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Writers, Vets Share Wartime Stories at 32nd Literary Festival

Steve Mount (far right), one of the guests at Tuesday's panel discussion.

A treasure trove of memories - some poignant, some humorous - came flowing out Tuesday, Oct. 6, as part of a panel during Old Dominion University's 32nd annual Literary Festival.

With the theme of this year's festival being "Writers in Peace and War," a panel of seven veterans and writers about wartime themes told stories from their own experiences in the line of fire, keeping an audience of more than 100 spellbound at the University Village Bookstore.

"We don't generally tell our war stories just to tell them," said Stephan Currence, a Special Forces intelligence officer who spoke about his time deployed doing military exercises in Germany in the 1980s, and doing special ops in the country of Georgia in 2002.

Currence said his son Nick, an ODU freshman, hasn't heard many of the stories from his time in the military. But when Currence crossed paths with a former Soviet special ops officer in Georgia, the two men spent an evening "having a few vodkas" and sharing tales.

Joyce Hoffmann, coordinator of the journalism program in the ODU English department, spent 10 years trying to stories like those out of veterans for her recently published book, "On Their Own: Women Journalists and the American Experience in Southeast Asia."

Hoffmann related the story of a six-hour interview she did with a Vietnamese man who was a "fixer" for a number of journalistic outfits during the Vietnam War. It turns out, Hoffmann says, the man was also a spy, feeding information to the North Vietnamese.

But when a female journalist he had been helping was captured during the bombing of adjacent Cambodia, he told Hoffmann that he informed every contact he knew in both countries that she must be returned safely.

"I don't know if that was the truth. He may have been lying. But I chose to believe him," Hoffmann said.

Three veterans of World War II were part of the panel.

Ernest Rhodes, professor emeritus of English, joined the ODU faculty after serving in the Pacific. He told a humorous story of a "conversation" he had with a rat while holed up on Guadalcanal during a Japanese bombing run.

"It's hell out there, ain't it," Rhodes said the rat told him. "I decided to be sociable." Then the rat proceeded to give him heck for violating the mandatory blackout during bombing raids. "He said to me, 'Turn that goddamn flashlight off. You want to get us both killed?'"

With the bombardment over, and both he and the rat still alive, Rhodes said they wished each other luck, and went their separate ways.

Writer and scholar Norton Girault, who served on cruisers and destroyers in World War II and the Korean War, told the story of how he ended up in the Pacific. A university graduate, Girault earned entry to a 90-day officer training course in Chicago.

Holed up in their building for a month, Girault and a few friends finally made it out for an evening on the town. A few large men approached them after coming out of an establishment.

"My friend told me these guys were going to give us trouble. But then one of them stuck out his hand and shook it. He said the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor," Girault said. "'What's Pearl Harbor?' my friend said. But they took us in and filled us up with food and drinks. That was the start of my wartime experience."

When he came back to their training facility, Girault said he was promptly assigned first shift, walking around the roof of the building in the snow, looking for Japanese saboteurs.

Edith White, who was librarian at the Norfolk Academy for 20 years, and a writer and artist herself, ended up in Washington, D.C., during the war, working as a code breaker.

She remembers the excitement when the code breakers - all women, because the men had been deployed on ships in the Pacific - received vital code books that had been salvaged from a German submarine captured in Norfolk harbor.

Later, she happened to be in the audience when a Navy captain spoke about a daring mission to capture a German submarine in Norfolk harbor. She told the officer that they used the codebooks the sailors had retrieved.

"He was so excited. He said it was the first time anyone's ever been so interested in his story," White said.

Vietnam veteran Bill Matthews was wounded in the war, and a friend of his was killed by a mortar round in battle overlooking the Ashau Valley. He said that after returning from Vietnam, a man he met in Norfolk has helped him immensely in opening up about his wartime experiences.

"I just kind of hibernated over the years," Matthews said.

But this man, a fellow Vietnam War vet who happened to serve in the same company as Matthews, has been diligent at keeping comrades in touch with each other, so they can have someone to share grief and healing with.

He introduced the man, his friend Terry Tiller, "who has kept this group of Marines together over the years."

If anyone was going to tell a horror of war story, it could have been Steve Mount. A helicopter pilot, Mount lost an eye when he was hit with small-arms fire while flying his helicopter low over a firefight in Iraq. Unable to see, and in immense pain, Mount managed to land his flaming helicopter on the road below, saving the lives of his crew.

But the story Mount told was a humorous one.

Stationed in Darwin, Australia, when the World Trade Center was attacked, Mount ended up being deployed to Afghanistan.

Flying a nighttime mission with lights off over enemy-occupied territory, Mount saw the lead helicopter in his formation "light up like a Christmas tree."

It turns out the co-pilot in the aircraft in front had dropped his light-up glow stick, used to read maps during nighttime missions, into the glass dome at the front of the helicopter.

"It was funny in the fact that there is supposed to be total darkness, and suddenly there's this big green orb flying through the desert," Mount said.

He added that everyone made it through that mission just fine, proof that memories in wartime come in many different forms.

"Writers in Peace and War" continues through Friday, Oct. 9. For a full schedule of events and list of participants, visit http://www.lib.odu.edu/litfest/32nd/index.htm.

Follow a live blog about the literary festival at www.altdaily.com.


This article was posted on: October 8, 2009

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