Seventy-five years ago, Bette Horstman was stationed on the Pacific island of Saipan, busy with her work as a physical therapist with the U.S. Army Medical Corps when news arrived about atomic bombs being dropped on Japan. After that, she got word that World War II had finally come to an end.
“I was happy. I thought, ‘Now I can go home,'” Horstman, 98, recalled. “Forget it; I was stuck there for almost eight months after the war ended!”
The Morton Grove resident is one of 51 World War II veterans featured in an oral history project developed by the Niles-Maine District Library, beginning in 2005.
The Veterans History Project, part of a Library of Congress effort to preserve personal accounts of those who served in war, is among several local projects recording the stories of World War II veterans.
With the 75th anniversary of the war’s end on Sept. 2, such projects are giving today’s generation a chance to look back at the stories and sacrifices of those who lived and served during the war.
“I think there’s nothing better than to hear the actual words and memories of people who went through these experiences,” said John Murphy, who spearheaded the Park Ridge Historical Society’s Wartime Memories project. “History is most authentic when you have participants telling you what happened to them, their own personal experiences …. Our core focus is preserving stories that are otherwise going to be gone and forgotten.”
Wartime Memories, available at www.parkridgehistorycenter.org, features not war veterans, but those who were navigating life at Maine Township High School during World War II. The interviews were conducted by current Maine East and Maine South students as an outgrowth of another project that focused on the school’s ability to sell $500,000 in war bonds to pay for a World War II transport plane in 1945, which was named the Maine Flyer.
“What really stood out was their resourcefulness and being able to go on and endure and thrive during wartime deprivations, ” Murphy said of the individuals interviewed. “They still had a great time being kids.”
A video produced by modern-day Maine East and Maine South High School students, with includes interviews with some of the former students who were involved in the Maine Flyer fundraiser, is also available for viewing on the historical society’s website.
Both Niles and Park Ridge Libraries have established their own Veterans History Projects as well, featuring interviews with veterans of World War II and other conflicts.
Horstman told her story to Niles Library interviewer Neil O’Shea in 2014. Her interview, and others, are available to listen to or read on the Niles-Maine District Library website, www.nileslibrary.org/all-interviews.
Horstman said she joined the military effort shortly after graduating from physical therapy school.
“I felt I had to do something. I had to help,” she said. “And I knew there were limited physical therapists.”
Her Army service sent her to Saipan, the site of a major battle in 1944, where she tended to wounded soldiers and Japanese prisoners of war, she said.
“Not too many people realize we had a difficult time, a difficult adjustment in the service because of my profession,” Horstman said. “Nurses were readily accepted because people knew what nurses did, but not physical therapists. That was the hardest part.”
When the war ended, Horstman was the only physical therapist on the island, she said, which resulted in her having to stay long beyond the time she had anticipated coming home.
She says her experience in the Army aided her professionally as she pursued a career in physical therapy after the war and taught others therapy techniques, just as she had done with soldiers during World War II.
“I would hope women will continue to enlist in the services because they definitely need us,” Horstman said.
The Park Ridge Library’s Veterans History Project was launched in 2011 by Laura Scott, adult services manager. It features oral histories from 18 World War II veterans, which can be found at parkridgelibrary.wix.com/veterans-project.
The veterans include a Marine who refused to accept a college deferment and enlisted for service, only to lose his mother shortly after; an Italian-American who got caught up in the war as a teenager staying with his parents in Italy and joined a partisan military group to fight the German armies; and a member of the U.S. Army Air Corps who spoke of serving in 35 missions in one year.
The goal of the project was to capture the memories of Park Ridge’s World War II veterans for their own families and others, said Cathy Thompson, senior adult services coordinator at the library who conducted interviews with Scott.
“It was very moving and, of course, some of the stories were very powerful,” she said. “I think a lot of the stories the veterans had not even shared with their families before.”
The online archive of their stories also includes photographs and artifacts that the veterans shared.
Chad Comello, adult services librarian with the Morton Grove Library, helped relaunch the dormant My Morton Grove local stories project when he interviewed two World War II veterans in 2017.
One of them, J. Herman Sitrick, was awarded the Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest honor for military and civil actions, in 2017.
“I called him and said, ‘I’d love to hear your story,’ and he said he was open to it,” Comello recalled. “Like most veterans of that time and generation, he was very humble and didn’t see (his service) as a big deal. He saw it as doing this job. He didn’t see himself as a hero.”
Other World War II veterans featured in My Morton Grove are John Slater, Barney Stellar and Lawrence Schuetz. Ella Krzetowski, a survivor of the Holocaust, was also interviewed for the project in 2017.
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