War stories textbooks can’t tell Students interview local WWII veterans

Twelve seniors from Hoboken High School’s acclaimed International Baccalaureate Program paid tribute to the city’s World War II veterans recently by taping interviews with four vets to document their war experiences.

The aim was to give a voice to veterans and provide students with an important link to historical accounts unobtainable from textbooks.

“This experience will give [students] a personal connection to our greatest generation,” said Rachel Grygiel, a history teacher at Hoboken High. “Hopefully, from this project they will truly understand that we are all human and we can all learn from each other, no matter what age we are.”

For 17-year-old Nicole Rios, the experience of interviewing a former veteran was more than academic.

“I had tears in my eyes when he started to sing,” said Rios about former Seaman Sam Scardigno’s song written in memory of fellow servicemen who lost their lives. “When you speak to someone who was there, it gives you an emotional attachment to the era and those involved in it.”

Erika Williams, 17, who interviewed former Merchant Marine Jack O’Brien, had a similar sentiment.

“It puts a human face to [World War II]. Even though you know the big picture, here you can bring it down to its details.”

Williams, who currently writes for the school newspaper, hopes to attend New York University next fall and pursue a career in journalism.

“Young people should take the time to listen and not just disregard them as being old,” she said. “You’re able to learn a lot from them and appreciate what they’ve gone through if you listen.”

More respect

For one Hoboken High senior, the interviews were a turning point in how she generally viewed veterans. Seventeen-year-old Sheryl McCabe, whose mother donated the space for the interviews and whose grandfather fought in World War II for the British Army, described herself as a politically left-wing pacifist.

“I was afraid to interview these guys at first,” said McCabe. “I didn’t know how to feel about veterans. This gave me a reason to give them more respect.”

The veterans react

Approximately 800 Hoboken residents served in World War II, of which over 150 never came home.

Currently, a quarter of the original number still reside in Hoboken, according to the American Legion Post 107 Commander Tom Kennedy.

The veterans have been grateful for the chance to recount their unique military histories.

“If it wasn’t for these kids, we wouldn’t have this chance to tell our story,” said O’Brien, 78, who joined the Merchant Marines at 17 years of age and went on 23 convoys between September of 1944 and the end of 1945.

“Thanks to them, people are going to be able to hear our stories for years to come.”

O’Brien quipped that the only thing he didn’t mention during the interview was the names of all the French girls he liberated.

Hoboken native Salvatore Cemelli, 84, was a combat veteran who fought in several battles throughout France and Germany, including the Battle of the Bulge.

“I’ve never gotten over it,” said the former Army staff sergeant, who received a Purple Heart after being wounded twice in action. In one instance, his helmet was split in two by a German 88 mm shell, causing a severe laceration and leaving him unconscious.

“I’m very proud of these kids,” Cemelli added. “It’s just a shame that someone hadn’t done it years ago, when there were more of us around to tell our story.”

Orlando Addeo, 87, fought the Japanese in southeast Asia from 1942 through 1945 as a member of the Army Signal Corps.

Addeo said, “At that time, people were patriotic no matter where you went. I only hope that with more things like these kids are doing, it can become like that again.”

Addeo said he lost four close friends from his block of Fourth and Monroe streets in the Second World War.

The process

Since April of 2005, the students researched the war through reading books such as “Band of Brothers,” which was adapted into the award-winning HBO mini-series by Steven Spielberg; “The Good War: An Oral History of World War II,” and writings by historians such as Steven Ambrose and Howard Zinn.

To learn how to portray the veterans and record their experiences on film, students also watched documentaries such as “The Road to 9-11” and “The History of New York.”

The students also relentlessly searched for a location in Hoboken that would provide the veterans, most of whom are in their eighties, with a comfortable environment while the students worked on the sound and lighting required to film the interviews.

Once edited, the oral history project will be sent to the Library of Congress, where it will be entered into the American Folklife Center Veterans History Project.

The students will continue to edit the material into a series of 30-second shorts, similar to the British Broadcasting Company’s “Shoe Box Stories.” These shorts will then be shown to the veterans at a luncheon. After the luncheon, they and their families will receive a full-length copy of the interview to keep for themselves.

Michael Mullins can be reached at mmullins@hudsonreporter.com.


© 2000, Newspaper Media Group