Oral history sites add authentic look at D-Day

At the recent dedication of the National World War II Memorial, 400 volunteers for the Library of Congress were collecting the stories of veterans and civilians who had lived through the Second World War. Destined to become part of the online Veterans History Project, these interviews are part of a growing effort around the world to record the accounts of historic events from people first hand. (A prime example being BBC's, WW2 People's War.)

And though it may be a while before the Memorial holiday's contributions find their way online, the Veterans History Project is currently featuring a collection of stories related to June 6th, 1944, with Experiencing War: D-Day 60th Anniversary.

Part of the larger American Folklife Center, the Veterans History Project has posted almost 350 personal narratives online to date - ranging from World War I to the first Gulf War. In collecting the stories, professional historians and researchers are bypassed in favor of volunteer journalists, "with grandchildren interviewing grandparents, veterans interviewing each other, and students conducting interviews as part of classroom assignments."

Launched on May 20, Experiencing War: D-Day has taken 21 of these accounts related to the invasion, and divided them into three Themes, On the Beach, Beyond the Beach, and Plus 1, Plus 2,... .

The exhibition opens with the account of Claud Woodring, slated to be one of the first men ashore, with the assignment of clearing barbed wire for those would follow. His landing craft hit a mine. He made the last few hundred yards to shore in the water.

Other pages include the stories of pilots, paratroopers, and even a radio intercept operator, though the best candidate for "movie of the week" might well be Russell Baldwin. The Cleveland native had just started life as an optometrist when he was drafted, became a member of a bridge building battalion, was captured by retreating Germans who eventually abandoned him, and finally returned home to find his parents had rented his bedroom to a college student, whom he subsequently married.

Most stories are told in the form of RealAudio and RealVideo interviews, both in single full-length files (which last between 10 and 100 minutes), and in sets of highlight clips (a few minutes each) which automatically move from one clip to the next as each stage is complete.

Though D-Day is the focus of the presentations, these interviews cover more than just the actions in the first few days of the invasion. Claud Woodring's story begins in basic training, where the wanton destruction of his camera started things off on the wrong foot between the infantryman and the US Army, while William Loncaric goes on after the invasion to take part in the liberation of Dachau.

(Considering that they're in RealVideo format, the video interviews are of a higher quality than one normally expects, though they did crash my browser on several occasions and the computer once. Slide shows, audio-only options, or simple transcripts would have been a welcome alternative - especially for dial-up visitors.)

In addition to the interviews, Experiencing War features personal artifacts which help shift the reminiscences from abstract history to the lives of real people. While most veterans' stories are accompanied by photo albums, others also feature personal scrapbooks and memoirs, official documents, personal correspondence, and such ephemera as a Thanksgiving Day menu and London concert programme.

One impressively comprehensive collection includes 271 letters and 85 sketches and watercolors from the undeniably prolific Lieutenant Tracy Sugarman. With an attractive but basic layout, the site's first priority is the content, and rightfully so - this is clearly a topic where substance is more important than style.

As mentioned above, the entire Experiencing War collection covers more that just the D-Day invasion - or World War II for that matter - and the current catalog of stories is divided into a total of 12 Themes, including Courage, Family Ties, and Life Altering Moments.

If you'd like to find more material specifically related to June 6th, some of the better options include PBS's American Experience treatment of the landings, National Geographic's Untold Stories of D-Day (with its own list of recommended links) and Encyclopedia Britannica's extraordinarily thorough Normandy: 1944.

Experiencing War can be found at http://www.loc.gov/folklife/vets/stories/.

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