Book preserves local memories from WWII

Every year, there are fewer people in this country who remember World War II.
Those surviving Southolders who were alive then and have stories to tell about it are lucky to have Orient resident Ellen Brennan Williams ready and willing to hear their tales.
Ms. Williams spent two years collecting oral histories of those who served in the war, the families they left behind, and Southold residents who were civilians in Europe during the war.

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO Orient resident Ellen Williams has compiled 40 oral histories of North Fork residents who recounted life during World War II, including veterans, refugees, war brides and children who recalled helping with the war effort.

She began her project in 2007, when she struck up a conversation with Barbara Leiblein at her husband’s 50th high school reunion. Ms. Leiblein, a German, had been a refugee in Europe during the war.
Ms. Williams was intrigued by the story. She thought it would make a great movie. The next day, she visited her neighbor, Jeannine Jayne, who told her what it had been like to grow up in St. Cloud, France during the war.
Everywhere she went, it seemed, people had powerful stories from the war years to tell.
Ms. Williams has compiled and published a spiral-bound book of those oral histories, “We’re All in This Together: 40 World War II Memories,” which she gave to friends and fellow parishioners at St. Agnes R.C. Church in Greenport. It will be available for $25 at Southold Pharmacy next week.
“We were all Americans then,” Ms. Williams said of people stateside during the war years, before she was born. “We all felt the same way. Even kids would roll up tinfoil from their parents’ cigarettes to help with the war.”
She interviewed several people whose families immigrated to the U.S. from Germany and Italy during the war. She was heartened to learn from them that their relatives in Axis countries had hoped for Allies to win.
“I would ask people of German descent, ‘Were your parents very upset at the war with Germany?’ ” she said. “They all said that their families supported” the American entry into the war. “They all knew Hitler had to be stopped.”
Ms. Williams, who is a retired preschool teacher, said that she initially approached the project through the eyes of residents who were children during the war, and so had unique ways of recalling events unfiltered by adult conceptions.
She talked to Stanley Droskoski of Orient, who remembered getting on his bicycle and riding with his friends to a tower overlooking the water, where his pals said their job was to look out for spies.
“They didn’t know who they would report it to,” she said.
Peggy Baldwin of Greenport remembered seeing dirigibles everywhere above New York City and not knowing why they were there.
“As I talked to older people, I saw the child in them,” said Ms. Williams. “It was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.”
John Kerbs, now of Southold, told the story of being drafted into the U.S. Army, where he worked at a prisoner-of-war camp in Altheimer, Ark. Rose Colombini, now of East Marion, told of her work for the WAVES, opening mail from families of deceased soldiers and interviewing the soldiers’ comrades so she could tell their families what had happened to the men.
Bob White of Greenport told the story of his training in intelligence and reconnaissance and his experiences in the Battle of the Bulge. He also had an answer for Ms. Baldwin’s question about the dirigibles. He said they offered protection by creating an obstacle field with their ground wires, which pilots couldn’t see in time to avoid. The wires could fatally damage any plane that hit them.
“He said it was like putting a fence around the city,” said Ms. Williams.
John Krukowski of Greenport told her about his days as a Sherman tank driver in the Battle of the Bulge. During that battle, the tank was hit and his commander ordered the men inside to abandon it. The first four jumped out of the top hatch, but by the time he reached it, the hatch was jammed shut. Mr. Krukowski got out through the bottom hatch, only to find that all the other men had been picked off after as they had emerged from the tank.
“The veterans impressed me a lot. They were so humble,” said Ms. Williams. “They all said that anyone who said they weren’t scared was lying.”
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