Old war stories being recorded

Monday, November 12, 2001

MYSTIC, Conn. -- James W. Graham remembers his U.S. Navy service not as a fight against the Japanese or Germans, but as a fight for black sailors trying to make it in a white Navy.

Ethel Mary McGinn recalls that her service in the WAVES taught her compassion for others that would remain with her throughout her life.

"We had a sense we were part of the creation of something new," McGinn said. "There was no selfishness among us. We were sisters under the skin."

These are two of the thousands of stories being collected as part of the Library of Congress' Veterans History Project, which started last year.

The library and more than 100 partner institutions around the country are collecting the oral histories of the everyman and everywoman in military service: the soldiers who marched in the infantry, sailed the ships, nursed the wounded and supported the war effort.

"This material would provide a grass-roots, oral, everyday ordinary person component to the official records and biographies of prominent individuals," said Sarah Rouse, a program officer for the Veterans History Project.

Oral historians are working on veterans' memories of World War II and Vietnam while they watch real history unfold in the war against terrorism.

"The relevance, unfortunately, has become too relevant," Bruce M. Stave, director of the University of Connecticut's Center for Oral History, one partner in the project.

Oral historians want to preserve as many memories as they can now because an estimated 1,500 war veterans die each day, including World War II veterans and the last remaining veterans of World War I.

Younger veterans of Vietnam and the Gulf War, many of whom have not previously been encouraged to tell their stories, are now getting the chance, Rouse said.

Most histories are being preserved on audiotape; some on videotape. The Library of Congress is also accepting personal diaries, scrapbooks, photographs and mementos from veterans to add to its collection. Families also are encouraged to record their relatives' stories and send them to the library.

Because the project operates on a small budget -- $250,000 plus donations -- the project has enlisted partners to record histories and train others how to do it.

Partners include universities, schools, community groups and museums such as Mystic Seaport.

Mystic Seaport has recorded the stories of about 30 veterans, including the memories of sailors on the USS Mason, the first Navy ship to have an all-black crew. It has also spoken to female Navy veterans from World War II, known as WAVES, or Women Appointed for Voluntary Emergency Service.

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