War stories

What happens when high-school kids are sent out to interview World War II veterans? History breaks loose.

MEMORY LANE From left, Alma Chaika, Sara Lieberman, Shelby Albright and Kelly Birchfield look over a World War II-era photo album at the Oakmont retirement residence, in Chico, where Chaika and Birchfield work and Lieberman and Albright live. Birchfield and Chaika facilitated an oral-history project there involving area teens and war veterans.

MEMORY LANE From left, Alma Chaika, Sara Lieberman, Shelby Albright and Kelly Birchfield look over a World War II-era photo album at the Oakmont retirement residence, in Chico, where Chaika and Birchfield work and Lieberman and Albright live. Birchfield and Chaika facilitated an oral-history project there involving area teens and war veterans.

Photo By Tom Angel

Marching orders: For more information on the Veterans History Project visit www.loc.gov/folklife/vets/. If you or someone you know is a war veteran or served in support of a war effort and wants to be interviewed, contact Kelly Birchfield or Alma Chaika at (530) 895-0123.

As a 19-year-old Army infantryman fighting in Europe during World War II, Paradise resident Dallas Fitzgerald survived some difficult times. “I remember a couple of instances when I got into situations where the Catholic boys were counting their beads and I, being Protestant, was praying,” he says.Fitzgerald’s account of his wartime experiences is just one of more than 400 stories from veterans recorded on tape by Chico-area high-school students. The interview was conducted by 16-year-old Samuel Nassie and is one of five interviews the youth has done.

Samuel’s mother is Linda Nassie, who teaches history at Durham High School and is involved with the project there. She’s as excited about it as her son is. “This is the kind of history [students will] remember,” she says.

Linda and Samuel Nassie joined about a half-dozen fresh-faced high-school interviewers and a number of white-haired veterans Nov. 8 on the second floor of the Oakmont, an independent-living seniors’ residence in north Chico, where the students shared their experiences and thanked the vets for the opportunity and the stories they had shared.

Samuel Nassie pointed to one of many displays hanging on the walls of the Oakmont depicting the military experiences of the vets interviewed. Frank Disabito, who lives in Paradise and served in the Army Air Corps from 1941 to 1945, was one of Nassie’s projects. In the center of the display is a black-and-white photo of a smiling Disabito in military garb—a kid really, not much older than Nassie.

“I spent the last two years working with veterans, who are incredible people,” Nassie told the gathering on this night. “This has had a major impact on my life. Thank you.”

On Nov. 22, the interviews recorded locally will be presented to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., where they will be added to 23,000 other interviews already collected from across the nation as part of the Veterans History Project.

The nationwide oral-history project is the result of legislation that received unanimous bipartisan support and was signed into law by President Clinton just before Veterans Day 2000. Its mission is to collect and preserve oral-history interviews, photographs, letters and diaries from veterans who served in all the major American wars of the 20th century, and it relies to a great extent on volunteers to do the real work involved.

The idea for the project began with Ron Kind, a congressman from Wisconsin, explains Tim Schurtter, program officer for the project.

One day Kind “was listening to his father and his uncle swapping war stories,” Schurtter explains. “He got his video camera to save these stories so when his two kids got old enough they could appreciate their family history. I guess a light bulb went off, and he said everybody should be doing this.”

There’s a strong statistical motivation for the project: Of America’s approximately 19 million war veterans, almost 1,700—mostly World War II vets—are dying each day. The project seeks to honor the surviving veterans and preserve their stories while they are still among us. In addition to veterans, the project also documents civilians who supported the military, such as war industry workers.

The handsome man shown on the cover of this issue is a case in point. Harry Gilmore was a 2nd lieutenant and a pilot in the Army Air Corps during World War II. Later, he rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force. In his last years he lived at the Oakmont, where one employee remembers him as “a wonderful person, very congenial, a classic gentleman … who loved to talk and tell stories.” He died in July of this year, at the age of 99 and just three months after recording his stories for the Veterans History Project.

Congressman Kind summed up the project this way: “We are racing against time to preserve this important part of U.S. history, not to glorify war, but rather to capture the reality of the experience that our veterans and families on the home front had.”

WE WILL NOT FORGET Samuel Nassie stands next to a display that illustrates his interview with Frank Disabito, a World War II Army Air Corps vet.

Photo By Tom Angel

The Veterans History Project relies on the participation of volunteers. Most of the interviews are being done by family members, friends, neighbors, students, and other volunteers.

These volunteers are organized in small groups called “Project Partners.” More than 1,000 Project Partners exist nationwide, with about 90 in California. Typically, a Project Partner is a local historical society, veterans’ group, service organization, university or high school.

Locally, the effort began when Kelly Birchfield and Alma Chaika, two employees at the Oakmont, organized a group that became a Project Partner. Birchfield is special-assignments manager at the facility, and Chaika is its activities director.

