Four bare-chested men smile from the black-and-white snapshot, their hands poised on a huge artillery gun, the space above them a zigzag of camouflage. It's jungle. Korea, says the writing on the back, Lou, Jimmy, Roach, and Ted.
Similar photos, letters, and memorabilia inhabit albums, shelves and attics all over America. They tell tales of rationed food, broken hearts, family feuds, and happy holidays. Some are chatty, full of news and addresses and private jokes, current events and vignettes of men gassed in trenches, suicides, injuries, illnesses in England, Burma, Africa, the Persian Gulf. Some tell of learning to fly, earning battle stars, and driving ambulances; others say they are planting Victory Gardens, or building Jeeps in factories.
But no photo or letter can compare to the living memory of someone who lived American history.
Memories are exactly what Washington is looking for these days.
In October, 2000, Congress voted to create the Veterans History Project, prompted by Census indications of 1,500 veterans dying daily. Congress charged the Library of Congress and its American Folklife Project to collect personal histories, recordings, letters, diaries, maps, photos, and home movies of both World Wars, and the Korean, Vietnam, and Persian Gulf wars. And “veterans” doesn't only mean former uniformed soldiers, sailors, Marines, or airmen, the law said.
“We mean men and women who served in war, and in support of combat operations ... including the home-front activities,” said James Billington, librarian of Congress. “We want to create a comprehensive, searchable, national catalog of all oral histories and documents collected.”
“We're losing our veterans, our sources,” said Carolyn Fearing, a program representative. “We need to talk to them before they're all gone from us.”
The ranks of American war veterans are thinning fast. The 2000 U.S. Census shows that 5,020 Korean War veterans died or left the area in the 1990s - a loss of 23 percent. Even more striking is the decline in numbers of World War II survivors. This “greatest generation” shrank by 20,458 between 1990 and 2000, a 41-percent drop.
Tom Barden is a Vietnam veteran and a folklorist at the University of Toledo. He knows how to conduct oral history interviews and keeps an archive of local folklore. When a professional association in Columbus asked him to help get the Veterans program going locally, he volunteered.
“It takes some homework to do it well,” he said. “You have to have some questions in mind, and let them do most of the talking. But even when you do it without training, it's still valuable.”
Armed with tape recorders and smiles, students in his “American Myth and the Legacy of Vietnam” class have 10 good interviews “in the can,” he said. “This is public history, for the public domain,” he said. He said he's available to advise interested groups just how to make an oral history, but so far in Toledo, “it's been a deafening silence.”
But not from Tom Balduf. As a board member at Wood County Historical Society and a Vietnam vet, the Bowling Green biologist said has a lively interest in modern Asian history. He runs a committee dedicated to marking the 50th anniversary of the Korean War.
“And I saw this Veterans Project, and thought, hey, it will fit in well with what we're doing in Bowling Green,” he said. “They supply us with forms, good guidelines on how to collect the information and how to conduct the interviews. We just need to get our veterans out and get them talking. We want to get some World War II interviews as well. It's deplorable how little-known our history is, how forgotten are the things these people did for us.”
“Our participation was just approved a month ago, but we're excited about it,” said Wood County Historical Society Director Stacey Hann-Ruff. “We did several veterans' projects in the past couple of years and have eight or 10 interviews done already with local World War II vets. Oral history is a hard business, very time-consuming and costly without volunteer help. But we're official. Once all the work is done, our museum will be an official Library of Congress Repository for the oral histories of our veterans.”
Those interested in participating or donating items can contact the Veterans History Project information line at 888-371-5848; or view details and download forms at its Web site: www.loc.gov/folklife/vets.