Voices of a Generation: the National World War II Reunion and the Man-on-the-Mall Recordings

On a hot, humid day in late May almost 10 years ago, I was on the National Mall in Washington, DC, surrounded by tens of thousands of World War II veterans and their families as part of the National World War II Reunion. The Reunion was organized around the official dedication of the National World War II Memorial, and veterans had converged both to witness the dedication and to reunite and reminisce about the days of the war. Arguably the largest reunion of WWII veterans since the end of the war, it also marked the last time many veterans would be able to participate in such a reunion.

Veteran Howard DeMotts is interviewed by a VHP volunteer during the National World War II Reunion, May 2004 (Veterans History Project Archives).

For me, attending the National World War II Reunion was an unforgettable event. I had just spent the past year working for the Veterans History Project as a processing technician, sifting through and preserving the oral histories, letters, diaries, and photographs of America’s war veterans. As a newly graduated American Studies major, I was thrilled to handle this material on a daily basis. What I did not anticipate was how profoundly moving it would be to attend the National World War II Reunion and to come face-to-face with veterans with stories similar to those I had been poring over for nearly a year. Nor did I expect the response of the veterans to the World War II Memorial itself. While I was familiar with the concept and design of the Memorial (I had even written about it for my undergraduate senior thesis!), I was overwhelmed by their tremendous appreciation for a memorial honoring their sacrifices and achievements.

To mark the historic occasion, the Library of Congress dispatched a band of roving reporters (volunteer staff members) to capture the stories of attendees by recording short vignettes with veterans whom they encountered on the Mall. Wearing  VHP baseball caps and armed with portable tape recorders, these interviewers walked up to hundreds of veterans on the Mall and asked them to share their stories. The result? Over two thousand audio recordings conducted over the span of four days, documenting the thoughts and experiences of wartime veterans who attended the Reunion. In the days following the Reunion, these recordings came to be known as the “Man-on-the-Mall” interviews—homage to the “Man-on-the-Street” interviews collected after Pearl Harbor, and archived in the American Folklife Center.

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“Man-on-the-Mall” interviewers and a veteran on the National Mall during the World War II Reunion, May 2004 (Veterans History Project Archives).

The Man-on-the-Mall audio interviews are considered a special collection within the greater Veterans History Project because they are unique: they vary in length, content, and purpose from the standard model of interview that VHP accepts. The Man-on-the-Mall interviews range from five to twenty minutes in length, and are much briefer than VHP’s minimum requirement of 30 minutes. Instead of conducting a full length interview, interviewers asked veterans to speak only about their most memorable service experiences. Completed outside, on the Mall, many of the interviews recorded background noise, music, and snippets of adjacent conversations—in other words, less than ideal circumstances for oral history interviews, but perfect for what they were intended to do: capture a snapshot of a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Despite the differences, these audio interviews were made in the same spirit as all VHP collections: that all veterans’ stories are important and should be recorded. As well, they captured voices of the World War II generation at a specific place and point in time, and thus are a valued part of the Veterans History Project archive.

One of VHP’s temporary exhibit cases located in the Thomas Jefferson Building, May-June 2014. Photo by Leslie Girard.

To celebrate the 10th anniversary of the National World War II Reunion this Memorial Day, we’ve assembled a number of different commemorative activities. We have re-launched the website containing the webcasts of panel presentations that were given in the VHP tent during the Memorial. Over the course of the four-day Reunion, VHP presented panels of speakers on a wide range of related topics, from the experiences of Japanese American veterans to the stories of POWs and Red Cross workers. We’ve also created a special edition of “Experiencing War,” our online web feature series, which highlights a handful of the Man-on-the-Mall audio recordings. If you’re in Washington, DC, please be sure to visit our temporary exhibit in the Jefferson building of the Library of Congress focusing on the 10th anniversary of the Reunion and the 70th anniversary of D-Day, on display until June 9th, 2014. A special tour of the exhibit, free and open to the public, will be held on May 23rd, 2014, at 5:30pm.

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