The 103-year-old Ben Skardon would rather not receive so much attention, but he also understands he is a conduit to the past. It’s a responsibility he takes very seriously.
Expect to be impressed when you meet a Marine, but when that Marine is a 95-year-old Pearl Harbor survivor who challenges you to a pull-up contest, prepare to be blown away.
This is one of many things Will Hines of Spartanburg has learned in conducting the Veterans Project, an ongoing undergraduate research project to collect and preserve the personal accounts of American war veterans so that future generations can hear those stories directly from the men and women who lived them.
Former Marine Staff Sgt. Robert A. Henderson’s story begins in Hawaii on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, as a plane with a perplexing paint job thunders overhead “close enough that I could have thrown a rock and hit it” toward a row of U.S. Navy ships docked in the harbor, he said. He thought it was part of a drill until the plane dipped and released a torpedo. The violent chaos in the two hours that followed would define much of the 20th century.
Henderson described in gripping detail the many months of combat he experienced, culminating in the Battle of Okinawa. “I was in the first and last battles of the war,” he said.
Hines videotapes every word. One copy will go to Henderson and his family, and one copy will go to the Library of Congress to be preserved forever.
When asked how he stays so healthy at 95, Henderson takes Hines out to his garage to show off his home gym where he exercises three times a week. He demonstrates by doing 12 pull-ups without breaking a sweat and dares Hines to match him.
Hines, a business management major from Spartanburg, became involved in the project because of his lifelong fascination with history. His interest in veterans stemmed from his relationship with a great uncle who served in the Pacific during WWII. After Henderson’s interview, Hines is slated to interview a Vietnam veteran and a Battle of the Bulge veteran. It’s quite a day for a history buff.
“I can’t speak highly enough about the altruism and the character of the students who have been involved in this project. As a veteran myself, I really appreciate what they’re doing,” said historian Vernon Burton, author of The Age of Lincoln and the Veterans Project’s faculty adviser. “They care about our history, and they care about these people and the sacrifices they’ve made.”
To date, Clemson students have preserved the stories of 87 veterans from all branches of service with hopes that the project will continue as new students cycle in.
“It is very important to document these veterans’ stories as told from their own mouths while we still can,” said Burton. “Beyond that, this program provides an incredible opportunity for students here at Clemson to experience history firsthand while developing historic and analytical skills. The use of new technology and interviewing techniques will serve them as they move forward in their careers. Most importantly, they’re helping to create an amazing resource for historians of the future.”
After interviewing Marine Staff Sgt. Robert A. Henderson, Clemson student Will Hines of Spartanburg makes the seven-minute drive to another veteran’s home. Retired U.S. Air Force Col. Arthur T. Ballard was an F-105 fighter pilot during the Vietnam conflict with 68 combat missions under his belt when he was shot down and captured Sept. 26, 1966.
His story is featured in the National World War II Museum’s Campaigns of Courage pavilion in New Orleans.
As a company commander in the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, Burriss participated in one of the war’s truly heroic actions. Operation Market-Garden was designed to seize a bridge over the lower Rhine at Arnhem in Holland. Burriss and his company quickly captured their initial objective. Next, they were ordered to cross the wide Waal River in a near-suicidal attempt to capture the critical Nijmegen Bridge by attacking from both ends at once. In collapsible, canvas-sided boats, Burriss and his men set out in broad daylight and under German guns. Losing half of his men, Burriss finally reached the north shore where he rallied the survivors. In the face of long odds and withering fire, the paratroopers scaled the dike and captured the north end of the bridge. At dusk, British tanks began to rumble across, in a frantic dash to reach British paratroopers desperately fighting in Arnhem against overwhelming German armor.
After crossing the bridge, the lead tank was disabled by a German 88 mm gun, bringing the column to a halt. Out came the teapots.
The captain commanding the tanks would not proceed without orders from his superiors. Using colorful language, Burriss objected, cocking his tommy gun and putting it to his ally’s head. “I’ve just sacrificed half of my company in the face of dozens of guns, and you won’t move because of one gun.” The tank commander dropped down into his tank and locked the hatch. The tanks were still there 24 hours later, and the surviving British paratroopers at Arnhem were forced to surrender.
Burriss was awarded the Silver Star, three Bronze Stars, Purple Heart, three presidential unit citations, French Fourragere, Belgium Fourragere and Dutch Lanyard.
From 1950 to 1990, he served as president of Burriss Construction Company. Burriss resides in Lexington.
History and travel enthusiast, Rhonda Bailey Antonetti ’87 (NURS) of Charleston wanted to take Tiger Paw flags to place on the Clemson alumni WWII soldiers’ graves in the American Cemetery in Normandy, France. Little did she know the amazing, serendipitous venture this gesture would uncover. She was able to place only one flag on her visit, and she snapped a picture of the marker. When asked about her trip by a co-worker, Antonetti showed her pictures. This co-worker, Staci Gaillard, was surprised to see the name on the marker was a name familiar to her — one shared by her father-in-law, husband and son. The soldier was William S. Gaillard Jr. ’40, her husband’s great-uncle. The present generation of the family had not known much about his death and service. Antonetti assisted the family in researching information. On Clemson’s Military Heritage Day, his nephew, William S. Gaillard II; great-nephew, William S. Gaillard III ’03 (MKTG); William III’s wife, Staci Gaillard; and Antonetti visited his stone at the Scroll of Honor Memorial. Staci and William have a son, William S. Gailliard IV.