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The Greatest Stories Ever Digitized

Col. Robert Patrick, USA (Ret.), is director of the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress. Part of the library’s American Folklife Center, the project is a national grass-roots initiative to collect oral history interviews, letters, photographs, and other original documents that chronicle the stories of veterans and home front workers from all wars. Patrick received a BA in history from Virginia Military Institute and went on to a twenty-eight-year career in the army. He directed the dedication of the National World War II Memorial in 2004 and joined the library’s project as director in May 2006.

This must be the largest effort ever to collect oral histories of World War II.

Actually it’s the largest oral history project in American history, period. We have over 50,000 collections now, moving closer to 55,000. And in those are also photographs, diaries, letters, scrapbooks, literally tens of thousands of other documentary items.

We’re averaging about 200 additional collections every week. And also, of the 50,000-plus we have, we’ve digitized 4,300 of them so you can go actually online and see and hear these interviews.

You cover all wars, right up to Iraq, but World War II is the focus.

That was our real charter. When Congress passed the legislation in 2000 we were told to start with the older veterans first. And we were actually able to capture some of the World War I veterans still around, and have some 250 collections on World War I. But World War II is the core. The World War II collections make up about 60 percent.

We often hear we’re in a race against time to collect these stories.

The Department of Veterans Affairs numbers as of September 2007 show 2.8 million World War II veterans are still with us—that’s out of 16.5 million who were in uniform in World War II. A lot of numbers get thrown around, but from the latest actuarial figures a little less than a thou sand—actually 977—are dying every day.

Give us a feel for the range of stories you’ve got so far.

What I like to point out is that in World War II, everybody was involved. So from this project you see things from the fox hole and the cockpit and also from the mess tent and the medical tent. We have stories from Iwo Jima and D-Day. We have stories from prisoners of war.

But we also have the story of a mechanic in North Africa who struggled to get Patton’s tanks going in time to go into battle. We have the story of a woman named Mimi Lesser, who was an artist and a volunteer in World War II, who went to Europe and ended up going around to all the medical wards and sketching portraits of the men who were there and mailing those pictures back to their families. And we have some seven hundred of those. You can see those on our website.

You’ve taken an unusual approach in not having professional historians do the interviews; you’re asking volunteers, or family members or friends, to record these themselves.

I think at first the thought here was, well, we’ll just all take our microphones down to the American Legion hall and start interviewing veterans. And quite frankly that’s probably not the best place to do it because they don’t want to talk.

So we’ve enlisted this whole raft of volunteers. We have college and university students doing it as part of their course work. Scouts have done this as part of their Eagle Scout project. We have retirement communities doing it. We have a librarian in Florida who’s done about a hundred interviews in the community by setting up events at the library. I’ve got a gentleman out in L.A., and the public library gives him a room two or three Saturdays a month and he alone has done some sixty interviews. The National Court Reporters Association has been involved in transcribing a lot of our interviews. So we’ve created this whole network.

The reluctance of veterans of this generation to talk about their war experiences is almost a cliché, but it really has been true.

I’m sure you’ve run into this with World War II vets—“Oh, I didn’t do anything, I didn’t do nuttin’, I don’t want to talk about the past.” But they would talk to each other: “This guy was there, he knows what I’m talking about, he would understand. But you weren’t there, you couldn’t know what I’m talking about.” Or they wanted to shield their family. Or they just don’t want to go there again, in their mind. It was so horrible you don’t want to talk about it ever.

So the very existence of a formal program like this helps break down that barrier—it provides a reason to talk.

Exactly. We provide that mechanism, and a very good reason for the veteran to do it is that this information will be preserved for all time in our nation’s capital in the greatest source of information in the world, the Library of Congress. And we tell students doing this, “You are becoming a historian yourself. By gathering this information, putting it together, and sending it to the library, you have added to the history of our country.”

The intergenerational aspect of this project is also a really important point. It opens the eyes of the younger generation to what these men and women in World War II did when they were seventeen, eighteen, nineteen years old. It’s changed some of these young people’s lives. One young lady, we asked her, “What did you get out of this,” and she said,“I want to do something in my life so that someday someone will come and interview me.”

How do you get started?

Go to the website, You can find out about the project, you can down load our “field kit” with basic guidelines on doing an interview. You can also call (888) 371-5848 to request the information. The first thing we tell people is to do some research. You don’t just walk up to a veteran and say, “What did you do in World War II?” We don’t have a set group of questions, though we do have suggestions. The basic question you can ask any World War II veteran is, “What were you doing on December 7, 1941?” And then forty-five minutes later they stop talking.

Cheap video cameras and digital media have really been a revolution in making something like this possible.

Eric Sevareid, you know, was a correspondent in World War II. And he said in his last radio broadcast that war happens inside of a man; it happens to one man alone; it can never be communicated— that’s the tragedy, and perhaps the blessing. But then he went on to say that maybe in the future we’ll find some way through our “art and genius” for them to tell their stories, and then we’ll learn that everything journalists wrote only scratched the surface. And we’ve found the art and genius these days to do this—to record and archive and digitize these oral histories and make them available to the general public as we never have before.


Originally published in the February 2008 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.