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A Local Senior Center Preserves The War Stories Of Veterans

         A World War II veteran in Chicopee, Massachusetts has worked to preserve the personal stories and experiences of fellow war veterans.

The RiverMills Senior Center in Chicopee is a popular place for veterans to meet and socialize. The center hosts a monthly support group for veterans. It is also the home to the local Veterans Video History Project.

Mounted on a wall right inside the front entrance to the building are framed photographs of veterans from World War II to the present.    On the back side of each frame is a brief written biography. The center stores video disc interviews with each veteran.

The first photograph on the wall is Harvey Lafleur. He’s dressed in the same Army uniform he was wearing when he came home to Chicopee after the war ended in Europe in 1945.

" It still fits," said Lafleur about the uniform.

Lafleur, 93, was not only the first participant in the local Veterans Video History Project in 2003, but he recorded interviews with the other veterans and built the wood frames that hold each veteran’s picture.

" You know especially World War II veterans you could not get them to talk, but once they started you couldn't shut them up," said Lafleur with a laugh.  " It was that way with me too. I never spoke about the war at home."

Lafleur’s war story begins in 1943 when at the age of 19 he quit high school and joined the Army.

" I missed Normandy, but got right into the Battle of The Bulge," he said. " It was hell, it was the cold winter in Europe in years. Twenty below and we had more casualties from frostbite than the battle. It was an awful time to spend Christmas."

For his heroic service as a combat medic during the Battle of The Bulge, Lafleur was awarded a Bronze Star.

" You'd pick up someone who had stepped on land mine and had no foot left, " he said. " It takes a long time to get used to."

He recalled working in an aid station when a badly wounded soldier was brought in and a doctor said to do nothing for him. Lafleur said he lost his temper, asking that something be done to make the soldier more comfortable.  Nothing was done and a while later Lafleur said he noticed the man had died.

During another Army assignment as a courier, Lafleur met legendary General George S. Patton.

"You couldn't find a better man," said Lafleur.  " I was lost and he sat down with me and chatted for ten minutes. He took to a map and said ' Soldier this is where you are. This is where you have to go. Good luck!' "

After the fighting in Europe ended, Lafleur’s unit was sent to Czechoslovakia to help establish a post-war government.

          " That's where I learned to drink beer," said Lafleur.

Lafleur returned to Chicopee -- the city where he was born and raised -- got married, raised three daughters, and retired after 42 years working at the same company.

Healthy and energetic, he advocates for seniors and veterans.  He was given an award a few years ago by the city of Chicopee for his voluntary service to the community.

Asked to reflect on his military service as a member of America’s Greatest Generation, Lafleur is modest and matter-of-fact.

"It was a job to do. You minded in a way, but you made the best of it," said Lafleur

Twenty-seven percent of Chicopee’s population are retired from the military—one of the highest percentages of anywhere in the country.   Like everywhere, the city’s World War II veterans are dwindling in number.  Lafleur has persuaded most of his friends, like Herbert Dupont, to tell their stories before it is too late.

Dupont, 91, joined the Navy in 1943 and sailed on the U.S.S. Missouri from the Brooklyn Navy Yard through the Panama Canal into every major battle of the war in the Pacific and was there to witness the formal surrender of the Japanese on the deck of the battleship.

" They had everything set up on board  the Missouri. mustering all the dignitaries and we are waiting for Gen. MacArthur and I was standing near where he came aboard," recalled Dupont. "That was something else."

Dupont’s sacrifice for his country did not end with his own service in World War II.  His son Kevin, 54, a Sergeant in the Massachusetts Army National Guard was killed in Afghanistan in 2009.

The Veterans Video History Project at the Chicopee Senior Center has recorded the personal stories of 94 veterans – 22 of whom are now deceased.

Holly Angelo, the program coordinator for the Chicopee Senior Center said one copy of the veteran’s interview is kept at the center, one is given to the veteran’s family and one is sent to the Library of Congress, which maintains the national Veterans History Project.

" Anybody can go on that website and listen to these stories," explained Angelo. "There are some amazing stories."

Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.
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