State seeks vets' oral histories

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Capital News Service
LANSING — Military history comes in three forms, according to a state official: Those who make it, those who study it and those who preserve it.
Two of the principal groups will join forces Nov. 9 when the Michigan Department of History, Arts and Libraries (HAL) hosts an inaugural event in Lansing marking a collaborative effort between the state’s oral historians and Michigan veterans.
“We’re trying to launch a major partnership effort where we’re capturing as much oral history as we possibly can,” said HAL Director William Anderson.
People realize that veterans, primarily those who served in World War II and the Korean War, are aging and dying at a rate more rapid than those who served in Vietnam and the Middle East conflicts, Anderson said. Therefore there’s a sense of urgency and importance in collecting and preserving the oral histories.
“We know that people with stories to tell are dying every single day,” he said.
Anderson said he and others routinely identify veterans and encourage their participation in the oral history project.
“Whenever I’m out, I run into these veterans and ask them if they’re willing to be interviewed,” he explained. “I haven’t had one turn me down yet.”
Some veterans, however, believe that reliving the battlefield experiences is a personally difficult undertaking. That makes the efforts to capture and preserve those tales difficult for oral historians.
“Many times, combat veterans are reluctant to talk about those situations,” said Art Brokenshire, the state commander for the Military Order of the Purple Heart. “Many situations are hard to repeat. They’re hard to relive. How do you explain to someone what living in 50-below-zero temperatures is like?”
Brokenshire and about 8,000 other Marines found themselves surrounded by more than 120,000 Chinese soldiers near Korea’s Chosin Reservoir in November 1950. The Marines and an Army artillery unit endured two weeks of the coldest Korean winter in more than a century.
Beyond the brutal weather, a numerically superior force that outnumbered them 10-to-1 and massive casualties, the battle forged a bond between the men — a brotherhood — that was highlighted by unsurpassed leadership, teamwork, and courage.
It’s often difficult to relate these kinds of stories to someone who hasn’t experienced them, Brokenshire said, and even harder to talk with family members about them.
“Unless you’ve been there, unless you understand what’s being said and how it’s being said, people cannot possibly comprehend the memories we hold,” Brokenshire said.
State officials say oral historians understand the challenges facing them as they attempt to amass the countless stories Michigan veterans have.
The first of two back-to-back November events is a day-long workshop designed to teach interviewing techniques to experienced and novice oral historians.
“Our goal is twofold,” said Mark Hoffman, HAL’s deputy director. “We want to work with people and organizations across the state whose efforts are geared at preserving the military history of Michigan veterans.”
The second goal, Hoffman indicated, is even more ambitious.
“We want, to the degree that we can, to collect transcripts and written accounts of these personal histories and make them available as an on-shelf resource at the Michigan library.”
The oral history workshop is a collaborative project among the Friends of Michigan History, Michigan Oral History Association, Michigan State University Museum, and HAL. The Michigan effort is part of a national initiative, through the Library of Congress, to record and preserve individual histories from American war veterans and their families on the U.S. homefront.
The Nov. 9 workshop is hosted by HAL, but workshop registration fees will pay for the instructors and materials. The state agency, Hoffman said, provides publicity and facilities for the event at the Michigan Historical Museum off West Allegan Street.
“There’s no specific funding for the workshop,” Hoffman said. “We believe funding will be available later as the project expands, but this event is primarily supported by the Michigan Oral History Association.”
The workshop will be followed on Nov. 10 by a separate Vietnam Veterans observance beginning at 1:30 p.m. The 90-minute ceremonies, dedicated to Michigan’s Vietnam vets but open to families, friends and supporters, will include a panel discussion, a “massing of colors” or flag presentations by civic and patriotic groups, and a processional across the street to the Michigan Vietnam Veterans’ memorial.
A children’s choir, from the Veterans of Foreign Wars National Home in Eaton Rapids, will perform.
© 2002, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism

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