Collecting the tales of war


Stories: The Veterans History Project wants to document memories of World War II before the old soldiers fade away.

February 17, 2003|By Stephen Braun | Stephen Braun,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

INDEPENDENCE, Ohio - Every three months, the old soldiers straggle into a white clapboard veterans post south of Cleveland, taking roll of their dwindling ranks and swapping war stories. The tales told by the Ohioans of North Coast Chapter 36 of the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge evaporate with the fleeting scent of beer and cigars, as perishable as their fading generation.

A decade ago, there were 104 men in the chapter. Now there are 64. The survivors save logs, official minutes, rosters, raffle accounts. But few found time to preserve their World War II reminiscences. Their yarns seemed destined not to outlive them, finite as a dying language.

"Who cares about a bunch of old soldiers' memories?" says George Tachuk, 84, a retired accountant who serves as the group's treasurer. But after the veterans finished their Pledge of Allegiance last month, a man from the Library of Congress stood up. Tom Swope asked the old soldiers if they would recount their stories for a massive oral history project that aims to store the recollections of thousands of American veterans in the library's Washington archives.

Swope left with nine names. "Better now than never," says Tachuk, who has begun to write his memoirs as an Army signalman.

The Veterans History Project is a novel exercise in oral history and a race against the clock. Conceived two years ago as an ambitious attempt to tap the collective memories of soldiers from World War I through the Persian Gulf war in 1991, the project is the most sweeping government effort to amass personal American chronicles since the Great Depression.

As a new war looms in Iraq, the library's archivists face a pressing generational deadline. They have already amassed narratives and relics from more than 3,000 soldiers - including 2,100 from World War II-era veterans. But they have reached only a fraction of the 4 million living Americans who served the country six decades ago and are now dying at the rate of 1,500 a day.

Despite the public fascination with military heroes that spawned Saving Private Ryan and a commercial explosion of books and films about the World War II generation, the veterans project has had to struggle to raise its profile. Its archivists depend on citizen volunteers to nudge veterans into looking backward. And they rely on the old soldiers themselves to vouch for the accuracy of war stories that are sometimes prone to exaggeration.

"We're trying to be broad and populist about it," says Ellen McCulloch-Lovell, the cultural historian who heads the project. "An infantryman or a supply clerk is as important to us as a general."

The notion that every soldier's story matters has energized volunteers such as Swope, a former television writer whose obsession with his father's war has spurred him into tracking down and interviewing 120 Cleveland veterans - more than any other of the scores of volunteer interviewers.

"These stories are like family heirlooms that nobody cared about," he says. "It's about time somebody found a place for them."

There are harrowing battle tales. And there are the modest accounts of veterans who simply wanted someone to listen. Swope spent hours one morning with L. A. Biggs, a retired Teamster whose war years passed uneventfully ferrying U.S. troops across the Atlantic. When they were done, Biggs clapped him on the shoulder.

"Things happen in your life and you're just grateful someone takes the time to put it all down," he says.

Swope makes the rounds at Veterans Day dinners and Legionnaires' meetings, listening for natural storytellers, their raucous laughter and boasts. But he watches, too, for the men who say nothing. He frets about wasted time and missed opportunities. Four of the men he taped have died. A fifth veteran died last week, two days before a planned interview session. Swope learned the news from the man's widow.

"Some of these guys are so frail I worry they'll make it through the interview," Swope says.

The narratives he sends in are transcribed for historians, researchers, veterans' families, "anyone who wants to know what it was like to live through the war," McCulloch-Lovell says. Although much of the material will be made available only in its Washington archives, the library has laid plans to put a broad sampling on its Web site.

The war's approaching 50th anniversary in the early 1990s had stimulated a sharpened interest in the use of oral histories, even as some veterans were wondering what to do with their mementos and their memories. The Army and other services already owned extensive battle narratives. Academic archives had sprouted at Rutgers University in New Jersey and in New Orleans, where the late historian Stephen E. Ambrose built a research bank of 2,400 accounts of D-Day, Iwo Jima and other key battles.

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