Elgin native shares WWII veterans' stories
"Every time another World War II veteran dies, it's like another piece of a library burned out," says Jeff Meek, author of "They Answered the Call."
"Writing these stories was my personal way of saying thank you to these veterans for all they did for us."
If you go
What: "They Answered the Call" author Jeff Meek discusses his experiences interviewing World War II veterans
When: 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 11
Where: Gail Borden Public Library, 270 N. Grove Ave., Elgin
Cost: Free. No registration.
Available: Meek will have hardcover copies of his book for sale for $20. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to the "Phase II" project of the Elgin Veterans Memorial Park.
Meek will speak about his book at 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 11, at the Gail Borden Public Library, 270 N. Grove Ave., Elgin.
Meek, who grew up in Elgin and graduated from Larkin High School, was prompted to write his compilation of 75 World War II veterans stories when his son Jeff went into the U.S. Marines. As the young recruit left with a military escort at 4 a.m. one fall day, Meek thought to himself, "What would (Jeff) experience? Would he have to fight in a war, and what would he become in this transition from boyhood to manhood?"
Meek, then a teacher, coach, and athletic director at Minooka, a small town of about 10,000 people southwest of Joliet, wanted to learn more about the military background of his father and his wife's father, both World War II veterans. He found some information in the Elgin newspapers about when his father Clarence "Moose" Meek was drafted in 1945, but not much more.
Meek says he also located some information about his father's friends, but it also was quite limited. When he attempted to learn more from the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, he ran into the same dead-end as many researchers — the center had been destroyed by a fire in the early 1970s and many of the records had been lost.
Meek's desire to learn about World War II veterans soon expanded beyond his own family and led to a number of all-school assemblies at his building. He brought in D-Day survivors, Pearl Harbor survivors, and witnesses to the atomic bomb explosion at Nagasaki, Japan. Meek says that you could hear a pin drop as the students listened to the veterans tell their stories.
Meek's quest to find additional veterans for his programs led to his meeting the "Beach Boys," a group of D-Day survivors from Geneva who met regularly for breakfast. He decided to record his interview with Jim Taff of that group, who was a member of the Second Ranger Battalion and one of the survivors of the attack on Point-du-Hoc during the Normandy D-Day invasion.
Other interviews done by Meek included Merritt King, who came ashore three days after D-Day, the same day as Meek's father-in-law.
"These men were telling me stories they hadn't told their families in 60 years and it blew me away," said Meek.
In 2005, Meek and his wife Jeanne moved to a retirement area in Hot Springs Village, Ark. About a year later his wife came home from a Daughters of the American Revolution meeting and said the chapter wanted to affiliate with the Veterans History Project, which involved interviewing veterans on tape and sending the stories to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. She explained that her husband did that type of work and would probably help the group.
Meek accepted the challenge. He began looking for World War II veterans to interview and was given the name of Surry Shaffer at his church. Shaffer told Meek about how he came close to freezing at the Battle of the Bulge. Another man, Richard Dorow, talked about attending the Nuremberg Trials in which the top Nazis were tried for wartime crimes.
Meek felt the stories he was collecting might have broader appeal and he contacted the Hot Springs Village Voice about running some in the paper. The publication was receptive of the idea and Meek began his monthly column, "They Answered the Call." This soon led to a second column called "The Veterans Vault" and more frequent stories by Meek.
Meek eventually became a staff writer at the paper. His desire to learn more has also taken him to a number of World War II battle sites.
As Meek reflects on his interviews, which now number over 200, he says he is amazed at how humble most of his veteran interviewees have been. Many thought they had nothing to share and sometimes called him and wanted to cancel the interview before it took place, he explained.
Overall, they were men that did their patriotic duty and "They Answered the Call." "They knew they were there for the 'duration of the war' — not just necessarily a year or two," Meek said.
"They told me they didn't want any medals, were often tired and just wanted to go home. They knew the only way to go home was to win the war — and they did it."
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