A few years back, when I was editor of a small-town newspaper, my staff and I were preparing for the issue that coincided with Veterans Day. We agreed we wanted a front-page interview with a WWII vet. We wanted a feature story with a personal account to run alongside a sidebar noting the time and place of the annual ceremony taking place in the city park.
It was a production decision that made sense. From an editorial standpoint it was a nicely put-together front page.
But whenever I’m given cause to remember that particular moment in my community journalism career, I recall the interview with a man who farmed most of his adult life, who was soft-spoken and Mid-West mild-mannered. And who had suvived the Bataan Death March. I can still remember how he quietly told us that on the march, if you stopped to catch your breath, they shot you. If you stopped to scrounge a drink of water, they shot you. If you stopped to help a wounded comrade, they shot you. He spoke in measured tones of his time in a Japanese prison, of his doubts of seeing home again, of the friends he saw die before his eyes.
And there we were as he talked in the last lingering moments of a Minnesota autumn, surrounded by harvested corn fields and open sky, leagues away from the Pacific, the Philipines, and the smell of death. You could almost talk yourself into thinking such a thing could never have happened. But it did. We all know it did. His was an amazing story of fortitude, courage and resiliency.
I remember thinking everyone should hear this man’s story. It didn’t seem right that only a handful of subscribers would read it. I still feel that way.
Earlier this month, around the Fourth of July to be exact, I learned there is a concerted push for the YouTube generation to help record the stories of the brave men and women who make up what many call the greatest generation. It’s a wonderful idea. And anyone can be a part of it. It’s called the Veterans History Project and it’s open to anyone. It encompasses not only WWII but all the major conflicts and wars of the last 100 years. If you can run a video camera or record a voice or type up an interview, you can help preserve the oral histories of events that shaped our nation in many ways. Wouldn’t it be great if the young, creative minds who flood You Tube with videos of their cat singing Christmas carols or their uncle doing magic tricks or their bungee-jumping vacation in Maui took the time to record the personal accounts of WWII veterans? Statistics tell us 1,000 WWII vets pass away every day, and when they die, they take their stories with them. The YouTube crowd is perfectly gifted to make sure the stories don’t die with them. Stories like these should not be forgotten.
Check the website for yourself. Consider interviewing a neighbor or a family member who you know has a story to tell. Then help them tell it. Make the effort.
What have you got to lose?
Well, actually, a lot.