March 16, 2012

John R. McNeill is a professor of history at Georgetown University and a vice president of the American Historical Association.

My 94-year-old father and two of my uncles were among the 16.5 million men and women who served in the American armed forces during World War II. Both uncles, and another who served with the Canadian military in the war, are now dead. I have only snippets of information about their lives in uniform. At my urging, my father recently wrote the story of his life on active duty in the U.S. Army from 1940 to 1946.

My reasons for pushing him to do it were personal. I want my children to know about his experience of war as a young man. They are approaching the age my father was then, full of bounce and life. To them, their grandfather is a slow-moving, hard-of-hearing, old guy.

When my children read their grandfather’s story, I hope they will understand him and their country a little better.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, about 1.7 million World War II veterans are still alive. Nearly 250,000 will die this year, about 685 every day. Almost all will take their stories with them when they go.

Those stories are a form of national treasure. For years, historians, journalists and family members have been collecting letters, diaries, journals and interviews from a few of those 16.5 million. The Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress, created by an act of Congress in 2000, has materials of some sort from 48,000 World War II vets. University libraries, state historical societies, military units and other organizations have collected a few thousand more. No one knows exactly how many because there is no clearinghouse or coordination. But it is likely that fewer than 1 in 200 of these veterans’ stories are preserved in any fashion.

Of those that are preserved, a small share is digitized and easily accessible to the public. The Veterans History Project has put up 7,000 World War II vets’ stories on its Web site. The Rutgers Oral History Archives have an additional 469. The total in all digitized collections is well under 10,000. For the rest, one has to travel to a library or historical society.

In the 1930s, the last generation of Americans who had been slaves was dying out, taking their stories with them to their graves. Few people then regarded the life stories of former slaves as an important cultural resource. But in 1937-38 the federal government, under the auspices of the Federal Writers’ Project (a New Deal program to help unemployed writers), sponsored an effort to record the stories of as many of the ex-slaves as possible. About 800, most of whom were children at the time of the Emancipation Proclamation, told their life stories, which were typed up and deposited in the Library of Congress. A few audio recordings also exist. Altogether, the Library of Congress has about 2,300 slave narratives, most of which were neglected until the 1960s, when historians took a greater interest in the experience of slavery.

Today, all of them are available online, thanks to a grant from the Citigroup Foundation. In a few seconds, people anywhere can be reading the life history of any of 22 former slaves from Maryland or 15 from Virginia who got the chance to tell their tale. Even though the collection covers the stories of only about 1 of every 1,500 former slaves still alive in 1861, the collection is a national treasure. And in hindsight, more should have been done sooner.

The last of the former slaves’ voices fell silent decades ago. It is too late to gather any more of their stories, but at least the federal government supported an effort to collect those few still available.

In another decade, those who joined the armed forces as teenagers in the last months of 1945 will be at least 94 years old. They will be few in number, and slow-moving like my father. They, and we, will be lucky if their memories are as sharp as his.

The Veterans History Project and similar efforts nationwide are able to find, record and digitize only a tiny proportion of the shrinking number of stories still available from World War II veterans. Before their time runs out, we — historians, journalists, friends and family members — should help as many as possible to record their stories. No less importantly, we need to get them all up online, as one company’s foundation grant did for the slave narratives.

Each week, 5,000 more voices fall silent.