Oakmont is part of Holiday Retirement Corporation, which operates some 400 such residences nationwide and is a National Project Partner with the Veterans History Project. When Holiday sent out a flier describing the project, the two women thought it would be perfect for Oakmont, which has some 25 veterans living there, Chaika says.

Some Chico State University recreation students were interning there at the time, and she convinced them to do the interviews. “We saw such a spark in the veterans when they were interviewed,” she says. “They just came alive. It was amazing how much it blessed our residents.”

That’s when the women decided to go out into the local community to find large numbers of veterans to interview. They’ve received help in locating veterans from the VFW and AM-Vets as well as three community service organizations, the Elks, the Eagles and the Exchange Club. AM-Vets Post Commander John Shulz, a Korean War veteran, was particularly helpful.

The women turned to local high schools to find students to interview the veterans. Chico and Pleasant Valley high schools were the first to join the project last spring, with Durham and Paradise high schools coming on board this fall. The Veterans History Project sent educational materials and an oral historian—the author of this story—to teach several workshops on oral history at all four high schools.

After attending the workshops, the students began interviewing veterans. Several were reluctant to do it at first. The age gap between them and the vets, some of them in their 80s, was daunting. But the results were excellent.

Durham High’s Linda Nassie describes one student whose attitude going in was that “everything in life was just boring.” But later, after interviewing a veteran, that student’s attitude had changed completely.

“She actually thanked me, which about blew me away,” Nassie says. “I thought, ‘Wait a minute, this is not somebody who does this,’ but she said, ‘Thank you for making me do it.’ I thought, ‘Wow, that’s overwhelming!’ “

The mother of another student reported that a veteran who’d been interviewed subsequently invited the student’s family over for dinner. Later the mother said to Nassie, “Now we have a new best friend.”

Several of Nassie’s students interviewed relatives. One student told her with tears in her eyes that she never really knew her grandfather until she was doing the interview. “She said, ‘I see all new sides to him, I learned so much. I’m so glad I did it.'”

Liz Metzger, at teacher at Chico High School, describes the interview experience as “powerful for the students. … They were doing something in school that mattered because the audience wasn’t just a teacher, it wasn’t just their grade. I think it’s a tremendous project.”

GENERATIONS Chico High student Steve On, left, talks with Nancy Scott and her husband Loyd, a former member of the Navy and a survivor of Pearl Harbor. Joining in the conversation is Kevin Call, who is also a student at Chico High.

Photo By Tom Angel

Some of Metzger’s students used the interviews to produce three- to five-minute-long “mini-movies” she calls “digital stories.” The students got back together with the veterans to select a portion of the videotaped interview. That short segment was then augmented with shots of the veteran’s personal photographs and memorabilia to create a short video story about a wartime experience.

On May 27 of this year, after a successful semester of recording oral histories at Chico and Pleasant Valley high schools, Birchfield and Chaika hosted a pancake breakfast at Oakmont where the veterans and students got back together. Its purpose was to give the students an opportunity to show the vets what they’d done to honor them, she says.

Those attending saw about a dozen digital stories created by some of the students at Chico High School. Some students set up “story boards” they created that were similar to displays seen at high-school science fairs—though in these cases displaying photographs, documents and mementos from the veterans, along with short stories about the veterans’ experiences. Other students brought biographical essays they wrote about the veterans that included their own thoughts on what they learned from the interviews.

“It was great to watch,” Chaika says. “The best part about it is that the kids and the vets hooked up again. Watching the students show off what they did to honor a man’s life is way cool.”

On Aug. 20 Birchfield and Chaika organized another event to highlight their growing project at the start of a new semester. Billed as “The Fall Season Kick-off Assembly,” it took place at Chico’s Veterans Hall. An estimated 100 local veterans mingled with 250 high-school students while listening to guest speakers, who included Gulf War veteran Doug Shaw, U.S. Rep. Wally Herger and Chico City Councilman Larry Wahl. Wahl, a Vietnam veteran, has been especially effective as a promoter of the history project in Chico.

Also at the speakers’ podium was Samuel Nassie, the high-schooler who interviewed Dallas Fitzgerald and Frank Disabito. Fitzgerald praises the job Nassie did but rejects any praise for his service in France and Germany as an Army infantryman.

“I didn’t get wounded or anything,” he explains. “A lot of my friends did; they got killed and wounded. They paid the ultimate price, and they’re the people who should really be honored.”

The 16-year-old Nassie, a junior at Camptonville Charter High School in Paradise’s Craig Congregational Church, said he sees the Veterans History Project as a way to look back into history in order to honor veterans, while the 78-year-old Fitzgerald sees it as a guide to the future to learn from past mistakes. “A lot of guys have stories of things that went on that should be heard by the rest of the people so we don’t make the same mistakes,” he says. “It seems like we make the same mistakes over and over again.”

Fitzgerald witnessed the destruction in Europe, and in the final weeks of the war he helped the survivors of the Dachau death camp. “We don’t want people to forget what Germany did. People shouldn’t forget; it is real easy for things like this to happen. I think it sort of is happening right now, with some of our liberties being tramped on.”

