Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Save the War Stories before It's Too Late

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Save the War Stories before It's Too Late

Article excerpt

My 94-year-old father and two of my uncles were among the 16.5 million men and women who served in the American armed forces during World War II. Both uncles, and another who served with the Canadian military in the war, are now dead. I have only snippets of information about their lives in uniform. At my urging, my father recently wrote the story of his life on active duty in the U.S. Army from 1940 to 1946.

My reasons for pushing him to do it were personal. I want my children to know about his experience of war as a young man. They are approaching the age my father was then, full of bounce and life. To them, their grandfather is a slow-moving, hard-of-hearing, old guy.

When my children read their grandfather's story, I hope they will understand him and their country a little better.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, about 1.7 million World War II veterans are still alive. Nearly 250,000 will die this year, about 685 every day. Almost all will take their stories with them when they go.

Those stories are a form of national treasure. For years, historians, journalists and family members have been collecting letters, diaries, journals and interviews from a few of those 16.5 million. The Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress, created by an act of Congress in 2000, has materials of some sort from 48,000 World War II vets. University libraries, state historical societies, military units and other organizations have collected a few thousand more. No one knows exactly how many because there is no clearinghouse or coordination. But it is likely that fewer than 1 in 200 of these veterans' stories are preserved in any fashion.

Of those that are preserved, a small share is digitized and easily accessible to the public. The Veterans History Project has put up 7,000 World War II vets' stories on its Web site. The Rutgers Oral History Archives have an additional 469. The total in all digitized collections is well under 10,000. For the rest, one has to travel to a library or historical society.

In the 1930s, the last generation of Americans who had been slaves was dying out, taking their stories with them to their graves. …

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