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Effort Launched to Encourage Aging US Veterans to Tell Their Stories - 2002-06-07


Thursday was the 58th anniversary of D-Day, when U.S. forces invaded France and entered World War II. More than 4,000 of the 150,000 troops that participated in the battle were killed. On this D-Day, a national effort has been launched to encourage war veterans tell their stories.

Veteran Rocco Moretto has never recorded his memories from World War II.

But at 77-years old, he still has many stories to share. Walking with a cane and wearing his green uniform and ribbons from his infantry unit Company CX-26, Mr. Moretto recalls the allies' massive invasion of Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

Mr. Moretto was 19-years old at the time. He says, prior to the invasion, he was not afraid because he approached the attack as a sporting event. It turned out to be nothing of the kind. "It was really treacherous. People were getting killed, wounded, they were drowning and the water was very very swift," he says. "And it was very very difficult. But I made it through I am very proud of my achievement."

Now, the "Veterans History Project" aims to preserve the experiences of veterans, such as Mr. Moretto.

Along with hundreds of veterans, Mr. Moretto was one of two living D-Day survivors who attended a ceremony to launch the project at the USS Intrepid, a battleship that now serves as a museum in New York City.

The National Library of Congress is working with a private sponsor to try to record the stories of nearly 19-million living U.S. veterans from World War I, World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam and the more recent Persian Gulf War.

James Billington is the Librarian of Congress. He says that unlike the study of military strategy, first- person accounts along with letters, documents and memorabilia create a true picture of the wartime experience. "It involves people's lives, enormous disruption, enormous trauma, enormous emotion and it represents the human experience at its most extended. Therefore, it is good not just for understanding the wars, but for understanding the human condition and understanding America," he says.

Mr. Billington calls the United States a "present-minded" society that is "weak," when it comes to remembering its past.

But, he says it is time to look back. More than 1,500 U-S war veterans die every day. So, Mr. Billington asks veterans' children and grandchildren, volunteers and school groups to immediately start collecting oral history related to war. "It is important to do it urgently because these people are dying off. There are still World War I veterans alive and a couple of them have told the most magnificent and inspiring stories at age 100 and over," he says. "So we have to move fast and we need partners all over the country to take part in this by interviewing the veterans."

In the two-years since the project was founded, the Library of Congress has compiled about 600 interviews.

At the launching ceremony, organizers passed out information to veterans, their relatives and retired people to guide them through the process of recording a 90-minute interview.

A high school student involved in the project demonstrated the collection of oral history with World War II veteran Sam Billison.

"How were you chosen to be a code talker?"

Mr. Billison, a Native American of the Navajo tribe, was part of a special unit which communicated in an esoteric code that the Japanese could not break. Now, Mr. Billison has preserved his wartime story, and the "Navajo code," which played a pivotal role during World War II in the Pacific.

"In the regular Navajo, it translates 'ceremony, horse, sick, two.' But the actual noted message is 'attack hill number two.'"

Members of the "American Association of Retired People (AARP)," the private sponsor, say they have already mobilized thousands of volunteers to collect veterans' accounts. They say they will record everything, from heroic deeds to small wartime efforts to preserve past stories for future generations.