By CRAIG D'OOGE
"Finally, I have the time to type these notes and letters. In retrospect, they seem as from an age out of the distant past. I sit here listening to a stereo hi-fi radio that was built in Korea. When I was there, they didn't even have electricity. Japan has since become a leading power in the world. ... I wonder if they are grateful for our contribution in blood?"
These are the words written by John Berlo of Gardner, Mass., in his introduction to a journal he kept during military service in Korea from July 1951 to May 1952. At first glance, it seems like a simple question: "I wonder if they are grateful...?" But behind these words lies a sense of bitter irony. A man sits in his living room, surrounded by things manufactured in countries he once thought of as "defeated." He wants to make some sense of his life, so he pulls out a journal he kept during the war. But he finds no answers here, only the daily record of the comings and goings of a naive young man, someone he barely recognizes anymore. So he puts his journal in a box and sends it to the Library of Congress. Maybe somebody there can make sense of it.
All over America, veterans are sending their stories to the Library of Congress. Once again, they are answering a call to serve their country. But this time they are answering not with their bodies, but with words and pictures. Photographs, letters, videotapes, diaries, and bound volumes are beginning to flow into the offices of the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress.
In spite of recent problems in receiving mail on Capitol Hill, an astonishing variety of material is arriving, including many original letters and photographs that would otherwise be considered treasured family keepsakes. There are now more than 1,000 personal histories documented in the collection. The project gets more than 100 telephone calls and e-mails a day. About the same number of instruction kits on how to participate are mailed out daily.
The Veterans History Project began with a conversation between a young member of Congress and his family. Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., was at a family gathering a few years ago and began to ask his father and uncle about their military service in Korea and World War II.
"I was so impressed by what they said that I thought more Americans should have the opportunity to share their stories with future generations," the congressman said.
When Kind returned to Washington, he introduced a bill to establish the Veterans History Project in the Library of Congress, under the auspices of the American Folklife Center. With hundreds of co-sponsors, primarily Rep. Amo Houghton (R-N.Y.), Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.) and Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), the bill received broad bipartisan support and passed both houses in less than a month. President Clinton signed it into law on Oct. 27, 2000.
The project was officially announced by the Library on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 2000, with a press release noting that more than 19 million war veterans are now living in the United States but almost 1,500 die each day. The legislation called upon the Library of Congress to collect the stories of all veterans, from all ranks and all branches that served in World War I, World War II, and the Korean, Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars. This was later expanded to include those who gave their support on the home front as civilian volunteers, support staff and war industry workers.
After the legislation passed, the first order of business was to find a director for the program. Ellen McCulloch-Lovell, former director of the White House Millennium Council, was recruited for the position. A former chief of staff to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), McCulloch-Lovell has more than 30 years of experience in creating cultural and historical programs in the public sector, including the White House "Save America's Treasures" program that attracted millions of dollars to save hundreds of important historical sites and artifacts such as the "star-spangled banner" and the USS Missouri.
Recently asked what she first thought about the project, McCulloch-Lovell said, "I knew it was important, and I knew the task would be huge. But what I didn't anticipate was all the steps along the way."
Those steps have included finding office space, hiring staff, recruiting partners, raising funds, attracting press coverage, establishing procedures, starting a database, creating a Web site, cataloging material, training interviewers and reassuring all the veterans who call that their stories are important. All this has been accomplished, and more, and now the results are starting to show.
"I am really starting to see the momentum build as the project gets more established," Ms. McCulloch-Lovell said.
The project's founding sponsor, AARP, a nonprofit membership organization for persons 50 and older with some 35 million members, has pledged $1 million a year to support the project for three years, in addition to mobilizing participation by its many state and local chapters. The small amount of appropriated funds available for the project ($250,000 annually) has been supplemented by a grant for $80,000 from the Disabled American Veterans Charitable Trust to produce large print and audio versions of kits for participants. AARP helped with a special printing of some 50,000 kits, which are "flying out the door" according to McCulloch-Lovell. The group also helped establish a toll-free number, (800) 315-8300, for automated fulfillment of kit requests.
There are now 13 full-time staff members working on the Veterans History Project. About half are on temporary assignment or detail from other areas of the Library. Four program officers are assigned to work with the different types of organizations that have signed on as official project partners.
More than 250 organizations are involved in the project, ranging from national groups such as the Daughters of the American Revolution, the American Legion, and the American Historical Association to local organizations like the Adult Learning Programs of Alaska, the Montana Heritage Project, and individual schools and historical societies from almost every state in the union. A recent analysis showed that about a quarter of the partners are veterans organizations, with the next largest group comprising archives and historical societies.
Thanks to a recent arrangement with the American Folklore Society and the Oral History Association, official partners and congressional offices can call the Veterans History Project and arrange for one of these organizations to conduct a training session in their local community. For example, the Portsmouth Naval Hospital recently called to find an interview trainer for their nurses and hospital workers. Working with the Oral History Association, project staff were able to put the hospital in touch with someone who could help them in nearby Norfolk, Va.
