- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 9, 2005

Get on the Internet, go to www.loc.gov/vets and then click on Search the Veterans Database. There you can hear Giles G. McCoy talk about how, as a Marine private, he survived four harrowing days in shark-infested waters after his ship, the USS Indianapolis, was torpedoed by the Japanese in World War II.

Or you can listen as Augustus Prince tells how the U.S. Navy gave him a break in 1944, and he became part of an early program to integrate the armed forces. The Philadelphia-born Mr. Prince, a petty officer second class, applied for radar school and became the Navy’s first black radar operator.

These and many other extraordinary stories are part of the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress.

Take Darlene M. Iskra’s tale, for example. She joined the Navy in 1979, just after a divorce, and became one of the first women to graduate from dive school. Later, in 1990, she became the first woman to take command of a U.S. Navy ship, the USS Opportune. Army Col. Rhonda Cornum talks about being an Iraqi prisoner in the Gulf war.

Begun by an act of Congress in 2000 and part of the Library’s American Folklife Center, the veterans project is charged with an enormous task: to record the experiences of the veterans of every American war since World War I up through the present conflict in Iraq and any future war.

It also looks for the recollections of homefront civilians, men and women who worked in support of the armed services in defense industry jobs, with the United Service Organizations (USO), as flight instructors and medical volunteers or in similar positions.

The project’s purpose is to preserve the whole of this country’s memory about its wars — World Wars I and II, the Korean War, Vietnam, the Gulf, and so on — by collecting, as much as humanly possible, the stories of those who fought and participated in those wars.

Thus far more than 40,000 people nationwide have been interviewed — 3,000 of them during Memorial Day weekend 2004, when thousands of World War II veterans were in Washington for the dedication of the National World War II Memorial on the Mall.

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Across America, thousands of volunteers are involved in conducting these interviews — or in helping veterans to write their own memoirs, because the project collects written memories, too, just as it welcomes personal photographs, diaries and letters.

The interviews and other donations become part of the Library of Congress’ permanent collection, where researchers, family members and the general public will always have access to them.

The VHP provides no interviewing expenses or tools, such as recorders and tapes, so many VHP volunteers and interviewers find help from organizations that hold bake sales or spaghetti dinners. The money raised helps defray the costs of interviewing, so the interviewer or interviewee doesn’t end up paying those charges.

Often the interviewers are young people — high school or college students — who frequently interview in teams of two, armed with interview kits and tape recorders, such as the 400 from the Washington area who interviewed the 3,000 World War II vets that busy Memorial Day weekend last year.

“Young people thrive on being interviewers and say it makes history alive for them as it never has been before, hearing the stories from those who directly experienced it,” says project director Diane Kresh.

But very often the interviewers are older, retired people such as Wanda Driver, 76, who lives in Greenspring, a retirement community in Springfield. Mrs. Driver estimates she has done 120 interviews so far and plans to do many more.

Mrs. Driver is herself a vet: She served as a medical specialist during the Korean War for two years, working as a therapist. She’s now mother of four, a grandmother of seven and a great-grandmother of four.

What got her interested in the Veterans History Project was a talk she heard from Air Force Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught, who mentioned the VHP and its need for volunteers. Gen. Vaught, now retired, was the Air Force’s first female general and a power behind the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.

Mrs. Driver thought volunteering for the VHP was a great idea, in part because so many veterans, both men and women, lived in Greenspring, or they were people who knew veterans and could put her in touch with them.

And get in touch she did, with help from Gen. Vaught’s group, the Women in Military Service for America Foundation. This group of retired and active servicewomen celebrates women’s contributions to the armed services, primarily through the memorial at Arlington. At Greenspring, it runs what is called the “Treasure Chest,” which raises money to pay for interview tools by selling things the retired people at the community can’t use.

One problem Mrs. Driver learned about quickly was the difficulty in getting veterans to talk. She says that many of the veterans and homefront civilians she’s talked with at first say, “‘My story isn’t all that interesting. I was just doing my job. Nothing special.’”

But Mrs. Driver persists, telling them, she says, “‘Everyone has a story to tell. I want to hear yours.’”

Her persistence pays off. She says that after the interviews take place and family members hear what the veteran has to say, they will tell her, “‘Thank you so much for getting dad to open up. He never said a thing. It’s wonderful that you got him to talk.’”

More than 40,000 have now opened up and talked, and more veterans are talking to interviewers every week. Ms. Kresh says that the project has thus far collected some 100 World War I stories, that being the war most distant from our own time that’s part of VHP concern. Many of those interviews were provided by family members.

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The project’s small staff of 20 organizes the material and arranges for its storage. Being at the Library of Congress is a plus, Ms. Kresh adds, because the VHP has access to the best and latest in preservation, storage and collecting techniques, assuring that once it’s collected the information is treated with the best care available.

