When you read the obituaries in your local newspaper or online, you’ll notice it right away. When you invite veterans of World War II, Korea or Vietnam to be honored at community events, it’s obvious. We are losing thousands of eyewitnesses to history every day. What you may not know is what else we lose with each passing.
This sad reality hit me hard in 2006, while I was researching my first book about a World War II submarine. As I attempted to track down as many surviving crewmembers as I could, I ran across a startling statistic. At that time, VA estimated that a thousand World War II veterans died every day, and that was just in the United States. Then last year, as I was working on my latest book – the story of another ship and its role in the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942 – I was unable to locate a single surviving crewmember.
Today, the numbers are even more sobering. According to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, we now lose about 372 U.S. veterans of World War II every day. That number is lower than a decade ago simply because there are fewer left – about 620,000. Some say that as soon as 2036, barely 20 years from now, we will bury the last man or woman who served in that war. The same is true for Korean War veterans. Finding an estimate of how many of those veterans are living is difficult, though VA reported last year that about only 1.6 million of the 5.7 million who served worldwide between 1950 and 1953 are living. Even those who served during the Vietnam War are now in their mid-60s or older.
As a writer who attempts to portray history, I rely heavily on a wide range of sources to help me tell an accurate and compelling story of what happened and why. I want to tell these stories in an accessible way so that people today who were not yet alive or who are too young to remember can better relate to the experiences of previous generations. Official documents, scholarly
historical works, contemporary newspaper and magazine accounts, and other authors’ works are essential in correctly piecing together these stories. But when it comes to writing a relatable narrative telling stories with which a broad range of readers can connect, nothing compares to first-person accounts and descriptions from those who were actually there and lived through it all.
There is tremendous value in collecting the words and descriptions from those who personally experienced history. Such powerful, subjective accounts help us to understand more clearly and appreciate how such earthshaking events as war, disaster and social change affected not only the course of history but the day-to-day lives of the individuals there. Non-military history needs to be documented in first person, too, including the civil rights movement, the space program, the Great Depression and more.
Not only do these accounts benefit writers, historians and scholars, but they also accurately preserve human history for future generations. That certainly includes the families of those who participated in or observed it firsthand. Eyewitness history is the best data we have to understand how the broad sweep of history actually touched the lives of individual men, women and children.
We bury or cremate hundreds of eyewitnesses to history each day, often having missed the window of opportunity to collect and archive their stories, thus losing them forever. You do not have to be a historian or author to play a role in preserving these accounts. You can help locate those with stories to tell, interview them, and gather journals, letters, articles, official military documents, photographs and other information. From there, you can make sure it all ends up in the hands of organizations and institutions that are prepared to index, preserve and make it available for future reference. History does not have to die with those who lived it.
EVERY STORY MATTERS It is understandable that you may not know where to start, or that you may not be comfortable approaching people and asking about writing down or recording their military experiences. You may not be clear on just what kind of material has value, what form it should take or what you should do with it once you have it.
Let me make a few suggestions. First, before you interview people, you should recognize and understand that participants in traumatic events – especially war – are often reluctant to talk about their experiences. I regularly hear from family members who want to thank me for writing about a particular ship or a battle in which a relative was involved. “Granddaddy never would talk about what happened,” they say. Others comment, “We had no idea what our father went through.”
However, my experience has been that most veterans are willing to talk if someone just asks them – and they’re especially willing if we explain why it is so important that we hear what they have say. Remind them they are helping to preserve not only their own personal experiences but those of their buddies, fellow warriors, family members and others who may have already died or are unable to speak for themselves. They honor their memories by sharing their stories.
At the same time, many war veterans are reluctant to talk because they are convinced they did nothing of significance – that what they have to say is not really all that important. Not so! Their recollections are critical, no matter how unexciting or unimportant they may feel them to be. There is tremendous value in preserving even the most mundane details.
When it comes to events such as war, historians usually have a good grasp of the big picture: troop movements, battle tactics, outcomes, treaties. However, it is also central to a proper understanding of an event to have information about how it affected individuals – how chaos and change shaped the lives of average folks who are thrust into the middle of it all.
The only way to fully understand history is to learn from those who experienced it – through their own stories, no matter how simple and routine they may be, and no matter where the storyteller fits into the big picture. The everyday experiences of an 18-year-old private in a foxhole at the Battle of the Bulge are ultimately just as important as Gen. George Patton’s notes. What did a typical “Rosie the Riveter” do day after day, and what special security briefings did she get? What was life like in those few hours when she was not building airplanes and ships? Quite simply, no detail is too insignificant. No experience is too humdrum. All recollections from those who lived history have value.
