The American Red Cross prevents and alleviates human suffering in the face of emergencies by mobilizing the power of volunteers and the generosity of donors.
By Paul W. Cook/American Red Cross
I think I must have been five or six years old when I interviewed my first veteran. Of course, it was a “what did you do in the war, Daddy?” interview. My father had been in the South Pacific from 1943-45, serving aboard an LST (Landing Ship, Tank). He was a quartermaster, which, in the Navy, is a navigation job. He’d learned celestial navigation from a Mr. Childers, who, according to my dad, had years of experience with a sextant.
I didn’t really understand much of this at the time, but being out on the open sea, measuring the position relative to the ship of at least three stars, and drawing “star lines” lines on a chart captured my imagination. When the lines intersected perfectly, it must have looked like a near miracle to those not versed in the intricacies of celestial navigation.
These days, I’m listening to the stories of other veterans. The U.S. Library of Congress (LOC), through its American Folklife center, manages the Veterans History Project (VHP). (You can learn more about it at http://www.loc.gov/vets .) The VHP collects oral history from veterans of all U.S. wars with survivors remaining. The American Red Cross (ARC) is involved in VHP, in part because of its long history of service to military people and their families, and in part because of its extensive and well-developed volunteer network. The ARC, like the International Red Cross that Clara Barton used as a model for starting the ARC, began in combat nursing, and added further emergency services, becoming recognizable to most people through its Disaster Services function.
But men and women in military service also know the Red Cross through its Service to the Armed Forces division. The ARC has long provided emergency assistance to those serving our country in uniform. When a military man or woman, often serving far from home, has a family emergency, it’s most often the ARC’s Service to the Armed Forces function that works with the soldier, sailor, marine, or airman’s command to speed any necessary journeys home for the crisis.
So, the context in which I work involves the Library of Congress, the American Red Cross (for which I’m a volunteer), and veterans who are willing to talk about their service to our country. It’s a potent and fortunate combination, and I’m honored to be part of it.
In our work collecting the oral histories, we assemble a team of three Red Cross volunteers for each session–an interviewer, a videographer, and a scribe. The scribe prepares the Library of Congress’s required “Audio and Video Recording Log,” which is an index to the video that eventually appears on the Library’s website. The log helps researchers by noting the time mark on the video where discussion begins on certain topics. We’ve also had a still photographer present in at least one interview.
As a VHP interviewer, my instructions are to prompt the veteran I’m interviewing as needed to start and maintain the flow of talk. Otherwise, I’m to stay out of the way as much as possible, letting the stories flow along the lines of what’s meaningful to the storytellers themselves. The mission of the VHP is to collect oral histories from people who have served in America’s wars. An oral history is very specific to one person’s experience. I make a point of telling each veteran before I begin that it’s his interview, not mine.
Why is oral history important? Professional historians have given us extensive accounts of battles and campaigns, civilian life in wartime, political and diplomatic maneuvering, technological and industrial activity, and countless other aspects of these hard times. These academic accounts are vital to understanding the big picture. But they don’t often give us a feel for the direct experience of those who wear the uniform, fight and sleep on the battlefields, go for wounds to field hospitals, guide the ships, fly the planes, storm the beaches, man the guns. In World War II, a total of over 16 million Americans served in the armed forces, men and women from all over our nation. Over 16 million stories. What did it look like to them, through their eyes, interpreted through the lens of everything in their lives that brought them to the place and time of war?
I’ve found these stories to be both fascinating and emotionally moving. My appreciation begins with the willingness of those I’ve interviewed (at this point, all men) to recount experiences many simply don’t want to re-live. The stories also reveal the character of the storytellers in several ways–through the language in their stories, by what particular experiences they choose to give the most time to in the interview, and in the voice, the facial expressions, and other gestures that are captured in the videos.
One veteran, an army lieutenant and platoon commander in Europe, was wounded on the way to Germany in early 1945 after the Battle of the Bulge. His wound wasn’t life-threatening, but after being treated in the field, he was sent for a short time to a Paris hospital to complete his treatment and rehabilitation. The day before he returned to his unit, he got a one-page V- Mail letter from his best friend, another platoon commander.
V-mail, short for Victory mail, was a way of saving shipping space in WWII by microfilming correspondence and printing it at its destination. Our young lieutenant’s friend and correspondent was dead the next day. This long- ago lieutenant, our interviewee Mr. Tidwell Semmes, wept as he told the story. Adding to the weight of his grief was his knowledge that his friend’s brother had also died in combat, and another brother was missing in action.
In that last V-mail letter written to Lt. Semmes, his friend wrote, “I’m very tired–too tired to write much and couldn’t say a lot anyway. Same old war–blood, drudgery, excitement, weariness.” During the VHP interviews, we keep a box of Kleenex handy. Mr. Semmes made use of it as he told this story of his fallen comrade, and read the poignant words quoted above from a copy of the letter he’d brought.
Such accounts of what it’s like to spend months or years in combat speak volumes–loss is a constant threat. And the loss of one’s own life isn’t the only threat.
Oral history, especially oral history seen on video in the process of being told, is often compelling beyond what’s available in books. There’s a saying, usually attributed as an “African proverb,” typically related along these lines: “When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.” The “proverb” is actually traceable to an address made to UNESCO in 1960 by an African ethnologist, one Amadou Hampâté Bâ, who felt a sense of urgency in collection of interviews from people in oral cultures. So the “library” that burns down is actually a collection of knowledge that isn’t written down so that it could be preserved in “real” libraries. Each individual has a store within him or her that’s simply unavailable anywhere else–some part of the story of what it means, and what it felt like, to have lived through events in a certain time or place that can’t be gotten anywhere else.
