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War and remembrance

On DVD set, World War II vets describe history for kids


Staff writer, Wilmington (NC) Star-News

If Thor Ronningen looks nothing like the teen-ager who survived Nazi Germany's last gasp at the Battle of the Bulge, neither does he seem like a man on the cusp of turning 80.

Agile and quick-witted, he has marched into old age with aplomb, though the past is always very much on his mind. He tells vivid tales from the war, which ended for him in a barn in the German village of Kuckhoff.

A catch on a soldier's bazooka failed, dropping a round like a bomb. Ronningen had a leg full of shrapnel but was among those lucky enough to be moved so the medics could work on the most gravely wounded, only for an artillery shell to rain down on the barn, killing or injuring more than 50.

"We all became fatalists," he said. Metal remains in his leg.

But no matter how hale and hearty Ronningen and other vets may be, they are part of the sun-setting generation that fought the world's largest war. To help preserve their experiences, Ronningen and more than a dozen local veterans have contributed to a four-disk DVD set that records their most harrowing accounts from battle and its aftermath. The disks are being donated to schools in Pender, New Hanover, and Brunswick (NC) counties.

The stories touch the war's most pivotal moments, ranging from Pearl Harbor to D-Day, from war in the Pacific to the atomic bombs.

"The only way I can compare it to Wilmington is to see everything flattened out, every house in Wilmington flattened and covered in gray concrete dust," said Charles Callanan, a retired bank officer who was on the first warship to arrive in Nagasaki, Japan, after the atomic bomb was dropped. "There was nothing there. If you've seen pictures of the World Trade Center and the aftermath, that was what Nagasaki was like."

Although the DVD will preserve the memories for a time when there are no more World War II veterans, they are also a way of putting schools in contact with the living history that very much remains in our area, said John Nelson, who edited the DVDs.

Nelson hopes schools will show at least some of the vignettes in association with Veterans Day and will then seek out members of World War II Remembered, which made the DVDs, to come in person, he said. At 65, he was a young child during the war, but he said he remains deeply affected by the veterans and their sacrifices for freedom.

"We all better be prepared to pay for it if we want to hang onto the country," he said.

Ronningen is happy to talk about his war. He said it's out of guilt for the thousands who didn't come home with him.