WWII Veterans Bring Past to Present for History Students

WWII veterans Gene Yehl and Lee Zimmerman
WWII vets Gene Yehl and Lee Zimmerman.

December 7, 2013 | By Jake Weber

It may be 72 years since the attack on Pearl Harbor, but World War II study and scholarship are decidedly in the present at Albion College. This semester, two veterans of the war visited with history professor Wes Dick's "America in Crisis" class, adding personal perspective to academic study.

"They have the most extraordinary stories to share," says Dick of Jackson residents Gene Yehl (a veteran of Iwo Jima) and Lee Zimmerman (who was shot down and became a POW in Germany). "Students in my class read books and see films about World War II, but there is nothing that matches the impact of a personal story. Students are emotionally affected as well as intellectually."

"Meeting and listening to these veterans in person really made what we were learning real," said Jake Soenen, '15. "To know that the person I was sitting next to was at Iwo Jima really impacted me. I think overall that experience brought on a new seriousness about learning World War II history."

Yehl with Dick
Yehl with Professor Wes Dick. A sergeant in the 5th Marine 13th Artillery Regiment, Yehl served as artilleryman and a stretcher-bearer on Iwo Jima.

‘Doing What Was Right’

Chris Blaker, '14, is currently writing a history thesis that includes interviews conducted with Yehl and Zimmerman. "Every time I speak to Gene and Lee, I learn something new about their years of service, and it adds so much to what I already know. What impressed and humbles me most is the modesty that they display when talking about their war experiences," said Blaker. "Both men maintain that they believed they were doing what was right by serving in the military."

"The students seem to like the idea of talking to some old geezer who went through a little bit of combat," said Zimmerman, who joined the Army in 1942 and flew several bombing missions before being shot down and captured by the Germans at the end of 1944.

Careful Study Leads to Greater Appreciation

Zimmerman with students Maggie Wallace, '17, and Robert Sommerville, '16
Zimmerman with students Maggie Wallace, '17, and Robert Sommerville, '16. A second lieutenant bombardier with the 8th Air Force, Zimmerman flew 21 missions over Europe before being shot down in November 1944.

Like many vets, Zimmerman says he spent decades not talking about the traumas of war. "My own children were in high school before they knew I was a POW," he said, noting that he and many of his peers were of retirement age before mental health professionals began endorsing such talk. "We were told that we had these pent-up feelings and we'd be better off to let them out. We started to talk about the war and suddenly it was the thing to do.

"I've talked to lots of high school and college students. Talking about the war, I think it's helped me," said Zimmerman, described as a "natural teacher" by Dick. "I'm a stronger person for it."

Dick also noted that the personal interactions are an invaluable opportunity for his classes.

"My current students are among the last that will have the privilege of World War II veterans in the classroom," he said. "Having prepared for the visits by careful study, the students are positioned to appreciate the veterans. It also gives the students and myself the opportunity to say 'thank you' to Lee, Gene and 'The Greatest Generation.'"