Project Preserves Wartime Memories for Future Generations
By Daniel Dullum
Spectrum staff writer
The process employed by the Veterans History Project is simple. Sit down, relax, look at the video camera’s red recording light, and try to remember everything about your military experience from 30, 40, 50 years ago or more.
With a little gentle nudging, stories that have remained dormant within veterans’ memories suddenly come alive.
“I give them direction before they sit down to do it,” said Katherine Hester, who volunteers through Retired and Senior Volunteer Program for the Veterans History Project, a national undertaking of preserving the stories of American military service for future generations.
“We’ve learned a lot. Now, I just say to them, ‘I don’t want you to move,’” said Hester, who worked as a quality assurance specialist at the Sacramento Army Depot before retiring a year ago. “We’ve had a lot of them that want to rock back and forth, and we’ve had one veteran that went from side to side.”
“One of them gave us a nice side profile,” said Gail Hoberman, an RSVP volunteer administrator for the project. “Then, a friend of mine, whose story we taped, was a rocker! Back and forth. So we decided we couldn’t give him a chair that moved!”
“I tell them, ‘I don’t want you to focus on anything else in this room. Just look right here [points to camera]. Just talk to me like we’re just having a conversation,’” Hester explained. “So far, it’s worked.”
At a Nov. 12 workshop at the Hart Multipurpose Senior Center in Sacramento, Hester and Hoberman outlined the interview process — routine informational questions about being drafted, wartime battle experiences, and miscellaneous inquiries about life in the service.
For demonstration purposes, portions of their interview with Erwin Kaiser, a Sacramento resident who served in World War II, were shown.
Kaiser talked about his experience growing up in rural North Dakota, being drafted, going to boot camp in Kansas City, Mo., and his Army duties stateside and in India.
One of the photographs Kaiser showed from his duty in India was of him riding atop a camel. Another had him in a go-cart constructed from a B-52 fuel tank.
“This is what the kids like best when I show them these things,” Kaiser said in his interview.
“Erwin told us he didn’t have indoor plumbing in his house when he was growing up. He thought he was moving up in the world,” said Hester. Legislation to create the Veterans History Project was passed by Congress unanimously Oct. 27, 2000. Sponsors said an estimated 1,500 veterans die each day, making the project especially urgent.
RSVP is assisting locally with the collection of memories, accounts and documents of veterans from World War I, World War II, and the Korean, Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars for first-hand oral histories.
“It’s different and unique,” Hoberman said. “We’ve talked to Andrew Lolli, a three-star general who is the last living officer from the Manhattan Project. He knew Patton, Bradley, Churchill, Stalin. His story is incredible. And we had two veterans who were in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.”
Hester also interviewed a friend of Hoberman’s who was a jet pilot in Guam during the Vietnam War.
“He never saw action, but at Mather, he was working on the planes while they carried live ammo,” Hester said. “That was scary.”
She said the interview gave her newfound respect for the soldiers who served in Guam.
“They worked their tails off,” she said. “They had 10- and 12-hour shifts and they would service up to a dozen planes per shift. They didn’t have time to take leave or hardly had a day off. It was very intense.”
Hester noted that one interview was done with a member of the 442nd Battalion, which consisted primarily of Japanese-Americans serving in Europe.
“It was the most decorated combat unit of World War II,” she said.
So far, Hester and Hoberman have collected nearly 70 interviews which eventually will be archived at the Library of Congress.
RSVP is looking for volunteers to assist with the interviewing — either as a camera person or an interviewer — or with the associated administrative duties.
“Every time a specific question is asked, the time, the question and a brief answer must be recorded. It’s like indexing a book,” Hester said. “Anybody researching these records later at the Library of Congress will know instantly if this is a story they’re looking for.”
Hoberman, who does the database work, noted that if a veteran is deceased, and a relative has their story, the Veterans History Project will accept it from a relative.
“We’re also taking ‘Rosie the Riveters,’ plane spotters, people who worked in civilian duties who participated in the war efforts. We want their stories,” Hoberman said.
The RSVP Advisory Council provided start-up funds to purchase equipment and accessories, but the need for donations of digital or VHS tapes or money is ongoing. All participating veterans receive a VHS copy of their interviews.
“I’m just happy to help them tell their stories,” Hester said. “I think it’s important.”
“I’m selfish. I get happiness out of this,” Hoberman added. “So many of them were so interesting. We had a survivor from the Bataan Death March, another from Pearl Harbor. I cry at a lot of [the interviews] because I want my children and grandchildren to know about all of this.”
For more information about the Veterans History Project, call (916) 875-4460 or visit www.loc.gov/folklife/vets.
This page and its contents ©2003 Metropolitan News Company, Inc.
Last updated 11/18/03