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Greatest generation shares its memories

By BILL STEVENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 12, 2001


For 85 minutes, they sat with eyes glued to the 24-inch television screen inside the Centennial Park Library. There was no talking, but they couldn't resist joining in the familiar songs.

Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition . . .

Junk ain't junk no more, 'cause junk can win the war . . .

And then the sad refrains of Billie Holiday: I'll be seeing you . . .

What power, music. Not that it would take much to make this group of patriots grow all misty-eyed as they watched the drama unfold before them -- as they allowed themselves to be transported to a time when their country might have ended without amazing resolve, leadership and unanimity.

In "The Homefront," the opening segment of a film history of World War II called From Rosie to Roosevelt: the American People, viewers are reminded not only of the honor and horror of combat, but of the transformation of our nation after a decade of economic depression. They are thrilled to relive the glory of victory, but challenged by the perspective of African-Americans and Japanese-Americans who suffered cruelties. "Fascism is not the monopoly of Hitler or Mussolini," the narrator says, but one war is enough to fight and America can't be distracted by social reform.

Throughout the film, produced by National Video Resources in partnership with the American Library Association, men and women give testimonials on how they were affected by the war. From women who assumed traditionally male roles as factory workers to Gold Star mothers, they serve as living history. And when you consider that it has now been 60 years since Pearl Harbor and that we'll lose another 400,000 World War II veterans this year, such productions are invaluable.

The series that will make the rounds in libraries nationwide, and is currently under way at two Pasco County branches, calls for a group discussion after the video. This area, rich with residents who survived the war and witnessed the industrial and social revolution, seems perfect for such discussions.

At Centennial Park last Thursday, a few dozen men and women gladly shared their experiences. We heard fascinating stories from a man who flew on bombers across the English Channel, and from his wife, who remembered what it was like in her small town when nearly all the men disappeared -- even teens who lied about their age to get into the military.

From the back of the room, a woman raised her hand and said she had something to share. She had been a teenager in Britain when Nazi missiles rained from the sky. The strikes became like clockwork, and she would count between strikes. Five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . . .

As we hung on her every word, her voice broke. Tears streamed down her cheeks and she apologized as she dabbed beneath her glasses. Audience members reassured her, wiping their own eyes as she wondered why, after all these years, she still can't get through the story without such emotion.

The answer is no mystery. Time may dim things, but it doesn't erase them.

Whatever has happened since can hardly hold a candle to the fight for survival and the prosperity that followed; when as one journalist in the video series allowed, "America inherited the earth."

If you didn't make the first session of From Rosie to Roosevelt, never fear. There will be two more sessions at the Centennial Park Library on Moog Road at 2 p.m. Feb. 22 and March 8 and at the Hudson Regional Library at 2 p.m. Feb. 21, 28 and March 7, 14, 21 and 28.

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