Veterans History Project lets soldiers reveal the anger and pain that followed them home
November 9, 2013 11:59 PM
Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress
Photos and interview transcript from Seaman Charles Jesse Philip, a Missouri native who served in the Merchant Marine from 1943 to 1946 in the Atlantic, Caribbean, Pacific, Baltic Sea and English Channel.
Soldiers aid wounded buddies through jungle foliage to be evacuated by a medical evacuation helicopter during a five-day patrol of Hue, South Vietnam, in April, 1968.
William Barner III
Library of Congress reference specialist Megan Harris, left, and archivist Andrew Cassidy-Amstutz look over a journal was submitted to the Veterans History Project by Vietnam Veteran William Maxwell Barner III, 70, of Texas.
By Tracie Mauriello / Post-Gazette Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — The journal reads like a dispassionate account of a soldier so accustomed to the atrocities of war that killing had become a tedious errand, but in oral history recorded four decades later, William Barner III revealed the long-term effects of battle, including displaced anger and post-traumatic stress disorder not diagnosed until 2009.
Mr. Barner's is just one of 90,000 accounts that are part of what has become one of the world's largest oral history projects. The stories and documents -- journals, letters home, photographs, memoirs and oral histories -- span the period from World War I to present. Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress has been collecting them since 2000, and anyone can contribute their information or their ancestors'.
"Shot up a large group of Viet Cong, then took a nap," reads one candid entry from the Vietnam War battlefield. Another: "Lt. Mathews shot himself in his leg. I did my laundry. I did not get any mail."
But in the cathartic oral history, recorded in October 2012, the Army cavalry veteran, revealed seething anger and lingering pain that followed him home from war.
In treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder in 2009, he mentioned the journal he hadn't looked at since 1968, and someone at the Veterans Administration suggested he revisit it. Reading it helped him come to terms with what happened, and eventually he shared his story with James Showers, a family friend who would come to record Mr. Barner's story for the Veterans History Project.
"During that interview, I felt for the first time in my life that America might care," Mr. Barner, 70, said Thursday in an emotional phone call from his home in Texas.
Interviewers find fulfillment in helping, too, said Mr. Showers, 72, a Texas lawyer who learned about the Veterans History Project through the Hill County Bar Association. He recorded two oral histories: Mr. Barner's and Nelson Galle's. Mr. Galle fought in World War II as part of a tank destroyer corps.
"It was very interesting to me to compare their experiences," Mr. Showers said. The interviews "provide a clear picture of the trauma experienced by those who served and the total lack of understanding and support when the veterans returned home."
During his, Mr. Barner spoke candidly about his lack of remorse when killings became so routine he stopped documenting them in his journal. Next came feelings of shame and only recently the idea that the killing might have been necessary to save Vietnamese children and fellow soldiers, who were often on the receiving end of rockets and mortar fire.
"I killed them all because they were going to kill all these kids and I had to keep the kids alive," he said Thursday. "I'm not ashamed any longer."
His is just one of many compelling accounts being preserved through the project, said Megan Harris, a reference specialist with the Library of Congress American Folklife Center, which manages the Veterans History Project.
The journals and oral histories can be especially revealing, she said. When historians rely on war correspondence, they often get a very limited and censored picture.
Mr. Barner can vouch for that.
In wartime letters to his wife, Sandy, he had described beautiful skies, tall trees and his love for her but never mentioned the mortar fire or the kill counts he recorded in his journal. He says he wanted to protect her from the things he saw.
Now he is sharing the most troubling parts of his life with anyone who cares to check out his journal at the Library of Congress. That includes an account of the day that scarred him the most: when he struck back against enemy fire emanating from a village.
"I eliminated I don't know how much of that village. I don't know how many children, women, pigs and horses I killed. It frightened me so much that one person could do that much damage. I thought no human being should have that much power," he said Thursday.
Until recently, he was ashamed for even his wife to know about that. Now he sees it as a small but important part of the nation's history and no longer wants to keep it to himself. The Veterans History Project is helping him share it.
"Now I've told my story and the Library of Congress has my story," he said. "It's going to be there as long as America exists."
Stories don't have to be as compelling or as dramatic as Mr. Barner's for the library to accept them, Ms. Harris said. Oral histories and documents are welcome from anyone who served in uniform no matter where they served or in what roles.
"Definitely, we want stories of combat, but we recognize that all veterans played important roles no matter what they did. If you served in uniform we want your stories," Ms. Harris said.
