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Bristol native honors veterans by connecting them to their stories

Bristol native honors veterans by connecting them to their stories

  • LAURA J. MONDUL Special to the Herald Courier
  • Sep 17, 2017
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  • 3 min to read

A panorama of McCracken’s library shows the books, prints and military items related to the wars fought by U.S. veterans.

McCracken dedicates himself to searching for and contacting veterans who are connected to the prints and books he collects, mostly from world War II, but also the Korean War, Vietnam War, Afghanistan and Iraq. Shown is his office wall of European conflicts.

Signatures McCracken collected from veterans involved in the the war in Sicily and Italy as depicted in the book, “The Day of Battle.”

McCracken’s office wall focuses on the Japanese conflict.

Signatures in the book, “Ripcord” a book about the Vietnam War.

America’s “greatest generation” is rapidly dwindling. World War II veterans in the United States are dying at the rate of about 1,000 a day. As that generation ages and passes on, one Bristol native has dedicated himself to honoring and preserving their service.

When most young boys were fascinated with trains or fire engines, Greg McCracken, 53, was captivated by military machines. Tanks, ships, planes — all of the hardware of the armed forces captured his interest, especially from World War II.

As a child, McCracken recalls visiting the Bristol Public Library like clockwork. He held a library card from the age of three, and his mother would take him religiously every two weeks to discover new books — books that were almost uniformly about the weapons of war.

“I mowed yards from the age of 10 and took that money and buy books,” McCracken remembered. “Many of those books I still have to this day.”

McCracken retained his interest in the military machines into adulthood. After graduating from Bristol’s Virginia High School in 1981, McCracken enlisted in the Army, and became an officer in 1984 while attending East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tennessee. He served in the Army Reserves until 1992. He received his jurisdoctorate degree from the University of Richmond School of Law and joined the law firm of Fine, Fine, Legum and McCracken of Virginia Beach, Virginia.

About 20 years ago, McCracken purchased his first print from the Naval Institute Press, depicting a famous naval engagement in World War II called the Battle of the Coral Sea. One of his partners at the law firm, Morris Fine, served in the Navy with a pilot named Harold Buell, who was in the battle. Buell flew with the Scout Bombing Squadron 5 off the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown. Fine was able to connect McCracken and Buell, and Buell signed the print and even wrote a letter to accompany it.

“That kind of began this perfect storm of these World War II veterans being old enough to talk about their experience, and the birth of the Internet, which allows me to find them,” McCracken explained. “There’s really a reverence to this that goes beyond collecting. I’m really preserving history and preserving memories.”

Now, McCracken dedicates himself to searching for and contacting veterans who are connected to the prints and books he collects, mostly from World War II, but also the Korean War, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. When he finds a veteran connected to a print or book, he will send it to them or meet with them and ask them to sign it.

Through the course of his passion for collecting and connecting with veterans, McCracken has developed many long-term friendships and become a library of information about the wars and the individuals who were involved. He can recite these veterans’ stories, complete with dates, names, rank, etc., off the top of his head with complete accuracy.

“Greg is a voracious reader and has an incredible retentive mind — he can remember details,” said Morris Fine, a partner in his law firm. “He has a quest for knowledge. He wants to learn the details of the biographies, the battles and strategies involved, and honor the courage and bravery that so many showed.”

To date, McCracken has some 400 signed prints and books. The walls of his law office are covered in framed prints, which even extend into his secretary’s office and down the hall. His home is also a veritable museum of signed prints and books. His collection has even extended to include actual weapons. One veteran gifted McCracken with a Mauser Kar.98k bolt action rifle — the primary infantry weapon of the German Third Reich during World War II — which he had brought back from Germany after the war. Another veteran gave him a Japanese rifle from the war that had ended up in Korea.

“These guys just spark and come to life as they look around Greg’s office and his memorabilia,” said his wife and partner, Michelle McCracken. “He’ll pull up a page that is a battle that they appeared in and they will sign it. The care they take to not just sign their names, but to add something factual or personal to this collection is remarkable. He thinks of those autographs as just as treasured as McArthur’s or other generals that he has or some of the World War II aces. He reveres them at the very same level.”

McCracken asks the veterans to address the inscriptions to him and his 14-year-old son, Patrick, who shares his love of history. The legacy McCracken is building is as much for his son as himself — it’s a unique memorial that will endure for generations.

“I think of it as a tribute, an honor and a memorial to all of the people who have served our country, past, present and future, to preserve our freedom,” McCracken said. “It’s my one-man attempt to thank veterans and preserve their legacy, because what they did is important and meaningful. It’s my way of preserving their memory and saying ‘thank you’ for their service and for what they did.”

Laura J. Mondul is a freelance writer. Email her with Hometown Stories ideas at [email protected].


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