Columbia College to Archive Veterans History Project Stories

Chace Anderson
By Chace Anderson September 15, 2017 21:19

Bob Ottesen in Yokohama, Japan, 1945

For the past six years, the Tuolumne Veterans History Project has recorded the stories of local World War II vets.

Those tales of duty, patriotism and heroism recently found a new home. The Columbia College Library will permanently house the veteran biographies in an online archive.

Under the auspices of the nonprofit Memoir Center, the project was launched in 2010 by Sonora writer Deanna Dechaine-Maurer. Printing costs were funded by a Sonora Area Foundation grant and donations from veteran groups and individuals. The books were printed by Sonora Press.

“It breaks my heart to have society lose important stories,” says Dechaine-Maurer, 57, a former nonprofit executive and university fundraiser. “I think firsthand accounts of wartime experiences are among the most important. There is always the hope that keeping these stories alive can help us avoid future wars.”

The VHP completed its mission last year. More than two dozen volunteer writers and a half dozen editors completed the biographies of 61 men and women. Each veteran’s story was printed in a softcover book, and each received three free copies to share with present and perhaps yet-to-be-born family members.

Whether aircraft mechanics, lighthouse tenders, pilots or infantry men, these men and women served in every branch and in every theater, from stateside airfields to the mosquito-infested jungles of Guadalcanal and the gates of freshly liberated Nazi death camps.

They came home ready to restart interrupted lives, often with a perspective shaped by their service to country. Sonora resident Punny Dambacher was a Marine in the first wave of the assault on Tarawa and fought on Iwo Jima.

“The war? It’s just hard to fathom the whole goddamn thing happened,” Dambacher told his VHP biographer before passing away in 2015 at age 91. “There can be nothing worse than war.”

The late Jim Kennedy was a member of the Army’s 71st Infantry Division in 1945 when he and others in his artillery battalion came upon Gunskirchen Lager, a German concentration camp. “The sights and smells of that place will stay with me until I’m in the grave,” he shared in his VHP book. “Like those of most World War II veterans, my experiences in the service changed me forever.”

Punny Dambacher, back from Tarawa, in photo used to sell war bonds

Dechaine-Maurer’s concern about losing these stories is well-founded. Of the 16.1 million Americans who served during WWII, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that fewer than 500,000 may be alive today. Most are in their 90s, and they are dying at the rate of about 370 each day.

In Tuolumne County, about two dozen of the veterans who told their stories to VHP volunteers have since died.

Before the transfer to the college website, all 61 VHP biographies were available online at, which has had nearly 50,000 views from 27,000 visitors.

The Tuolumne Veterans History Project has ended, but thanks to the Columbia College library, the stories of these local World War II servicemen and women will remain available to students, educators, historians and future generations.

“We have a strong local collection of oral and written histories already,” says College Librarian Brian Greene. “These stories are now part of that archive.”

All 61 veterans’ stories can be accessed on the college library’s website (

“We don’t know what the Internet will look like in 50 years,” Greene adds, “but as long as the college is around, this archive should be here. We’re setting it up to last in perpetuity and be easily accessible and retrievable online forever.”

How did the veterans feel about having their stories recorded and preserved?

“I really enjoyed the fact that people of this generation were interested in what happened to my generation. They didn’t ignore or forget it,” says 95-year-old Max Kernaghan of Sonora, an Army Air Corps pilot who flew supplies from India to China over the famous “Hump.”

“I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it,” says Pat Peters, 94, of Columbia, a leatherneck with the 2nd Marine Division who saw action across the Pacific. “Going down memory lane is not good sometimes. Once it was finished, I think it turned out good.”

Graciano  “Tete” Arellano served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. “I really enjoyed the VHP experience,” says Arellano, 94. “That was the first time I have ever been interviewed.”

Adds his wife, Vicki, “Friends of ours didn’t know about his war experience, then they read his story online. He became pretty famous.”

Did the Veterans History Project accomplish all Dechaine-Maurer hoped it would?

“My hopes were far exceeded because so many other people joined in,” she says. “They recognized the value of preserving these stories.

“The veterans saw that through the simple conveyance to a storyteller, their stories still matter today. And they will always matter.”

Zane Orr (at right) in Algiers, 1943

Veterans’ stories in the VHP archive

Bob Allured, Tete Arellano, John Balaban, Lee Batt, Richard Berry, Wayne Bolitho, Don C. Brady, Ervin Brandon, Bill Bryant, Bill Callison, Loyal “Bud” Castle, Bill Challas, Reggie Chisholm, Sara Jane Clouse, Punny Dambacher, Ray Dambacher, Jerry Doescher, Del Dow, Ken Finigian, Baci Frecceri, Mack Frost, Leslie Goodwin, Raymond Hiemstra, Joe Huante, Jim Kennedy, Max Kernaghan, Steve Klesitz, Lloyd Kramer, Lowell Lehman, Dick MacDonald, Paul Miranda, Arthur Moore, John Morgado, Bill Nabers, Wendell Nicholls, Stan Olsen, Oscar Olson, Zane Orr, Bob Ottesen, Perry Palmer, Allen Penrose, Pat Peters, Richard Pollock, Edgar “Red” Popke, Joe Quintel, Mel Reitz, Dusty Rhodes, Harry Roberson, Walt Rogers, Jim Rucker, Bob Rundle, Leonard Ruoff, Celia Seubert, Allen Shrode, Edward Soares, Denny Thompson, Don Ulery, Joe Uvelli, Luther Neal Watts, Fred White and Don Wolfe.

VHP volunteers

Chace Anderson, Matt Baker, Chris Bateman, Marcia Baugh, Niurka and Paul Benton, Bill and Celeste Boyd, Kathi Bramblett, Malcolm and Maureen Carden, Cheryl Clark, Joy Conklin, Deanna Dechaine-Maurer, Nancy Dumas, Pete Fogarty, Cori Frank, Jim and Judy Hamilton, Pres and Shirley Hatt, Kaela Helmbold, Barry Hillman, Katie Hooper, Suzy Hopkins, John Howsden, Darlene Hutchins, Cathy Lemp, Mary Louis, Packy Maxwell, Jim McDonald, Kathy Nunes, Eric Olson, Alan O’Neill, Arlene Stenger, Donna Underwood and Adia White.

Copyright © 2017 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Chace Anderson
By Chace Anderson September 15, 2017 21:19
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