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Students learn history from World War II veteran who lived it

Arts Mar 29, 2023
A group of people pose in front of an American flag
A group of people pose in front of an American flag

KOKOMO, Ind. — For Cye Zwirn, the stories he shares are simply memories.

But for the students listening to his recollections, they are living history.

Zwirn talked about his experiences serving as a U.S. Navy pilot from 1942 to 1947 with an Indiana University Kokomo literature class focused on World War II. He noted that he was still training when the war ended, so he spent the war in the United States.

“When I say I’m a blessed man, one of the blessings is that God kept me out of the war zone,” the Kokomo resident said. “I was disappointed then, but come to think of it, if I had been assigned to a squadron in the war zone, I might not be here today.”

At 99 years old — he proudly noted he will be 100 in five months — Zwirn is among a diminishing number of World War II veterans still living and able to share first-person accounts of the era. The World War II literature class was previously offered in 2016 and 2018, and he and fellow veterans Gene Sweeney and Bud Everhart met with those classes. This time, he was the only one of the three still living.

According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, 167,284 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II were alive in 2022, and they are now in their 90s or older.

“We’ve talked a lot in class about how important it is to hear stories of the people who lived through the war, and how sad it is that soon there won’t be anyone around to tell these stories,” said sophomore Katy Johnson. “It was impactful to hear his story, even though he didn’t see combat. It’s important to get his point of view.”

Lilly Johnson, also a sophomore, said it’s a different experience to hear a personal story, rather than reading it in a book.

“You don’t really grasp it,” she said. “You can read something, but sometimes that doesn’t resonate. Hearing it from someone who lived it opens a new perspective, and you understand it’s not just words on a page, it’s a person.”

Zwirn grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and chose to enlist as a pilot in the Navy rather than wait to be drafted.

Though he said the world did not yet know the full extent of the atrocities being committed by the Nazis, Americans knew it was time to get involved.

“As a young man back then, I didn’t have an awareness of that,” he said. “All I knew was that we were at war, and I wanted to go as soon as possible. It’s a sad time in history, not just for the Jewish people who were martyred. It was torture for many, many races of people. My older brother was already in the Army Air Force. He served very well in North Africa and was flying across the Mediterranean Sea to bomb the dickens out of Italy, who were in harmony with Hitler.”

His ground school training took place at several colleges, and eventually he landed at the Bunker Hill Naval Air Station, which is now Grissom Air Reserve Base in Miami County. That particular location is especially meaningful, as he met his wife, Bobbie, there.

“One of the guys in the battalion asked if I wanted to have a blind date, and I said ‘Nope, I’ve never been on one and don’t want one,’” he recalled with a chuckle. “He kept asking me, and I finally said, ‘OK, give me her name and number.’ That ended up in a 62-year marriage. She would be my wife for a long time, but not long enough.”

They married on Bobbie’s 21st birthday, December 26, 1947. She passed away in July 2009.

Zwirn said while war is a terrible thing, he misses the sense of accord the country had at that time.

“When the going gets tough, the tough get going, and we were tough,” he said. “There was unity in the nation then. Today, that unity has disappeared, and it concerns me greatly that there are so many groups that are at war with each other. It makes for a weaker environment. Instead of finding good in someone else, they look for the bad stuff.

“One day, I look for an awakening, and God demonstrating his control by things happening that bring people together. That’s breaking my heart. It will happen, but it may take a while.”

Katy Johnson said talking to Zwirn is a reminder of the importance of learning from difficult eras of history.

“We need to recognize history and talk about it, so we don’t repeat it,” she said. “We don’t want another war on that scale, or another genocide on that scale. To talk about it and recognize what happened allows us to not repeat the atrocities that happened.”

Emma Barnett, also a sophomore, said it was a unique experience.

“You don’t hear about a lot of college students getting to talk to a World War II veteran and ask questions,” she said. “The 10 of us got to witness this nearly 100-year-old man tell us his first-hand experience. It makes it impactful and meaningful.”

At the end of the semester, the class, taught by Michelle Westervelt, senior lecturer in English, will visit sites significant to World War II in Europe.

Education is KEY at Indiana University Kokomo.

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