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Preserving Their Stories

Library of Congress, WIMS sponsoring a program to record oral histories of WWII veterans, workers.

Tape recorder in hand, Wanda Driver is making sure history is not made, but preserved.

As one of several hundred volunteers working with the Library of Congress, Driver is participating in the Veterans History Project, coordinated by the Women in Military Service organization, to talk with veterans and others who served the United States during World War II and record their histories for inclusion in the Library's American Folklife Center.

"We want to get the stories from every level of veteran of World War II and anyone who had a direct contact with the war, from the Rosie the Riveter types to code breakers," said Driver, a medical service veteran of the Korean War.

In 2000, the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress set about collecting the oral histories from WWII veterans, dying at the rate of 1,500 each day, Driver said. With each death, the country loses a specific story about life during wartime, whether it was at home, in the trenches or keeping the homeland running while soldiers were at war.

Eventually, veterans from the Korean, Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars will be sought out for their stories, she said, but for now, the focus is on WWII soldiers.

Once a veteran has agreed to be interviewed, filled out the proper forms and had his or her story recorded, it is catalogued and digitized in the library to be used for genealogical and research purposes, Driver said.

The Women in Military Service organization (WIMS) has taken on the immense task of reaching out to veterans and persuading them to tell their stories.

"Most veterans will tell you there's nothing special about what they did, they were just doing their job," said Driver, who agrees with the notion popularized by Tom Brokaw's book highlighting those who are called "The Greatest Generation."

"I haven't found a story yet that wasn't fascinating," said Driver. "The way this country responded after Dec. 7 [the attack on Pearl Harbor] was incredible," Driver said. After WWII, the federal government introduced the GI Bill, giving returning soldiers the chance to leave their family farms and become doctors, lawyers, engineers or take up other positions which, she said, "citified American society."

EACH VETERAN receives a copy of the recording, along with a letter from the Library of Congress thanking them for telling their story, Driver said.

Most of the more than 100 interviews Driver has conducted have been at Greenspring Village in Springfield, where she lives.

"At first, I put up flyers and notes on bulletin boards, but now the vets I interview will ask if I've talked to this or that resident," she said.

One such resident is William Humphreys, a life-long resident of Washington who reluctantly agreed to be interviewed by Driver.

"She's a super salesperson," said Humphreys, who protested that his story wasn't "all that interesting."

The war was a "major historic event that divided the country," Humphreys said, putting America on "the brink of disaster."

In the 60 years since the war ended, he said he hasn't talked much about his military experience, which began after he graduated from Georgetown University where he had been enrolled in the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program.

Humphreys served in the Army from June 1943 until February 1947, his time split between training new recruits and working with a military government office.

After he completed his basic training in Mississippi, he thought he'd be more interested in joining the Air Force, and spent six months training to fly fighter jets.

"Our program folded and I went back to Mississippi without ever getting close to a plane," Humphreys laughed.

He contracted bacterial pneumonia which normally would have required surgery to have a portion of the lower lobe of his right lung removed, but instead he literally coughed it out. To prepare for the surgery, he had taken 30 days leave and spent the time on a beach in California.

In the fall of 1946 Humphreys was assigned to the Military District of Washington to work in the military government school, where he served until he was released from the Army in January 1947.

"I got out on Jan. 10, got married on Jan. 18 and started law school after that," said Humphreys, who worked as a lawyer for 33 years after passing the Bar exam in 1950.

Humphreys said he considers himself lucky for his quiet service experience. Of the 100 ROTC graduates in his Georgetown University class, more than 65 were killed during the war.

THE WOMEN of WWII have stories to tell that are every bit as interesting as their male comrades.

Mary Sargent was in the Red Cross beginning in 1944, serving in India on a B-29 base.

"Not many girls did that," she said, and many soldiers at the time thought of Red Cross Girls, as she calls them, as nothing more than dispensers of coffee, doughnuts and conversation.

While driving some soldiers into a town in India while they had a day off, Sargent's vehicle crashed and she spent two years in an Army hospital learning how to walk again. During that time, she got to know many of the pilots stationed on her base.

"Men who flew the planes were an interesting crowd," she said. "I should know, I married one of them."

Sargent and her husband eventually spent several years living in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Ghana, because they "wanted to let people know Americans were not as bad as they seemed" during a time when the hatred and heartache of the Civil Rights movement was the big news of the day, at home and overseas.

Sargent said she joined the Red Cross because that's what people did at the time. "When I graduated from college in 1939, a lot of the men I graduated with were already in the military and we knew some boys who had died," she said. "I knew if I wanted to do something to help, I needed to do it fast."

Sharing the story of what the Red Cross women did during the war provides the opportunity to "tell things about the war the way they really were," she said. "We all belong to a long, long story."

Frank Seal served in the Army from February 1943 until October 1945, fighting in combat operations in England, France, Germany and Italy.

"My division was the first into the Bulge before it broke," Seal said. "I was wounded once, enough to get a Purple Heart when I got hit by some shrapnel."

Seal said he's proud of the time he served and hopes his grandchildren will someday learn the history of the war they barely know about.

"My kids and grandkids don't know anything about the war, it's not taught in schools the way it used to be," Seal said, disappointed. "No one understands, no one knows any of the units that fought or what happened in the battles. I'd like to take my grandkids by the hand and show them the history of my service in the Army."

Seal hopes that other veterans from all wars will take the chance to have their stories recorded and preserved.

Including more veterans will help "get a picture of the whole history," he said. "When you hear one person talk about it, that doesn't mean it's the whole story."