Q&A with David Collum – The War Diaries of Virgil Collum: Three Years on a Destroyer in the Korean War

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In honor of the fallen on Memorial Day, The History Author Show welcomed David Collum, editor of The War Diaries of Virgil Collum: Three Years on a Destroyer in the Korean War. Virgil is David Collum’s late father, who recorded detailed descriptions of his shipmates in action from the outbreak of war in 1951, through armistice (though not peace treaty) in 1953. You can find David on Twitter @DCollum5978 or on LinkedIn, where we connected.

THE HISTORY AUTHOR SHOW: First, thank you for your service in the U.S. Navy, which we’ll get to as our conversation progresses. Let’s start when you contacted me about your book. You said, “I’m not an author,” but that when you discovered your father’s war diary, you felt you had to do something with it. A lot of us find documents when we’re going through a loved one’s effects, and maybe think we’ll write them up…someday. But even those who are authors get caught up with living life and obligations. You’re also disabled, so that’s another challenge, and yet you got the job done. It’s inspiring. What advice would you give to someone who finds a diary like this in their loved one’s personal effects, and has no idea how to get started, much less get it published?

David Collum: To begin with it is history, and there is so much out there we can learn if people would just try to get it out. Mine just happens to be about the Korean War. There’s not much out about this forgotten war.

HAS: When you contacted the National Museum of the United States Navy in Washington, D.C., what was their reaction to this daily action report for the USS Ulvert M. Moore?

David Collum: They asked me how I got some of the information, as some of it, they didn’t have. I told them everything came from my father’s diary. They said it sounded very interesting, and wondered if I’d donate it to their library.

HAS: Your father served as a gunner’s mate aboard this John C. Butler-class destroyer that earned five battle stars in World War II and went on to garner three more in Korea while your father served aboard. Who was the ship named for and what was your dad’s rank and day-to-day duties?

David Collum: My father served on the USS Ulvert M. Moore (DE 442) as a 3rd. Class gunners mate. His duties were watches for things like enemy subs, and up with the captain on his mount. A lot of time is always spent waiting, but he makes it clear he keeps sharp and describes what he sees. The ship was name for Ulvert Mathew Moore, a West Virginian killed in action during the Battle of Midway in World War 2, while flying in a torpedo squadron off the USS Hornet attacking the Japanese carrier Akagi. Moore knew it was a one-way mission, but pressed the attack, for which he earned the Navy Cross posthumously. Bravery of men like Moore crippled three enemy carriers that day, paving the way for the victory that turned the tide in the Pacific.

HAS: Although America lost almost 34,000 American lives and 130,000 wounded in the conflict, Korea is called “the forgotten war,” or dismissed as the last battle of World War 2, due to the weapons, tanks, and ships (like the Moore), leftover from that fight. What insights did you gain from your father’s diary on why the Korean War veterans themselves deserve to be remembered?

David Collum: It was and still is a war against communism and oppression If it wasn’t important, we wouldn’t still be there today, just like we were there during combat in the 1950s.

HAS: The photograph on the cover of The War Diaries of Virgil Collum shows five young men brimming with confidence and bravado, ready to start their lives. But these sailors know they’re going to be risking those lives in war. Is one of those sailors your father, and why did you choose that photograph for the cover?

David Collum: My father is the one standing in the back with a mate filling his drink. The Moore was making a liberty call in Sasebo, the southwestern Japanese island. I chose it because it was friends on a liberty call: Good times during a war from hell.

HAS: On October 14, 1952, your father writes in his diary that they’d sunk the first submarine in the war, but since it was believed to be Soviet, they kept the action secret. Your father writes, “[W]e tried to make it surface or identify itself. Received no word, so, ‘Pow, right in the kisser!'” That line jumped out at me, and I wondered how it felt to read that in your father’s voice.

David Collum: If you remember, that was a line from Jackie Gleason of The Honeymooners, a show in the ’50s. Could you imagine how happy the crew was when they sank that sub? It was kill or be killed. But it was kept hush-hush, because it was believed to be a Russian sub.

HAS: I can’t imagine having to keep quiet. I’m a big Honeymooners fan, but I didn’t make the connection. You write that your dad never talked about the war. That isn’t unique among those who serve, but it does seem paradoxical considering he wrote down such detailed recollections. He must have expected someone to read them. Was your mother was able to shed any light on why your father chose to share memories of his time in uniform with his diary, but not with anyone else?

David Collum: No, my mom says he never brought it up, and the only stories we were told is when my dad came home from work, telling us about a shipmate had died. When that happened, he would tell story after story. It would almost kill him to tell us things. That was friendship only a veteran could have.

HAS: A September 20, 1951 entry reads, “We went down to the beach and walked into another part of the hills where some English Commandos and 4 Marines were dug in. Eating chow, washing our hands and faces out of our helmets, I got just a taste of how the army lives on the front. I’m glad I am in the Navy now.” Did your father steer you away from an Army career, or was it something you wanted to do because of his example?

David Collum: No, I always knew of I ever joined the military, it would be the Navy. Funny thing though: My grandson Jacob, just joined the Army. He graduated this year and leaves for Fort Benning in June.

HAS: Your father doesn’t go on for pages and pages about descriptions, but he captures what I’d call a detailed timeline. Did you go about editing this down into something that readers interested in the war, or maybe even fellow descendants of the Moore’s crew, could refer to for reference on a given day’s action at sea?

David Collum: This diary is word for word how it is written to the best we could read it. No pages taken out, except for pages in back where he loaned money or borrowed, like a list of who owes who. I also left out his eight years in the U.S. Merchant Marines with Brown & Root. He was in Venezuela when I was born and quit then.

HAS: At one point in Japan, your father’s ship pulls up next to the USS Ajax for repairs. What was the significance of reading about that incident in The War Diaries of Virgil Collum?

David Collum: My dad he died in 1979. I found the diary in some of his belongings that my grandma gave me in the late ’90s. I was in the Navy in the early ’80s and was stationed as a engineman on board the USS Ajax (AR-6), a Vulcan-class repair ship dating back to World War 2 and the fourth American ship to bare the name. It almost knocked me out when I read the USS Moore pulled up to the USS Ajax for repairs. Ajax was 40 yes old when I was a stationed on it, and still serving the fleet. The Navy decommissioned it on the last day of 1986.

HAS: I like to ask authors to make their pitch when I wrap up interviews, so have at it. Why should readers pick up The War Diaries of Virgil Collum and follow the journey of this one sailor, on this one ship, during the Korean War?

David Collum: It is a true story of the day-to-day life of a sailor, good and bad times, in a war that is still not over. It doesn’t take a long time to read and it keeps you going. It is really interesting, but most of all, it is history of a war we don’t know a lot about.

HAS: Well, David Collum, thank you for sharing your father’s stories in The War Diaries of Virgil Collum. You said, “I’m not an author,” in your first messages to me, but you certainly are, as you’ve edited an excellent book. Thank you, sir, and best wishes to your mother. I’m glad she’s able to see her husband’s service commemorated in your book.

David Collum: Thank you for your interest in my father’s story. Mom had a smile this morning as we talked about the book, and that makes me smile too.