But what about accuracy? Memories do fade. Some people tend to embellish or exaggerate. Others base their remembrances on scuttlebutt or rumor. Interviewers are not necessarily charged with fact-checking or correcting errors. This is yet another reason why it is so important to capture and preserve as much eyewitness history as we can. If we have enough accounts, we are able to discern more of the truth, cancel out inaccuracies and piece together a true picture of what people experienced.
TIME IS OF THE ESSENCE So how do you prepare for and conduct veteran interviews? What media are best to use: a camera, a digital recorder or just a legal pad? How do you know the stories you gather are of even the slightest interest or value to anyone? And finally, the big question: what do you do with the audio or video files, written transcripts or other documentation you have made an effort to collect?
Your first stop for answers to these and other questions – long before you conduct your initial interview – should be the website of the Veterans History Project (VHP). This wonderful effort is sponsored by the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Visit www.loc.gov/vets to find a wealth of information on exactly how to participate, including answers to the questions above. The site also details the types of materials the VHP can accept. You will find an excellent “field kit” and video to set you up for a successful interview. Regardless of whether you eventually send what you gather to the VHP or to another depository, this information will help you get the most out of your work.
The American Legion is a longtime supporter of the VHP. Many Legion Family members are involved, helping interview other veterans and capturing these histories. Others donate time to transcribe audio and video interviews and arrange interview opportunities at Legion posts, making members aware of the VHP and the value of collecting real-life accounts. Even if you aren’t conducting interviews yourself, you might help coordinate them at your local post and urge Legionnaires to consider sharing their stories.
How successful has the Veterans History Project been? From its creation by Congress in 2000 through the end of 2016, the VHP has collected more than 100,000 accounts. More than half are from participants, both military and civilian, in World War II. Yet we can’t forget the men and women who served during the Cold War or fought in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and other places. We have to get their stories, too. There also remain many written or recorded accounts from World War I that have never been transcribed, indexed or archived. The VHP is a great place for such invaluable human history to live on. You can be a big part of ensuring it does.
There are other storehouses of oral histories, including historical centers affiliated with each service branch, universities and museums. A number of these places, along with their contact information, are listed on the VHP website.
In many cases, local libraries and museums archive oral histories and make them available to historians, researchers, authors and family members. They are especially interested in the experiences of individuals with ties to their local communities. You may want to copy and make material you gather available to more than one depository. I know of none that require exclusivity.
At the same time, there is another interesting possibility for collecting eyewitness history accounts and making them easily available. Today’s self-publishing and print-on-demand technology make it possible for just about anyone to produce a book and offer it for sale to the public online. The same technology also makes these books available for order by almost any bookstore or library in the world.
There are online vendors, too, that offer the opportunity to publish materials in e-book format, compatible with such readers as Kindle and Nook, as well as most tablets and smartphones. Companies such as CreateSpace, Kindle Direct Publishing (both owned by Amazon), and others allow users to publish for wide distribution, usually at no cost.
It is true that these services are primarily intended for budding authors wanting to get their books into print at little or no cost and offer them for sale through vendors’ online stores. However, for those who are computer savvy and are willing to carefully read and follow the instructions, such services provide collectors of oral history a great way to archive and make widely available in book form the accounts they have gathered.
To review guidelines and requirements for publishing, visit the web pages for CreateSpace (www.createspace.com) and Kindle Direct Publishing (kdp.amazon.com), or the sites of similar vendors you might consider using.
Additionally, I have started a nonprofit effort to encourage people to gather oral histories and offer tips on making them available via free online book publishers. I call the program Untold Millions (www.untoldmillions.net), so named for the untold millions of first-person accounts already lost to history. If you do go the self-publishing route as a way to archive what you have collected, consider donating your materials to the VHP and other entities mentioned above.
Every day we say goodbye to hundreds of Americans who observed firsthand and actively participated in some of the bloodiest and most costly of our nation’s wars. Their remembrances are priceless for historians and authors who are committed to documenting the past and ensuring that future generations will have a full, colorful and relatable understanding of what those events were really like for those who lived through them.
With the efforts and cooperation of the Veterans History Project, American Legion posts, academic institutions and other organizations, we have more outlets than ever to archive, index and make available such accounts. Modern publishing technology gives us another way to accomplish this vital task on a scale like never before.
However, someone has to actually do the work of capturing these recollections in the first place. This does not have to be a major undertaking. It can be one or two short interviews, or simply retrieving service records or a journal. Every story saved is a treasure. Every memory you help preserve will ensure that this real human history will be there, still alive and accessible, for decades and centuries to come.
Don Keith is a best-selling author and former award-winning broadcast journalist. His web site is www.donkeith.com.