HARRODSBURG — From a very young age, Rick Lee always had an eye and an ear for history, especially history surrounding the Greatest Generation and World War II.
Lee, now in the middle of his life, still remembers when he was a child, seeing photos of and hearing stories about his father’s time in the military.
“When you heard stories and snippets of things they went through, that was something that resonated with me as a kid,” he said. “I just was always attracted to that generation because of their virtues.”
That interest continued as Lee grew older. It stayed with him through eight and a half years of military service in the U.S. Army, during which time he served in 101st Airborne Division and the Third Armored Division and was deployed to Iraq during the first Gulf War.
Lee said watching the History Channel became a habit for him. Then one day, Lee had a revelatory moment.
“A light bulb went off,” he said. “I thought, ‘instead of watching history on TV, you’ve got living history right in front of you.’”
Lee, a Harrodsburg resident, knew several people from his church who had experienced World War II, and he decided to get their stories for himself.
That choice started him down a surprising road, one that would lead him to interview dozens of people scattered across the United States who lived through World War II.
“It really has been one of the most gratifying things in my life,” he said. “It is really a neat generation, and it’s caused me to look at older people in a much more favorable light. I was always taught to respect them, but now it’s very much different — they’re my heroes.”
For Lee, who now works at Sherwin-Williams in Richmond, military service runs in his blood. Besides his father's time in the military during World War II, his brother will soon be retiring from the U.S. Navy.
That personal history gives Lee what he said is an invaluable connection to the veterans he interviews, which helps them open up to him. The fraternal bonds between those who have served in the military span all branches and all years, he said.
After Lee interviewed the people from his church, word of his interest in World War II history began to spread, and slowly Lee began finding more and more veterans and others who had fought or otherwise served for the U.S. during the war.
Among those interviewed by Lee are Frank Buckles, the last known living World War I vet who was also a prisoner of war during World War II; Dr. Albert Brown, a survivor of the Bataan Death March; bronze star recipient Buddy Branch; and Sandor and Ann Klein, a Jewish couple who were separated during the war while he served for the U.S. and she was imprisoned in Auschwitz.
Buckles, Brown and Branch have since died, with Buckles and Brown passing away at 110 and 105, respectively. Sandor and Ann Klein are still living together in the U.S. in their 90s.
Lee agrees his work involves catching history before it disappears with the people who experienced it.
“There’s so much that I think needs to be documented for posterity’s sake and passed on to future generations,” he said. “They need to know what endurance and sacrifice means.”
Lee has a website where he posts some of the audio from his interviews, which he records, and is planning on writing books that are essentially compilations of the stories he has heard.
The audio from Lee’s interviews is grainy and low-quality — something Lee actually likes because it adds an ambiance that only seems to help transport the listener back in time.
In audio from Lee’s interview with Branch, a member of the 761st tank battalion who died this year, the audio crackles and noise fills the background as Branch describes what earned him the bronze star for valor.
“They (Germans) hit and disabled our first tank, and then they got the last tank. I was in the second-from-last tank,” Branch explains. “Our tank was hit and the turret was jammed, but we managed to back it around the burning tank behind us.”
Branch goes on to explain how he worked to pull four or five injured soldiers to the safety of a nearby beet cellar while under heavy fire, as war raged around him.
“One of our tanks, you seen it moving out across through the field, went through the hedgerows and it was burning and exploding,” he said. “From what we know, none of them got out of that tank.”
Lee said it wasn’t a simple task for him to get this story out of Branch. When Lee first met him, Branch told him nothing more than that he was a veteran of World War II.
“He was a really humble guy,” Lee said. “He told me a little bit about what he did, but he said, ‘ah, I just did my part.’”
It wasn’t until other veterans let Lee know that Branch had been awarded a bronze star that Lee went back and coaxed out the man’s story.
“They’re not the kind to come out and say this stuff about themselves,” Lee said of World War II veterans. “They don’t stand up and boast about, ‘hey, look at what I gave up for you.’ It’s just not in their demeanor.”
Another of Lee’s interviewees was a paratrooper who jumped into Normandy on D-Day and served with the real-life soldier on whom the movie “Saving Private Ryan” was based.
As part of his interview process, Lee goes back and researches old newspaper articles and other sources to confirm what his interviewees tell him.
“If I hadn’t seen the documentation and everything, these stories sound like they’re made up,” he said.
Lee hopes his work preserving the stories of the past will help younger generations think about “hard times on a relative scale” and understand what it truly means to sacrifice.
And yet, despite the extraordinarily difficult things some of his interviewees have endured, Lee said they all still manage to find humor in the midst of the chaos.
One veteran told Lee about his experience as a wounded soldier lying in a field outside a medical hospital with many other injured soldiers.
The veteran told Lee that Germans began to fire on the hospital. In order to keep the wounded soldiers calm and distract them from the attack, a nurse grabbed a broom and began marching up and down, pretending to guard them. The soldiers were put at ease and forgot about the gunfire, the veteran said.
“There was always something funny that they could find to talk about amidst all the struggles,” Lee said.
“I want to get everybody’s perspective,” he said.
Lee has submitted a proposal for his first book and has already written a rough manuscript. He’s hopeful he can continue to publish books as he collects enough stories to fill the pages.
For veterans and others with stories from the past, Lee has a simple piece of advice.
“Don’t wait for somebody to come by with a camera or somebody to come by and say they want to put your story in a book,” he said. “There are thousands of undocumented stories out there.”
Lee has no plans for an end to his interviews.
“I’ll do it as long as I’m around. I don’t have a definite end point,” he said. “If they’ve got a story, I’ll get in my car and drive to the ends of the earth if that’s what it takes to get to them.”