regret his military career.
Diaz, who has attended two other Valentines for Vets events, said one of the most common questions students ask is how much different real war is compared to what is depicted in movies and video games.
Diaz, sporting a Hidden Wounds shirt, said he hopes his accounts provide some reality.
Yet the students don’t seem to grasp wartime history or the United States’ role in the world, said Diaz and Staff Sgt. Roxanne Aguiar, who is stationed at Fort Jackson.
Aguiar, 29 and a first-timer at the event, got a lot questions about the challenges of being a woman in uniform (Does she have to cut her hair?) and about time away from family.
One student, whose mother is in the military, asked the former medic and drill sergeant, “Why is my mom gone so much?”
A 10-year veteran who treated detainees in Baghdad from 2006 to 2008, Aguiar did her best to explain.
She said her contribution Friday was about military life today. “It’s nice to bring a current experience,” Aguiar said.
Though many students who attended Friday were engaged in the experience, they’re still high schoolers.
McLeod quieted them with a reminder that the event was about listening. “Lose the ear buds,” he told one. “You’re not here to hear music.”
Reach LeBlanc (803) 771-8664.