As World War II re-enactors danced like it was 1945, Barbara Melton watched 90-year-old Army veteran Bob Nelson sitting to the side, drawing a crowd while he spun tales of his time in the service and training at Camp Adair.
“Last night, watching him recount the stories he had to tell, enjoying the fact that these youngsters were paying such close attention to him, it warmed my heart to just see the pride and joy on his face,” said Melton, president of Adair Living History. “He was just having a ball. And the young men and women were so respectful and listened carefully to everything he had to say. It was nice to see the younger generation appreciating what someone like Mr. Nelson had done.”
Adair Living History hosted the second annual 1940s-style Victory Dance Saturday night at the Oregon State University Women’s Building to mark the 70th anniversary of VE Day – May 8, 1945 – when the Allies declared victory in Europe after the surrender of Nazi Germany in World War II. More than 100,000 American fighting men, including Nelson, were trained for the conflict at Camp Adair, the former Army base a few miles north of Corvallis near Adair Village. While the dance acted as a fundraiser for the restoration of two buildings at Camp Adair, Melton said the dance became a success the moment Nelson, of Portland, started telling his stories.
“We thought it was important to mark that anniversary of VE Day and take an evening to celebrate that day,” Melton said. “I think it was wonderful to see so many appreciating what Mr. Nelson and so many others had done for us and taking time to celebrate and thank the sacrifice of so many.”
John Emmert, an Adair Living History board member, danced the night away with friends and family. He celebrated in a Navy uniform as a way of showing thanks for his great-grandfather Walter Emmert, who served in the Navy during WWII. John said he never got a chance to hear his great-grandfather’s stories firsthand.
“I have his paperwork, but all that does is tell me a small portion of the story. It doesn’t tell me how he felt about it or his experiences,” John Emmert said. “Last year, we didn’t have any veteran participation. But this year we were all blessed to have Mr. Nelson there because he, in his own way, helped make history and he helped bring about the peace we’ve all celebrated. He is part of a steadily shrinking group of individuals who put their lives on hold to help save civilization. Unfortunately we’re losing a large number of these veterans. And we’re not just losing them, we’re losing their memories and firsthand accounts of history.”
More than 16 million men and women served during World War II and less than one million American veterans are living today, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“Mr. Nelson was never a big man and he’s not going to be with us much longer, but what he did was huge for us,” Emmert said. “This is something I’m not going to forget, because 10 to 20 years from now, I’m always going to have the memories of hearing what Mr. Nelson had to say and hearing what he experienced to give us our freedoms. It was very special.”
Melton said roughly 70 people helped raise about $700 for the event. While she was proud that the fundraiser took place on the 70th anniversary of VE Day, Melton said that next year’s dance will likely be held in April to draw a larger crowd.
“Because of what the night meant for so many, I would say it was a huge success,” Melton said, noting that more than 100 attended the first dance last year. “It was significant enough that if we do it again, we might move it back to April. But we were happy to celebrate with Mr. Nelson and be there to honor a very special day in history. Of all of the wars fought in the 20th century, the Second World War was one that needed to be fought the most. The results of not having fought that war would not have been something that I would’ve wanted to live with.”