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Of Those Who Served: The Veterans History Project Collection at the Library of Congress

By Amanda M. Brown

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2003 issue of Folklife Center News, Vol. XXV, Number 1.

Veterans History Project processing technicians (left to right) Sandra Savage, Judy Ng, and Rachel Mears examine materials submitted by World War II veteran Clifton Davis from Paris, Ohio. Photo by James Hardin.

Eighty-four years have passed since Frank Woodruff Buckles served with the First Fort Riley [Kansas] Casual Detachment in France and Germany, yet the World War I veteran speaks lucidly of his experiences as a medic in the Army. Of his time in France, Buckles recalls listening to boisterous French soldiers sing the French national anthem "La Marseillaise" in local wine shops. Buckles explains in an interview, "I enquired, what is the occasion? They were going back to the front. Can you imagine that?"

Indeed, no. Few today (and perhaps not many in 1918) can imagine celebrating one's imminent return to the frontlines or to the gruesome realities of trench warfare. However, one can gain a better understanding of the multidimensional and changing character of twentieth-century warfare by investigating the personal narratives of those who served in the military and in homefront efforts during wartime.

The Veterans History Project, under the umbrella of the American Folklife Center, is providing an opportunity for veterans of the two world wars and of the Korean, Vietnam, and Persian Gulf Wars to share their recollections of wartime experiences. James H. Billington, the Librarian of Congress, has stressed that "the American story can be told through a thousand different voices, a thousand different pictures, a thousand different memories." Even a casual study of the collections already donated to the project reveals an amazing diversity of experiences that spans eight decades and chronicles thousands of lives forever changed by their participation in those wars.

Therein lies the heart of the Veterans History Project, for no two of the more than four thousand personal testimonies that have already been donated to the project are identical. Some veterans share their stories with friends and family through carefully crafted memoirs; others give interviews to nieces and nephews, grandchildren, and students of younger generations, who have no personal remembrances of those times and events. Still others dust off their attic trunks and revisit their own war years (or those of deceased family members) through personal correspondence and photographs, compiling the mementos first collected when they were young and sometimes held ilence for decades.

A page from Colonel Gurfein's scrapbook with newspaper clippings, a photograph, and Colonel Gurfien's Silver Star. Veterans History Project Collection.

Ronnie Sobbe chose to record his story of Vietnam through the lens of a camera, rather than in the more traditional diary, memoir, or interview. Two hundred sixty-nine candid snapshots, most of which are uncaptioned, comprise the bulk of Sobbe's collection. Vietnamese villages, Army operations, and social gatherings are among the subjects captured in the photographs. From casual shots of overseas living quarters to prints depicting brief, happy-go-lucky interludes of leave at home, Sobbe's collection presents a fascinating picture of his life in Vietnam in all its tedium, intensity, hilarity, and horror.

In contrast to Sobbe's visual display, Vietnam veteran Rhona Marie Knox Prescott used words as her medium for sharing her sobering testimony of service in the Army Nurse Corps. In her interview, Prescott recalls encountering Vietnam in its lush, green beauty for the first time; she then explains how that first impression of a paradise-like world faded once she alighted from the helicopter and went to work. "When we were busy," Prescott tearfully recounts, "we had to somehow block out the smells and the sounds because the smells were of dirty, putrefied flesh and blood . . . the sounds were of people crying and screaming and praying . . . the sounds were chaotic. The smells were astounding." Prescott's gripping account effectively captures the emotional and physical turmoil she and others experienced in America's longest twentieth-century war.

A quarter century earlier, Helen C. Hurst served in a similar capacity as Prescott in a war far different from Vietnam. Compelled by pleas for help from the Red Cross and encouraged by the patriotic fervor of a nation in the throes of a heroic world war, Hurst joined tens of thousands of other young people in the war effort and served her country in the Army Nurse Corps. After training in Sebring, Florida, the Indiana native was shipped to North Africa and then to Italy. In an emotional interview, Hurst tells of traveling in convoy with Army G.I.s through the African desert shortly after the Allies had soundly defeated the Desert Fox, Nazi General Erwin Rommel.

