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World War II vets become living historians

War veterans pose for photos courtroom 201 Lake County building Waukegan. The veterans were courthouse have their stories recorded by

War veterans pose for photos in courtroom 201 at the Lake County building in Waukegan. The veterans were at the courthouse to have their stories recorded by a court reporter and then sent to the Library of Congress. | Thomas Delany Jr.~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: December 26, 2012 1:25AM

WAUKEGAN — Diane Kumala Vojcanin and her siblings are no strangers to their father’s stories of World War II, but they wanted to ensure that Ray Kumala’s memories went beyond an oral tradition.

“My dad’s a great storyteller,” she said. “He’d either read us a book or he’d tell his three daughters a story — we heard his ‘good stories’ from the Navy.”

Then, she added, her father “sat down the last two years or so and started writing his memories down, from the day he enlisted in the Navy until he was discharged, so we have that. He wrote it down by hand and we transcribed it into the computer.”

On Friday, the Library of Congress got into the act. Kumala was one of a dozen men with local ties who came to the Lake County Courthouse to participate in the Veterans History Project, which, according to its mission statement, “collects, preserves, and makes accessible the personal accounts of American war veterans so that future generations may hear directly from veterans and better understand the realities of war.”

The project is seeking out personnel who served during World War II (defined as 1939-46), the Korean War (1950-55), the Vietnam War (1961-75), the Persian Gulf War (1990-95) and the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (2001-current). Along with veterans of the military, the project welcomes input from civilians who participated in homefront efforts, such as World War II industry workers and USO performers.

Friday’s Lake County contributions to the effort — which was launched 12 years ago and, at the time, included World War I veterans — were arranged by a collaboration of volunteers that included employees from the 19th Judicial Circuit and the Lake County Bar Association.

The veterans arrived at a second-floor courtroom and were treated to music by the Navy Band Great Lakes before being escorted to interview rooms normally reserved for juries, where court reporters documented interviews conducted by volunteers that included assistant state’s attorneys and public defenders.

Ken LaRue, an assistant state’s attorney who helped coordinate Friday’s effort, pointed out that the U.S. buried its final veteran of World War I last year, and said that reality serves as a motivation to collect oral histories from the World War II generation.

“We’re losing something like 740 World War II veterans every day,” he said, adding that there is no deadline for county residents to participate in the project. “It’s going on forever. The only deadline is human longevity.”

Among Friday’s guests of honor was LaRue’s uncle, Don Morrison, who served as an Army medic in the European Theatre. Along with Kumala — a 1941 graduate of Waukegan Township High School who served in the Navy from May 1942 through December 1945 — participants in attendance included William Dorf, who served with the 102nd Infantry Division in the Battle of the Bulge; George Harlow of Beach Park, a turret gunner with the Army Air Corps; George Kaiser of Lake Forest, an 8th Air Force radar navigator on 28 combat missions; Daniel Reese of Round Lake, a Navy veteran who served in the Iwo Jima and Okinawa campaigns; and Fred Ruben of Highland Park, a guard at Nuremberg during the Nazi war-crime trials.

Also sharing their memories were Renton Gibson, Henry Mason, Alex Rafferty and Hal Winer. Court reporter Vernita Allen-Williams, who coordinated the process of transcribing the interviews with Colleen Eitermann, said the results are scheduled to be delivered to the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center in Washington, D.C. A searchable database of contributions is available at

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