Bev Tripp has that on her mind after visiting the Library of Congress Wednesday for a gallery talk Ms. Harris led on the Medal of Honor. During her brief talk, Ms. Harris mentioned her work with the Veterans History Project, and that caught Mrs. Tripp's attention.
Her father, World War II veteran Reed Stormer Jr., a native of Oil City, died just two months ago at age 88. She wept Wednesday when she learned that she could honor him by sharing his war correspondence with the library, where it would be available to anyone who cared to read it.
"It would allow him to live on," said Mrs. Tripp, of Silver Spring, Md.
She wonders, though, whether her mother, who now lives in Chambersburg, would part with the letters.
Ms. Harris said she is touched by families' willingness to give up heirlooms, even though the gesture ensures the treasured documents will be carefully and painstakingly preserved in archival quality folders and binders and boxes.
For many families, the decision is difficult, she said, pointing out a leather-bound photo book that Air Force Gen. John Edwin Upston created during World War II for his son Johnny's 10th birthday in 1945.
"It's quite something for the family to give this to us because it's clearly a family heirloom," Ms. Harris said.
In storybook fashion, Gen. Upston used photos to tell a story about a journey from a military base through the streets of India to a village. Beneath each photo is a sentence or two scrawled in blue ink.
"One afternoon, while I was sitting on the porch thinking of Mommy and you, I glanced across the road. There, perched up in a palm tree was a small Indian boy. I walked out into the garden and stood for a very long time watching him and wishing you were with me," reads a caption beneath a photo of Mr. Upston, seated with a cigarette dangling from his hand. "Let's pretend that you are here with me and I'll take you on a tour of one of India's many villages. Get into the car and we'll go."
Subsequent pages show him traveling on by Jeep, bicycle and motorcycle to reach a rural village shop.
"Let's buy this fancy hat and be on our way," concludes the photo book, which the general mailed home along with the hat, his gift to his boy back in California.
Andrew Cassidy-Amstutz, the collection's archivist and a native of Hershey, said the format is creative and the content heartwarming. The book had been dropped off at the library in the spring and now it's Mr. Cassidy-Amstutz's job to preserve it. Already the pages are crumbling and some parts appear to be held together with masking tape.
The Upston family also supplied 586 other photos and hundreds of other documents including military orders and wartime correspondence. The project will accept only paper, audio and video submissions, not three-dimensional artifacts such as medals, uniforms or supplies.
The submissions are slowly being digitized and portions are already available online. For some documents, though, researchers have to make an appointment and visit the Library of Congress in Washington.
Anyone can submit materials. Much of it comes from history students and teenage boys working to become Eagle Scouts.
Curators are unable to fact-check the information, so it's possible that some accounts are embellished or misremembered. Factual accuracy isn't the point; it's to honor veterans' perceptions and memories of their own time in the service, Ms. Harris said.
"We consider ourselves a cultural or social project, not a military history project. We're less interested in the specific movements in the battlefield that people might be talking about and more interested in their memory of the experience," she said.
U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., conceived the project on Father's Day about 15 years ago when he was sitting at a picnic table with his father and uncle. The two started talking about their time in the service. Wanting to preserve the moment for his young children, the congressman hurried inside to get a video camera.
"I wanted my children to have it when they were old enough to appreciate it," he said. "Then I thought, 'We need to be doing this nationwide. We need to be sitting down with veterans and hearing about their lives,' " he recalled in an interview.
In 1999 he sponsored legislation to create the Veterans History Project.
Mr. Kind didn't stop there. He is also a project participant who has conducted dozens of videotaped interviews that are now part of the Library of Congress collection. His wife, a court reporter, has transcribed many of them.
"The common theme I found is that veterans never feel they did anything special or extraordinary," he said. "It's amazing some of the stories these veterans tell, but they don't think they did anything extraordinary."
It is gratifying, he said, that the project is nearing the milestone of 100,000 records.
"This is the veterans' link to immortality because it's perpetuated now for future generations," he said. "I can't think of a neater thing than having the great-great-great-grandson of a World War II veteran sitting in a history class being able to pop up on his computer screen the actual interview of his great-great-great-grandfather who served generations before."
For information on how to view the collection or how to add to it, visit www.loc.gov/vets.
Correction, posted Nov. 11, 2013: Reed Stormer Jr. died on Sept. 23.
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