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Veterans History Project Attempts to Preserve World War II Memories - 2003-12-04

Nearly three-quarters of the 16 million U.S. veterans who served in World War II are no longer alive to tell their stories. As the 62nd anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor approaches, the Veterans History Project is attempting to preserve that chapter of American history by collecting the experiences of World War II veterans, particularly those who remember Pearl Harbor.

"Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the empire of Japan," announced president Roosevelt.

Frank Sogi, 80, a Japanese-American war veteran, remembers listening to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's words.

He was 18-years-old and living in Hawaii when he first heard news on the radio of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, and later, remembers hearing that the Japanese national symbol had been spotted on the enemy aircraft.

"It was a strange feeling, because my mother had just visited Japan, and came home on the last boat from Japan," he recalls. "And I had known from my young days that my mother's family came from a military family. I had seen pictures of my uncle and others in naval uniform. When I heard the word that the red Rising Sun was on the airplane, I had a very strange feeling, because my relatives were my enemies now.

Mr. Sogi later learned that one of his uncles from Japan was a flight officer assigned to one of the carriers that launched the attacking aircraft that day.

From that moment on, the course of Mr. Sogi's life changed. His parents had planned to send him to Japan after secondary school, so he could join the military there. Now, he decided his military career would be spent fighting for his birth country, the United States. In 1944, he became a linguist for the Military Intelligence Service, and he served in the U.S. Army until 1953.

Stories like Mr. Sogi's are the kind the Veterans History Project is trying to collect by recording oral histories and archiving personal diaries, memoirs and photographs.

By some estimates, only 25 percent of World War II servicemen and women are still alive.

Ellen Lovell, who heads the Veterans History Project, says that is why it is critical to collect these stories now.

"We want very much to hear from the World War II generation," she explains. "We've got to hear the history as it was actually lived, and listen to people tell their first-hand experiences about what war is really like. And these are the narratives of a lot of ordinary people. They did extraordinary things."

In the three years since the project began, volunteers and archivists have been able to accumulate 11,000 stories from men and women who served in World Wars I and II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Persian Gulf War.

The Veterans History Project is run by the Library of Congress, and is sponsored by the American Association of Retired People (AARP). The stories and artifacts are kept at the American Folklife Center in Washington. A selection of personal histories is available on the Internet.

One oral history is given by William Jennings Arnett, an army sergeant who fought in a tank destroyer during World War II. His niece Elizabeth Johnson, interviews him about his experiences, and asks what it felt like to fight in a war.

"JOHNSON: Could you describe that a little bit more? ARNETT: Well, I'd say, after about a week in combat, you're old. I don't care if you're 19-years-old or what. But you are an old person. You realize that, like people know that you could get drunk and drive, well you could have a bad wreck, but nobody thinks it could happen to them. But when you're in combat, you know that you can be killed. No doubt about it."

Like his fellow war veteran William Arnett, Frank Sogi says these personal accounts of World War Two can change the way we understand ourselves, our past and our future.

"I certainly believe that the past is very, very important for us as to how and what [the] future will be," he says. "And Pearl Harbor, as disastrous as it was on that day, looking back on it, it really improved the world. It became much more global."

The Veterans History Project is marking the 62nd anniversary of Pearl Harbor with candle lighting ceremonies in four major U.S. cities.