Dressed in his Army-issue field coat and matching olive-green hat, Richard Graff told stories Thursday about his military service roughly 60 years ago in Nazi-occupied Europe that kept a group of Virginia middle-schoolers spellbound.
He was one of more than 100 veterans to visit Rocky Run Middle School in Chantilly. But in many ways, Mr. Graff is now just one of the few remaining hopes of keeping history alive by bridging an ever-widening gap between the Greatest Generation and a generation whose knowledge of World War II is increasingly derived from video games.
From his horrific account of “wiping brains off my coat” to the more mundane tale of guarding a town’s bakery so that “life continued normally, because that’s the way it should be,” Mr. Graff’s stories were dutifully recorded by the students with notebooks, pens or voice recorders. One girl even handled a palm-size video camera.
His tales of training for night fights were met with polite smiles and a few times there was a pause as interest lulled.
But when Mr. Graff took out the pocket-sized Bible with metal liner given to him by his sister and weathered letters from home, they sat up with interest to get a better look.
“Some of it is raw, some is superficial, but wait, these are seventh-graders,” Mr. Graff said afterward. “There are certain parts I want to talk about whether they ask me or not.”
For 10 years the school has hosted an oral history day, an event that’s grown from one soldier participating to more than 100 veterans and civilians connected to the World War II-era. The event Thursday at Rocky Run followed a month-long study of war in April.
Six veterans who’ve participated in the event have passed away since last year.
Some veterans wore their starched uniforms, and most of the students dressed up, though a few untucked shirts could be seen.
In stark comparison to the many worn folders in which the veterans brought information about their service, some students copied the details in notebooks with cutout photos of teen heartthrobs.
The veterans submitted basic biographical information before the event so the students could research those times and places and have questions prepared.
“Some kids I’ve found are really interested and ask great questions,” said Betty Moore, one of the civilian participants, who was 10 years old and living in Honolulu when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. “Some ask questions because they really don’t know. I just had one question where the student asked ‘how did you feel when the war broke out.’ “
The son of a Gulf War veteran, 13-year-old Diego Tamayo said his parents have taught him well about U.S. military history.
“But I’ve seen kids who don’t know a thing about what’s happening in the world,” he said. “Everybody should know what happened and everybody should know the freedoms we’ve got,” he added.
Lauren Hartley, a former Rocky Run student whose grandfather was the catalyst for the event, thinks the seventh-graders understand the stories but will need time to fully grasp their impact.
“They understand more of it once they turn 18 and understand what it would mean to be drafted,” she said. “Or they will have friends who will decide to go fight. They can’t imagine that when they’re 12.”