YouTube generation meets veterans

The Baltimore Sun

The .30-caliber bullet, ocher-colored, its nose bent, is in a pink attache case in Bobbi Hovis' home in Annapolis. It is kept there, among the folds of a Viet Cong flag and maps of Vietnam, as a reminder of the life the retired Navy nurse almost lost one November day in 1963, and of the life she has lived since.

"Three inches higher, and it would've been in my abdomen," Hovis says of the bullet that smashed into a balcony where she stood. "I was really lucky."

Over the years, Hovis has shared her wartime story with family and friends, and in a book published in 1992. But now she's sharing it with the largest audience yet: Her tale of war and survival is among a series of 90-second vignettes being uploaded to a dedicated YouTube page by the U.S. Naval Institute, an Annapolis-based nonprofit organization that promotes independent ideas on defense issues, largely by publishing books and magazines.

The posts to the popular Web video site are part of the group's efforts to spark historical interest and patriotism among younger generations this Veterans Day.

About 21 of the 41 vignettes that the Naval Institute has recorded over the past year will be aired in a half-hour documentary titled Americans at War this weekend and next week on PBS stations nationwide. The documentary includes narratives from famous veterans such as former President George Bush, former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey and Virginia Sen. Jim Webb.

"This is not about glorifying war. If you listen to these stories, you can tell some of these people were really scarred by what they saw, what they experienced, and they talk about how, in some ways, those experiences made some of them who they are today," said Matt Schatzle, the Naval Institute's chief operating officer.

The YouTube and PBS specials are a marked departure for the Naval Institute, which for more than a century had been spreading awareness of military issues through printed publications but this year decided to launch into television and the Internet to capture a younger, wider audience.

"Part of it was that World War II veterans are dying by the hundreds each day, and we needed a way to capture their stories while they can still share it. About 85 percent of these pieces" feature World War II veterans, said Tim Cowling, executive producer of Americans at War. "It was important to get these stories down in a way that would be compelling and entertaining so that young people would be interested in this country's history. These pieces aren't about war. They're about history."

The vignettes are personal and triumphant, sprinkled with stirring reflections on lessons about faith, fear and war's ability to define the lives of service members.

In one, Bush's voice follows a chorus of cellos. A black-and-white picture shows a 20-year-old with dark, searing eyes staring out from under an airman's helmet.

Bush was a pilot for a torpedo squadron during World War II, and on Sept. 2, 1944, his mission was to attack Chichi Jima to damage Japanese radio communication and surveillance operations. In slow, measured tones, he tells of his plane coming under intense fire. With the engine in flames, he ejected, the plane's tail delivering a "glancing blow" to his forehead.

"Bleeding like a stuck pig, I dropped into the ocean. ... I was sick to my stomach, I was scared," he said. "Suddenly I saw this periscope, and it was the USS Finback. People talk about how you're a hero. Well, there's nothing heroic about getting shot down. And I wondered, 'Why was I spared when the two friends in the plane with me were killed?' I don't know the answer."

The piece fades to black.

In a written statement, Bush said he was happy to help with the project.

"Our Nation has a bright future as long as our citizens remember our prosperity and security requires service - service in your community, service in your church, and certainly service in uniform. So for me it was an easy call to help with Americans at War," he wrote.

Amid profiles of celebrity veterans are narratives from Marylanders who were highly decorated veterans in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

Among them: retired Marine Col. John Ripley, a hero of the 1972 Easter Offensive in Vietnam who was awarded the Navy Cross, Silver Star and two Bronze stars; retired Navy Capt. Jack Fellowes, a prisoner of war in Vietnam who went on to earn a Silver Star, two Purple Hearts and three Bronze stars; and retired Air Force Col. Charles E. McGee, one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, who earned 26 air medals, two clusters of the Distinguished Flying Cross and a Bronze Star for his heroism in the Korean War.

And there is Bobbi Hovis, who two months before her brush with death during the overthrow of the Diem government in South Vietnam in 1963 had 96 hours to turn a dingy Saigon apartment building into a hospital for U.S. troops, complete with operating gallery and intensive care unit.

"'Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at and missed.' I believe that," Hovis said, quoting Winston Churchill.

McGee, 87, of Bethesda, was 22 when he joined the 302nd Fighter Squadron through the Tuskegee Airmen program, the first unit of black pilots. Their meritorious service protecting bombers from enemy attack dispelled the notion that black pilots couldn't succeed in combat.

McGee said he participated in the Naval Institute's documentary to remind the younger generation of the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen.

"We enjoy the freedoms that we have today because of our participation and the heroic efforts of so many war veterans," McGee said. "It's important for folks to know their history and know the impact of that history, and also honor this additional impact of the Tuskegee Airmen. Back then, they called it the double V, victory against Hitler in Europe and victory against racism at home."

Ripley, 68, of Annapolis is among the most decorated Vietnam veterans. He served two tours in Vietnam and spent 35 years in the Navy.

In the Naval Institute's documentary, Ripley describes how he single-handedly blew up the Dong Ha bridge in 1972 to stall enemy troops' advancement. His YouTube profile has received more than 240 views over the past two months.

"There I was, hanging under the bridge with my arms, trying to stuff 500 pounds of explosive into the beams of the bridge," Ripley said. "I had no expectation that I would make it out of there alive."

The explosion threw him to the ground. The bridge was gone, and the enemy troops' strategy to move south was substantially hindered.

"A funny thing happens when you don't think you're going to live," Ripley said. "It's like the curtains part, and you begin thinking clearly, and you become efficient and just get the job done without worrying about trying to make it out alive."

ruma.kumar@baltsun.com

'AT WAR' SERIES

To learn more about the U.S. Naval Institute's Americans at War series, check out youtube.com/americansatwar.

The page has a collection of 90-second narratives from famous veterans, including former President George H.W. Bush and Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, and decorated Marylanders, including retired Marine Col. John Ripley.

To learn more about the Naval Institute, go to usni.org/.

Check local listings for a companion PBS series of Americans at War at mpt.org.

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