Hurst continues her narrative with memories of spending the holidays in charge of a hospital ward on the island of Sardinia. Defying orders from her commanding officer that restricted decorations in her hospital unit, Hurst procured a "Christmas tree," recruited her healthier patients to set it up in a prominent place in the ward, and crowned the top with a bedpan "star." For Hurst, this act of kindness and Christmas cheer merely reflected the spirit that she believes accompanies service in the armed forces. "I thought, ‘Well, this is my country. I've got a duty.' So I joined." She became one of sixteen million men and women who answered the call to military service in World War II.

Many World War II veterans found themselves serving their country again five years later in what would become known as the "forgotten war." Col. Joseph Gurfein, a West Point graduate and career Army officer, served in the Korean War and fastidiously saved photographs, ration cards, letters, telegrams, and news clippings, which his wife Marion compiled in a scrapbook titled simply "Korea '50-'51." Mrs. Gurfein included in the scrapbook literature and photographs of Colonel Gurfein's participation in the Inchon invasion, North Korean propaganda against the United Nations, copies of Gurfein's military orders, and a Western Union telegram sent by Marion in response to the announcement of her husband's return from Korea: "Living for January 25 Love you deeply Marion."

Amanda Brown sorts through the pages of a scrapbook compiled by Marion Gurfein, the wife of Col. Joseph Gurfien, a veteran of World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. The individual pages have been housed in mylar sleeves for preservation. Photo by James Hardin.

Other Korean veterans, however, share their memories by reflecting, in writing, on the profound impact that the brief war had on their lives and those of their families. Their stories are found in memoirs with titles such as "Memories of a Non-Hero During the Korean War" and "A G.I. Machine Gunner: From the Seminary to Korea's Front Line: 1951-1952" and "Korea: Frozen Hell on Earth, A Platoon Sergeant's Diary, Korean War 1951-1952."

Only eleven years removed from war in the Middle East, Persian Gulf War veterans like Air Force Maj. James Jeffrey Webb and Navy Boatswain's Mate Third Class Laura E. Dwyer speak passionately about their time spent in the Middle East. Webb's collection includes an audio interview and accompanying transcript, a photograph of himself in that timeless military pose in uniform in front of his aircraft, and a map called an "evasion chart" that was distributed to those serving in the Persian Gulf. The waterproof, flame-resistant map of areas of Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates features crucial desert-survival material such as celestial-navigation charts, lists and pictures of edible and inedible plants indigenous to the region, and helpful secondary uses for the map.

For Laura E. Dwyer, deployment to the Persian Gulf evoked mixed emotions. Aboard the USS Cape Cod, a photograph of which she donated with her collection, Dwyer "felt part of the force that was going to war, bound for it, destined for it like a river that runs into the sea. My emotions oscillated between fear and pride." Many Persian Gulf War veterans, who have participated in the Veterans History Project, reflect upon their respective roles in that war while contemplating the current unrest in the Middle East and the possibility of future service there.

One is left with a sense of awe at the eloquence with which each of these collections speaks: in a formal interview between a World War II veteran and his granddaughter, in the letters of an eighteen-year-old boy writing to his mother from the trenches of World War I, in the stark black-and-white photographs of Korea in wintertime, in the descriptions of the Saudi Arabian desert's suffocating heat. Veterans' voices are being heard and their stories are emerging at the prompting of student interviewers, in the pages of diaries and logbooks, in the texts of their own writing.

Amanda Brown, a recent graduate of Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, is a former Library of Congress Junior Fellow who has had a temporary appointment at the Veterans History Project. Rachel Mears, processing technician at the Veterans History Project, also contributed to this article.

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  August 8, 2005
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