History Speaks: Oral Histories at the National World War II Museum

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World War II ended seventy-one years ago, but more than 9,000 oral and written histories are ready to invade the Internet, providing first-person accounts of the war and those who fought it online. The National World War II Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana has over 22,000 hours of materials, thousands of documents, and millions of words that tell the story of the war and the people who lived it. The digitizing and transcribing is expected to take ten years to accomplish.

As World War II veterans grow older, their mortality makes their memories all the more precious. The Museum was founded in 2000 and, since its establishment, has been a popular attraction for tourists as well as natives of the Big Easy. But with only 250 of its oral histories accessible online, the museum realizes that in order to provide a complete history, the stories need to be available online for people with an interest in the war.

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Conducting the interviews is the work of the museum’s six historians, who are also working on uploading the material. That means that they have to provide the descriptions which enhance the searchability of the histories. It’s time-consuming, but when it’s done, historians and students will be able to wallow in the wealth of material that has been compiled.

Navy lookout Harold E. Ward, who was on board the cruiser San Francisco when Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 1, 1941, is an example of why the process takes so long. Videos of what Ward saw during the attack are divided into twelve segments. Ward recalled that when an ensign asked him to describe what was happening, Ward answered that the Japanese Air Force had attacked Pearl Harbor. The ensign was irate, believing that Ward was being a smart aleck. But when Ward began to describe what he was viewing, the ensign was speechless. Listeners will enjoy the fullness which the oral histories deepen an understanding of the war’s events.

The strength of oral histories reinforces the power of history to come alive and the Museum is dedicated to this mission. In addition to the online project, the Museum is undergoing a $370 million expansion. These improvements are intended to provide Museum visitors with an immersion into the total war experience.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, the number of World War II veterans has decreased from the original 16 million who served to approximately less than one million today as the aging soldiers die at a rate of over 1,000 per day. Museum President and CEO Gordon H. Mueller is conscious of the need for urgency. “There’s no time to lose. We want to be able to finish and dedicate our expansion while we still have members of the Greatest Generation to thank for their sacrifice and service to the nation and to show the world what they mean to the principle of freedom.”

The massive scale of the war obligated the Museum to provide a suitable home where the memories could reside. The three buildings of the Museum are structured to complement the themes of the war, including both leaders and ordinary people who, collectively, fought for freedom. The Museum’s more than 100,000 artifacts include uniforms, medals, weapons and vehicles, diaries, letters and photographs, and artwork. Visitors will relish the way the Museum brings the landscape of war, the jungles, beaches, oceans and mountains to life in the 19,000 square feet of space which the exhibits comprise.

A visit to the Museum is a journey through the war years, and at the conclusion of the journey, visitors enter the three-level Liberation Pavilion which provides insights into the emotions of how the end of the war and the liberation of their countries affected the citizens who were forced to live under occupation. The levels begin with the close of the war and the initial postwar years that followed, evolving into the modern-day effects of the war and how democracy was achieved.

Soldiers knew how to fight, but they also knew how to have a good time and that spirit of fun is exemplified by BB’s Stage Door Canteen, a recreation of the canteens where the soldiers had respite before heading off to war. The Museum’s BB’s Stage Door Canteen presents weekly programming which conjures the spirit and song of the war years, with musical trios, big bands, and dancing.

The museum was the creation of renowned historian Stephen Ambrose, author of best-sellers D-Day and Citizen Soldiers and a biography of Dwight D. Eisenhower, producer of the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers, recipient of a National Humanities Award, and the historical consultant for the Steven Spielberg film Saving Private Ryan. Ambrose’s vision was to create a museum which told the story of World War II from the perspective of the soldiers who fought it, the civilians on the Home Front who supported it, and the sacrifices that a nation made so that freedom could triumph over oppression.




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About Author

A child’s imagination is nourished by stories. For me, that love of stories as a child quickly combined with a love of history as fairy tales gave way to Nathan Hale, Elizabeth I, Constantine and so many other human landmarks of the past. Growing up in historically rich southwestern Pennsylvania inspired a passion for the tales of this country and the world beyond its borders, as I discovered that history’s cast of characters has never failed to mesmerize. The pursuit of a degree in journalism and employment as a library director merged my interests in writing and research, but always, the story remains paramount. As a writer, my goal is to fill the written word with images so that the reader is a participant in the page. If that connection takes place, then I feel that the writing has been successful.

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