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Inquiring Minds: VHP Marks 15 Years Preserving Veterans’ Stories

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Servicemen and servicewomen raise a toast to victory on VJ Day in 1945. Veterans History Project.
Servicemen and servicewomen raise a toast to victory on VJ Day in 1945. Veterans History Project.

A missing Air Crew Report, author Dennis Okerstrom says, provides plenty of facts about losses in air combat: type of aircraft, names and ranks of crew members, a flight plan. Those facts can’t, however, reveal war’s human dimension – what it’s like to actually get shot down in combat.

“It cannot begin to convey the terror, or the courage, or the sense of loneliness experienced by the young men who suf- fered events such as their aircraft being shot from the sky,” Okerstrom said.

For that, researchers need firsthand accounts of the men and women in uniform who were there – stories like those preserved in the Veterans History Project (VHP) at the Library of Congress.

Recently, VHP reached a milestone: its 15th anniversary of collecting, preserving and making accessible the remembrances of the veterans who fought America’s wars, from World War I through Iraq and Afghanistan. In the coming months, the project will hit another milestone: 100,000 individual collections, donated by veterans and their families.

VHP marked the anniversary with a launch of a new online feature, “VHP at 15: Collections Over the Years” and with a display in the Great Hall of photos drawn from the collections.

“Over the last 15 years, the Veterans History Project has developed into a rich archive brimming with the insights and emotions of a diverse legion of America’s veterans,” VHP Director Bob Patrick said. “It is very satisfying to hear of the value placed upon VHP by researchers and educators as well as the appreciation expressed by veterans and their families that these stories will be accessible for generations to come.”

About half of those who use the collections onsite hold a personal, not professional, interest in the material, VHP reference specialist Megan Harris said – just “visiting” the collection of a loved one or trying, perhaps, to learn more about the POW experiences of a father who passed away without really talking about what happened.

“That is pretty powerful,” Harris said. “This draws them in in a way that you don’t see every day. They feel really compelled to do that.”

Most others are researchers carrying out a professional mission: academics, authors, filmmakers, journalists and representatives of historical or federal institutions.

Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office investigators, for example, draw on VHP collections in their efforts to provide a full accounting of missing servicemen and servicewomen. The National Museum of the U.S. Army intends to use VHP collections in the new museum planned for Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Rick Atkinson drew upon VHP collections for two volumes of his World War II Liberation Trilogy, “Guns at Last Light” and “Day of Battle.” Filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick used the collections for their seven-part World War II miniseries, “The War,” and for their upcoming Vietnam War documentary.

Okerstrom, a literature professor at Park University in Missouri, used the collections for two books that explore World War II air campaigns, “Project 9: Birth of the Air Commandos in World War II” and “Dick Cole’s War: Doolittle Raider, Hump Pilot, Air Commando.”

In many cases, Okerstrom said, the veterans he hoped to interview already had passed away. That left VHP collections as the only source for some of the stories he wanted to tell and for the little details that help make history come alive – such as actor Jackie Coogan, a pilot during World War II, regaling comrades with stories of Hollywood starlets.

“VHP offers a well-documented, cross-referenced collection of interviews that simply doesn’t exist anywhere else,” Okerstrom said. “This is not to diminish the importance of records repositories in other places, but I know of no other place to find so many interviews of so many of America’s veterans.”

The majority of VHP collections – and about two-thirds of research conducted onsite – relate to World War II. Still, a significant portion deals with later conflicts: About 3,700 of the collections come from veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Author Larry Minear drew heavily upon VHP collections for his book “Through Veterans’ Eyes: The Iraq and Afghanistan Experience,” a narrative of the impact of those two wars on veterans such as Marine Sgt. Dax Carpenter, who was badly injured in Iraq and struggled for years at home to get benefits.

“Without the accounts of the experiences of the wars told in first-person terms, my research would have been an exercise in speculation, lacking the rigor rightly expected of social-science undertakings,” Minear said. “What my book seeks to convey is not my own voice but that of soldiers themselves. Proceeding inductively from data to conclusions is of the essence.”

Others use the collections to explore timeless themes like love and war – the relationships, for example, between husbands and wives and parents and children in wartime correspondence.

Christina Knopf, an associate professor at SUNY Potsdam, has used VHP collections to produce a series of research papers about the rhetoric of relationships found in war letters.

During one two-week visit to the Library, she photographed some 5,000 letters from 21 different collections – data she’s only beginning to explore for a project she hopes to turn into a book.

“I took a sabbatical in order to visit the LOC and I was overwhelmed by the choices available to me for research, Knopf said. “The staff was enormously helpful – and that is another benefit of the VHP.”

Whatever use is made of the collections, Okerstrom said, the important thing is to preserve these stories before the veterans who tell them are gone.

“These were ordinary men and women who defeated the best that Germany and Japan had to offer, then came home to get back to their pre-war lives,” Okerstrom said. “They hung up their uniforms and didn’t talk about what they had done, usually viewing their service as unremarkable.

“Today, we recognize just what their service and sacrifice have meant to us all, and their stories need to be preserved for future generations.”

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