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Vietnam veteran devotes his time to preserving others’ stories

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, Jan. 8, 2012, at 9:58 p.m.

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To schedule an interview, call Herb Duncan at 316-259-3990. To learn more about the project, visit www.vetinterview.com.

By the end of today, 28 World War II veterans from Kansas will have died, according to Col. Herb Duncan. He wants to make sure their stories don’t die with them.

Duncan, a Vietnam veteran, has videotaped the stories of numerous veterans for the past 10 years to benefit future generations and the veterans’ families. He said he got started by interviewing his seven uncles during a family reunion, including one who told him he sank a Japanese battleship by himself.

“He never told his family the gut-wrenching details of what he did,” Duncan said.

“In doing such my education started. My relatives were war heroes that nobody even knew about.”

Another uncle, Robert B. Lee Duncan Jr., flew with a squadron in World War II. From June to November 1944, he served his first tour as a dive bomber, and still can remember the feeling of shooting down his first plane and killing a man for the first time.

“I’ll never forget how lonely I felt,” his uncle said in his interview.

Duncan left his uncle with 18 hours of film to edit, and a new mission to preserve history by giving all veterans a chance to tell their story.

“The thing with video is you get to see the person,” said Duncan, past wing leader of the Commemorative Air Force’s Jayhawk Wing and a driving force behind the Central Prairie Honor Flights, which take veterans to see the war memorials in Washington, D.C.

“You get to see facial expressions. You get to see the tears come down the face.”

He sends one copy to the Commemorative Air Force Airpower Museum in Midland, Texas, and another to each veteran’s families. In the future he hopes to also send a copy of every tape to the Smithsonian.

There is no price tag big enough for the appreciation he receives when he hands a family the DVD, Duncan said.

“They will cry and hug me and tell me thank you for doing this,” Duncan said.

He has three rules while interviewing: No pets, no people, and all cellphones turned off. Duncan conducts his interviews in veterans’ homes or places they feel most comfortable.

He starts with simple questions, slowly easing them into the interview process.

“I take them to places they don’t want to go back.” Duncan said. “But because I am a veteran they feel a kinship, a brotherhood between us. I was there. I understand.”

The interview starts with Duncan saying, “What is today’s date?” From there he asks questions about their life growing up, their parents and siblings, and Duncan’s favorite question: “What did you do on your first date?”

“I kid you not, every time I say that I get the biggest grin, and I’ve got them,” Duncan said.

Duncan’s most recent video was of Freddy Simon, co-founder of Freddy’s Frozen Custard & Steakburgers and a WW II veteran. Simon enlisted in the service when he was 18 and was put on a ship in San Francisco with 10,000 other soldiers headed for New Guinea.

“I was going to whip the whole Japanese army by myself,” Simon said in his interview.

Simon remembers being fearless until he climbed off the ship and onto the landing craft that took him to New Guinea’s shore. Then, his only thoughts were of how much he wanted to go home, which he realized was unlikely.

Equipped with a Browning Automatic Rifle, Simon’s job was to protect the rest of the squad from surprise attacks and snipers.

Simon remembers being on the front lines during a banzai charge, when 25 Japanese soldiers ran at him and his comrades, waving swords and screaming “banzai.” It was an honorable way to die for a Japanese soldier, who often chose suicide over surrender.

When Duncan asked Simon whether he could re-create the terrifying sounds he heard, he solemnly declined.

Duncan’s uncle and Simon’s stories are examples of men who sacrificed for the freedom of this country, Duncan said; children need to understand about patriotism.

“If we don’t teach them, they will never know,” said Duncan, who visits local schools to talk about veterans. “If you do not learn from history you are destined to make the same mistakes.”

Duncan encourages young people to take the time to listen to the stories of their grandparents. He also is looking for more veterans willing to share their stories, especially military nurses, whom he called the unsung heroes of the war.

“It’s an honor to be sitting in the presence of each one of these men,” Duncan. said “I love these men and women of World War II.”

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