Making History

From WWII soldiers to the survivors of Hurricane Katrina, more people are sharing their own memories.

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It was 1943, and Bernard Moulton was on the USS Herndon, a ship escorting a friendly fuel tanker through enemy-infested waters near Gibraltar. A German U-boat attacked, firing a torpedo strike that was as sudden as it was terrifying. "We saw [the torpedo] coming; there was no way we could do anything...it was coming too fast," says Moulton, as he watches the spinning reels of the tape recorder in the living room of his Annapolis, Md., home. "Very fortunately, it was set for a deep-draft ship, and it went under us. That's why we're alive." And that's how his ship earned the nickname "Lucky Herndon."

Moulton, 84, has told this story dozens of times in the six decades since that attack, but today he is more than just idly reminiscing. Across the table, amid a stack of logbooks, maps, and black-and-white photographs, sits Karen Sider, a home healthcare worker and—for this afternoon at least—an oral historian. They are recording Moulton's war memories as part of one of the largest and most ambitious oral history initiatives since the government sent researchers around the country to collect interviews during the Great Depression.

The tape being recorded in Moulton's living room is destined for the Library of Congress Veterans History Project. Library staffers will transcribe the interview and archive it in a collection that already includes more than 45,000 interviews, most with veterans from World War I through Iraq and Afghanistan. Launched in 2001, the project relies on volunteers, including high school students, nursing home workers, television producers, and congressional staffers, to document the experiences of Americans who lived through wars. Not limited to veterans, the project also invites contributions from factory workers, merchant mariners, doctors—anyone who has played a role in the nation's conflicts. "We are capitalizing on the tremendous groundswell of Americans recording oral histories, especially stories from family members and neighbors," says Bob Patrick, who directs the Veterans History Project. Indeed, interest in the project has been so great that staffers are months behind in transcribing and cataloging.

Reminiscence. Oral history has never had more currency. From the Library of Congress initiative to record the tales of the eldest veterans to the modern military's use of interviews as therapy for battle-scarred soldiers, oral history—verbatim testimonials about one's experiences—has become an increasingly prominent way to chronicle the past, both near and far. There are oral history projects documenting Hurricane Katrina, for example, at several universities. Filmmaker Steven Spielberg is working with the Shoah Foundation to collect the oral histories of Holocaust survivors. The government and private groups have collected testimonials from witnesses of the 9/11 attacks. Nursing homes use oral histories in what's called "reminiscence therapy" for patients with Alzheimer's disease. And oral histories are gaining on the family photo album as a way for relatives to pass along their stories and genealogy.

Indeed, families are among the most avid oral historians, seeking to capture and preserve the lives of their aging rela-tives. Patrick and his staff are poised for their collection to expand exponentially soon, because of contributions from many more families. On September 23, PBS will begin airing The War, a 14-hour documentary by filmmaker Ken Burns about the Second World War. Burns's design is to tell the story of the conflict through four American towns (Mobile, Ala.; Waterbury, Conn.; Luverne, Minn.; and Sacramento, Calif.), the people who lived there, how they experienced the war, and how the world changed as a result. It relies heavily on the voices of ordinary soldiers and civilians.

Burns says he was prompted to make another war film (his acclaimed Civil War was released in 1990) after reading that more than 1,000 WWII veterans die every day. As part of the film's broadcast debut, Burns and local PBS stations are partnering with Patrick to solicit contributions to the Veterans History Project, some 60 percent of which deals with WWII. Burns has also partnered with the online networking site MySpace to collect video oral histories online. "The act of taking these oral histories," says James Billington, the librarian of Congress, "is both an exercise in intergenerational bonding and collective history, with a result that's not perishable."