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A story untold: Tinker man’s passion for history leads him to write about World War II survivor, battle

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- Everybody has a story to tell. But James Bement, senior intelligence officer for the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center, didn't think he would be the one telling it.

Mr. Bement's book, "Baseball, Battle and a Bride (An Okie in World War II)," tells the story of Robert Freese, an Oklahoma City native drafted a month after Pearl Harbor and seeing action against the Japanese in some of the first -- and most desperate -- combat Americans faced in the war. A retired Air Force intelligence analyst with a passion for history, Mr. Bement casually asked fellow Draper Park Christian Church parishioner Mr. Freese about the red arrow lapel pin he wore in his jacket.

"I knew it had to be a military emblem, so I asked him about it," Mr. Bement says. "And we talked and talked until nobody was left in the church."

The emblem is that of the 32nd Infantry Division, a Wisconsin and Michigan National Guard unit that was hastily shipped to Australia and then to neighboring New Guinea to battle the then-undefeated Japanese. Mr. Freese, then a 25-year-old recent draftee with little training, joined in the first ground assault against the Japanese, with disastrous results.

"I was right in the middle of it," Mr. Freese says.

Knowing that we're losing our World War II veterans at the rate of an estimated 1,000 a day, Mr. Bement knew it would be a race against time to record for posterity the story of Mr. Freese, now 93.

"I told my wife in the car, I said, 'Somebody needs to write this, we need to get this down," Mr. Bement recalls. "I've done this all my life, researching and writing, so I decided to do it."

The first step was determining if there was enough information for a book.

"His stories were interesting, but I needed something firmer," Mr. Bement said. "And they went to work."

Mr. Freese's wife Leona unearthed her husband's wartime letters. Those letters contained many of the day-to-day details forgotten over time.

"That really turned the corner," Mr. Bement said. "That made all the difference. Those letters were the key."

Over the next 10 months, Mr. Bement spent his weekends interviewing Bob and Leona while his weeknights were filled with historical research and writing.

"I worked on it every night after work," he said. "I worked on it pretty much non-stop from January to October."

Mr. Bement's research put Bob's experiences in context and, in some cases, opened the door to other, long-forgotten and often painful memories.

"This took a substantial amount of research," Mr. Bement said. "I read at least half-a-dozen books on the Battle of Buna and the 32nd Infantry Division. We'd start off and I'd ask about what happened and he'd say, 'Oh, yeah. I remember ...' Then he'd tell me the whole story about that. But he's not a real talkative guy."

The Battle of Buna was America's first taste of offensive warfare against the Japanese. It proved to be a bloody learning ground, fighting in disease-infested swamp against an enemy who never willingly surrendered. Casualties were higher for the Americans than during the more famous battle on Guadalcanal. Supplies and equipment were in short supply and often the Japanese had to be dug out of entrenched positions by Soldiers -- like Mr. Freese -- armed with nothing more than a bayonet.

"The enemy they fought was surprisingly brutal," Mr. Bement says. "It made many of them hate the Japanese so much. I can't imagine anything worse than what Bob went through

By the end of the Battle of Buna, Mr. Freese was one of only 10 who returned to Australia, from his original company of 160 men. After the war, he shared little of his horrific experiences.

"After the first couple of years, you'd keep quiet over what happened," Mr. Freese explains.

In the intervening years, Mr. Freese said he would sometimes tell of his experiences. Shortly before meeting Mr. Bement, though, he and his wife decided to put some of the stories in writing for their children and grandchildren. But her failing eyesight made the process slow and laborious.

"We decided about a year ago that we'd write a little bit for the kids," Mr. Freese says. "Then we met Jim."

Publication of Mr. Freese's experiences has given him belated recognition for his combat experiences. When Mr. Bement presented the first copy of the book to Mr. Freese during the Sunday church service before Veteran's Day, many heard for the first time the harrowing tales of the quiet and unassuming "Okie" in the pew next to them.

"Everybody in the church stood and gave him a standing ovation," Mr. Bement said. Other veterans gathered around to shake his hand and to say thank you. "You could tell he had never had anything like that."

But even today, Mr. Freese continues to pay the price for his valor. He still has shrapnel lodged in his left leg from the rifle the Japanese shot out of his hands. He still suffers the ravages of various tropical diseases.

"And he still gets malaria," Mr. Bement says. "He's still suffering for the freedom he bought us. And that makes me appreciate him that much more."

Baseball, Battle, and a Bride (An Okie in World War II) can be ordered through major book seller Web sites.