Warplanes and Valor

by admin on November 15, 2016

Picture from left to right: Mike and Karen Larson, Simon and Beatrice Velasquez, Andrea Heairet, and Raelynn Firkus.

By Karen Kelly Larson

Okay, so maybe I was feeling a wee bit grumpy at the time.  When Angie Ballman Punton, Paradigm Reporting & Captioning’s Veterans History Project wrangler, sent out her group email requesting volunteers for this year’s event, I muttered sourly to my husband Mike, “I’ve done my part.  Let somebody else do it.”   After all, having retired from court reporting five years ago, I was now only “of counsel” with Paradigm.

I let the email languish unanswered in my inbox.

Similar to the Shoah Project for Holocaust survivors, the purpose of the Veterans History Project (hereafter called VHP) is to preserve personal histories and experiences.  For VHP this means that an interviewer, along with a court reporter and videographer, records the testimony of military veterans, and that testimony is then archived in the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress.

I’d begun doing VHP interviews in 2012 and found it to be a very rewarding experience; so rewarding, in fact, that I recruited my then teenage son Sam for the event.  To a one, the veterans we met were people defined by courage and a deep desire to serve.

Which makes my reluctance this year even harder to understand, doesn’t it.

Angie is a wily professional, however, and unafraid to use any weapon in her arsenal to achieve her goal of a successful VHP event.  She knows that World War II history and the warplanes of the era, especially the B-17 Flying Fortress, are a passion of mine and that was the lure she utilized to reel me in:  Her next email to me said that one of the veterans to be interviewed, Simon Velasquez, had been a B-17 ball turret gunner, as well as a POW at German Stalag 17 and a survivor of the Bavarian Death March.  I was hooked.  Count me in.

Thanks to an interview Mr. Velasquez had done in 2003 for the Greatest Generation Project for the Minnesota Historical Society, I had a wealth of background material to work with in preparing my own interview outline.  That material read like a Len Deighton novel, or the screenplay for a film starring William Holden (do a Google lookup, you young people).  I pored over the pages for the better part of four days.

Upon meeting Simon and Beatrice Velasquez at Paradigm on October 29th, I was immediately drawn to them; they exude an aura of grace, dignity, and warmth.  After a brief interlude of socialization and refreshments, we all entered the conference room to begin Simon’s interview, with Mike acting as the videographer and Andrea Heairet as the court reporter.

While Simon’s MHS interview had certainly been an engrossing read, listening to this soldier himself in a soft voice tell his harrowing story was on an altogether different plane.  His narrative included overcoming racial discrimination while navigating through nine flight schools; flying 27 combat missions with the USAAF; being blown out of his plane after it was struck by enemy fire and exploded; parachuting into hostile territory, injured, yet evading the Germans for days before finally being captured; withstanding brutal interrogations and solitary incarceration; enduring wretched conditions as a POW; and, finally, suffering unspeakable hardship and sorrow on a death march through the Bavarian Alps.

I have never been so moved.

While he may be diminutive in stature, it is infinitely clear that Simon Velasquez is possessed of a superior intellect as well as courage and heart enough for ten men, and he received multiple medals for his heroism and valor.  Despite suffering from service-related physical and emotional impairments, he went on to live a life of honor, and of commitment to his family.  Now well into his nineties, he continues to be an inspiration to us all.

At the conclusion of the interview, as we were saying our goodbyes, I embraced both Simon and Beatrice, after which Beatrice leaned over to me and said, “If you’d like to talk to us some more, you know where to find us,” and all I could think was what an incredible gift.  Mike and I hope to build a lasting friendship with the Velasquezes, for seldom does one have the opportunity to really know people of such character.

And to think I almost missed it.

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