Veterans History, in Print
Library Project Publishes Second Book of Stories
One Father’s Day, Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) was visiting with his father and uncle when they began to tell war stories for the very first time.
Kind’s father was a veteran of the Korean War, and his uncle had fought in the Pacific during World War II. Kind told them to stop and ran back into the house to get the video camera and record their memories, he said. “My two little boys were too young to understand this and I wanted to record it for our own family archive,” he said.
That moment caused him to realize what a wealth of history and memories could be gleaned from veterans’ stories, and that there should be a national program dedicated to collecting them, he said. He began to work on starting such a project under the auspices of the Library of Congress.
In October 2000, President Bill Clinton signed the bill into law, and the Veterans History Project was born.
Six years later, the Veterans History Project will publish the second collection of stories from its archives, titled “Forever a Soldier: Unforgettable Stories of Wartime Service.” The book includes the stories of veterans who served from World War I through the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
Tom Wiener, the project’s historian, is the author of both the new book, due out on Veterans Day, and “Voices of War,” published last year. Wiener said he looked for dramatic value when he selected the stories for each book. Some stories were earlier featured on VHP’s Web site, which periodically showcases accounts from categories ranging from the homefront to POWs to medical personnel.
Published by National Geographic, the books examine the experience of the everyday soldier and show a “commonality of history,” Wiener said. The stories in “Forever a Soldier” include the accounts of men and women of many races and time periods who fought under different conditions, but survived the same basic situation.
“Basic human emotions are the same, whether you are a prisoner of war in WWI or in Vietnam,” Wiener said. None of the veterans he has talked to have ever told him they were the same coming out of war as going in, he said.
The VHP has had a lot of friends in Congress since it began. Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and then-Rep. Amo Houghton (R-N.Y.), sponsored a bill with Kind to allocate funding. Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and then-Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.), both Vietnam veterans who had remained active in veterans’ affairs throughout their careers, became the Senate sponsors. Hagel said the bill was especially urgent because the country was losing so many WWII veterans each year.
Diane Kresh, the project’s director, has been with the VHP since there were only two people in the office working the phones. After federal funding came through and the AARP became a major sponsor, the staff grew to 19 members plus contractors. The office now coordinates with the approximately 800 volunteer partner organizations that collect the oral histories, correspondences, diaries and artwork from veterans of WWI to the present. The staff catalogues and preserves the entries as they come in to be used as a research resource.
There are now around 40,000 entries in all in the archives, including the personal narratives of 25 Members of Congress. Kresh said she would like to see 1 million entries, although she admits that would be a “steep challenge.”
Peter Bartis, the Congressional liaison for the project, estimates that 80 percent of the Members of Congress are involved to a greater or lesser extent. Their commitment ranges from having a link to the program’s Web site on their own to Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), whom Kresh calls a “relentless supporter” for his involvement. Lugar has a staff member in Indianapolis whose job it is to coordinate the volunteer effort there. Indiana has contributed 5,000 entries to the archives, more than any other state.
WWII veterans’ accounts make up the largest body of the collection. Last year during the dedication of the WWII memorial, the project organized a “blitz” on the National Mall, sending volunteers out to interview WWII veteran visitors, Kresh said. They managed to collect 3,000 veteran stories over that weekend, including one veteran pilot visiting the memorial with his younger sister.
Kresh said the veteran was reluctant to talk about his experience because he didn’t think he had much to offer, but then went on to tell a story about being shot down over enemy territory. His sister was shocked, and said he’d never told her the story.
Cleland said sponsoring the project was one of the best things he did in his six years in the Senate. He said, as president of the Veterans Association in the ’70s, he was acutely aware that veterans of the Spanish American War, waged in the 1890s, were disappearing. From time to time he thought about recording some of their stories, he said, but he didn’t follow through with the idea.
One day in California, Cleland remembers an event where 20 Spanish American War veterans were honored. One man, who must have been 104, Cleland said, but could still fit in his uniform, told him he remembered seeing President William McKinley in Buffalo, N.Y., the day before his assassination. The man could still remember the car the president was riding in, and the sun gleaming off of it. “That’s a pretty incredible reach,” Cleland said. Having access to those veterans stories, and later to his father’s memories of Pearl Harbor when he began to share them, made Cleland feel he was “touching history … talking to it,” he said. The VHP, he said, will “allow future generations to talk to it.”
Cleland is involved in a series of radio broadcasts VHP has produced for public radio. He narrates the fourth installment of the series, titled “While the World Watched,” which commemorates the 60th anniversary of the Nuremburg trials next month. The piece includes first-person accounts of men and women who worked on the famous trials of Nazi war criminals, and of ordinary German children who lived through that traumatic period.
Those who have worked on the VHP agree that it has a humanitarian, not a political, agenda. They say the project honors veterans, but shows war for what it is, including its misery and sacrifice. Kresh said that there is something universal about war that speaks to all people, and makes it a fitting subject for so broad a study. “All people have been put to the test at some time in their lives,” she said. She sees the stories in the archives as human interest stories, showing how ordinary people overcome challenges.
Cleland said the project should have an impact on people’s understanding of war, and on foreign policy. “War is war, and should be entered into only as a last resort, because it’s not over when the shooting’s done,” he said.