Union Tribune

November 10, 2003

Library accelerates veterans project
History program records experiences of military


WASHINGTON A significant part of America's history is disappearing every day with the death of about 1,800 of the nation's war veterans.

But in recognition of the 50th anniversary of Veterans Day, the Library of Congress is accelerating a program to collect the personal stories of those veterans before it is too late.

"Each veteran has his or her own war and each is custodian of a unique story and memories," said James Billington, the librarian of Congress. "This project will tell the American story through thousands of different voices, thousands of different pictures and thousands of different memories."

The congressionally authorized effort, called the Veterans History Project, is being directed by the library's American Folklife Center. It has engaged more than 800 organizations and thousands of volunteers nationwide to help collect these memories.

Launched on Veterans Day three years ago, the project has accumulated more than 10,000 contributions. These include video or audio recordings of veterans' stories, wartime diaries, letters, photographs and other memorabilia. A veteran contributed his own paintings and sketches that captured the horrible, the benign and the humorous images of his war.

The contributions span nearly a century of America's wartime experiences, ranging from several World War I veterans to accounts from the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

One of the accounts in the files is the harrowing tale of Norman D. Smith, who lives in Carlsbad.

Smith, now 82, was a B-24 co-pilot in the Army Air Forces' 90th Bomb Group, flying out of crude airfields in northeastern Australia during World War II.

On Jan. 9, 1943, Smith was flying with his nine-man crew, an intelligence officer and a photographer near the island of New Guinea. While attempting to bomb a Japanese ship convoy, the plane was attacked by eight Japanese "Zeke" fighters, he recalled.

With his pilot and some other crewmen killed and two engines on fire, Smith said he flew into clouds to evade the fighters but could not keep the badly damaged bomber in the air. When he crash-landed in the sea, the plane flipped over and he was underwater.

When he came to the surface, Smith found the plane's two life rafts but no one else from the crew.

Climbing into one of the large rubber rafts, Smith said he formed a sail using two paddles and the silk from his parachute. He floated for nine days with only two coconuts and a small crab for food before he washed ashore on an island.

Helped by natives and Australian coast watchers, he evaded Japanese troops until he was picked up by a small plane and returned to his unit.

But the library's present collection is hardly a start in recording the personal histories of the estimated 19 million living veterans of America's wars.

"The clock is ticking," said Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., the author of the legislation establishing the Veterans History Project.

Kind said one of his constituents who was interviewed on videotape by a high school student died shortly after the taping. The veteran's family called to thank him for helping preserve his history, Kind said.

"I can't think of a more powerful history lesson than for a high school student" to personally record a veteran's history, he said.

In honor of the anniversary of Veterans Day, which was first observed in 1953 in Emporia, Kan., and made an official national holiday the following year, the history project is supporting a Public Radio special called "Coming Home." It will draw on some of the oral histories collected by the project.

The library has put 24 of the personal histories on its Web site, which can be accessed at www.loc.gov/vets/. It also has prepared kits to help veterans or volunteers record the personal histories.