Veterans are witnesses to history, and their stories of military service are worthy of celebration, especially on Memorial Day.
Thanks to the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress, more and more of those stories are being collected, saved and digitized on the Internet -- a new way to honor veterans and to provide future generations with a mosaic of their wartime sacrifices.
In a tent on the Mall this weekend, veterans told their stories -- on stage before an audience and camera crews and at tables next to volunteers who wrote their histories on laptops.
Richard Francies of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, recalled for the audience how he survived the Bataan Death March in 1942, after U.S. forces surrendered to the Japanese on the Bataan peninsula in the Philippines.
On the march to prison camps, Francies was given little water and went without food for 11 days at one point, he said. Japanese guards killed U.S. soldiers who dropped out of the march, but Francies became dizzy because of malarial fever, and, he said, he decided to take a risk. He jumped out of line and hid in shrubbery.
His condition and circumstances seemed hopeless. But he soon was befriended by a Filipino, who then found a Japanese medical corpsman willing to treat a U.S. prisoner. The corpsman gave Francies an injection, and "that shot probably saved my life," Francies said.
Another World War II veteran, Miguel Encinias of Las Vegas, N.M., was flying a British Spitfire when he was shot down over northern Italy in 1944. As a prisoner of war, he was taken to Frankfurt, Germany. There was no physical abuse by guards, Encinias said, "only hunger and cold."
Marty Higgins of Anna Maria, Fla., remembered the cold and hunger, too. He was captured at the end of 1944 and forced to march in subfreezing temperatures. Hunger was constant, he said, and meals usually consisted of a slice of bread "and a cup of soup with bugs in it."
After being sent from France to a POW camp in Poland, Jimmie Kanaya of Gig Harbor, Wash., said he was forced to march 380 miles to Germany. He escaped, was recaptured and returned to the prison camp in Poland. He lost 40 pounds.
As veterans and families attended the POW discussion and other forums -- on women in the military, the Tuskegee Airmen and Navajo code talkers -- about 400 volunteers in purple shirts roamed the Mall gathering stories from veterans who came to Washington for the Saturday dedication of the National World War II Memorial.
The Veterans History Project encourages veterans to submit their wartime stores online, at www.loc.gov/vets, and has received more than 16,000 submissions and about 80,000 artifacts. The collection seems likely to become the largest national repository of wartime memoirs, said retired Lt. Gen. Julius W. Becton of Springfield, a project supporter.
Volunteers are key to the project, whether amateurs, such as children interviewing their grandparents, or professionals, such as military historians. More than 1,000 organizations are supporting the project, including AARP as its corporate sponsor.
Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), joined by Reps. Amo Houghton (R-N.Y.) and Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), sponsored the legislation that created the oral history project. Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and former senator Max Cleland (D-Ga.) led the effort in the Senate. The law authorizing the project was signed by the president in October 2000.
Kind, who helped moderate Friday's discussion by former POWs, said he came up with the idea while listening to his uncle, a World War II veteran, and his father, a Korean War veteran, talk about their military experiences over a picnic table outside his home. After running inside to get a video camera to tape their recollections for his family archives, Kind said, "I got to thinking, this is something that we should be doing nationwide.
"And the clock is ticking, given that we are losing approximately 1,600 to 1,700 veterans every single day in this nation. And when they go, they take with them American history and their memories," Kind said. The Veterans History Project "gives us a living legacy for our generation and a great gift for future generations."
TSP on Diary Live
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