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Celebrating 20 Years of VHP: Staff Favorites

Black and white photo of men in uniform standing around a table while one man cuts a cake.

Photo taken by Nicholas Phillips while stationed in Korea, depicting an officer cutting a cake. Nicholas Phillips Collection, Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/00653.

Happy birthday, VHP!

The Veterans History Project (VHP) officially turns 20 years old this year, and today we launch a new online exhibit as part of the festivities. Titled “Celebrating 20 Years of VHP: Staff Favorites,” the exhibit focuses on collections chosen by staff members of the Veterans History Project and American Folklife Center (AFC).

When this exhibit was in the initial planning stages, I kept coming back to the concept of “a labor of love.” It may be an overused phrase, but for many of us who work at VHP and AFC, our jobs are exactly that. Whether our specific positions relate to collecting, preserving, organizing, interpreting, or promoting the items and materials in our archive, my colleagues and I often feel a deep connection to the stories that we work with every day. Thus, it felt only fitting to ask our staff to choose 20 collections for an online exhibit celebrating 20 years of VHP.

As an admittedly cheesy riff on the “labor of love” idea, I went a step further, and asked my colleagues to write a “love letter” about their chosen collection, explaining how and why it resonated for them. I wasn’t exactly sure how they’d react to this request, but as you’ll see in blog posts to come, I needn’t have worried. Not only did my colleagues choose a plethora of absolutely mesmerizing collections, but their love letters give you a taste of what these collections mean to them.

Soon, you’ll have a chance to read more about our staff selections and why they were chosen. Liaison Specialist Kerry Ward took me at my word, penning a literal, handwritten love letter to Janis Nark, an Army nurse who served in Vietnam. John Fenn, Head of Research & Programs at AFC, was drawn to a single image, a drawing created by Joseph Parrino, who served stateside in the mid-1950s. Matt McCrady, part of VHP’s Digital Conversation Team, opted to explore the collection of Marva Gray, a West Virginia native who deployed to Iraq in 2003. Other staffers chose collections that related to their own family history, or to their personal background, or simply that they found riveting. As you’ll see, each “love letter” offers an intriguing view not only of a fascinating VHP collection, but of each staffer’s unique relationship to that veteran’s story.

Below are our first three love letters, written by Justina Moloney, Rachel Mears, and Nathan Cross, and more will debut throughout the month. To explore all of the chosen collections, find the online exhibit here. We hope you love these collections as much as we do.

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Sepia head and shoulders photo of man in uniform looking at camera.

Leo Bailey in uniform, 7/1917. Leo J. Bailey Collection, Veterans History Project, Library of Congress, AFC2001/001/76979.

In 2017, I had the good fortune to be a Junior Fellow with the Veterans History Project–little did I know that I would be back at VHP just a few years later–which served as my entry point into the informative and insightful collections that VHP holds. My project centered on making World War I collections more discoverable, and this was how I encountered Leo J. Bailey’s fantastic collection of correspondence, military papers, and multiple memoirs. His first memoir, titled “The War as I Saw It,” and written just years after his service in World War I with the American Expeditionary Forces in France, became one of my favorites during that summer internship and still is today.

Memory is a fickle thing, and Bailey –perhaps realizing this– set out to write his memoirs in 1922 while his experiences were still fresh and his humor and honesty on the Great War abundant. Typed, bound and over 250 pages, his memoir is part autobiography, part scrapbook. Bailey includes newspaper clippings, photographs of himself and others with captions (an archivist’s dream!), and perhaps my favorite aspect of his memoir of all, annotations. This was clearly a living document for Mr. Bailey, with the last few pages dedicated to space for those who read it and wanted to leave some note of appreciation or thanks. Fortunately, his collection is digitized, and anytime I desire I can immerse myself in his anecdotes and perspective on the Great War, an event that provided him with the greatest adventure of his life.

Justina Moloney, Archivist, VHP

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Screenshot of man smiling during oral history. Man is wearing wire glasses and a button down white shirt.

David Polhemus at the time of his oral history interview. David Polhemus Collection, Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/48280.

At the point that I discovered David Polhemus‘ interview I had worked in the archive for four years. I was giving a presentation to a small group of archivists and, as I always did with those types of presentations, I explained that one of the things I loved about VHP was that we never knew what we would receive, but it was always personal and unique. For dramatic effect, I went to a box of collections awaiting processing and pulled out a folder. It contained the interview of Colonel David W. Polhemus, an Army chaplain who served in both the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. It was a double bonus – we had not yet received many interviews with chaplains and we had low representation from the Vietnam conflict. And there was a personal connection – both of our fathers were ministers and we were both from New Hampshire. I shared this observation with the group and returned the collection to the shelf.

Later that day I listened to a copy and cried.  To this day, it remains one of the most inspiring interviews I’ve listened to: poignant, heart-wrenching, and touchingly eloquent. It is 90 minutes you will not regret spending.

Rachel Mears, Head, Collections Access, Preservation, and Analysis, VHP

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I was familiar with Samuel Holiday’s story before I started working at VHP. I read his biography Under the Eagle, which he co-authored with historian Robert McPherson, while I was in graduate school. I was captivated by his story, I think because his life experiences were in most ways so different—but also in a few important ways so similar—to my own. Samuel Holiday was born in 1924 in Oljato, Utah, within the Navajo reservation. His family largely raised their own food, and his mother brought him up in a traditional Navajo way of life. At the age of 13, he was forced to attend a government-run boarding school, where he faced harsh discipline and abuse. As someone who grew up in relative privilege in the suburbs of Fort Worth, Texas in the 80s and 90s, it is difficult for me to fathom his childhood.

Color headshot of man in red cap, orange shirt and turquois necklace.

Samuel Holiday at the time of his oral history interview [2004]. Samuel Holiday Collection, Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/52527.

After joining the Marine Corps in early 1943, he completed demanding training to become a Code Talker. In this critical role, he saw intense combat on Kwajalein, Saipan, Tinian, and Iwo Jima. Holiday was often taken on dangerous patrols to locate enemy positions, and called in artillery strikes using the Navajo Code that devastated Japanese positions. In his own words, “they sent us wherever they needed us, wherever we were most dangerous.” (Oral history interview, 46:17) I also served as a Marine, and while my own personal experiences of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq were fortunately few and far between, I worked in a similar role as a forward air controller and artillery observer.

What struck me as most similar in our experiences, however, was how we both relied on our families to help us process our experiences and readapt to civilian life. How our families did this for us was very different. My parents were rocks of support for me after I left the Marines, and one-on-one conversations with them helped me immensely in the readaptation process. Holiday also leaned on his family’s support, who arranged to have Enemy Way ceremonies performed for him. The Enemy Way is a traditional Navajo ceremony performed for returning combat veterans to help them process their experience and restore balance to their life. Holiday credited these ceremonies with alleviating his symptoms of post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury. Holiday was inspired by the power of these ceremonies, and was highly sensitive to the suffering that war had caused on both sides. The suffering that he witnessed motivated him to become a traditional medicine man later in life so that he could help others find healing and comfort.

Samuel Holiday’s story is a perfect example of the power of oral history interviews to connect us to people who come from radically different backgrounds than our own.

–Nathan Cross, Archivist, VHP

One Comment

  1. lentigogirl
    December 11, 2020 at 9:53 am

    A labor of love indeed! I look forward to reading the rest.

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