The walls of VHP’s offices display colorful wartime posters such as one from World War II proclaiming, “The More Women At Work The Sooner We Win!” It features a young lovely in a red blouse and cap standing in a cockpit as she works on a plane.

Staff enthusiasm is high, but its members are likely to discount their own importance, saying that it’s the veterans who are the heroes.

Tom Wiener, who works on the VHP Web site, has familiarized himself with the interviews of the collection, and with its other materials — the letters, journals, photographs. He’s overseen the two books the project has published in conjunction with National Geographic.

The first, “Voices of War: Stories of Service From the Home Front and the Front Lines,” was published in conjunction with Veterans Day 2004. The second, “Forever A Soldier: Unforgettable Stories of Wartime Service,” will appear tomorrow, Veterans Day 2005.

Mr. Wiener organized “Voices of War” according to topic. It has chapters such as “Basic Training” and “Under Fire,” filled with the experiences of interviewed veterans. One memorable interview is that of Warren Tsuneishi, who now lives in Maryland. Mr. Tsuneishi, along with his family, was among those Japanese Americans interned in camps. But Mr. Tsuneishi got out, became a technical sergeant in the U.S. Army and proudly served as an Army translator in the South Pacific.

“In my heart, I always thought of myself as an American,” he says.

In the new book, Mr. Wiener took a different approach. Each of the chapters deals with an individual veteran or homefront civilian. At least one is very famous: Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, whose plane was shot down over Vietnam and who spent more than five years as a prisoner of war.

Others, such as Philip Randazzo, aren’t famous, but had unforgettable experiences.

Mr. Randazzo was an Army specialist in Vietnam. Here, in his own words, is his description of a battle at Cu Chi on Jan. 31, 1968, at the beginning of the Tet Offensive:

The enemy “didn’t think any of us were alive. They thought they killed everyone in our vehicles. Before I know it, Sgt. Strayer’s head fell right next to me. I picked his head up, and he had a bullet hole right in his forehead … I had no ammo.”

Luck was on Mr. Randazzo’s side, however: A buddy came to his rescue with a machine gun and killed the four North Vietnamese soldiers closest to the truck Mr. Randazzo was in.

The VHP has as yet no museum-like space to show items from its collection, but Ms. Kersh says plans are in gear to have a changing display in the LOC’s Madison Building. She mentions that the project recently received canvas bunks that came from a decommissioned Vietnam War troop ship on the James River in Virginia. On the bunks, soldiers had scribbled notes about the number of days to go in service and how much they missed their sweethearts. The LOC will display items like that, along with its other materials.

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Meanwhile, Mrs. Driver has set up her next interview, with World War II veteran Raymond Wright, but she plans to do many more. Not long ago, she says, she found herself burned out. But now her vigor has returned. She hopes to interview every World War II veteran who lives in Greenspring — and there are plenty of them among the 1,800 in the retirement community.

Mrs. Driver says it’s important that she get the job done, now that so many World War II veterans are passing on.

“If you want to know what made America great,” says Mrs. Driver, “do these interviews. Go to the VHP Web site and read the interviews that have been done. I think these are unique people, one-of-a-kind, the ones I’m talking to. It is truly wonderful.”

How to help preserve the nation’s history

The Veterans History Project encourages anyone who would like to become an interviewer to sign up. The process is an easy one, and the VHP provides clear, handsomely produced booklets and kits that offer detailed information on how to conduct interviews and how to get those interviews to VHP headquarters at the Library of Congress.

Potential interviewers should follow five steps:

1. Arrange for the interview kit: Go to www.loc .gov/vets or, if you don’t have Internet access, call the toll-free number 888/371-5848 to find out how to acquire the 18-page Veteran’s History Project Field Kit, which describes conducting and preserving interviews.

It provides sample questions (“Tell me about your most interesting experience” or “Tell me about your first days in service,” for example) as well as registration and biographical forms. Also available is the 12-page Veterans History Project Memoir Kit, which offers guidelines for writing personal wartime recollections.

2. Find a vet: Ask a veteran to share his or her story with you. The Project also encourages interviews with homefront civilians, such as workers in munitions factories, USO staff, and the like. It addition to interviews, it accepts the diaries, maps, letters and photographs of veterans and homefront civilians.

3. Do the interview: Audiotape or videotape the interview or help the veteran to write down his or her memories. The VHP asks that interviewers not use small microcassettes for audio interviews because they pose major problems in preservation and sound quality.

4. Do the paperwork: Complete the release (permission from the interviewee) and the biographical forms in the kit.

5. Send the material: Use Federal Express, UPS or DHL to send your tapes, memoirs and forms to: Veterans History Project, the Library of Congress, 101 Independence Ave. SE, Washing- ton, D.C. 20540-4615.

Out of your material, the VHP creates a Web page for each veteran or homefront civilian who participates. The names of interviewers are included. To see those pages go to www.loc.gov/vets and click on “Using the Collections.”

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