U Makes Oral History of WWII Veterans

An older man?s voice speaks?almost grandfatherly?from a recording. Words in a steady stream recount his temporary return from combat in World War II, his marriage proposal and the ceremony in his fiancee?s home.

Ronald Hansen?s story is one of about 200 interviews being collected by the American West Center as part of an effort to collect oral histories from WWII veterans. Interviews last anywhere from 45 minutes to five hours.

Winston Erickson, a program administrator at the center, has conducted a little more than half the interviews, which are later transcribed and reviewed.

The project ends when there is no one else around to talk to, he said, smiling.

Copies will go to the Marriott Library and the Fort Douglas Military Museum where they will be available for historians, descendants, or anyone interested, he said.

The center began conducting this kind of project in the ?60s, collecting stories from American Indians.

?Oral history has become a fairly respected type of history,? he said.

Stories from WWII are disappearing?giving the project urgency. Obituaries in Utah newspapers mark the passing of about five veterans every day, he said.

And the memories of those who remain are sometimes faded?though many remain lucid. When conducting an interview, Erickson asks detailed questions about the veteran?s life.

?I like to put the military experience in context of a person?s life,? he said.

One former pilot told of stumbling across the Buchenwald concentration camp after the German guards had fled, but before other troops arrived.

While it was a work camp?not among the worst of the concentration camps?he saw starving prisoners and smelled the dead.

In general, Erickson has found members of the Air Corps?there was no Air Force back then?more willing to talk than those who fought on the ground.

In the air, when a plane was hit, pilots and crew members did not watch their comrades die up close?a more common experience on the ground, he surmised.

Erickson hopes to interview nurses, quartermasters, logistical support and post masters. But these people often hesitate to talk, saying they don?t have exciting stories of combat.

?We?re trying to get a broad spectrum of experiences,? he said.

A former German soldier, now a Bountiful resident, told of his capture at the Battle of Stalingrad by the Russians, his escape and recapture. As a prisoner of war, he went to work in a wheat processing plant and then a coal mine.

He was one of about 4,000 POWs sent to Siberia to chop trees, making way for a widening railroad. The journey there took six weeks.

Four years after the war ended, the Russians released the 38 POWs who had survived.

Some say the war did not affect their lives afterward, but the lives of others were radically altered?not always in obvious ways.

One man left for the war with ambitions of becoming a doctor, but chose to become a teacher instead.

The G.I. Bill helped veterans?who otherwise would never have gone to college?earn degrees, Erickson said.

WWII also shaped the rest of the century.

Women began to do different types of work as part of the war effort, providing an impetus for the women?s movement.

Public support for the war was unrivaled.

?It was probably the only war the country has faced where we had near-universal approval,? he said.

The war in Afghanistan is a vastly different war?to maintain public support, the United States must not get bogged down and draw the fighting out, he continued.

This is a risk that comes when facing guerilla warfare?as the United States learned in Vietnam and the Soviet Union found in Afghanistan during the ?80s.

In this type of war, ?A peasant working in the fields by day may be a guerilla fighter by night,? he said.

For more information, contact the American West Center at 581-7611.

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