Witness to history

Author: Malcolm McDowell Woods

Published Date: 9/21/2017

Categories: F1RST Fall 2017 F1RST Magazine History


Everyday Histories

Soldiers' stories make the past present through the Library of Congress' Veterans History Project

Most of us tend to think that history lives in textbooks, that the past belongs to historians. History? Man, that’s a time long ago and a place far, far away.

That’s not true, of course. The past reaches to the present and its evidence is all around us. By secluding ourselves from it, we do a disservice both to the past, and to ourselves.

Dr. Kimberly Redding, an associate professor of history at Carroll, has been teaching an honors course, The World Since 1945, for several years, and she’s passionate about the potential of oral histories to bridge that divide.

“We so often think that history is out there somewhere,” she said. “What’s that quote, ‘The past is a foreign country?’ Well, that makes this course a cross-cultural experience, in a way.”

Students in Redding’s classes have participated for several years now as researchers for the Veterans History Project. The project, initiated by the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress, is a collection of personal memoirs by American war veterans. The oral histories of thousands of service men and women are housed in an online database at the Library of Congress website, loc.gov/vets

“Americans especially see themselves as a nation of individuals, but projects like this can help break down that divide between the individual and the broader societal trends and narratives,” said Redding. “Our lives do shape the world and the outside world does affect us and shape our choices.

“The liberal arts can challenge those divides. It’s why I’m so passionate about the use of oral histories.”

Students in the class select a veteran as interview subject and start by researching the era and the particular conflict during which the veteran served.

The outcome of the work is spoken history, a collection of recordings that help to add depth and breadth to the facts, dates and statistics in the history books. But the process itself is valuable to the students.

“They need to become listeners,” said Redding of the students. “It’s listening without checking out. Staying present. That’s hard. Millennials are really good at being efficient, but history is not efficient.”

No, it’s messy, and stories meander and memories are imperfect. But what stories they are!

Like the story of Jeannette Kapus. A clerk at an arsenal manufacturer, she took flying lessons and joined the Civil Air Patrol in 1941 and served from 1943–44 as a WASP, the Women Airforce Service Pilots, and again from 1952–72 in the Air Force. She worked as a test pilot, ferried other servicemen, visited Pakistan, Scotland and France, taught pilots and once set a record for the number of turns in a tailspin in an aircraft—64. Her interview is a straightforward and matter-of-fact account of what is revealed to be a pretty amazing life.

Or the story of Robert Sanders, who enlisted in the Navy in 1942 after his college baseball season was canceled and ended up serving as a radio man on an aircraft carrier group in the South Pacific, engaging in the Iwo Jima and Okinawa battles. Or Donald Knezel, who joined the Navy at the cusp of the Korean War and witnessed the Operation Ivy hydrogen bomb test in 1952.

Their stories, like the others in the collection, cover the major events and conflicts they experienced, but also reveal the details of military life—the long days of travel, endless training, the food, the broom-snapping coconut crabs, the camaraderie and the loneliness. These personal accounts add another dimension to the tales told by history books.

“This class and this project helped me become much more analytical about what I read,” said Jane Marie Crocetti, a global studies major. “The history we read is usually just one account, but, really, there are so many perspectives. We tend to lump veterans all together, but they have so many different experiences.”

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