The war stories that readers never see

war story pile

My pile of prospective war stories

This pile of papers contains war stories that never materialized. It lived and grew in my desk at work from the 1990s on. Whenever someone sent me an email asking if I’d interview their father, uncle or grandfather or whoever, I copied it and threw it into the drawer. Whenever I took down information about a veteran over the phone, that scrap of notebook paper was added to the heap. If a vet sent me something they wrote about their experiences, it went there, too.

I read and considered all of the messages and the handful of stories that came in, and responded to the writers by phone or email.

Occasionally I rummaged through the stuff, but most of the time it sat undisturbed and out of view. Then came the point where I wanted to sort out the mess, so over the holidays I cleaned out the drawer and brought the pile home and left it on the desk in my home office, where it festered for a few weeks – until last Sunday, the day of rain and ice. With coffee and the wide space of our dining room table, I leafed through the pile and read every email, letter and note with the idea of throwing out what I could.

There were lots of disappointments in that pile. Emails would start out, “I enjoyed your story on so-and-so and thought you might be interested in interviewing my dad…” And I would write back that I’d be happy to add him to my list of prospective story ideas and nothing would ever come of it. That’s the way it is when you only write up maybe a half dozen interviews a year. Only a precious few actually see the light of day with publication in The Morning Call.

Veterans in many of these stories I didn’t do have since died; in some cases I’d attached a note to that effect. But there were snippets that jumped out at me and that I will develop into stories for the newspaper. Just a couple. I’ll tell you about them another time.

I did succeed in cutting the pile down to a quarter of its size and throwing the other papers away. Then I organized the remaining material into file folders that I labeled by battle or war: Pearl Harbor vets, D-Day vets, Iwo Jima vets, Korean War, Vietnam War and so on. Then I took the folders in to work and stashed them in that same deep drawer. But now I know what’s in there and how to get to it quickly.

Just as I was feeling some satisfaction for this bit of housekeeping, I had a setback that hit me as hard as going through that stack of papers and realizing how many worthy stories I didn’t get around to doing for the newspaper.

At the end of every December for a dozen years, I’ve gathered the “in their own words” stories I’d written in the last 12 months and sent them to the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress. They’d agreed to accept the interviews for their collection even though my work didn’t fit the requirement of being original material – that is, written by the veterans themselves – and a set length.

The ax fell this week in an email from the Library of Congress. “Unfortunately, given continued resource constraints including space and staffing we can no longer accept the materials,” the Veterans History Project collections manager wrote to me.

How sad! For years I’ve been able to tell the veterans I interviewed that their accounts would have a permanent home in the Library of Congress. I could see their minds working as they considered the idea that their stories would live long after them in a place of national honor. When Bataan Death March survivor Joe Poster was in the hospital, I told a nurse standing beside him about his story appearing in The Morning Call. “That story’s in the Library of Congress,” Joe added. His pride from knowing that stuck with me.

I do still send all my stories from the year — if they’re World War II stories, and most of them are — to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. They don’t acknowledge the contributions as they once did, but someone there must see them.

5 responses to “The war stories that readers never see

  1. It is a shame you didn’t follow through on so many of the interviews. Just think of those stories lost. You should have put them on line yourself or given them to someone else who would want to.

    • Yes, I wish I’d followed through on some of the potential interviews. But the handful of stories came to me before I had a blog. I’ve saved those few stories and will look at posting some or all of them. Thanks for writing.

  2. Does that mean the Library of Congress is no longer taking veterans video accounts?

  3. The Museum is a big place. Heaven knows where they wound up.

    Send them to me and I’ll take them down and see that they are housed in our department (Oral History) and properly acknowledged.

    Larry Miller

    (610-914-3085)

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