Local vets relive memories of war for national project
When Albert "Bud" Campbell, of Seattle, was getting out of the U.S. Army, a young officer asked him to join the reserves and gave him the...
Seattle Times Eastside bureau
Veterans History ProjectWhat: The Library of Congress is collecting oral histories from veterans about their wartime experiences.
How to participate: Guidelines available by mail: The Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, 101 Independence Ave. S.E.;
e-mail: email@example.com; Web site: www.loc.gov/vets.
Who is eligible: U.S. veterans from World War I and II, Korean War, Vietnam War and the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts. Also sought are oral histories from U.S. civilians involved in war efforts.
To see and hear the histories: Some 4,000 veteran stories are online at www.loc.gov/vets. Visitors to the Library of Congress can peruse the material.
When Albert "Bud" Campbell, of Seattle, was getting out of the U.S. Army, a young officer asked him to join the reserves and gave him the paperwork. Campbell tore the papers in two and handed them back.
"I'd seen enough death and destruction," said Campbell, an infantry captain. Until last week, the 89-year-old World War II veteran didn't talk about his war experiences in New Guinea and the Philippines.
Norris Bevan, of Bellevue, spent his 20th birthday fighting the pivotal Battle of the Bulge in Europe. He, too, never shared the horrors buried under a half-century of normal life.
When he talks about finding the bodies of 150 Americans, captured and then massacred by German soldiers, he cries. Then there was the small village where many villagers were executed. Bevan didn't join a veterans organization because he was done with war. He didn't want to remember his life in the 30th Division.
But this fall Bevan and Campbell put aside their reluctance and told their stories in front of a video camera. Like thousands of other veterans, they were persuaded to participate in a massive national project trying to capture a piece of American history before those who lived it firsthand are gone.
But getting those Tom Brokaw dubbed "The Greatest Generation" to participate in the Veterans History Project (VHP) at the Library of Congress has been a challenge. Many are reticent, saying they just did the job that needed doing. For others it's still too painful to talk about, even 60 years later.
RJ McHatton, of North Bend, knows how difficult recruiting these veterans can be. He's one of eight official VHP partners in Washington state and hopes to complete 100 interviews in the next few months.
He's been to service-club meetings, chambers of commerce and military groups. "We thought that after the Ken Burns movie, 'The War,' came out, there would be a swarm of people wanting this done," McHatton said. "We have not seen the rush yet."
Part of the reason is emotional.
"These are doors the veterans don't want to open again," said Robert Patrick, director of the VHP at the Library of Congress. "What they went through is too difficult to talk about."
Others are too modest to speak up.
"This is a generation that is humble," said McHatton. "They went through the Depression and then World War II. They don't consider what they did a sacrifice."
Still, since the project began in 2000, the Library of Congress has received more than 50,000 veterans' stories. More than 30,000 are from World War II, although the project seeks material from veterans of all wars.
Most of the $2 million annual budget goes for a staff that includes 12 to 15 archivists who catalog and process the oral histories and donations of letters, photos, diaries and other memorabilia.
"Because this is volunteer-driven, we get a lot of bang for the buck," Patrick said.
The VHP was started, he said, to create a source for research, fill a chapter in our national history and provide inspiration for the nation.
"The stories we're getting are a great example of what it means to serve your country," he said. "We enjoy our freedoms because these people defended our country."
While official partners such as McHatton, who runs a video biography company called Inventive Productions, turn in professional-quality materials, anyone is welcome to send in their own stories or those of family members, he said.
The project has become the largest oral-history collection in the country, said Patrick, and the material is already a vast treasure trove for historical writers and researchers.
Burns, the film director, partnered with the VHP to produce "The War." Another collaborative effort with National Geographic produced two books from the stories, "Voices of War: Stories of Service From the Home Front and the Front Lines," released in 2004, and "Forever a Soldier: Unforgettable Stories of Wartime Service" in 2005. A four-part radio series, "Experiencing War," aired on 100 Public Radio International stations.
Tim Mallory, reference librarian at Timberland Regional Library in Tumwater, said Burns' "The War" prompted an onslaught of calls to his office. The library will videotape any veteran in Thurston, Lewis, Mason and Pacific counties. Mallory said they've done more than 150 histories for VHP.
Like many veterans who agreed to be interviewed, Campbell and Bevan broke their self-imposed silence at the urging of friends and family.
For his taping, Bud Campbell sat in a comfortable chair in his North Seattle living room. His wife, Mary, watched from the dining-room table as McHatton set up a small bank of lights, a microphone and a video recorder on a tripod. McHatton used flashcards of questions to prompt Campbell.
He talked about being stationed at Camp Roberts in Northern California on Dec. 7, 1941.
"I was on a weekend pass when Pearl Harbor was bombed," Campbell said. "They kept saying on the radio that all military personnel should return to base immediately. I didn't go back until 2 a.m. because I knew we'd never get off base."
He was 23 years old and overnight his one-year commitment became five. He became an officer and fought in New Guinea and the Philippines.
"In Luzon we split into three groups. One went up one road, one another road and my group went through the jungle, up the hills. Each hill was higher than the last and each hill was a battle," he said.
Once the Philippines were secure, his 33rd Infantry Division trained to invade Japan. Experts were predicting a horrific invasion battle with massive casualties. Then the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.
"That's one of the things that bugs me," Campbell said. "There's so little taught about World War II in our schools. My kids came home from Nathan Hale High School and were saying we shouldn't have dropped the atomic bomb.
"I told them, I wouldn't be here and they wouldn't exist if we hadn't. They never brought it up again."
Those memories are just what McHatton and other historians want to preserve.
"The children and grandchildren and future generations need to know what our veterans have gone through," McHatton said.
McHatton is focusing on World War II veterans, an endangered demographic. Fewer than one-fourth of the men and women who served in the U.S. military in World War II survive. More than 1,000 die each day.
Sometimes the stories he hears make him laugh; sometimes he cries. The rewards are immeasurable, he said.
"I haven't done a story yet that I haven't pulled something out for my personal life," he said. "We're doing the veterans' stories for the generations that follow.
"Think of what it would be like today to have a video of Abraham Lincoln."
Sherry Grindeland: 206-515-5633 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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