By Andrew Cheng
When I was first advised to interview a war veteran as a project for my Literature of Witness class, I thought of my guardian’s elderly neighbor, whom I call Hughes. Hughes was born in Detroit City in Michigan State during the First World War. His father was a World War I war veteran, and just like him, he ended up in the U.S. military. According to my guardian, Hughes is known as being a reserved man and for the longest time being a neighbor and a close family friend to my guardian for more than 10 years. He has never mentioned anything about his experience in the Second World War or his childhood. After my guardian had talked him into agreeing to an interview with me as part of my project, I always knew it was going to be hard to get the responses that I needed from him. Therefore, I read and practiced extensively on my interviewing skills from Ms. Gonzalez’s class. The interview revealed a lot of truths about the war. It was essential to carry on this conversation as it showed a lot of things he had not talked about for over fifty years since the war ended, and this made him feel better after having to cope with PTSD for the longest time. It also gave me information and an insight into the war.
My meeting was introduced by a comment from my guardian who stated, “Hughes doesn’t prefer to discuss his war encounters, yet he would likely do it for you.” My guardian had told me that in the decades that he has known Hughes, he had talked about World War II just once. It was unexpected, totally out of nowhere and brief. I sat down on Hughes’ balcony just outside his home. He was seated right opposite me with only a coffee table between us. As I arranged for the interview with Hughes in regards to his memories and opinions, I could see the sun setting through the window to one side. The little, calm, wood-surrounded room fills in as his office in one way or another. I felt like I was in a Chinese temple and Buddha was sitting across from me. He had a striking, sharp pose that would command respect from whoever looked at him. I was admiring him and expecting to have a meaningful conversation with him. It was the ideal place to converse with Hughes, and I was immediately drawn into the conversation. On the door towards the corridor of his office hung a photo of military soldiers celebrating a victory in Hawaii in 1945, and he is right at the heart of the picture, most notably the only one of the soldiers with a gloomy face. The room has such a significant number of histories and stories that I had not learned yet. Hughes’ history, not found in any of these books, has an irrefutable noteworthiness. It was him, who is one of the general people I look to for inspiration. This interview might also be the last conversation between me and Hughes before he moves back to Michigan.
In the beginning, he cautioned me that his answers might be brief. I had sent him a rundown of inquiries to try to inspire him, but I detected Hughes’ reservations instantly. The conversation began unexpectedly. He opened our interview by saying, “Right, your meeting,” in good English. He initially attempted to answer huge numbers of my inquiries with a yes or a no. Be that as it may, I forced myself to push past that. Notwithstanding how quick and touchy I trusted my inquiries to be, I soon understood that it would require some push to enter Mr. Hughes’ heart and dig for his experiences. I expressed gratitude and thankfulness toward him for his ability to impart his perspectives to me. As my guardian had admonished me that Mr. Hughes did not like recalling or talking about his war encounters, I realized that it would be really hard for him to recall those memories. So I gave up on the more personal questions.
I began by asking, “What did your life resemble before the war?”
He presently couldn’t seem to warm up, and reacted by saying, “I studied medicine.” This is when I began having trouble because I could see the power in his eyes that intimidated me. I could also see the unwillingness to reply that made me feel guilty. After regaining myself, I asked how old he was at the point at which he was picked to go to the war. He disclosed to me we would return to that later in the interview. I could detect reluctance in his reactions. He was prepared to get this over with. He was not letting me efficiently pry into his war recollections. I now understand that when he relates his story, he is compelled to remember it. As a happy man, I think it hurt him that he didn’t trust he would have been ready to shape sentences that would portray his revulsion. As though anybody could.
I asked how the war had changed his life. He added more shading to this reaction, saying that he “was drafted not enthusiastically to take an interest in preparing as artillery,” and “in the wake of preparing he was sent to the Asia Pacific war front in 1941.” I requested more detail on what that implied. The Asia Pacific front evidently had a high convergence of “Americans, English, and French.” He stated, “The war influenced me in particular… I had nothing to do with the people fighting.”
Sitting at his dining table, Hughes sat two seats on my left, and my notebook lay on the table. A glass of cold water was served to us by a young lady, presumably one of his nieces. I didn’t know how to proceed with the discussion except to change to the following inquiry. He didn’t want to add additional detail or to help with the meeting. I was experiencing difficulty, knowing he was being compelled to endure some sad memories. He gave off an impression of being as open now as he could be. I delayed pushing him to expand on the most abhorrent piece of his life. I detected that he was just going to be as open as I could drive him to be, so I chose to get some information about his most clear battle involvement. He shouted, “I was involved in the war with Japan till they surrendered!” He continued, “After they attacked Pearl Harbor, I was recruited to fight for my nation, and being born in Hawaii made me more patriotic to my country.”
I asked Mr. Hughes how he felt concerning his general experience, seeking after a reflection on the war. He chose to respond with superficial answers. He stated, “I liked my accomplishment of life.” He proceeded with, “I raised two young men I was glad for, three great-grandchildren.” I am pleased with my neighbor’s commitment. He was not a soldier. He was a kid who was forced to go into World War II for the sake of his nationalism. Notwithstanding, his want for flexibility after getting away from the war and his hard-working attitude empowered him to carry on with a full life. Mr. Hughes didn’t center on his prosperity, climbing from nothing. He talked about what he is genuinely glad for: his children and his grandchildren. My conviction that I expected to lead this meeting was vindicated. Mr. Hughes never discussed the details of the war. However, I saw the responsibility that Hughes carried, and I am thankful to have had a challenging but meaningful conversation with him.