UMPI professor helps vets return to the front

Posted Nov. 10, 2009, at 8:17 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:38 a.m.
One of the few surviving elderly native scouts who helped the U.S. troops during the war in the Pacific. These scouts are considered heroes to the local people of their islands.(Photo courtesy of Anderson Giles)
One of the few surviving elderly native scouts who helped the U.S. troops during the war in the Pacific. These scouts are considered heroes to the local people of their islands.(Photo courtesy of Anderson Giles)
Professor Anderson Giles, right, and World War II veteran John O?Keefe stand behind a table full of U.S. and Japanese relics from the war.. Giles has preserved O?Keefe?s stories of serving as a crewman on PT-184 during the war, and how his crew once slipped in at night and moved a whole native village to another island because the Japanese had been forcing the villagers to support their troops. (Photo courtesy of Anderson Giles)
Professor Anderson Giles, right, and World War II veteran John O?Keefe stand behind a table full of U.S. and Japanese relics from the war.. Giles has preserved O?Keefe?s stories of serving as a crewman on PT-184 during the war, and how his crew once slipped in at night and moved a whole native village to another island because the Japanese had been forcing the villagers to support their troops. (Photo courtesy of Anderson Giles)
World War II Veteran Mac MacKay pauses for reflection after placing a wreath aboard his former ship, the LST 342, during a trip that several veterans made to Guadalcanal and Tulagi this summer. The trip, led by UMPI Professor Anderson Giles, was one of the many efforts Giles undertakes to preserve the history of what happened during WWII in the Pacific Theater. (Photo courtesy of Anderson Giles)
World War II Veteran Mac MacKay pauses for reflection after placing a wreath aboard his former ship, the LST 342, during a trip that several veterans made to Guadalcanal and Tulagi this summer. The trip, led by UMPI Professor Anderson Giles, was one of the many efforts Giles undertakes to preserve the history of what happened during WWII in the Pacific Theater. (Photo courtesy of Anderson Giles)

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — A professor at the University of Maine at Presque Isle has found a unique way to honor the veterans of World War II and ensure that their service to their country is never forgotten.

Each year, professor Anderson Giles makes at least one pilgrimage to the Pacific islands to participate in commemoration ceremonies, to lead trips to historic battle sites, and to preserve through film, photographs and interviews the history and stories of what happened there more than 60 years ago.

This year, Giles made two trips to the Pacific that took him to Guadalcanal, Tulagi, Saipan, Tinian and Guam.

Giles, a professor of art at the university, is passionate about the history of World War II and the veterans who served in the Pacific theater. He has worked for more than 20 years to preserve the history of the war in the Pacific through film, photographs, paintings and other collections, and has traveled to many islands in the Pacific — including Iwo Jima, Tarawa and Peleliu — to document historical sites and interview World War II veterans about their experiences in order to preserve their memories for future generations.

“The sacrifices that our World War II veterans made for this country are incredible. They endured so much and it really hits home when you listen to the veterans tell their stories,” Giles said. “Saving these memories and stories for future generations and sharing this history with as many people as possible is the best way I can honor these veterans.”

In June, Giles participated in the 65th anniversary commemoration ceremonies recalling the invasion of Saipan and the islands of Tinian and Guam. During this visit, he led a group of veterans and their families, World War II historians and scholars on surveys of the historic battle sites involved in the Saipan operation. These included the invasion beaches, fortifications, and the infamous suicide cliffs where thousands of Japanese civilian families jumped to their deaths to avoid capture by the Americans in the final stage of the battle.

Giles also led the group on a tour of historic sites on Tinian, including the huge North Field B-29 base and the sites where the atomic bombs were assembled and loaded aboard the B-29s Enola Gay and Bockscar for the strikes against Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

During this trip, Giles also served as a featured speaker at the “History Comes Alive” seminar held at the American Memorial Park Museum, where he spoke about his years of documentary research in the Marianas.

In August, Giles led a group of World War II veterans, veterans’ family members, and history enthusiasts back to the islands of Guadalcanal and Tulagi to participate in commemoration ceremonies marking the 67th anniversary of the historic military campaign that took place there. On this trip, Giles recorded eyewitness testimonials of several war veterans and photographed them at former combat sites at and near Guadalcanal.

Mac MacKay, 85, one of the members of the group Giles led, knew all too well about the deadly action in these waters. He was an 18-year-old gunner’s mate on the LST 342, which was blown in half by a Japanese torpedo that killed 80 of his shipmates. MacKay is one of five crew members who survived.

After securing permission from local tribal elders, Giles’ group was taken by a Zodiac dive boat to the wreck of MacKay’s former ship. Giles accompanied MacKay and his wife across Iron Bottom Sound to a remote jungle-covered shore on Florida Island, where the front part of LST 342 lies rusting in obscurity. This part of the ship remained afloat after the torpedo hit and was towed to Tulagi. After the war, it was abandoned and is today a ghostly reminder of the violence that once engulfed this region.

It was an emotional ordeal for MacKay to climb aboard and place a wreath in honor of his lost shipmates. As Giles and local guide John Innes helped MacKay climb the sloping deck, memories flooded back from that tragic night.

“Something told me to get out of my quarters and go topside,” MacKay said. “We were all scared to death because we had no escort that night. I saw the torpedo coming; it punched through the ship right below me, hit the engine block, and detonated. There was a tremendous shock and the next thing I knew, I was in the water with my teeth broken off and terrific pains in my legs and feet. I clung to a piece of wreckage until I looked up and saw the front part of the ship drifting down on me. At first it scared me — I thought I was seeing a ghost. There were a few Army troops in this part of the ship, who had survived the blast, and they pulled me up and treated my wounds. It’s hard for me to believe that I am back here—this wreck I am sitting on saved my life!”

For Giles, the opportunity to experience the campaign through veterans’ on-site testimonials is priceless. He will add the portraits he took of MacKay and other veterans from this trip to his ongoing project of photographing veterans on the sites where they saw action during the war. Giles plans to do an exhibition and book of these portraits as another way of preserving veterans’ stories.

Giles reflected that hearing these stories and preserving them for others is a fitting tribute for his father and all veterans. Giles’ father, a 4th Division Marine who saw action in the Pacific, was killed when Giles was 4 years old.

“All the veterans I have spent time with in the Pacific remind me of the loss of the rich human experience of growing up with a father,” he said. “In a way, all these veterans have served in some small way as my father. I wouldn’t trade these experiences for anything.”

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