Vernon Hills resident Henry Mason's recollections of his time with the Army Medical Corps in World War II will live on at the Library of Congress, thanks to a volunteer effort Friday at Lake County circuit court.
It was the inaugural Lake County Library of Congress Veterans History Project, with court reporters, attorneys and others in the legal community donating their time for the effort. Mason and at least 13 other combat veterans from World War II and the Korean War participated.
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Local court reporters took down every nugget from the vets while they were interviewed in private areas after departing from a second-floor courtroom, where a Navy band helped kick off the morning. Transcripts will be forwarded to the Library of Congress' American Folklife Center for archiving.
Lake County Chief Judge Fred Foreman, a Vietnam-era Air Force reservist, stressed the importance to secure the firsthand accounts of World War II veterans in particular.
"As time goes on, more and more war veterans pass away and the details of their experiences and those of their comrades are lost to the American people," Foreman said.
Mason, 96, was interviewed for more than an hour by his son and daughter-in-law, Richard and Diane Mason of Riverwoods. Library of Congress guidelines in areas such as war experiences, life and later years were used for the interviews.
He began his story by relating how he was one of eight children who was born in Waltham, Mass., and moved to Boston where he grew up in the Dorchester neighborhood.
After graduating from Harvard University in 1939, Mason accepted a job with a Canadian company promoting endocrines to doctors. His life started to change when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
"I remember being in bed and up in Burlington, Vt., and hearing about the attack on Pearl Harbor," Mason said. "Living in Albany, N.Y., I headed right to home."
Saying he became suddenly patriotic, Mason enlisted in the Army Medical Corps on July 27, 1942. He said he had wanted to become a fighter pilot, but his mother and older brother talked him into joining the medical unit where he could put his background in parasitology to work.
As he worked his way overseas for World War II, Mason's unit stopped at Fort Eustis in Virginia and Fort Jackson in South Carolina. His son, a lawyer, asked if he had any particular memories of Fort Jackson before shipping out in July 1943.
"Just had some nice outings with some women, civilians, not soldiers," Mason said.
Mason said he landed in the seaport of Casablanca in northwest Morocco on the Atlantic Ocean, then moved on to Bizerte, a waterfront city in northernmost Tunisia. He said he and his colleagues built a hospital complex of steel huts and tents that served up to 500 patients who were casualties from fighting in Italy.
He said he eventually went to Rome, eight miles from the front line, to help start a military hospital that served about 2,500 patients in a former children's mental health facility. He was back in the United States to celebrate the end of World War II in New York's Times Square and got married in 1948.
Mason, a widower, said he wound up in Chicago to become a consultant to the American Medical Association and retired when he was 72. He went on to volunteer for the Peace Corps and spent time in Guatemala.
Court reporter Colleen Eitermann appeared enchanted as she made the official record of Mason's words.
"It's fascinating," Eitermann said. "One of the reasons I got involved is because my dad was in World War II and fought in the Pacific and that's about all I know."