Recording World War II memories before it is too late

November 9, 2013

Elams0001Willie J. Elam, 94, talks with his son, Mark, at the Thomson-Hood Veterans Center in Wilmore, where he lives. Mark Elam interviewed his father over eight years about his combat experiences in the South Pacific during World War II, which earned him a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts.  Photos by Tom Eblen 


Mark Elam was sitting in Turfland Mall a decade ago, waiting for his wife to finish shopping, when he struck up a conversation with an old man who mentioned he was a World War II veteran. Elam said his father fought in the war, too.

“Then he asked what outfit my Dad was in,” Elam said. “I had to admit I didn’t know. I was embarrassed.”

That encounter led Elam to start asking his father about the war. Soon he was bringing a tape recorder and a list of questions each Sunday when he visited his father, who is now 94 and lives at the Thomson-Hood Veterans Center in Wilmore.

“He was apprehensive at first, but then he opened up,” Elam said. “The more I asked, the more he told me, and it just grew and grew.”

Elams0004After eight years of interviews, plus a lot of research on his own, Elam published a spiral-bound book in June for his sister, Marta Dorton, and their families. He titled the book after the motto of his father’s unit: To the Last Man.

“It was a fun project,” he said. “I spent a lot of time with him, and it brought us closer together.”

Elam, 57, said the project made him realize how important it is to preserve stories, especially those of the rapidly disappearing generation of veterans who fought World War II.

As a graphic artist and printer, Elam knew how to scan old photographs and assemble a book. But he didn’t consider himself a writer, so he told his father’s story chronologically, mixing his own prose with sections of questions and answers from their interviews.

The result is quite readable — and fascinating. It provides a detailed and vivid account of what combat and everyday life was like for American soldiers who fought the Japanese in the South Pacific.

Willie Junior Elam was a farm boy from Morgan County when he enlisted in the Army four months before Pearl Harbor. He was a private first class in the 43rd Division, 103rd Infantry, Company K, serving through 1946. Two brothers also fought in the war.

Elam was a field radio operator who saw a lot of combat, earning the Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts. The second time he was wounded, in an artillery strike that killed several officers around him, he was so badly hurt that doctors nicknamed him “the miracle kid.”

Elams0005“There was a lot of stuff he can’t talk about and won’t talk about,” Elam said. “He still has nightmares about some of it 70 years later. I didn’t want to push him too much.”

As Elam discovered, the most important part of such a project is simply asking questions and recording answers. When it comes to preserving those stories in a book or other form, a lot of helpful resources are available.

One is a book, A Veterans Legacy: Field Kit Journal ($15. It was written three years ago by Jay McChord, a former Lexington Urban County Council member, and offers a step-by-step guide to compiling a service history.

The Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning next year will offer several classes that could be helpful. Writing Your Family Stories is a daylong seminar March 8. Another class, Life Writing: Generating and Revising Autobiographical Prose, will meet Tuesday evenings from April 15 to May 20.

The Carnegie Center also offers individual writing mentors and a nonfiction writing group that meets Tuesdays at lunch from Jan. 9 to March 25. For more information, call (859) 254-4157 ext. 21 or go to

Dorton said she is glad her brother preserved their father’s wartime memories.

“Dad told stories when we were growing up, but I had forgotten a lot of them,” she said. “I think it was good for Dad psychologically to get some of that out.”

Recording family history is important, she said, and not just for veterans. As we spoke by phone, she was driving to Menifee County to visit a 104-year-old aunt, Rella Mullins, who until recently could tell stories about living on a farm during the Great Depression and working in a factory during World War II.

“It’s amazing what all she witnessed,” said Dorton, who gave her aunt a journal several years ago and has written down some of her stories.

“It’s an easy thing to do,” Elam said of preserving family members’ memories. “But after they’re gone, it’s too late.”

Click on each image to see larger photo and read caption:


Lexington neighborhood project results in history book

January 8, 2013

Every place has a story. When residents of Lexington’s Fairway neighborhood began researching the story of their place, they got a lot more than they expected.

They chronicled some fascinating history. But they also grew closer as neighbors, and they created a model for other neighborhoods interested in doing the same thing.

The idea began when Robert Figg was president of the Fairway Neighborhood Association in the late 1990s. He moved to the subdivision off Richmond Road in 1965, thinking he had found his family a starter home. That was 48 years and three home renovations ago.

Figg had heard many colorful stories about the neighborhood and its history, and he wanted to record interviews with longtime residents before the memories faded.

In 2008, the neighbors discovered that the Kentucky Historical Society offers technical assistance grants to train oral history interviewers and loans recording equipment. After training, the interviewers gathered some great material, now archived at the University of Kentucky’s Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History.

But some memories conflicted, and the more information interviewers gathered, the more they realized they needed to fill in gaps to complete the neighborhood’s story. That process turned into a book, Fairway, A Living History ($35 hard cover, $20 paperback. More information:

I have seen other neighborhood histories, but none that are as well-researched, well-written and well-illustrated. Even for readers with no ties to Fairway, it offers a fascinating glimpse into Lexington’s rich history.

The neighborhood historians had some good help: a five-member advisory board included four professional historians and archivists and one of the nation’s most respected journalists: Fairway resident John Carroll, retired editor of the Lexington Herald-Leader, the Baltimore Sun and the Los Angeles Times.

“In many ways, this little piece of land is a microcosm of more than two centuries of American history,” said Valerie Askren, a member of the five-person committee that researched and wrote the book.

In examining the neighborhood’s 118 acres, the book outlines the early history of much of southeast Lexington. The story begins with a 1779 Virginia land grant to John Todd, one of three brothers who were among Lexington’s first settlers. Their descendants included Mary Todd, wife of Abraham Lincoln.

The land changed hands several times during the 1800s, including one time that underscored Kentucky’s racial and gender politics before the Civil War.

John Todd’s daughter and heir, Polly, was forced to give title to her land to her second husband, Robert Wickliffe, to secure freedom for her mixed-race grandson, Alfred Russell. That was because, upon her marriage to Wickliffe, Russell had legally become his slave. Once freed, Russell left Kentucky for Africa, where he later became president of Liberia.

Wickliffe’s heirs eventually subdivided and sold the land for residential development, creating the neighborhoods of Mentelle Park, Kenwick and, beginning in 1926, Fairway.

Fairway’s mix of traditional-style homes, built in the 1920s to 1950s, range from modest apartments and ranch houses to mansions. Several were designed by three well-known Lexington architects who built their own homes in Fairway: War field Gratz, Hugh Meriwether and Robert McMeekin.

Fairway’s development included two Kenwick elementary schools, the second built in 1937 and renamed in 1963 for its longtime principal, Julia R. Ewan. It is now the Lexington Hearing and Speech Center.

One little-known chapter of Fairway’s history is the military base that once occupied 12 acres north of the school along Henry Clay Boulevard. The Army Remount Station bought and processed military horses from 1920 until the cavalry was mechanized during World War II. It was also home to Troop B of the 123rd Kentucky Cavalry, a National Guard unit.

The Fairway Neighborhood Association paid for the book’s printing by soliciting $250 and $100 sponsorships from residents and others and from businesses with ties to the neighborhood. More than 400 books have been sold, with proceeds generating several thousand dollars for the neighborhood association.

Figg, Askren and Sandra Ireland, the book’s three principal authors, said their effort was particularly successful because Fairway has many longtime residents, including several generations of some families. But they encouraged other neighborhoods to follow their example.

“While working on this project,” Askren said, “I got to know my neighbors so much better.”