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World War II veterans, from left, Norman Isenhour, Stacy Eggers, Ken Wiley, David Watson and Paul Carlton listen to student presentations at the World War II Symposium. Photo by Anna Oakes

Originally published: 2013-05-18 17:22:44
Last modified: 2013-05-18 17:27:25

WWII Symposium preserves local stories

by Anna Oakes

Pride, service, history and future were the motifs Saturday at the World War II Symposium held at Watauga High School.

The event celebrated and honored the sacrifices of veterans, while providing high school students with an opportunity to learn and give back to their community.

Students and veterans took turns on the school's auditorium stage presenting personal accounts of the Second World War, including efforts in the Pacific, Europe, North Africa and stateside.

"(You will) hear a side of the story that you simply won't find in the 60,000-plus history books," said Matt Bagley, who helped organize and emcee the event.

Ken Wiley, president of the Appalachian High Country World War II Roundtable, helped moderate and also shared his own memories. Wiley operated landing crafts as part of Pacific War invasions. Wiley said the Japanese at one time controlled 20 million square miles -- "these guys had taken over the Pacific" -- and that there were about 100 invasions throughout the war.

"We really had a hundred D-Days," he said.

Student Brian Greer interviewed Bernie Cowan of Johnson City, Tenn., and shared remarks about him on Saturday. Cowan served in the Marshall Islands campaign and was awarded two Purple Hearts.

"It was an honor to learn about him," said Greer.

David Watson of Boone was one of the few men who served in Europe first and then in the Pacific -- "he's the only person I know who went through two D-Days," Wiley noted.

"We had plenty of firepower," Watson said. "We were lucky, if you want to call it that."

Norman Isenhour entered the service in 1943 and received intensive training in radio and radar technology by the Navy. He was assigned to the USS Atlanta.

Isenhour said he has heard a lot of people say that the U.S. shouldn't have dropped the atomic bombs on Japan, and he said he hoped the people at the symposium didn't feel that way.

"We were out in the middle of it," he said. "Nothing made us happier than the dropping of the atomic bomb."

Between segments of presentations, veterans spoke with students and members of the public in the halls outside of the auditorium. Many of them displayed their memorabilia, photographs and war medals.

The Appalachian High Country World War II Roundtable began after the Boone Sunrise Rotary Club sponsored a trip by 22 local veterans to the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., in 2011. The veterans were so appreciative, said Bagley, that they started the roundtable to give back to the community.

With the symposiums, the group has connected with area schools to ensure that World War II stories are told and preserved.

For more information about the group, visit