Workshop to teach how to collect stories from veteransWritten by Sarah Ottney | Editor in Chief | firstname.lastname@example.org
When LaMont Gee was hit in the throat by shrapnel while defending a bridge in Belgium during World War II, his friends thought he was dead.
The 18-year-old was drafted in 1943 and assigned to the Army’s 988th Engineering Treadway Bridge Company, which built bridges to replace those destroyed by the retreating German army. He was injured during an attack by a German airplane attempting to destroy a recently completed bridge. After a field hospital operation and two months of rehabilitation in England, his voice returned and he rejoined his company in Germany.
“I walked over and the guys just looked at me,” said Gee, now 87, a Silver Star and Purple Heart recipient who served as grand marshal of Sylvania’s Memorial Day parade this year. “They said, ‘What are you doing here?’ I said, ‘Where’s my duffel bag?’ It was still in the truck. I got it and we just kept on going. When there’s a job to do, you do it.”
The Sylvania resident’s story is among those archived at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., as part of the Veterans History Project. The ongoing nationwide project, which started in 2000, collects audio- or videotaped firsthand accounts of World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf War and the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts from veterans as well as U.S. citizen civilians involved in supporting war efforts, such as war industry workers, USO workers, flight instructors and medical volunteers. The project also collects original documents, such as photographs, letters, diaries and maps.
A free workshop for those interested in learning how to interview veterans will be 1-3 p.m. June 15 at Owens Community College, 30335 Oregon Road, in Perrysburg, in the Audio/Visual Classroom Center rooms 125-128.
The session will be taught by Tom Barden, Northwest Ohio regional coordinator of the Veterans History Project. No interviews will be conducted during the training.
“It’s an amazing project,” said Barden, dean of the Honors College at the University of Toledo and a Vietnam War veteran. “To me as an academic, all oral history is important. History is written about the famous people, but to me the more interesting stories are those of the average person and their lives.”
More than 75,000 stories have been collected so far, including more than 500 by retired Sylvania resident Bud Fisher.
“Seventy-five thousand may sound like a lot, but it’s not when you consider how many millions of people served,” said Fisher, who compiled many of his interviews into two books: “What a Time It Was” about World War II and “30 Below on Christmas Eve” about the Korean War.
Each of those millions has a story and Fisher enjoys giving them a voice.
“What I enjoy the most is watching these fellows open up,” Fisher said. “When they came home they didn’t sit their families down and tell them about the war. They took off their uniforms and went back to work or school. A story might have come out here or there, but I provided the means by which they could really open up and talk about their military service from start to finish. I helped to transport them back 60 years to when they were young.”
Copies of the interviews are also archived locally at UT’s Canaday Center or Perrysburg’s Way Public Library. The veteran also receives a copy of the interview.
“That’s like a genealogical treasure,” Fisher said. “When they are long gone, their family can hear their voice, which is priceless. I’d love to hear my grandfather’s voice or my great-grandfather’s voice, even though I know a fair amount about them. It’s like a voice from the past.”
Another local interviewer is Richard Baranowski, local history librarian at Way Public Library.
“Fifty years from now, 100 years from now, a descendent of one of these guys will be able to go to the Library of Congress and see his ancestor on a video camera,” Baranowski said. “If we had that from the Civil War, how valuable would that be? History dies with people. A lot of the people we’ve interviewed have died. It’s a good idea to see what you can preserve.”
Some veterans are determined to never talk of their experiences again while others find it therapeutic, Fisher said. Some are talkative while others need more prodding to open up.
“No one has ever said ‘I’m sorry I did this.’ Everybody is happy they did it,” Fisher said.
Fisher, who served during the Korean War, said being a fellow veteran has helped, but anyone can conduct interviews if they know what questions to ask.
“The process is simple. I take my recorder to their kitchen table and we talk,” Fisher said. “It helps to be a student of history, but you don’t have to be knowledgeable about the war. You just have to know what questions to ask.”
Fisher asks veterans to bring his or her discharge papers as reference. Barden suggests doing some background research, but then just listen.
“Do your homework, but don’t use it,” Barden said. “People want to feel like you know what they are talking about, but if you start talking like a historian, they might get intimidated.”
Start with a family member, Fisher suggested.
“Everybody’s got a father or grandfather or uncle who was in the service and you can practice on them,” Fisher said. “Not everybody has to do 500 interviews.”
Some veterans tell him their contributions are not important enough to talk about, but Fisher disagrees.
“I tell them not everybody won the Medal of Honor, but every story is important. If you served, your story is important,” Fisher said. “Historians talk about the generals and the admirals and the leaders of the country. They don’t talk about the people who did the work. This is a way to finally have a history of the common man, the ordinary GI. We’ve heard enough about Douglas MacArthur and Adm. [Chester W.] Nimitz and Gen. [George S.] Patton. We know all about those guys, but finally we’re going to hear the stories of the guys who made them famous.”
Toledo Free Press is a media sponsor of the workshop. Other sponsors include U.S. Representatives Bob Latta and Marcy Kaptur, Northwest Ohio Honor Flight and American Red Cross Greater Toledo Area Chapter.