My first interviewee, Mr. Granville Miller, was introduced to the VHP through the interest of his granddaughter’s husband, Mr. David Adams. This particular interview was conducted at the offices of the American Red Cross of the Mid-South, in a space with plenty of room. Mr. Adams brought his teenage daughter, Mr. Miller’s own great-granddaughter. The two younger members of the family listened to the young girl’s great-grandfather with great respect and interest, themselves hearing things they hadn’t heard before.
This interview was also the first of any interviews for the VHP in Memphis done by ARC. So, the Mid-South Chapter’s lead Service to the Armed Forces volunteer, Mr. David Compton, who is also responsible for the Memphis VHP, was also present. A Red Cross public relations staffer took photos after the interview. The whole experience was, for the time we spent there, something that built a little community around Mr. Miller as he told the story of his experience in Europe during WWII, landing on a Normandy beach with an artillery unit a few days after D-Day.
Another interviewee, Mr. Warren Carps, served as a Third Mate aboard U.S. Merchant Marine vessels. The movement of supplies in all wars is critically important, and its importance to WWII was perhaps more vital than ever, when the American role was the “arsenal of democracy,” a phrase used often by President Franklin Roosevelt. In his years of service, Mr. Carps survived two sinkings–one, surprisingly, was in the Gulf of Mexico. The other was the most in common place of danger for these ships–of the Battle of the Atlantic, where in the early years of American involvement, German submarine “wolfpacks” torpedoed all the cargo they could reach. Mr. Carps survived both sinkings uninjured.
The last veteran my team interviewed, Mr. Howard Lee, is a lively 97 year-old Pearl Harbor survivor. He saw the bombs falling on the morning of December 7, 1941, watched the great battleships burn and sink. Mr. Lee began his career in the U.S. Navy with training in ordnance, then became a photographer, and ultimately settled into aviation. He piloted planes during the WWII years that were used in anti-submarine operations. Later, after the war, he trained many naval aviators.
A bond emerges from this process, among all of us involved, keenly interested in and attending to the business of recording and honoring the experience of these veterans who have served their country selflessly, and who now take the time and effort to recount their war experiences to our interview teams, as well as to all those who would later have access to the interviews. These communities, these bonds, are brief but memorable, and always powerful experiences for those of us involved. The interviews produce a recorded talk that will eventually be a permanent record at what, for all practical purposes, is our national library. The faces and voices and stories of the veterans reside permanently in this most wide-ranging repository of books, records, and documents, with a little assistance from volunteers in the American Red Cross. In addition, DVDs of the interviews are available for check-out in Memphis at the American Red Cross of the Mid-South.
My own participation in this process has only a few months’ duration at this point. I look forward to hearing the stories of more veterans who have been a part of extraordinary times. I’m a veteran myself, of the Vietnam era, though I saw no combat during my sea duty assignment in the U. S. Navy. I’m happy to have heard from our declining population of WWII vets, and hope to hear from more of them. But I also hope to hear from veterans of Korea, Vietnam, and perhaps even our more recent wars. They’ve all been in places both far away, and within themselves, that few of us understand.
I have tried to offer a picture of what has and continues to be, in my view, a very compelling and invaluable process. I’ve given hints of what the people interviewed were like, but only they can tell their own stories, so I haven’t taken on the fool’s errand of relating experience that’s done so well by the participants themselves, remarkable Americans who walked through fire in their responses to crisis. Their faces, their voices, and their stories will be preserved, in part through the efforts of the ARC and its volunteers, in the U. S. Library of Congress. There’s no more fitting place I can think of for these memories to be stored.
Listening to stories from the veterans I’ve interviewed always makes me think of my dad, and his own stories of service in the PTO. He didn’t talk much about the fighting. I suppose most LSTs, ships with large bow doors that could open onto a beach and discharge tanks, trucks, and troops for an island invasion, got on and off the beaches quickly, and often spent less time under fire than many naval vessels. They rarely if ever engaged in battles on the open seas. The LSTs simply landed on the islands and then moved to take on more men and materiel to be transported to other islands. Many LSTs would also touch French soil in the Normandy invasion on June 6, 1944, the beginning of the liberation of France in the European Theater of Operations (ETO).
But there were times when LSTs did come onto beaches under fire. Though the islands held by the Japanese were shelled by naval gunfire or bombed from the air before the landings, they fired at any U.S. military targets they could reach as the invasion was in progress. I think I probably asked Dad about being shelled during a landing, and whether he was ever in a battle on the open sea (he wasn’t). But if I had any interest in what the shooting was like, that interest turned to other things–what my father really wanted to talk about, or was willing to talk about.
What Dad talked about was the work of navigation, the expertise of Mr. Childers, and learning flag semaphore and Morse code, so he could stand watches for the signalmen in addition to his own quartermaster watches. And he talked about the other men on the ship. He was most animated when he talked about those men and the work they did together.
Just over four years ago, my father died at the age of 87. I wish I could have interviewed him for the VHP, but he was gone before I knew about the project. I do, though, hold within myself a continuity of memory that flows from his experience in the U. S. Navy, through my own time in the Navy, and now out from the stories of others who have served. It would be nice to talk with Dad about that. Whatever else it is, my work in this Library of Congress project, made possible for me by my involvement as a Red Cross volunteer, is a way of honoring my father’s memory, and his service to our nation.
Paul W. Cook is a volunteer at the American Red Cross of the Mid-South. In addition to his work with the Veterans History Project as described in this article, he serves as the Red Cross Veterans Administration Services Representative. Paul can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.