Collecting Oral Histories from The Greatest Generation

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This D-Day, the Oregon Department of Veterans’ Affairs launches a new project to honor WWII vets

SALEM – On June 6th, the anniversary of D-Day, the Oregon Department of Veteran Affairs is launching an ambitious project to honor and preserve the memories of Oregon’s treasured WWII vets: collecting oral histories about their experiences during the war. It’s critical to record stories from the last cherished members of the Greatest Generation now, before they’re forever lost to history.

For example, Richard Larsell was born and raised in North Portland and went to Benson Polytechnic High School. He was still in high school when he enlisted in the Army in 1940. To qualify, he lied about his age and put weights in his pocket to weigh enough, said his daughter. He rose to the rank of staff sergeant, was stationed in the Pacific, and was awarded a Bronze Star. He served in two regiments – the 163rd and the 186th – in the 41st Infantry Division. Larsell was chief of communications for his battalion, ensuring the field phones and radios worked. In addition to his service, he was a fun-loving outdoorsman; he went salmon fishing on the Oregon coast, waterskied into his 70s, and whitewater-rafted and skied into his 80s. Then on April 4, he died at the Edward C. Allworth Veterans’ Home in Lebanon due to complications from coronavirus. He was 97.

“Every person living in the United States today owes a tremendous debt to the men and women who served in our nation’s armed forces during World War II. It is a debt we can never fully repay,” says Kelly Fitzpatrick, Director of the Oregon Department of Veterans’ Affairs. “But at the very least, we can listen to, record, and honor some of the stories of their incredible service and sacrifices before this Greatest Generation is no longer with us.”

Many young folks are home from school right now, and summer activities are likely to be impacted as well. For families looking for educational ideas and ways to connect with grandparents, great-aunts and great-uncles, and great- great-grandparents, this oral history project can help span generations and physical distance.

If you have someone in your life who remembers WWII – either in military service or working for the war effort in a civilian capacity – this is a great time to record the experiences of those senior family members by Zoom or a phone call.

Oregonian Hazel Ying Lee was the first Chinese-American woman to fly for the U.S. military.

Here’s how to collect the oral history:

Set up a Zoom or regular phone call. Though it of course depends on the person, generally seniors tend to be sharper earlier in the day. Be prepared to type up notes during your chat. If you have photos from the era of your family member, gather them so you can ask about the photo – who took it, where was it taken, what were they doing that day.

The questions below are suggestions – be sure to ask about details such as dates, locations, names (including spelling, ideally) and what else the veteran can remember of an event, though their reflections matter more than these specifics. If there is anything that doesn’t seem clear, gaps, or contradictions, ask clarifying follow-up questions, but don’t push if they can’t remember. Be patient – give them time to reflect before answering each question.

After you’ve collected your oral history, you can send it in video, audio or written format (photos also accepted) to the Oregon Department of Veterans’ Affairs at  [email protected]

Please include background information: Full name (First, Middle, Last), date of birth, branch of service, highest rank attained.

The stories will be collected by the Oregon Department of Veterans’ Affairs and highlighted in a future My Oregon News story. In partnership with the Oregon State Archives, these important documents will also be preserved in the state’s historical records, for the benefit of future generations and all Oregonians.

Questions:

• What you were doing when the U.S. entered WWII?

• How did you get involved in the war? (If serving in the military, did you volunteer, or were you drafted? If in a civilian job, how did you hear about it and get hired?)

• If you served in the military, what were the ships/bases you trained and served on? Where were you stationed? What rank(s) did you hold?

• What was your specific job? Who were your co-workers/fellow service members?

• What was a typical day like, from when you woke up to when you fell asleep?

• What did you eat? Were there any meals you really enjoyed, or ones you dreaded?

• What did you miss most from home?

• What did you do to pass the time/have fun?

• What are some of your strongest memories from that time?

• What were you most concerned about?

• Do you have any particularly happy memories of that time?

• What was the most interesting or unusual thing you experienced from that time?

• How did you find out the war was over? What was that moment like for you?

• What was it like transitioning to peacetime and being home?

• How do you think the war changed you? If it didn’t change you, why not?

• What else would you like to tell me about your experience?

Make sure to thank your senior for their service, as well as for sharing their story for this project. After you’ve collected your oral history, you can send it to the Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs at: [email protected]

Thanks to Jim Gersbach for creating the oral history questions.

About Author

Sarah Wexler is the Director of Strategic Communications in the Office of Governor Kate Brown

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