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Veterans History Project listens, remembers

By Staff Sgt. C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (Dec. 13, 2002) -- American veterans have always had great stories to tell, and there have always been those eager to listen.

Now, thanks to the Library of Congress American Folklife Center and more than 521 partner organizations, the stories will live on for future generations to experience, long after the veterans themselves are gone.

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The Veterans History Project is an effort to archive the oral and written histories -- the personal stories -- of America's war veterans. The project does not limit itself to just the accounts of men in uniform, said the project's director.

"The goal is to create a new national collection of the firsthand accounts of veterans' personal experiences during war time," Ellen McCulloch-Lovell said. "Also, we accept the memories and stories of civilians who helped to support us during wartime -- civilians who served in support of the armed forces. That includes all branches and also includes the Coast Guard and the WWII merchant marine."

The project was officially created in October 2000, with a unanimous vote from the U.S. Congress. The time was right for Congress to make such a move, Lovell said, because the number of World War II-era veterans were passing away at a rate of nearly half-a-million a year.

"It came at the right time for some of the members of Congress who are veterans," Lovell said. "Also, some of the popular media may have also been a help. 'The Greatest Generation,' and 'Saving Private Ryan' really increased people's awareness that the WWII generation wasn't always going to be with us -- that when somebody dies, their story dies with them."

The Veterans History Project collects the oral and written histories of veterans from all 20th century wars -- World War I through the Persian Gulf War. The histories are typically recorded on audio or videotape, Lovell said. The VHP staff does not conduct the interviews themselves, however.

"Congress asked the Library of Congress and the American Folklife Center to create this new national project and to involve Americans in learning from each other," Lovell said. "The idea is that volunteers, members of the military, neighbors and family members would identify veterans and then interview them -- that they would learn through the interview as well as help create this collection."

Conducting such an interview is not difficult, Lovell said. To make the process less confusing, the VHP has created kits to help volunteers help veterans organize their thoughts, and conduct the interview. The project has distributed 100,000 such kits to date. The information in the kit is also available on the project's Web site.

Besides video and audio interviews, the VHP collects other items that can be used to illustrate the stories of America's veterans.

"Right now we have about 15,000 items in our collection," Lovell said. "An item would include a whole photo album, or maybe a whole collection of letters, or a reel of Super-8 film -- a lot of stuff."

To date, the VHP has collected information from more than 4,000 veterans from all branches of the military, including nearly 400 Air Force and Army Air Corps veterans, according to Lovell.

Retired Lt. Col. Frank Ernest Lund, a Korean War F-86 pilot, was one such veteran. Lund was contacted by his nephew and asked to give an interview as part of a school project.

"My nephew called and said he had a school project. Part of that project was an interview with Korean War veterans or WWII veterans," Lund said. "He asked me if I'd participate, and I didn't mind it at all. I would say all in all I was excited to talk about it."

Lund, who retired from the Air Force Reserve in 1977, said the interview was right in line with his own personal interest in history and the military.

"I've taken a big interest in the military, and my collection of scrapbooks and pictures and all that kind of stuff is pretty vast," Lund said. "I also have articles about the Korean War and books about the Korean war. It is kind of fascinating to me."

Another veteran, retired Maj. E. Ernest Waymon, a B-24 pilot in World War II, had his history written before anybody approached him for an interview.

Nearly a dozen years ago, Waymon wrote a book documenting his experiences in a World War II German prisoner-of-war camp.

"I wrote that book originally for my son and daughter so they would know what I did in the military," Waymon said. "What little I had written can give an insight into the prison camp -- that's the reason it was written -- and to explain what I went through during that time."

A copy of his book was Waymon's contribution to the history project.

While the project is ongoing, some of the material collected is already available to the public for research and learning.

"This will be a collection that will be accessible to the public," Lovell said. "Portions of it will be digitized and available on the Web site. We are also looking for other venues, such as exhibitions, where people can see the material."

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