To date, about 100 congressional offices have participated in the project directly. A mass mailing of special participation kits went out to every congressional office just before Veterans Day last year and in advance of Memorial Day 2001 and 2002. Each kit contains a letter from the Librarian of Congress inviting members to become involved with their constituents, as well as a list of things to do, a sample letter, a speech and a press release that can be adapted for local use. In addition, two special congressional briefings on how to participate were held at the Library this spring, attracting some 80 staffers who were given kits and a tour of the project's Web site, www.loc.gov/vets.
A group of 26 prominent leaders, called the "Five-Star Council," has been named by Librarian of Congress James H. Billington to advise the project and help bring it increased national visibility. Members of the council held their first meeting at the Library on Nov. 8, 2001.
Speakers included Billington, Sen. Hagel, Rep. Kind, Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), former Rep. Sam M. Gibbons (D-Fla.), Deputy Librarian Donald Scott, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony J. Principi, former AARP President Tess Canja and Lt. General Julius Becton (Ret.). During his remarks, Sen. John Warner, (R-Va.), told Billington, "I cannot think of any charge given to you by Congress of greater significance than this one."
That significance was underscored most recently at a special D-Day commemoration and call to action that the Veterans History Project held on June 6 aboard the USS Intrepid's "sea-air-space museum" in New York City. More than 500 area veterans, partners and school children turned out to see a new video about the project produced by the AARP. They learned about the importance of the project from the Librarian, AARP President Jim Parkel, and Five-Star Council member Lt. Col. Lee Archer Jr. (Ret.). Peggy Bulger, director of the American Folklife Center, discussed the principles of a good interview. Her talk was followed by a demonstration, as high school sophomore David Dombroski interviewed Sam Billison, one of the celebrated Navajo "code-talkers" who developed and used a secret code based on the Navajo language during World War II.
The June 6 event received wide coverage in the media. Willard Scott mentioned the project on the "Today Show," and ABC radio carried a report of the event nationally. U.S. News and World Report ran a story in its June 10 issue with pictures of two of the letters that Jerry Brenner, 82, donated to the project, part of an amazing collection of 1,261 letters that he and his wife exchanged during his two years of service in World War II. That collection alone, bound in 11 notebooks, takes up about three feet of shelf space in the offices of the Veterans History Project.
Why is this project so successful? Why, after all these years, are so many people sitting down for interviews or boxing up cherished mementos and sending them to the Library of Congress?
"We seem to be at the end of a historical cycle," says McCulloch-Lovell. "Many people are now in their 80s, and they are saying, ‘I went over' or ‘I was drafted. I fought, and it changed my life. But when I returned, I was so glad just to be alive that I just wanted to live my life. Now I want to go back to my experiences and reconnect.' So many people have told me ‘my kids never asked me about the war,' or ‘my dad never talked to me about it.'"
McCulloch-Lovell also thought that part of it may be the baby boomer generation getting older and learning to appreciate what their parents and grandparents did, as evidenced by the popularity of films such as "Saving Private Ryan," or Tom Brokaw's book, "The Greatest Generation."
"But I think it's also that we are living in a time of national crisis and we want to learn how other people handled a time of crisis. One woman told me after September 11 she asked her grandmother about Pearl Harbor for the first time. She said she never thought to ask about it before. We have a lot to learn from these people. And then there is also just the ordinary human urge to hear people's stories, to try to understand what someone else's life was like."
Or, as Paul Skogsberg of Winter Park, Fla., writes of a collection of old love letters he once wrote to a certain Army nurse during World War II who later became his wife: "It is a true story, and if it is told in an unorthodox fashion, I know of no other way to tell it. As you will see, it is my story."
Whatever the reason, the Veterans History Project is well on its way to creating an important body of documentary materials that will inspire and educate for many years to come.
Excerpts of Interviews from the Veterans History Project
"When I enlisted, I wanted to get into the Navy; I wanted PT boats because I had a background on the water. But when I went into the Navy area where they were taking enlistments, I couldn't see the end of it. I never saw so many people. I think every man that was available was volunteering and signing up. So I walked out into the lobby and there I saw a sign, and it had a picture of airplanes in formation flying over in it, and I said, ‘Boy, that's for me.'"
"I remember one of the mothers telling me, ‘I am so thankful that my daughter went into the service because now she stands up straight and looks wonderful'...and I had several mothers who told me the same thing. It was just how they were involved and wanted to show just how good women were. And I think they did."
"All the heroes from Vietnam are dead...Those of us who came home that were decorated...are heroes in their own right, and they suffered too. But the real heroes are dead."
A selection of video interviews from the Veterans History Project is available in RealMedia and Quicktime formats at www.loc.gov/vets/sights.html.
Craig D'Ooge is media director in the Public Affairs Office.