Happy 15th birthday to the Veterans History Project!
On October 27, 2000, the 106th Congress signed Public Law 106-380, an act “to direct the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress to establish a program to collect video and audio recordings of personal histories and testimonials of American war veterans, and for other purposes.” Thus was born the Veterans History Project (VHP)—and we have been going strong ever since.
In contrast to my own 15th birthday, which evokes memories of adolescence that make me slightly queasy, I feel nothing but pride when I consider the achievements of the Veterans History Project over the last 15 years. Since 2000, VHP has grown to include over 99,000 collections of individual American veterans. This success has only been possible because of the generosity of the veterans in their willingness to share their experiences and through the dedication and passion of our volunteer interviewers and donors. Since the beginning of the Project, thousands of individuals—working on their own or in conjunction with schools, Congressional offices, retirement communities, churches, libraries, non-profits, and other organizations—have worked tirelessly to help fulfill our mission to collect, preserve, and make accessible the stories of America’s veterans.
And, as the saying goes, the proof of all of this hard work is in the pudding: the individual stories preserved by the Veterans History Project are the most powerful testimony of its success. With that in mind, we’ve assembled a new Experiencing War online exhibit, “VHP at 15: Collections Over the Years,” which looks back at collections received during the first five, 10, and 15 years of VHP.
As an archive, VHP has dealt with vast changes over the last 15 years, ranging from the types of stories we collect to the ways in which materials are submitted to us. For example, the relatively recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan produced veterans of these wars, and consequently we expanded our scope to include their stories. In the early days of the project, most oral history interviews were housed on VHS tapes and audio cassettes; with the rise of digital technology, we’ve had to rethink the media formats that we are able to accept.
Yet, in reviewing material for this web feature, I was surprised to find that the overall tone and feeling of VHP collections has changed very little over the years. All of these collections feature the poignant, unforgettable details, the brilliant little nuggets of individual perspective and reflection, which I’ve come to expect from the narratives in our archive, and which routinely provide me with new ways of thinking about the experience of war.
Two such collections are Robert Cassidy and Herman Monoschein, both veterans who served in unexpected ways during wartime. Cassidy served with a mortuary unit during the Korean War, processing the remains of American casualties, while Monoschein served as a weather forecaster during World War II, helping to provide accurate weather reports to air units in the European Theater. Both of these men performed difficult jobs that were often taken for granted, that were noticed only if something went wrong, but were critical to the war effort. It gave me chills to hear Cassidy describe the respect with which he treated the bodies of fallen soldiers, and I marveled at Monoschein’s account of the seemingly impossible task of predicting the weather before the advent of satellite technology. Capturing, preserving, and making accessible accounts such as these are at the heart of the Veterans History Project. We collect the stories of fighter pilots and those on the front lines, but the narratives in our archive also convey the quiet heroism of mortuary men and weather forecasters.
This isn’t to diminish the significance of fighter pilots’ accounts. Our anniversary web feature certainly includes those as well, including the collections of combat pilots Thomas Hudner and James Frolking, and Navy helicopter pilot Elisa Raney. These veterans’ oral histories not only offer tales of dogfights or other incidents of derring-do, but also reveal the personal details of how it felt to try to rescue your wingman from a burning plane (in the case of Hudner), or to bail out and land in enemy territory (as Frolking did), or serve as the only woman aboard an aircraft carrier (Elisa Raney’s experience).
While VHP collections add depth to the types of stories often portrayed by Hollywood movies, they also draw attention to aspects of American history that are often overlooked—such as the impact of segregation on servicemen and women, or chemical weapons testing on soldiers by their own Army. In her oral history interview, Martha Putney, who served as a First Lieutenant in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II, recounts an incident in which she refused to ride in the Jim Crow car of a passenger train while traveling in uniform (listen to her story to find out the repercussions of this). Also during World War II, Rollins Edwards was subjected to mustard gas testing by the Army at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana; he describes how the gas felt like a “million red ants” all over his body, and how he has suffered from intense skin ailments ever since.
To learn more about all of these stories, and view the other featured collections, check out the Experiencing War web exhibit at //www.loc.gov/vets/stories/ex-war-15years.html. In addition, you can help celebrate VHP’s birthday by adding the story of the veteran in your life to our collection. Find out how at www.loc.gov/vets.