After seeing buddies killed by what he believes was "friendly fire," former Army Lt. Phillip Coleman dedicated himself to telling their story--and that of the Vietnam War.
Coleman survived two artillery attacks on his communications unit in Bien Hoa, Vietnam, in 1970. The shellings--which Coleman thinks was mistakenly unleashed by U.S. Army artillery units--killed six servicemen and wounded 30 others.
"At that time, I made a commitment to myself that one day I would tell people about the war," Coleman said.
Today, Coleman is telling people about the war and other American armed conflicts via personal computer. Combining an interest in computers and in military history, he has created a vast electronic library of information about America's foreign wars.
In February, he added a database containing information about Japanese-American experiences during World War II.
"I saw the computer as a natural way to dispense this information," Coleman said. "Computers are the wave of the future. All libraries will be electronic in our lifetime, I sincerely believe. And this is a way to get information to the individual home."
Coleman's electronic files, stored on a mainframe computer, are used by researchers, students and veterans organizations worldwide. They include personal letters from servicemen, presidential speeches and thousands of declassified documents laboriously transcribed by Coleman and entered into the system.
(The Lomita-based network is available for free. Coleman, a Redondo Beach resident, can be reached at (310) 530-0177.)
"Anybody in the world can access it," Coleman said. "If you have a computer at home with a modem, you simply tell your software program to dial our computer. The modems shake hands, interface, and you're right into our system."
Charlie Saulenas of the Order of the Purple Heart, a national organization of veterans who have been wounded in combat, praised the network.
"I think it's fantastic for us vets," said Saulenas, commander of the group's 120-member Hollywood chapter. "It's an honest history of the war. It's not any movie producer's idea. It's strictly facts."
Saulenas said the group often refers members to the network's veteran locater file. The file lists the names, addresses, phone numbers and military units of more than 327,000 veterans from all service branches.
"We run into people searching for information either about individuals or things that happened during the war," Saulenas said. "We've referred them to Coleman and they said he just punched it up on his computer and it was all right there."
Dave Kobayashi of Lomita, an internee with other Japanese-Americans in Poston, Ariz., has helped compile much of Coleman's data. Kobayashi was interned at 10 months of age with his mother and father. He said the library project is invaluable for the Japanese-American community, especially for the younger generation that is only recently discovering the full scope of what happened to their elders during World War II.
"There's a lot of information that no one speaks of, no one talks about it unless we bring it up," Kobayashi said. "But I believe that in the educational sense, the younger generation might be curious to know. I think also we can help unite many of the internees who might not be able to or know how to contact the other people who were in the camps."
Coleman said much information about their experiences is only now becoming available to researchers.
"The Japanese are such a proud culture that one might think that they might have been bitter or angry about what happened to them--and a lot of them were," Coleman said. "But there was such a profound sense of guilt, embarrassment and humility that a lot of them didn't want to talk about it.
"It's very much like a rape victim. Here you're violated, but then you don't want to talk about it because you may feel like it was your fault."
The Japanese-American library, Coleman explained, was a logical extension of the war library, which he opened in 1988. Both libraries contain a wealth of information ranging from personal recollections of internees to news conference excerpts.
"We take in any kind of imaginable data," Coleman said. "For example, if you want to know the racial makeup of the kids killed in Vietnam, we have a file devoted to that (issue) that will tell how many kids were black, white, Latino."
Much of Coleman's work is done at his Redondo Beach apartment, where his computer table rests in front of a framed picture of Albert Einstein. Declassified documents, letters and computer equipment fill his otherwise sparsely furnished living room.
Coleman, 42, a former clothing shop owner who is now unemployed, has never had formal computer training. But he said he has always been fascinated by computer technology and learned about it on his own. The war library, he said, has offered him a chance to put his knowledge to use.
But the catalyst, he said, was the shelling in Bien Hoa, more than two decades ago.
In a written account of the tragedy, Coleman said: "I realized I had to accept what I instinctively felt since the morning of the (shelling), that I would one day tell the story."