EMU faculty, students fight to save history through veterans project
YPSILANTI - Three or four times a year - Memorial Day, Veterans Day and the anniversaries of D-Day and Pearl Harbor - the stories trickle out. They are the stories of men and women who served overseas and at home during World War II.
Approximately 16.5 million men and women served in the military during WW II. There are about 3.7 million still alive, but they are dying at an estimated rate of 1,000 per day.
Dying with them, all to often, is a piece of history.
EMU’s Joellen Vinyard, Gary Kelly, their students and Bill Vollano of the Ypsilanti Rotary Club are trying to change that by capturing veterans’ stories through the Veterans History Project (VHP).
“It’s been a learning, moving experience,” said Vinyard, a professor of history at EMU. “In many cases, these men have not talked about their war experiences until they talked to us.”
Congress created the Veterans History Project in 2000 to collect and preserve stories of the men and women who lived through extraordinary times. The project documents, through audio and video recordings, the wartime experiences of military personnel, as well as the contributions of civilians, such as war industry workers and medical workers, who served in support of the armed forces.
Vinyard got involved two years ago when she decided to use the project as a class project for her local history course. EMU students were taught interviewing skills, given a camcorder and asked to find a veteran.
To date, 46 veterans have contributed their stories to EMU’s part of the project. Vinyard hopes to add 20 more stories from veterans and others by the end of this semester with her current class.
Those stories include that of Amy Chatsfield, the first woman air traffic controller in the U.S., who served in the Women’s Air Corps during the war; and Lt. Col. Alexander Jefferson, a Tuskegee airman who was shot down on his 19th mission.
Finding the stories and getting veterans to tell their stories can be difficult at times, but the hardest part is finding the resources to keep the project going.
“The challenge is to preserve the oral histories we have collected in a way they are made known and available for the public – now and in the future. This is a great project, but it relies heavily on those of us directly involved with it,” Vinyard said. “We would very much like for all the interviews to be available on the Internet. That requires expertise and resources we do not have at this time. What we do have are wonderful interviews.”
Helping with some of those challenges are Kelly and Vollano.
Kelly, a history instructor at EMU, worked on the VHP with his students when he taught high school in Novi. Vallano, the retired CEO of Child and Family Service, doesn’t want to lose more history than he already has.
“I had family in a number of important battles and now they’re all gone and no one had taken any history from them. That’s very frustrating,” Vollano said.
After an initial grant from the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation, Vollano and the Rotary Club have raised about $2,000 for the project and received a matching grant from the Michigan Department of History, Arts and Libraries. The support was used to purchase cameras, DVDs, recorders, a computer and the various supplies needed for the project.
Both Vollano and Kelly appreciate the hard work of the EMU students, but would like to see the project develop some consistency and a permanent home.
“I would love to see a pool of graduate students or social work students get involved,” Vollano said. “If we could provide a corps of people to continue the work after the students move on, it would be a good thing for the whole community.”
While the Ypsilanti District Library has been the repository for the collected data, both Vollano and Kelly said they would like to make the archived information available on the Internet so more people could see it.
“The huge responsibility of this project is to make sure that these interviews do not wind up in a forgotten file cabinet,” Vinyard said.
Eastern Michigan University is a public, comprehensive university that offers programs in the arts, sciences and professions. EMU prepares students with the intellectual skills and practical experiences to succeed in their careers and lives, and to be better citizens.
Eastern Michigan University is a public, comprehensive university that offers programs in the arts, sciences and professions. EMU prepares students with the intellectual skills and practical experiences to succeed in their career and lives, and to be better citizens.
Editor's Note: Looking for an expert source for a story? Check out EMU's Eastern Experts online at www.emich.edu/univcomm/easternexperts.