This is the sixth in a series exploring favorite Veterans History Project collections, chosen by the staff of the American Folklife Center (AFC) and the Veterans History Project (VHP) to be included in our new online exhibit celebrating 20 years of VHP. Each post in the series will offer “love letters” written by AFC and VHP staff about their favorite collection. Here are additional posts in the series: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, and Part V.
Of the many wonderful collections that the Veterans History Project has brought to the Library of Congress, one that stands out for me is that of author, journalist, illustrator, and Civil Rights activist, Tracy A. Sugarman (1921-2013). He was interviewed about his service in the Navy for the Veterans History Project by the late Peter Bartis, a folklorist at the American Folklife Center. In addition to that, Sugarman generously donated his personal correspondence from his service in World War II, 2 photos, and 85 drawings and paintings he made of sailors he served with, Army personnel, merchant marines, ships, civilians, and landscapes from his experiences in the war in Europe. I find his drawings of those he served with in the war especially touching. Some seem to be quick sketches, but they capture the characters and expressions of his subjects. I feel I can guess what they were feeling at the moment Sugarman drew them. His portraits also show a lot about the everyday life of those who served.
Among some of the memorable images are people who are less-well represented in histories of World War II: a watercolor of an African American sailor “Cutting Spuds for Chow” and a line drawing of an Asian American sailor.
Sugarman’s artistic eye saw sailors who were not the ones most often seen or applauded during WWII, including sailors of color. His interest in those needing a fair chance in life continued. After the war, Sugarman became an illustrator and journalist. He covered the nearly one thousand student volunteers who traveled to the Mississippi Delta to assist African Americans in the South in registering to vote in 1964. Of that experience, he said that he was more frightened than he had been on D-Day. Two white students and one black student were slain in the struggle, many were beaten and hundreds arrested, and churches and homes were burned to the ground. But the United States Congress was finally moved to pass the Civil Rights legislation that enfranchised millions of African Americans. Sugarman’s book We Had Sneakers, They Had Guns: The Kids Who Fought for Civil Rights in Mississippi, chronicles the sacrifices, tragedies, and triumphs of that unprecedented moment in American history. Sugarman talked about his experiences in Mississippi during Freedom Summer in this lecture at the Library of Congress in 2009, also titled We Had Sneakers, They Had Guns.
In addition to the above, Sugarman contributed artwork to the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress. In 2004 he participated in a discussion, WWII Reunion: D-Day Stories, and that video is available. As you can see, there is a great deal to explore on the life and experiences of this remarkable American.
–Stephanie Hall, Reference Specialist, AFC
In a 2004 interview archived at the Veterans History Project, Kathryn Mary Doody (1916-2010) begins telling the story of her life as an Army nurse as if she let the current take her. Her mother, wanting her and her sister to have lives “other than farmers daughters,” arranged for them to receive nursing school applications. A doctor from nursing school made a phone call that led to her first nursing job at a D.C. hospital. When the Army lowered the height restriction to 60 inches, she was finally able to join and work at what is now Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Then one day, she walked by a bulletin board at Walter Reed advertising job transfers to Hawaii.
And I thought, ‘Oh, boy. How I would like to go to Hawaii.’ And so I signed up for it,” she said. “And I was chosen to go. And that was in September of 1941.”
A few months later, on Dec. 7, she was in the nurses quarters at Tripler Army Hospital in Honolulu when bombs began to fall. She and the other nurses ran out into the yard. Antiaircraft smoke was billowing in the sky. One of the enlisted men ran out of the hospital and took off in an ambulance. No one knew what was happening until the night nurse came off duty and told them the island of Oahu has been attacked by Japan.
And I said, ‘Shut up.’ Because she was a person that always had the greatest stories, you know, to relate,” she recalled. “And she said, ‘Don’t pay any attention to me. Go turn your radios on.’ So I went in the room and turned the radio on, and that’s exactly what they were repeating over and over again…and so I thought, ‘That means war. What’s war going to be like?’”
In the intervening days and decades, Doody would come to know what war was like. Thus began her career as an Army nurse during wartime. She would go on to serve in the European theater during World War II and with a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) unit during the Korean War, retiring from service as a Major.
The next morning, we started all over again, you know, with the rooms being filled with wounded soldiers,” she said of Pearl Harbor. “And some of them, during the night, had released the tourniquets they had on so they would die. You know, they didn’t want to live with whatever wound they had received. So we had all sorts of sad things happening.”
Her story is at once ordinary and extraordinary. It resonates as we watch healthcare workers battle to save lives amid the pandemic. It is a reminder that bearing witness to so much sorrow can bring about welcome perspective and contemplation. “I have this calmness about not being upset or perturbed —- about this thing or that thing or, you know, anything new or different to other people,” she said. “I feel like I’ve experienced just about everything.” At the end of the interview, Doody talks about her interests turning to Christianity and longing to know more about the Bible, which prompted her to join an adult class at Washington Bible College. “I really became very satisfied with what I was learning,” she said. “And I think that has taken my mind off all the other things.”
–Nicki Saylor, Director of the American Folklife Center Archive