Friday, December 28, 2012

NEW JERSEY: Bridgeton man recalls World War II for Millville Army Air Field Musuem interview

MILLVILLE ­– For Tom Potts, war can be a very surreal or somber experience. He said his time on leave in Italy was like a vacation, but watching soldiers struggle ashore during the D-Day landings was something he'll never forget.

Wearing a hat that read; "Tin Can Sailors. U.S. Navy destroyer veterans", the 87-year-old Bridgeton resident sat down at the Millville Army Air Field Museum on Thursday to record his stories from the European Theater during World War II.

"I couldn't wait to get in and I couldn't wait to get out," he said while the camera rolled as part of the decade-old Veteran Interview Project, which is in conjunction with a Library of Congress program.

Led locally by Millville school district educator Bob Trivellini and volunteering student Andrew Stone, 16, of Millville, the two heard Potts' tales that offered both comical and life-or-death serious situations.

"It gives you a lot more knowledge. Whenever I learn about it in history, it gives it more depth," said Stone.

For Trivellini, who has conducted seven or eight similar interviews over the past five months alone – most of whom were South Jersey residents – the project provides an opportunity for humanizing history.

"We're really fortunate to locate them and have this first-hand glimpse of history," he said.

Thursday's first-hand glimpse included D-Day from the eyes of a sailor, who, by his own words, saw kids fighting against kids.

On June 6, 1944, Potts was aboard the USS Frankford, a destroyer nicknamed "Hot Dog." He had enlisted at 17 and now manned a 20-millimeter anti-aircraft gun. The ship's captain commanded they bring the vessel closer to shore and provide support for the waves of soldiers storming the beach.

"We were scraping the bottom," Potts said of being a mere 1,000 yards out as the 5-inch guns hammered German high ground defenses. Those same guns would contribute to a life-long hearing problem, evidenced by hearing aids in place Thursday and nine operations throughout his life.

"My ears were always weak but I spent more time in (Veterans Administration) hospitals than aboard the ship," he said.

Also part of that glimpse was happenings between combat. There was the time Potts was seasick while sailing across the Atlantic Ocean. He started scarfing down oranges and tossing the peels overboard. Another sailor saw what was going on and told him to knock it off – a German submarine might pick up on their trail.

There was another time when he ran into a friend from back home, in Moorestown, while the two were off the French coast – albeit aboard different ships.

That friend, like countless other World War II veterans, has since passed.

"Most of us are gone," Potts said, estimating about 10 percent of the ship's crew may still be alive. "I was a baby when I went aboard."

Potts went on to attend college at Drexel University and work his way up in a distribution company but he often revisited the moral of his story, sometimes choking up and other times looking down.

"War is hell. I hate it. Power, money, greed; you don't learn that until you get older."

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