The following is a guest blog post by Andrew Huber, a liaison specialist for the Library of Congress Veterans History Project (VHP).
The idea of an event focusing on collecting stories from Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) veterans all stemmed from a simple question asked during a VHP workshop in 2020. I was teaching members of the Chinese Family History Group (CFHG) how to record oral histories for VHP, and one of their members wanted to know, “How many Asian American veteran stories do you have?” The answer was a little under 400 collections, which immediately revealed a problem – Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders make up about 4.4% of the military, but out of over 115,000 VHP collections, 400 AAPI stories is less than 0.4% of VHP’s total. AAPI veterans were underrepresented in VHP by a factor of 10!
Right then and there, the Chinese Family History Group decided to make it their mission to increase the number of Chinese-American veteran collections in VHP. Over the next two years, I conducted several more workshops, training dozens of their members on how to do interviews, but the CFHG leaders wanted more direct action, so together we began organizing an event to collect the stories of a large number of AAPI veterans in a short time.
Live interview events are exciting and fun, but take a lot of coordination and planning. First, you have to secure a venue, then you need to get the word out to recruit volunteers to do interviews, take notes and assist the veterans. An event on this scale requires 30 or more volunteers! And of course, you have to line up veterans to interview, which can sometimes be the hardest part.
CFHG is based in Los Angeles, which has a large Chinese-American and AAPI population, so we knew that’s where we wanted to hold the event. Even though CFHG has a large and active membership, we recognized we were going to need extra help. We also wanted to be as inclusive as possible and not limit AAPI participation to only Chinese-Americans, so we reached out to the Japanese American Veterans Memorial Court and the Congressional Pan-Asian Caucus, as well as the Chinese American Citizens Alliance (CACA) and the Chinese American Museum (CAM), all of whom were willing and enthusiastic to help out.
Next, we needed to find a host site to actually hold the event. Libraries are always my first choice, because they usually love holding community events and often don’t charge usage fees. They also have individual study rooms that are perfect for oral history interviews. We reached out to several libraries in the LA area, and while we were welcomed by several different locations, we ultimately settled on the Santa Monica and Alhambra public libraries. We planned on two days of interviews in Santa Monica, then another day in Alhambra.
With a venue secured, signing up volunteers and veterans were the next priorities. We created flyers, social media posts and press releases, and sent them out to our various networks, including the local Congressional offices. CFHG and CACA already had very strong ties to the Chinese-American community in Los Angeles, so they were able to utilize word of mouth along with social media posts to raise awareness and drive participation. We kept track of sign-ups using online scheduling tools and shared spreadsheets, and started filling out our rosters. As volunteers began to sign up, we scheduled virtual training workshops to teach them VHP’s guidelines and requirements, as well as the basics of oral history.
As a reminder, if you are interested in planning a VHP interview event in your community, these training workshops are offered by VHP staff at no cost to you. VHP also has an informational pamphlet on planning your own interview event. Email [email protected] to request a copy.
By the time the first day of interviews arrived, we had nearly a full schedule of veterans to interview. With four study rooms available at the Santa Monica library, we could conduct four interviews at once, and allocating 90 minutes per interview meant we could interview 20 veterans per day. Each interview requires an interviewer and a note taker, plus we needed volunteers to greet the veterans and help them complete their required forms, so at any given time we needed at least 10 volunteers onsite. Luckily, we had an outpouring of support from our collaborating organizations and the community, so volunteers were in abundant supply.
That day, U.S. Representative Ted Lieu, a Chinese-American veteran himself, made opening remarks and took some time to chat with the veterans and thank them for their service.
VHP events often involve Congressional offices, as VHP is a popular and important Congressional constituent service. Some Congressional offices even have dedicated staff, interns or Green and Gold Fellows (formerly known as Wounded Warrior Fellows) whose entire job is leading VHP initiatives in their member’s state or district.
After Rep. Lieu’s remarks, the interview process began. The interviewers and note takers met their assigned veteran in the designated waiting area, where the veteran enjoyed refreshments generously provided by the Santa Monica Library. The group then picked up an iPad on loan from VHP staff and went to a study room to conduct the interview. Once the interview was finished, the group dropped off the iPad, so VHP staff could download the interview and put it on a flash drive for the veteran to take home with them, and save it to a hard drive to take back to the Library of Congress to be processed and added to the VHP archive. Veteran after veteran, volunteer after volunteer, we did 18 straight interviews just like this the first day.
The next two days worked the same way, with a venue change to Alhambra on the third day. Alhambra is a cultural hub of the Chinese community in LA, and as such it was our busiest day yet, with a full schedule of 20 interviews. The veterans who shared their stories represented nearly every conflict covered by VHP, including World War II, Vietnam, the Cold War, Iraq and Afghanistan. Two veterans in attendance were recipients of the Congressional Gold Medal awarded to Chinese-American veterans of WWII.
By the time the last interview of the third day concluded, our volunteers had captured close to 40 interviews and primary source collections. Thanks to the hard work and dedication of CFHG and our other community partners, this single event spanning three days had increased VHP’s AAPI collections by nearly 10%! What a fitting tribute for AAPI Heritage Month. Perhaps more importantly, the veterans left their interviews feeling like they had contributed to our nation’s history, and that they had done something that they could be proud of.
One veteran of the Vietnam war, before his interview, told his interviewer that he wasn’t sure if his story would be worth telling, saying that he was “a nobody.” After he finished, he had completely changed his mind. The process of telling his story had made him realize that in fact he had made worthwhile and admirable contributions to his country that needed to be documented. As he left, he told his interviewer that he was no longer ashamed to say that he fought in the Vietnam War, and added,
“Today you turned a nobody into a somebody.”
The stories collected last month are still being processed, and, as such, are not yet available for viewing. If you are interested in seeing VHP collections from AAPI veterans, make sure to check out “Going for Broke,” a Serving: Our Voices online exhibit featuring AAPI veterans.
VHP would like to thank the following members of the Chinese Family History Group, the Chinese American Citizens Alliance, the Chinese American Museum, the Japanese American Veterans Memorial Court and the Alhambra and Santa Monica Public Libraries, as well as all of the volunteers and supporters who put in countless hours of hard work in preparation for and during our LA interview event:
- Patrick Chew, CFHG President
- Michelle Jong
- Barbara Lu-Baltazar
- Marjorie Lee
- Hilda Lohguan
- Erica Cuyugan
- Susan Lamb
- Bo-Gay Tong Salvador
- Don Bannai
- Suzanne Woo
- Evelyn Lee
- Monica Ly
- Rachel Foyt
- Kathy Lo
- Cecilia Tovar
If you would like to plan an interview event in your community, please contact the Veterans History Project at [email protected].