Sitting comfortably in a cozy living room in a house in Northeast Davis, the five Da Vinci High School students interviewing World War II veteran Francis Resta in November could hardly have been further removed from where he was, and what he was doing, at their age.
While the students’ immediate concerns were about the questions they would ask and whether the audio and video equipment were working properly, Resta was mentally returning some 70 years to the battlefields of Europe, where he found himself immersed in combat as a 17-year-old U.S. Army soldier.
He wasn’t supposed to be there — “I was considered 4-F because my eyes were bad,” Resta told the students — but his father, a career military man, found a doctor to cheat and get Resta cleared, “because no son of his was going to be 4-F.”
“After Pearl Harbor,” he said, “the guys were all expected to join. I was a sophomore in high school in 1941 and it was just no question.”
So Resta soon found himself in war-torn France, part of the Allied effort to cross the Rhine into Germany and at long last end the war.
It took months to go some 50 miles, Resta told the students, and thousands of men — including men who had become dear friends to Resta — died in the process. Resta himself was wounded and nearly lost his leg.
“What was it like to go into battle for the first time?” asked Da Vinci student David Steele.
“You’re scared, of course,” Resta responded. “There was very little communication. We didn’t know where we were. After being in combat for a while, we didn’t know what day it was.
“We didn’t have billets… we didn’t have regular meals. You ate when you were hungry,” he added. “We didn’t know when we first started we’d be living like animals.”
Resta said many decades after the war, an Iraq War veteran asked him what sort of beds they slept in during World War II.
“I thought that was strange,” he said with a laugh, “because we just had overcoats.”
“We were always tired. We never got enough sleep … Most of us were numb emotionally.
“I got a nickname,” Resta said. ” ‘Mole,’ because the German mortar shells made little holes and I tried to get in one when we were first shelled because I was scared.”
Living like that, in those conditions, was tough for the Da Vinci students to truly grasp.
“I try to picture going into the trenches, but it’s just too hard,” said Flora Rees-Arredondo, who reflected on the interview weeks later.
“It was really intense,” added classmate Harris Sobottka. “His memory was so sharp. But if he could sit there and tell this to total strangers, we could sit there and listen.”
When the Library of Congress began collecting the oral histories of American war veterans back in 2000, the goal was primarily about preserving history. Since then, thousands of veterans have been interviewed and the audio and video of those interviews stored in the library’s permanent Veterans History Project collection.
For the past four years, juniors at Da Vinci High School have been part of the process, interviewing more than 70 combat veterans from Yolo County and beyond. And while those interviews, too, are now a permanent part of the Library of Congress, the impact on the students asking the questions may be just as lasting.
That, in part, was the goal of including the students, says Da Vinci teacher Tyler Millsap: To bring history to his students in a way that no textbooks or novels or movies ever could.
To prepare for their interviews, the students read through the guidelines provided by the Library of Congress and read up on the conflicts their veterans were involved in. Millsap, meanwhile, prepared them for the emotional impact the stories they would be hearing might have on them, playing clips from previous interviews in which veterans spoke honestly and at times graphically about what they’d experienced in combat.
“I don’t play it for shock value,” Millsap said of one interview he showed students. “But because I want you to feel the importance of this. I don’t know what you’re going to experience, but I want you to be mentally prepared for this and treat it with respect.”
Five students were assigned to interview Resta: Steele, Rees-Arredondo, Sobottka, Wil Forkin and Noel Parente. Steele was designated as the primary interviewer, a job he said was a little difficult because the questions he would be asking were very personal, “and I didn’t know how (Resta) would feel about it.”
Resta, now 88, did get choked up at times during the course of the three-hour interview, but he vowed to the students that he would honestly answer everything they asked.
“I think it’s important for you guys to hear this,” he said.
The students set up in Resta’s living room on a Friday afternoon in late November, performing a microphone check, making sure both audio and video were recording and settled in for the interview.
Their questions covered everything from the camaraderie among the troops going in to battle to life back in the United States after the war.
Of camaraderie, Resta said, “When you’re building a house with a crew, and someone needs something, he yells for it. In combat, no one asks for help … but if you see a need, you help. All of us together is one person. We know helping everybody else is the only way to stay alive. You know your survival depends on the people around you.”
Often, the students’ questions centered on how Resta felt about an aspect of combat.
“It’s interesting that you keep asking me about feelings,” Resta said at one point. “In combat, you don’t have feelings. You have to change yourself into an entirely different human being, not even a human being. I learned how fragile the self-image of yourself is, how you can believe you’re a good person, then find out that you’re not.
“We were taught to be angry,” he said. “When combat soldiers come back home, that’s one thing you can count on: They’re angry. You survive combat because you’re angry.”
But they’ve also learned to suppress their feelings, he said, so much so that his own children told him years later they didn’t think he loved them because he never showed any emotion.
And he never talked to his family about what he’d been through.
“Families keep waiting for the guy who left to come back, but that’s not going to happen,” Resta told the students. “I didn’t tell my family anything.”
Combat veterans, he said, want their loved ones to understand what they’re going through, but they don’t want to burden them.
“It’s a dilemma every soldier understands,” he said.
Even during combat, his letters home to his family contained no details of the horror he was experiencing.
“They didn’t even know I was in combat because you just don’t write about it,” Resta said. “I wrote mostly about the other guys … chess tournaments… the German towns.”
That habit developed early on of keeping everything inside finally came to an end in 1992, Resta said, when he realized he needed help for his post-traumatic stress disorder and sought it from the Veterans Administration. He participates in regular group therapy with other combat veterans to this day, and has written a book about PTSD as well, “The Combat Veteran and PTSD, and Help For the Family.” It’s a subject on which he speaks passionately, and it resonated with the students who interviewed him.
“The military makes the PTSD issue seem much smaller than it is,” Steele said later. “When it’s actually almost a guarantee that you’ll need some sort of therapy afterwards.”
Added classmate Forkin: “From the way (Resta) looked when he was talking about it, it’s still tough years later.
“It makes me realize that a lot of things are still happening,” Forkin added. “The horror of war isn’t just something that happened in the past, and we need to be aware of that.”
As the three-hour interview drew to a close, Resta asked the students if they had any other questions.
Did you rely on a higher power as a way to get through the war?, she asked Resta.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “I lost my religion in the war.”
Resta described his best buddy being cut down beside him, and said, “I don’t think I found a higher purpose.”
“It was one of the parts that really stood out to me,” Rees-Arredondo said later. “Even now, he doesn’t believe there can be a higher power because of what he saw.”
Asked by the students about the justness of war — of any war — Resta said he doesn’t believe any wars fought by the United States since World War II have been just. And he even has doubts about World War II.
“The feelings of regret I have are major,” he said. “If Jesus Christ were here and I asked him, ‘Is what I did OK?’ I believe he would say, ‘No, but I forgive you.’ ”
But I can’t forgive myself, Resta said.
To the students he offered one bit of parting advice: “Stay in school.”
“Getting an education is more important than anything you’ll do in your life,” Resta told them.
“Going to college is tough… but don’t give up. Things could be a lot worse. Think about me in combat. Things could be worse.”
Since creating the America at War project at Da Vinci, Millsap and the program have both been honored nationally — Millsap as one of the “40 most influential high school teachers under 40″ and the project itself as one of the best in the country.
Now that students have completed their veteran interviews, they are working on websites dedicated to their individual projects and preparing for a ceremony likely next month where clips of the interviews will be played and all of the participating veterans honored.
— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy.