Here's a young man who forged his birth certificate so he could join the merchant marine. Another forged his baptismal certificate so he could enlist when he was 15. This isn't forging your driver's license to go get a drink. There's a whole discussion there on the psyche of the country during World War II.
Tom Venezio is a teacher at Shaker High School in Latham, N.Y. His students interviewed veterans as part of the Library of Congress Veterans History Project and stories like the ones above, he says, are truly eye-opening for teenagers today.
Since it was established by Congress two years ago, the Veterans History Project has collected interviews and other information from 3,200 veterans and civilians from World War I, World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam War and the Persian Gulf War.
Anyone can conduct an interview -- fellow veterans, oral-history buffs, family members, students or youth groups.
"Oral history validates textbook information on a human level," explains program officer Sarah Rouse, who is passionate about the project. Military service, she has learned, was a shocking introduction to a wider world for some people. "Some had never been out of their communities, hadn't worn shoes, didn't know what a raisin was."
Retired journalist and Air Force veteran Don Byers and two colleagues interviewed fellow veterans at the Virginia Air & Space Center in Hampton. Byers listened to retired Rear Adm. Marin Carmody, 82, talk for seven hours about piloting a dive bomber at the end of World War II, being a squadron commander in Korea and commanding an aircraft carrier during Vietnam. "As they get older," says Byers -- whose own Air Force service did not include combat -- "these men will talk pretty candidly about what it was like going into combat." Byers says there is a backlog of veterans to be interviewed at the museum.
Some veterans are sending in their own material to the project office, which is eager to receive letters, home movies, drawings and photos, but not newspaper clippings or other materials that are already in the public domain.
One couple donated more than 1,200 letters they exchanged during World War II. Each letter is now being carefully preserved in its own acid-free pocket, including the one with the lipstick kiss and the handwritten sentiment, "I really kissed the paper and it was quite without kick."
One especially rich side effect of the Veterans History Project is the intergenerational contact it promotes when the interviewer is a student or young family member. David Solomon, a high school senior in Bigfork, Mont., interviewed his father, a Vietnam veteran. They had never had an in-depth conversation about the war. "Unless you sit down and specifically ask about it, it doesn't come up in conversation," said Solomon, although he knew his father was "a patriot and always proud of his service."
Another student asked his grandfather why he had never before told any of the World War II stories he had shared during the interview. Said the older man: "You never asked."
My teenage daughter, Nadia, interviewed retired Col. C.J. Arcilesi, 85, a longtime family friend who shared more than an hour's worth of vivid and sharply recalled detail from his World War II experiences in the Army Corps of Engineers -- from Gen. George S. Patton's ivory-handled pistols to the overabundance of Brussels sprouts and Spam on his wartime dinner plate. Nadia always knew our friend Arch as bright and alert but also as an aging man who walked slowly and with difficulty. Suddenly here he was with great animation recalling a day on the battlefront, crouched in a foxhole, when a French boy ran to him because he'd been told Arcilesi spoke French. Could the American soldier find a doctor to help deliver his sister's baby? Arcilesi pointed the boy in the right direction.
Nadia also heard Arcilesi's explanation of how he rolled onto the beaches of Normandy in an amphibious truck called a DUKW (the vehicles that have been restored and transformed into DC Ducks to give visitors amphibious tours of Washington).
The interviews can break down barriers, create goodwill and give young people a chance to see aging people in a very different light.
"You relearn great events in a different way. Oral history gives life to everything we learned about in textbooks," David Solomon said. Last year, every one of the 86 juniors in Mary Sullivan's English class in Bigfork interviewed a veteran. She says the project taught students to "think critically in ways I've never been able to do." The students decided to expand the project into a standing-room-only community event honoring all veterans.
One grandmother had been in the Marines and had saved every one of her uniforms, including every hat carefully stored in a hatbox.
Students modeled these uniforms and others, selected portions of the oral histories to read aloud, watched as veterans spontaneously stood when the high school band played their service songs and learned firsthand about the vastly different impacts of Vietnam and World War II on the soldiers who fought in those wars. Many World War II vets came to the program in their uniforms; no Vietnam veterans did.
"Vietnam veterans showed a range of emotions about what they did," said student interviewer Maureen Sullivan. "Some veterans felt remorse, while World War II veterans had a much stronger conviction that they were keeping the world safe for democracy."
Although project officials insist their primary goal is to gather as much information as possible, there is a lot of paperwork to ensure the quality of the interviews. Ideally, interviews should be transcribed or at least logged by topic. It was a lot of work, Sullivan said, "but the veterans were so happy we'd done it, that their response made it worth any amount of work." Besides, Solomon added, "this isn't just an essay that no one will ever see or hear. We were flabbergasted that our oral histories would be in the Library of Congress."
Thanks to a grant from the Montana Heritage Project and the Liz Claiborne & Art Ortenberg Foundation, four students from Bigfork even had a chance to come to Washington for an elegant project reception at the Library of Congress.
Whether the project is done as a community service, student assignment or family undertaking over the holidays, the time to speak with many veterans is now.
In May, Arch Arcilesi meticulously described the big and little events that filled his days as a soldier in the European theater more than 50 years ago. In October he died, and later this month he will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, with his memories and his anecdotes and the great pride he took in his years of service. There may be 19 million living veterans, but we are losing them and their stories at the rate of 1,500 a day.