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Project WWII: Voices of the Greatest Generation

Project preserves accounts from veterans

by Dylan Welker

On the Mall in Washington, D.C., visitors  have a chance to view the World War II  Memorial, which honors veterans of both  the Pacific and EuropeanTheatres of the  war. The pillars represent each state in  the union and one for the District of  Columbia.
On the Mall in Washington, D.C., visitors  have a chance to view the World War II  Memorial, which honors veterans of both  the Pacific and EuropeanTheatres of the  war. The pillars represent each state in  the union and one for the District of  Columbia.
On the Mall in Washington, D.C., visitors
have a chance to view the World War II
Memorial, which honors veterans of both
the Pacific and EuropeanTheatres of the
war. The pillars represent each state in
the union and one for the District of
Columbia.

The Veteran's History Project was founded in the fall of 2000 by an act of Congress.

The VHP works to preserve the stories of Americans who participated in the war effort. From World War I to the current conflict in Iraq, the project is collecting oral histories. The VHP is archiving the oral histories at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

"We have collected over 33,000 stories, which is fairly remarkable considering it is a volunteer effort," said Diane Kresh, director of the Veterans History Project. "People are doing it out of the goodness of their hearts."

The project is open to anyone interested.

"In five easy steps you can be part of this project," Kresh said. "Find a veteran — that is step number one. Get a tape recorder and just talk to somebody. Act like you care. Act like you are interested. We find, generally, that people are very willing to open up."

The project has produced a set of questions to be asked by the interviewer.

Although each veteran of war will have different details, the war-time experience is generally similar.

"The basic training, the camaraderie, the fear and in some cases the guilt that accompanies a war experience is all there no matter when the war or the battle was fought," said Tom Wiener, historian for the Veteran's History Project and author of Voices of War and the soon to be released Forever a Soldier.

The project collects thousands of oral histories each year. It has produced biographical sheets, consent forms and a log for the recordings. All these forms and a project kit are available at the projects Web site at http://www.loc.gov/vets. The Web site also contains many links to other oral history sites and a list of partners, schools and organizations that collect and preserve the interviews.

The partner organization or collector of the interview completes the forms, collects the interview, and sends a copy to the VHP.

"What we do when things come in is we will take the collection and try to create a basic record for it right away," said Irene Simon archivist. "We look at the biographical sheet. That is the name, address, and their service history information."

With thousands of interviews arriving every year it is necessary for the project to get the correct information from the donor of the oral history before it can be properly archived.

Simon used a sample interview to demonstrate some of the problems which occur during the process.

"It looks like somebody interviewed veterans as part of an Eagle Scout project," she said. "So that is neat. It looks like that we are missing a little bit of paper work. So I think that we will have to get in touch with him. That is one of the things that will happen pretty commonly. People hear about this project from all different sources and some people will get our kit, some will talk to somebody who is knowledgeable about the project. Other people will just hear about this thing that is going on at the Library of Congress about veterans and they don't realize that there are things that need to be signed in order to really give the materials to the library."

Although the project does give notice to partner organizations it is not necessary for an interviewer to be involved with a partner organization to conduct an interview.

"We encourage people to get active in writing America's story, which is another way to describe this," Kresh said. "It is not somebody else writing history; you are writing history because you are interviewing this guy over here, or your aunt, uncle, or anyone. You need to be willing to set down with somebody and say that I am interested."

Kresh said the mission is to not let these stories of heroism, horror and dignity disappear into the past and become the folklore of the future generations. These oral histories are preserved for future generations to view. The men and women who share their stories with the project can gain a sense of immortality because their voices will be heard for many generations.

It is important for the interviewer to follow some simple guidelines the project has developed. The quality the project looks for the most is a good listener who can follow up on what the interviewee has commented on.

"We have a suggested set of questions that we want people to ask, but we also want people to understand that those questions are just a blue print," Wiener said. "The main thing is to get to the heart of the experience. To find out what the person went through and how they felt about it what they went through. Not only at the time, but in retrospect, did their thinking change over time?"

The VHP does not focus on the major events or only those soldiers who were in major combat, but all who participated in the war effort. This includes those who made sacrifices at home during the war.

"There are many facets of military life to talk about," Wiener said. "Most of the people who served in the armed forces during war time never fired a gun, and never got shot at. Your still serving and your still under pressure."

During World War II many who did not serve overseas contributed to the war effort. Many women went to work in fields with no previous experience, families began to recycle goods that were needed for the war effort and soldiers served on bases across the United States and overseas training soldiers for the battles they would face.

The project is designed to collect the history of this nation during times of conflict from the viewpoint of an individual and how their daily life was changed by the war. Collecting and preserving these memories of war is a path to peace, for the men who tell the story, for the individual who collects the story, and for the future generations who will be able to view the story.

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