David Lester has military in his blood.
As the great-great-grandson of Davy Crockett– the legendary 19th-Century frontiersman, soldier and politician– Lester joined the military as a young man.
As part of the 30th Infantry of the “Old Hickory Division,” he fought in World War II after working as an airplane mechanic on B-24 Bombers in San Diego.
Today, at the age of 94, Lester remembers the day when he became a leader.
It was during the Battle of the Bulge, an offensive campaign from 1944 to 1945 in which United States armed forces launched a surprise attack on the Germans and their allies in the Ardennes region in an effort to free Belgium, France and parts of Germany. The crusade is known as the deadliest battle in terms of U.S. casualties.
In combat, Lester conducted reconnaissance behind enemy lines, deactivating mines and explosive devices. He also built narrow footbridges for U.S. soldiers to cross rough streams. One day, however, German soldiers began throwing grenades. Struck on the leg, Lester kept pressing on while others retreated, showing courage that would garner him two bronze stars.
“I’m not a leader. I’ve always been a follower until that day,” said Lester, whose eyes welled up as he told his story at his Costa Mesa home. “The lieutenant treated me a little different from then on.”
Lester, who later received a Purple Heart, is one of many veterans who have been able to tell their stories through the Veterans History Project, a directive created by Congress in 2000 to record and preserve the stories of war veterans. The American Red Cross joined in the effort to record the stories as a volunteer operation.
In 2010, the Greater Long Beach Chapter of the American Red Cross became involved and has since conducted more than 360 interviews, the most of any chapter in the nation, said Mike Farrar, an American Red Cross volunteer and Los Angeles Region Veterans History Project director.
“We’ve done more interviews than any other Red Cross chapter in the country, and we take a lot of pride in that because we do try to push this program as much as we can,” Farrar said. “This chapter has just been phenomenal about backing this project.”
Farrar said the effort started by word of mouth, hoping to find as many veterans willing to tell their stories as possible, visiting Leisure World, the Long Beach Veterans Affairs Hospital and senior-citizen homes in the area.
Each of the video interviews is permanently archived in the U.S. Library of Congress for future generations to see, and each veteran who participates gets a webpage with biographical information, he said. The Red Cross also gives each veteran a DVD copy of the video to pass down to family members along with a special lapel pin and a certificate of appreciation.
The purpose of the program is to “collect, preserve and make accessible the personal accounts of American war veterans so that future generations may hear directly from veterans and better understand the realities of war,” according to the Long Beach chapter.
The project includes veterans from World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf War as well as Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts. U.S. civilians who were actively involved in supporting war efforts are also invited to share their stories.
Farrar expressed the importance of recording stories from World War I and World War II veterans, who are now dying off as they enter their 80s and 90s.
“Currently, we’re losing our World War II veterans up to 1,400 a day,” Farrar said. “If we don’t capture these stories now, those stories are going to be lost forever.”
He said it’s also important that the videos are sent to the Library of Congress completely unedited and uncut, giving veterans free reign on how they want to express their feelings toward their military service.
“Nobody is going to come in and say, ‘Cut that out,’” Farrar said.
He explained that each veteran has a different perspective on their service and the wars in which they served. The Long Beach chapter has interviewed veterans who have been anywhere from age 23 to 103 years old, Farrar said.
“You can take two veterans that were in the same foxhole, interview them separately and basically get two different perspectives on what they experienced,” he said.
With a team of nearly 35 volunteers working on the project, the Greater Long Beach Chapter of the American Red Cross, which serves 21 cities in the Los Angeles region, has interviewed former prisoners of war, spies and even L.A. County Supervisor Don Knabe, who is a veteran, Farrar said. The chapter will soon be interviewing a veteran who served as a “tunnel rat” during the Vietnam War and was awarded a Silver Star, he said.
“A lot of the veterans that come in, you would just never think of the stories that they carry with them,” Farrar said. “It makes it really interesting to see these stories firsthand.”
Lester, who returned from duty along with thousands of other soldiers aboard the RMS Queen Mary in Long Beach, said he continues to tell his story about his World War II service to schoolchildren as a member of the Freedom Committee of Orange County. Lester said he hopes to live past 100 years old, adding “I have good genes.”