NORTH SMITHFIELD —There is a lot about Thomas E. Mundy that local folks will be remembering following his death at the age of 92 on Jan. 26.
Some will remember him for his longtime service on the North Smithfield School Committee; or for the floral business, Mundy’s Flower and Greenhouses, that he ran with his wife of 67 years, Clare (Ide) Mundy, on Victory Highway; or for his family life and work with local youth sports.
But as his friend Eugene Peloquin will tell you, Mundy was also one of the local heroes of World War II who spent his later years teaching a new generation about his experiences during those challenging times.
Although Mundy has passed on like many of his fellow World War II veterans, his war service memories have been preserved as the result of his participation in a living history project completed by a group of Norwich, Conn. elementary school students back in 2000 and 2001.
In all, eight local veterans of World War II signed up with Peloquin and four other “home front” civilians to recall their wartime experiences for the kids.
“The time was right and you know all their stories were recorded,” Peloquin said last week of the veterans’ project.
“Learning Through Living History: Veterans Stories as Written Through the Eyes of Norwich Children,” a book written by fifth graders of the Stanton Elementary School and Veterans Memorial Elementary School in Norwich, was the brainchild of Patricia (Horn) Ferron, a former resident of North Smithfield and parent of a Norwich student.
Ferron, a student at Halliwell Elementary School when Peloquin was its principal, recalled last week how she had come across a statistic at the time indicating 1,000 veterans of World War II were being lost across the country each day as they hit their 80s.
Her father, Donald Horn, also sparked her interest in doing something to preserve the history of veterans when he told her how he could remember being just a boy seeing old veterans of the Civil War march by in Fourth of July parades.
“Had those veterans been able to share their memories with my father, what stories would he have been to tell me and my children!” she said.
Ferron set about writing up her ideas for a living history project in a grant application to the Children First Initiative. The application ultimately brought in $10,000 in grant funding and matching contributions to make the project possible.
“I wanted to create something where the kids could sit down with veterans and hear their stories first hand,” she said.
As the school began planning the project, Ferron found there were not enough World War II veterans in Norwich to break up the project into the small groups under which she wanted the elders and students to work. She just happened to catch a news report about Eugene Peloquin’s efforts to honor World War II veterans back in the Greater Woonsocket area and wondered if Peloquin was her old principal. It was the same Eugene Peloquin and, in fact, he had contact with a number of World II veterans, including his own brother, Normand Peloquin, a World War II infantry man, and his cousin, Marcel Peloquin, a U.S. Navy veteran of World War II — as well as Mundy.
Ferron had known Mundy only as the well-liked North Smithfield resident who ran a floral business in town, but quickly learned he also had amazing stories to tell about his time as a Navy 1st Lieutenant and pilot in the Pacific theater. While attacking a Japanese base in Burma, Mundy’s fighter plane was struck by anti-aircraft fire and sent off to a rather fortunate emergency landing in friendly territory. He also suffered wounds from flak on another mission.
Peloquin’s offering of local World War II heroes included Adolph “Tom” Tomaszek, who, like Mundy, was a resident of North Smithfield and a war pilot.
Tomaszek, who died last Nov. 26 at the age of 91, was also a pilot in the Pacific Theater and had been aboard the USS Bismark Sea when the small “jeep” aircraft carrier suffered two Kamikaze plane hits on Feb. 21, 1945, and sank from the damage. Tomaszek was among the survivors plucked from the sea by the crew of the Navy Destroyer USS Edmonds after a wait of about three hours.
The group of eight local veterans Peloquin put together to help Ferron also included former state Sen. Alphonse F. Auclair, a Woonsocket resident and veteran of Iwo Jima, Guam and Guadalcanal, and Lawrence “Bud” Walter, Normand R. Malo and Paul E. Lamoureux, city veterans of World War II fighting in Europe. Walter and Lamoureux both parachuted into Normandy on D-Day. Walter was the only survivor of the troops jumping from a transport that missed its planned drop zone and Lamoureux was a member of the “Band of Brothers” unit made famous by author Stephen Ambrose.
The group was rounded out with the homefront experiences of those such as Auclair’s wife, Jacqueline (Gauthier) Auclair, who lost her brother, Maurice, to the fighting in Normandy; the late Therese (Gagne) Riley; Rita Lamoureux, Paul’s wife; and Roger Petit, a grade school student during World War II who would go on to serve with the U.S. Army in Korea. Today, only Peloquin’s cousin, Marcel, remains among the eight local World War II veterans who participated in the Norwich, Conn. project.
Under way during the 2000-2001 school year, the project featured small groups of the 75 participating students who held three separate interviews with a project adult. The interviews provided the students with information on the person’s life before the war, during the conflict, and the following years.
The group also made field trips to places like the New England Air Museum where Mundy showed the students a version of the bi-plane he had flown while earning his pilot’s wings, and to the Museum of Work & Culture in Woonsocket where they learned about how the veterans lived before the war. A USO concert was also set up for the students to experience the music of the war years.
As the project came to a close, the students’ research work was written into book form and published with the help of Ferron’s grant funding. The participating schools distributed the books during a project “graduation ceremony” for the veterans and students, and copies are still available at public and school libraries in both Norwich and the Blackstone Valley.
Ferron remains impressed by how much the veterans had to share with the school children they met during the project.
“Each one had an amazing story to tell and they all had shared quite a slice of history,” she said.
Catherine Conant, a professional storyteller involved in the project, once told Ferron that people are a resource of firsthand information.
“She said, when you lose an older person, you lose a library, and I have found that to be true,” Conant said.
The students in the project, including Ferron’s son, Michael, seemed to understand that as well, and by the end, held a sense of ownership for the stories of their veteran or homefront living historian. She also believes the project will continue to have an influence on those now-grown children as they move on through life.
“I really gained quite an appreciation from it, that history is made by individuals who have to make decisions,” Conant said.
Even as Mundy’s family coped with his loss late last month, they know they have his work with the living history project to help preserve his own role in history.
His daughter, Sandra Mundy, director of the Jesse M. Smith Library in Harrisville, said she had been looking at the Norwich “Learning Through Living History” project and it reminded her of how much her father enjoyed working with the students and his fellow veterans.
“Being a librarian, I am very conscious of oral history and how important it is to get these stories written down,” she said.
The Norwich project made the old warriors focus on their roles in World War II and talk about things they may not have even told their families, she noted.
Her father took to the project with zeal and even ended up participating in the writing of a spin-off book at the Cumberland Elementary School sponsored by parents of its students, she said.
“He would get all fired up about it and work on his speech for the kids,” she said. The veterans also had to find photographs of their time in the service and write down what the pictures showed and who was in each one, if possible.