The connection between Vinton veteran John Gualtier and Iowa students that began in the classrooms of Vinton-Shellsburg is continuing to expand. The latest project is a book about Gaultier written and illustrated by teenage girls as part of the A BOOK by ME project.
Called “Barbed Wire Wings,” the book shares Gaultier’s experience as an Army medic in WWII, and the victims of the Holocaust he saw in person.
The author of the book is Imi Duchesneau; the illustrator is Alyssa Landi. They worked with the leader of A BOOK by ME, Deb Bowen. All three are from the Quad Cities area. They traveled to Vinton to interview Gualtier, and later invited him to come speak at their school.
“I learned the story of a brave, courageous and caring medic,” says Imi. “John was amazing to write about. He has an awesome story. I learned so much and if I could, I would write another book. It was an amazing experience and I’m glad I was able to do it.”
Alyssa adds: “What I got from my A BOOK by ME experience was a different perspective on people who have been traumatized by the brutality of war. I didn’t think about what veterans went through after serving until I met John Gualtier.”
Bowen learned about Gualtier after he received an award at the Tri-City Jewish Center in May of 2016.
Bowen explains how Imi came up with the title, “Barbed Wire Wings.”
“The author was talking about John’s Experience liberating the concentration sub-camp. Upon entering, he saw an emaciated Jewish man and picked him up and held him in his arms. John said he was so small, he thought he was a child. He was slowly feeding him in hopes of saving his life. Sadly, that man died in John’s arms but he died looking into the kind face of someone who cared – his liberator. Amid the horror and barbed wire, he found freedom; he got his wings. That’s where the author got her title,” Bowen explains.
Gualtier’s story is one of dozens that students like Imi and Alyssa are helping to tell. Other Iowa-area residents featured in the series include the late Eugene Parmer, who shot the lock off one of the gates at the Dachau concentration camp; a WAC who served as a personal aide to General Eisenhower; and Henry Langrehr, a WWII paratrooper whose story was portrayed in the John Wayne movie, “The Longest Day.”
While many of the people in these stories were featured in newspaper stories or honored by their community before appearing in this series, Bowen says the project is a life-changer for both the young writers and the senior citizens they meet.
“Through the A BOOK by ME experience, children are learning why the WWII generation is called the ‘Greatest Generation.’. They barely survived during the Great Depression and then came back and did extraordinary things during the war. For a student who is going through something difficult, it makes them think anything is possible here in the “land of opportunity.” Many students who have participated have decided to become teachers because of this experience,” she says.
One of the more recent stories is about the girl who wrote about Parmer, the Dachau liberator.
“This girl has graduated from college and is dating a man from Europe. She was going there to see him just days after we met and planning to visit WWII sites. She gave me a big hug and said ‘A BOOK by ME changed my life.'”
Bowen says, she, too, has been impacted by the veterans she met. She had accompanied Imi and Alyssa to Vinton to meet Gualtier.
“I don’t think our veterans knew how much power they carried. I’m not talking about the weapons, I’m talking about the acts of compassion and kindness during an unbelievable time of cruelty and horror,” she explains. “John has spent decades healing from this experience and other horrors of the war. Many of my WWII subjects still suffer greatly. I wish I could wave a magic wand and make it go away for them but I can’t. I hope sending in ‘my troops,’ young people who truly care about their stories will give them the gift of remembrance.”
Bowen also hopes that “each person reading one of my stories may learn a little something and be challenged to be kinder.”
About A BOOK by ME
Imi and Alyssa live in the Quad Cities area, about 20 miles from Rock Island, says Bowen.
“They were two kids of 24 who signed up to write or illustrate. This happened after I spoke in their school and they got excited about the stories children are telling through my project. The teacher put my Book list on a “wish list” called Donors Choose where people in the community can buy things for classrooms. These finished books inspired the kids even more,” she says.
Bowen says she found 11 WWII stories from Vinton to Clinton, and as far away as Macomb, Ill.
“The veteran in Clinton’s war experience was portrayed in the John Wayne movie, ‘The Longest Day.’ He was the paratrooper who crashed through the glass roof of a greenhouse. Anyone who has seen that famous movie remembers that scene. Henry Langrehr is his name in real life. The WAC we met in Macomb took dictation for General Eisenhower and ate Thanksgiving dinner in Berlin with Eleanor Roosevelt, who had come to encourage the gals in service. Dorothy Anderson showed the kids who documented her story a photo she took of the First Lady with her own camera. It was very exciting! What an amazing experience for these two dozen kids!”
The A BOOK by ME series started in 2003 when Bowen met three Jewish women, each named Esther. “All were Jewish survivors of the Holocaust who ended up immigrating to Illinois and attending the same small synagogue where I met them. I wanted their stories to live on for the next generation so I created this book project.” Bowen explains.
“We are right at 60 titles available on Amazon, including John’s. It’s print on demand and the only way a small publishing company who is creating many titles to be able to afford to make the books available to the public.,” says Bowen. “We are so excited to have John’s amazing story as part of our collection. There are many lessons to be learned from his story and other stories from that period of history.”
For more information about A BOOK by ME, click HERE for the web site which includes links to many of the stories the students are helping to tell.