November 11 is Veterans' Day in the United States, a day when Americans honor those men and women who served in the armed forces. In recent years, veterans of World War II, who had long kept silent about their experiences, have begun sharing their stories in books like Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation.
Now, the Library of Congress is collecting the stories of American veterans from that and other wars.
Last year, Congress passed legislation to collect and preserve oral histories from veterans of all wars for future generations. "I think what Congress wanted to do was to honor Veterans and to make sure that their stories weren't lost," said Ellen McCulloch-Lovell, the Director of the Veterans' History Project at the Library of Congress's American Folklife Center.
"We all know that there are about 1,500 Veterans who die every day, and they have a great-accumulated experience and accounts to tell us about their service," she said. "A lot of people thought those stories shouldn't be lost. They should be there to teach and instruct and inform future Americans and researchers and historians and documentary filmmakers and family members themselves."
Although the Veterans' History Project only recently moved into its offices in the Library of Congress, Ms. Mulloch-Lovell says they have already received more than 100 interviews. Material, including letters, photographs and diaries, as well as interviews, began arriving at the American Folklife Center about five months ago, shortly after they posted a notice about the project on the library's website, www.loc.gov.
"Before I got here," Ms. Mulloch-Lovell said, "the Folklife Center did a wonderful job putting a website up that explained the legislation, explained the purposes of the project and gave people some guidelines. So if somebody really wanted to interview their dad or their aunt or their uncle, or go to a veterans' post and interview the people there, they could get some good instructions and go do it.
The wonderful thing about the project is that people did find the website and they followed the instructions and they have been sending us this wonderful effecting material.
"I think one of our best interviews so far is with Phillip Russell," she said. "He was born in 1921, and he was a paratrooper with the 101st airborne division and of course he landed behind the lines during the Normandy Invasion, and he vividly describes what it was like to jump and land in the field and what happened to him right after he landed."
"I know we got the command to jump and we went out," he said, "but we were awful low. My chute opened and maybe I oscillated once. On the way down I could see something white going around in circles down below me. I didn't know at the time it was a bunch of cows, a whol e herd of cows. I landed right in the middle of them. I landed on the ground and the cows formed a big circle around me. They didn't know what I was. They were all looking at me."
The interview with Philip Russell was one of several videotaped and sent to the Library of Congress by a volunteer at Lakeview Village retirement community in Kansas.
That volunteer also interviewed Hazel Thomas. Technically, Ms. Thomas isn't a veteran, but Ellen McCulloch-Lovell says, she and other Americans who never wore a uniform played important roles during World War II.
"We've applied a fairly generous definition and are including people who worked on the homefront, Ms. Mulloch-Lovell said, "because we want the interviews with the Rosie the Riveters and the people who did beach patrol and the civilians who supported the war effort. Hazel Thomas is our first 'Rosie the Riveter' interview. She was a wartime welder that supported the war effort and very proudly in her interview shows us photographs of herself as part of the welding team, and her medals that she got for mastering various welding techniques."
Although the Veterans' History Project is collecting memories and accounts from men and women who served in both World Wars, and the Korean, Vietnam and Persian Gulf Wars, it is primarily the veterans of World War II who have responded so far.
Ms. McCulloch-Lovell says even many of those who have remained silent since the war ended now feel a need to share their stories. "Some have told me that they didn't because they came back so imbued with optimism for the future," she continued. "We'd won the war. They were going to work. They were marrying, going to college. They were leaving that behind, and one gentleman told me his children didn't ask him any questions. And he found himself thinking so much about those days and how they formed his future, and he really wanted to talk about it."
It is the World War I veterans that Ellen McCulloch-Lovell is most eager to have interviewed, because there are so few of them left. She says they have already received one interview with a 105-year-old veteran of that war conducted by a high school student in Montana.
With a small staff here in Washington, the Veterans' History Project does not have the resources to identify and interview veterans on its own. But the Veterans' History Project director says she has enlisted the help of organizations across the United States.
"There are 100 partners right now and they are wonderful variety of organizations. There are veterans organizations who are identifying veterans and asking volunteers to interview them," she said. "There are also historical societies. There are folklife centers. And libraries are also partners. There are universities that have oral history departments that are getting involved. Also humanities councils. I often think of this as a huge national humanities project in which we are humanizing history and letting people learn from the past through the original voices that will be captured for this and saved."
You can hear some of those voices on the Veterans' History Project website, which you can reach by going to the Library of Congress's Website. The address is www.loc.gov/folklife/vets/.