“It’s become personal,” says Steve Johnson, leaning forward.
Spread out under his fingertips are newspaper clippings with the faces of the dead. There is Pfc. Clifton Carter, killed by a German bomb in October 1944; Pvt. Ralph Dale, killed in action on Okinawa in April 1945; Lt. Carl Gutman, who died in a bomber explosion over New Guinea in May 1944.
All are Oberlinians who lost their lives in World War II, shown in the Aug. 16, 1945 edition of the News-Tribune. More are named in the Feb. 21, 1946 edition of the Oberlin Times.
“I’ve started to feel a personal attachment to these men and women,” said Johnson. “I find it heartbreaking when I’m reading a story from 1942 and here’s some young kid who’s in mayor’s court for speeding and facing a $2 fine. And you know this kid two years later is going to be dead.”
Digging through the Oberlin College Archives, he’s found 19 war casualties listed in the News-Tribune and as many as 26 total with Oberlin addresses, including those from surrounding townships.
The trouble is that only 16 names are enshrined on a wall at Wright Memorial Park, where Johnson has served as master of Memorial Day ceremonies the past several years.
He wants to create a definitive list of Oberlin veterans who served in World War II. At the very least, the goal is to record their stories either firsthand or from close family members. At best, he’d like to see a plaque added to the Wright wall with the additional names.
To help in the effort, call Johnson at 440-775-0567 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
A U.S. Army veteran himself, Johnson served from 1975 to 1977 in the 101st Airborne Division, leaving the service to take a job as director of the Oberlin High School band.
Now a trustee at the Oberlin Heritage Center, he’s always been fascinated by World War II.
“To me, there were 16 million men and women who served in the U.S. armed forces. whether they were storming the beaches of Normandy or a clerk typist in Omaha, to me their stories are each equally important,” he said.
Those accounts are in danger as the Greatest Generation quickly fades. If they aren’t preserved soon, history will be filtered through the lenses of politicians and generals, he said.
To learn more about Oberlin’s connection to the global conflict. Johnson will present “Oberlin Serves in World War II” at 7:15 p.m. on Tuesday, May 9 at Kendal at Oberlin’s Heiser Auditorium, focusing on the experiences of local servicemen and servicewomen as told through newspapers, personal accounts, and images.
“They gave everything for us. They saved the world,” Johnson said.
The program is free.
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.