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In their own words -- and some of ours, too

By RON BRACKETT
Published August 28, 2005


"Give me just one minute to tell my story. You won't be sorry."

With those words, the caller stopped me. I had to get to a meeting, but something in this veteran's voice told me to make time to listen.

Doug Ridge, the caller, was one of the hundreds of St. Petersburg Times readers who responded to our request for World War II stories. Letters and e-mails poured in from all over Florida and from as far away as Great Britain with tales of heroics, heartbreaking losses and heartwarming romances.

Each day brought more intriguing stories, such as the tank soldier who talked his German captors into surrendering or the crew of a B-24 Liberator that refused to bail out of their crippled bomber if the captain wouldn't jump too.

Others were lighthearted: the teenager whose strict stepfather allowed her to go on an afternoon bowling date with three servicemen or the Austrian girl who encountered American soldiers with Hershey bars.

One of our main goals for this section was to pay tribute to the men and women who gave their lives and to those who lived through the war years. Who better to tell the stories than those who were there.

Your willingness to share was inspiring. Two of my favorite pieces were the simple, daily diaries of two very different men. Look a little deeper, however, and they weren't so different.

Tommy Thomsen, who at 85 lives in Spring Hill, was a water tender 2nd class aboard the USS Portland in 1941. He recorded these entries:

Dec. 5, 1941

Left Pearl Harbor with Indianapolis & Chicago . . . to fire night battle practice.

Sunday night, 7th/Dec. 7, 1941

Japs raided Pearl Harbor with 18 of our ships in there, almost all were damaged; also many killed & wounded. We were south of island; got the news on radio at 9:00 then immediately stripped ship for action & getting ammunition ready. Had a Life photographer who took pictures of our preparing for action.

The other diaries were written on the other side of the world by a German army private. Otto Weiss, who was born in Furstenwalde, was drafted while studying English and history at the University of Giessen. His diaries covered 1944 and 1945, and he too had monumental events to record.

But the most strikingly similar parts in the diaries were the more mundane entries.

Thomsen remembered Aunt Lena's birthday on Feb. 25 and his dad and mom's wedding anniversary (38 years) on June 28. He met a woman named Mollie in Australia and toured through the Toowoomba Mountains in March 1941.

In July 1944, Weiss, who died near Frankfurt in 2003 after retiring as a high school teacher, ate dinner in the city, went swimming in the evening and had a "quiet afternoon at work." One day, he saw a movie, Dangerous Spring. It was "very good."

Regular guys doing guy stuff, but like millions of other men and women they were pulled into a conflict that changed the face of the earth.

Thank you to every person who sent us a letter or e-mail. I read every one and spoke with or met many of you. It was an honor.

We don't have room to include every letter, but they will be preserved. The entire bunch will be donated to the Nelson Poynter Library at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg. Future researchers will have access to your material.

It's vital that these stories be remembered and retold. We begin with Doug Ridge's story on the next page. Please take a few minutes to read it.

As he said to me, you won't be sorry.