This past weekend in Queens, New York, I interviewed my grandfather on camera about his World War II experiences. A librarian at Tufts had put a packet from the Veterans History Project in my hands, and ever since then, I have felt a gnawing obligation as a historian to record my grandfather’s story, both for my family and for posterity.
When I finally got around to setting this up, it all came together very quickly. It was a daunting experience for a number of reasons: first, I study the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries! My subjects tend not to talk back. Nor am I an expert on the European theater and the experiences of World War II veterans. Furthermore, I have come to appreciate that oral history is its own fully developed methodology, and I felt somewhat guilty about being such a novice interviewer–though the VHP, to its credit, seems to encourage this. Finally, I had to scale a bit of a learning curve with the video equipment, much of which I borrowed from the Tisch Media Center at Tufts University. Thankfully I also had my brother’s help–he oversaw the camera and digital memory while I concentrated on the interview.
So how did it go? My grandfather told his tale (though he tells it better in his own words): as a young man from Brooklyn (just like Captain America!), he enlisted at age 18 in 1942 and wanted to work on airplanes. Caught up in the romance of the Air Force, he ignored the advice of the friendly officer who urged him to request a posting as a clerk/typist, and he bounced around several training camps before becoming certified to work on the P-47 Thunderbolt. His unit, the 395th Fighter Squadron (the “Panzer Dusters”), was activated in June 1943 in Westover, Massachusetts, and was subsequently relocated to Farmingdale, Long Island. Six months later, he was in England. Two weeks after D-Day, he was in France with the First and Third Army. His unit reached Belgium, Germany, and Czechoslovakia. He was slated to board a ship for the South Pacific and Okinawa when the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So instead he was discharged at Fort Dix, New Jersey, where he boarded a bus to Manhattan and (later) a subway back to Brooklyn.
After he went through the basic chronology, we took a break for lunch, and then I asked him to flesh out some of the details. We heard about ruined towns, seasickness, frenzied days at the airfield, pup-tent habitats, wiser comrades, bureaucratic fumbling, a tragic loss, a court-martial, and a day of drinking and reminiscence before the discharged soldiers were ready to re-enter civilian life.
As I said before, I thought I’d be stymied by the differences between World War II and the periods of history I know best. On the contrary, though, I was struck by the way in which certain refrains from the life of the soldier resonate across time. This semester I am teaching a course on “American Military History to 1900.” So I was primed to hear broader truths in my grandfather’s story about the difficulties of military logistics, wartime devastation, unit cohesion, the soldier’s desire for self-governance, the mixture of motivations that lead a young person into military service, and the reliability of an older person’s memory about events from his younger years.
I am already thinking of more questions I wish I’d asked on the recording, but I suppose that’s typical. In any case, it’s been interesting to share this experience with relatives, colleagues, librarians, and students. Many of them have stories of their own about veterans in their families and the veterans’ willingness to discuss their military service (or not). Others express regret that they didn’t record their relatives’ stories before it was too late. Everyone seems really glad that I did this: it was a great opportunity to both connect with a family member and link his life to a major shared experience in American history. It certainly helped me to understand a bit better why genealogists do what they do, which was apropos of Karin Wulf’s paper this week at the Boston Area Early American History Seminar at the Massachusetts Historical Society.
At least one student has asked where to find out more about the Veterans History Project. And my grandfather is thinking of connecting with the Facebook page for the 368th Fighter Group Association. Once my brother and I have prepared a transcript of the interview, we’ll be sending it, the digital video, and the forms to the Library of Congress.