A shy but determined young teletype operator. An Air Force engineer with dreams of going into space. A spy with a talent for driving fast cars and getting thrown out of East Germany. The commander of a squadron of the elite Special Forces unit known as Delta Force.
What’s the common thread tying together this unlikely assortment of personalities? No, it’s not the beginning of a bad joke, or a description of the motley cast of characters in a zany heist movie.
These individuals are veterans, all of whom served during the nearly 50-year stretch of time known as the Cold War era. Along with eight other veterans who served in a variety of roles during that period, they are featured in the newest installment of the Veterans History Project’s (VHP)online Experiencing War exhibit, titled “Cold War Dispatches: Service Stories from 1947-1991.”
Why did we choose to focus this exhibit on veterans of the Cold War era? To begin with, we wanted to demonstrate that military service encompasses far more than combat on a battlefield. Accounts of service from wartime veterans can often be privileged over the narratives of “peacetime veterans.” In fact, in the earliest days of VHP, our collecting scope prioritized the accounts of “war veterans,” those who had served in World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the Persian Gulf War. As VHP grew and evolved, however, the scope of the Project widened to include all veterans who served in the U.S. military, in any capacity and at any point from WWI to the more recent conflicts.
To date, VHP has archived over 11,000 collections of veterans who served during the Cold War, and over 5,000 of these include digitized content. These veterans’ accounts of their experiences in the military offer a different, but invaluable, perspective from those who served during wartime—and thus it seemed only fitting to shed light on them.
Not only do these collections draw our attention to the importance and validity of non-combat narratives, but they also showcase the diversity of experiences within these stories. The jocular tone of this blog post’s opening lines notwithstanding, Cold War era veterans served in a multitude of positions, and the featured collections demonstrate this breadth of experiences. Furthermore, these narratives illuminate the ways veterans were affected by the context of the Cold War, a period characterized by global tensions that permeated both military and civilian society.
Take, for example, the collection of Commander Harold Douglas Barker. In 1951, as his high school graduation approached, Barker dreamed of attending West Point—only to find out he was the third alternate on the list of appointments from North Dakota. Instead, he left his land-locked state to attend the Naval Academy at Annapolis, and following that, to attend submarine school. He said service aboard a missile submarine was “like living in an elevator,” and the tensions of close quarters were only heightened by the demands of the Cold War. In his oral history interview, Barker recalled his crew’s constant state of readiness:
Back in those days, if the President would have said, ‘Launch the missiles,’ the first missile would have left the ship within 15 minutes of him saying that. And one would have left the ship every 15 seconds thereafter until it’s empty. We’re at a condition that we are ready to do that. Night and day, night and day, during those 50 some days that we’re out on a ship.
Though a number of the collections in “Cold War Dispatches” touch on the flashpoints of the Cold War—such as the fall of the Berlin Wall, the “space race,” and the Iran hostage crisis—some of them speak more to changes within the military itself during this time period, or to personal changes that came as a result of military service.
Another profiled veteran, Airman First Class Agnes Helen Gomez Patterson enlisted in the Air Force in 1950, a mere two years after it became possible for women to join. While military service offered an escape from a difficult home life, for a Mexican-American woman stationed in Texas and South Carolina, it presented a host of new obstacles, as she came face-to-face with racism and bigotry in the surrounding communities. Though Patterson only spent two years in the Air Force, the teletype skills she learned became the basis for her post-service career. Perhaps even more importantly, her Air Force comrades taught her many of the life lessons she had missed out on during adolescence, and her shaky confidence and initial naïveté gave way to a steely resolve that later helped her navigate challenges in her personal life.
By definition, a dispatch is an official report: a short, concise message, often sent by a military officer from the battlefield, to convey the most important elements of a particular situation. The title of our newest Experiencing War is a bit tongue-in-cheek, because, of course, our collections are not official military reports or records. But the featured collections still act as dispatches—messages from US military personnel from the Cold War, describing their experiences and the impact of service on their lives and careers.