Technology Brings Grandfather's Voice, War Stories Back To Life For San Francisco Man - NBC Bay Area
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Technology Brings Grandfather's Voice, War Stories Back To Life For San Francisco Man

Matt Skryja has heard many people tell stories about his grandfather's World War II service. But he never had the chance to hear his grandfather tell them. Until now. (Published Tuesday, Oct. 28, 2014)

Matt Skryja never thought he'd hear his grandfather's voice again.

But thanks to digital preservations who were able to piece together shattered records, he was not only able to listen to how young his Grandpa's voice sounded like in 1944. He also got to hear stories from when his grandfather was a lieutenant during WWII.

Skryja, who used to be a former television reporter in Fresno, has always loved history. And he was especially interested in the history of his grandfather - Ray Skryja - who died when Matt Skryja, was just 8 years old.

So when he found two 70-year-old 78 rpm records - cracked and broken into pieces - that contained an old interview with his grandfather  with an Omaha, Nebraska radio station about the war, he was both elated and frustrated."There is a radial crack through both of them," Skryja said, staring at the light shining through one of the cracks. "They are both unplayable."

 

Matt Skryja's grandfather, Ray, flew 50 missions as a bombardier and navigator on a B-24 "Liberator" during the Second World War.

Or, at least, that's what he first thought.

But, the San Francisco resident who now works for AAA of Northern California, did some research and discovered there might be a way to fix the broken pieces of plastic, discovered by accident in his grandmother's house as the family was preparing for a move.

He had already immersed himself in historical research about the war, interviewing his grandfather's colleagues about the battles in the European Theater. But since his grandfather was dead, he was missing one crucial element.

"The voice of my grandfather," Skryja said. "I never had it for those stories that I told."

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So, in August, he shipped the records to the Northeast Document Conservation Center in Andover, Massachusetts, where preservation specialists use technology from  Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to repair damaged records and discs.

The technology is called IRENE, and it creates a digital map of the surface of old audio recordings. That map then translates the image into the sound a hypothetical needle would have created had one been able to travel across the record. Over the past decade, IRENE has been used to recover audio from some of the oldest sound recordings in the world. That includes bringing to life other WWII interviews from New York radio stations, which had been preserved on discs stored at the New York City Municipal Archives. One of the repaired discs - which had broken into five pieces - came from radio broadcast on Christmas Eve 1943, dedicated to the U.S. soldiers at war around the world — an NBC production that was likely broadcast on WNYC as well.

Knowing all this, Skryja  was overcome with nervous excitement as he waited for his grandfather's broken records to hopefully play again.

Matt says as a boy he would pour over old, war photographs and imagine the adventures his grandfather, who died when Matt was 8, had flying bombing missions over Europe. As an adult, Matt spent years researching his grandfather's service.

When the LPs were returned weeks later, he invited his father to come over to listen.

"I think I'm going to have to hold my breath," Skryja  said just before he heard his grandfather's voice for the first time. "It's going to be emotional."

Using technology developed at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and being used by the Northeast Document Conservation Center, a digital map of the surface of the record grooves was created. From there, a computer can approximate the sound that would result from a needle traveling along the grooves.

And then he heard the crackling speech of a young man - Lt. Ray Skryja  who had just returned from serving in the European Theater of World War II - as he was interviewed by his hometown radio station. He spoke of being a bombardier and navigator aboard a B-24 "Liberator," who had completed 50 bombing missions over southern Europe before returning home. There were pops and static, and Ray Skryja was careful not to divulge too much sensitive material to the radio interviewer.

Upon his return from the war, Ray Skryja was interviewed by a radio station in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. The interview was recorded at the station on two, 78rpm records.

But all that didn't really matter, because to him, the sound of his grandfather's voice was crystal clear. A voice he can now listen to over and over again.

"This is precious," Skryja  said. "It's finally nice to be able to hear it, and pass it on."

Because of the extensive damage to the 70-year-old recordings, they were unplayable on a turntable.

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