WALLINGFORD — From witnessing the horror of concentration camps, rolling cigarettes with newspaper, avoiding Axis booby traps and smuggling a puppy home, local World War II veterans shared their experiences with students at Lyman Hall High School on Friday afternoon.
The lecture was organized by social studies teacher Elizabeth Sturdevant, who is in the midst of a World War II unit with her classes. About 100 students attended.
“They are the primary sources,” Sturdevant said. “This is their testimony and they are the best historians.”
First to speak was Shabsa Mashkautsan, who was born in Romania before it was incorporated into the Soviet Union. He was drafted as a teen into the Soviet army and witnessed concentration camps first hand as his unit fought through Poland and Germany to Berlin.
“I see the concentration camp, a place filled with horror. The Germans had mattresses (stuffed) of human hair, bags with women’s and men’s shoes and children’s, millions of pairs, they were using skin of people killed to make handbags,” Mashkautsan said. “I don’t want another war to ever take place in this world. I don’t want you to ever see the horrors of war and the wounded bodies and the cries of parents.”
Arriving in Germany, Mashkautsan said he befriended allied American troops despite the language barrier. While the Americans smoked cigarettes, the Soviet troops rolled up tobacco in newspaper, which he demonstrated for the class.
Jack O’Neill, 90, of Wallingford, served in the Navy on the U.S.S. Nicholas from 1943 to 1946. His memories included confirming a Japanese submarine had been sunk after crew members found a piece of human lung in the water and the terror of watching Japanese kamikazi planes hurtling toward the ship.
“We were attacked several times by suicide planes,” O’Neill said. “You can see the shells hitting the plane and they would just keep coming.”
O’Neill said he was lucky to make it home.
“We were 55 days off the coast of Japan when the war ended,” O’Neill said. “To this day I thank Harry (Truman) for dropping the bomb.”
Meriden native Richard Egan served in Europe from 1942 to 1945 and spoke to the class wearing his combat boots from the war. “They are the only shoes I feel comfortable in,” Egan said.
He showed the class a huge shell casing for a 50 caliber bullet and described landing in Normandy on D-Day. Egan said Axis troops would string wires across trees to decapitate soldiers driving by, often rigging explosives as well. American soldiers began placing hooks on the hoods of their trucks to protect themselves.
“It will break the wire before it touches your neck,” Egan said.
It was the moments of kindness and humanity that seemed to stick out the most though, including a young girl begging soldiers for food and a local family offering him meals at all hours after he was bitten in the face by a dog.
It was what Egan brought home from the war that seemed to capture the class’ imagination most: a tiny bulldog puppy he smuggled in his shirt pocket. Dogs were not allowed on the boats home and commanders warned that any found would be thrown overboard.
After his pup was discovered, a supervisor threatened to chuck into the sea. Another solider stepped to his aid, saying, if the dog went overboard, so would he.
Egan slept with pup in his bed on the ride home, recalling how it was unfortunately not trained and soaked nearly every stitch of clothes he had in urine.
“I reached home and I had just my overcoat,” Egan told the chuckling class.
He went on to keep the dog for a decade.
The last to speak was Henry Muszynski, born in Wallingford. The Lyman Hall dropout was drafted in 1942 and served in the U.S. Army Air Forces. He recalled shoving huge equipment into tiny disposable glider planes, which were engine-less and dragged from the back of other aircraft.
Sixteen-year-old sophomore Lauren McCall said the talk was emotional.
“I thought it was really moving and powerful to hear people talk about such horrific times,” McCall said. “We’ve never experienced anything like that.”
Senior Shannon Murray, 18, said the veterans’ stories were eye opening.
“It was interesting to hear stories from actual soldiers,” Murray said. “You hear about it a lot in history but to hear actual stories it just gives you a whole new perspective.”