As local students have learned, the interviewing process itself is often a profound experience that teaches history in a unique way that is not soon forgotten. However, with many oral-history projects the video- or audio tapes are often mishandled, undocumented and forgotten.

All across the nation priceless tapes of oral-history interviews collect dust while they slowly deteriorate on the shelves of local historical societies, public libraries, universities and high schools. The tapes are often not transcribed, summarized or even properly labeled. Without transcripts, or at least detailed summaries, the oral-history tapes are extremely difficult to use by historical researchers. Many cannot be used at all because the tapes do not have release forms.

As historian Barbara Tuchman once complained, oral history contains “a few veins of gold and a vast mass of trash.”

For the most part, the Veterans History Project has overcome the problems that plagued earlier projects. The taped oral histories, along with collected photographs and manuscripts, are documented, catalogued and preserved under archival conditions. Most materials reside at the Library of Congress, but some are at what are called “Partner Archives” located in other parts of the country.

Lt. Gilmore (center) with the 17th Group operations at Augusta GA, fall 1941.

Courtesy Of Gilmore family

The Veterans History Project’s Web site contains detailed instructions and video clips of interviews to watch so everyone can learn the proper interview techniques. Volunteers are provided with release forms, biographical data forms, summary sheets and other important documents.

Even when oral-history collections are fully documented and carefully preserved in archives, they are often ignored by historical researchers and remain unknown and unappreciated by the general public. The Veterans History Project is working to overcome these problems by utilizing the Internet and the mass media.

On Veterans Day 2002, the Veterans History Project established its National Registry of Service as a component of the Project’s Web site. It lists all oral-history interviews donated to the project. It provides each person’s name, date and place of birth, branch of service, war, unit and location of service.

The National Registry is a cross-indexed data base that is “user friendly” and was recently updated to include keyword searching. It allows anyone with access to the Internet to look up an individual name or see a list of names from a particular category. For example, it is possible to see a list of all interviews with Marines who served in Korea or all Army Air Corps veterans from WWII who were prisoners of war.

Currently it is possible to view more than 600 of the videotaped interviews in their entirety (some as long as 90 minutes in length) on the Internet. “In the scheme of things it’s a drop in the bucket when you talk about 23,000 stories,” Schurtter says, “but we’re getting there. It was just a handful just a few months ago, and now we’re over 600.”

He speculates about the future: “Ideally, everything we have would be available online, so someone in Seattle, Wash., can sit down and draw up a name and look at an interview or look at the letters or look at the photographs that were submitted. Well, because of the ongoing process it’s probably never going to happen that all the things that we have are going to be digitized—but that’s the wish.”

Materials collected by the project over the last four years have been used in several creative ways that have brought the project to the attention of the general public. The interviews have become a source of material for a broadcast radio series called Experiencing War. The series has produced two programs, called Lest We Forget and Coming Home. Both were broadcast nationwide by Public Radio International, and a third radio program in the series is in the works.

This Veterans Day, Voices of War, a book published by the National Geographic Society in association with the Veterans History Project, is being released. The book uses oral histories, letters, memoirs, diaries, photographs, drawings and paintings collected by the project to present 60 stories of veterans and civilians caught up in war. The book will also have its own companion Web site linked to the Veterans History Project Web site.

Voices of War: A Vietnam Nurse’s Journey is a play based on the experiences of a nurse who served in Vietnam. It is now being presented by New York’s American Place Theatre and the Veterans History Project. The theatre performance complements the release of the Voices of War book.

Kelly Birchfield and Alma Chaika, the two women who got the Veterans History Project moving in the Chico area, will get a chance to see the play when they travel to Washington, D.C., on Nov. 22. There they will meet with Schurtter at the Library of Congress to deliver the 400-plus recorded local interviews. They will be accompanied by John Shulz, Larry Wahl and Shelby Albright, a WWII veteran and resident of Oakmont.

The future for the project in Chico looks bright, Chaika says. “I’m just hoping that the fire goes, that it keeps going and people continue to get it and that they continue to realize that this is important. The more the stories are told, the more it reminds everyone what our freedom is worth, what it has cost us. My hope is that this can continue and that students and teachers and the schools will realize that this is an important thing to continue.”

Chaika and Birchfield continue to be successful at recruiting more veterans and more high schools to participate. Corning and Red Bluff high schools will join the program in January. This semester Chico High School’s Metzger hopes to have all students who interview veterans also produce short digital stories.

Samuel Nassie is now busy writing a book inspired by his interviews with veterans. Nassie once considered a military career for himself and was provisionally accepted to West Point, but he decided to change course and pursue a career in education. He wants to teach history someday at the high-school level.

Schurtter sees no end in sight for the four-year old project: "It wouldn’t make sense for us to stop now because we’re just really reaching a national level of recognition. Today’s generation of students certainly need to know what’s been done for their benefit. One hundred years from now those people need to know what was done. I don’t think you should put an end to that."