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 Thomas 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."
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After 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."
"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. Veteranslegacyjournal.com). 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 Carnegiecenterlex.org.
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."
More Veterans Day coverage, including a four-page salute to veterans.