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Fall 2002

Vol. 03, No. 1


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They were soldiers, Collecting veterans' stories

Vern Useldinger was home, sick in bed with the flu, listening to the radio when the shocking news seared across the airwaves. Pearl Harbor had been attacked. Thousands were lost. Useldinger lay in his bed and cried. He was sad. He was frightened. He was angry. He enlisted in the Navy.

NDSU freshman Casey Carlson collected Useldinger's story about a week after Sept. 11, 2001. The devastation of 9/11 provided tragic common ground for the elder and his young interviewer, melting 60 years into a single horrified reaction. The national Veterans History Project aims to gather oral histories from veterans since World War I, with current emphasis on survivors of the "war to end all wars." The impetus comes from Washington, where stories collected will be gathered and stored by the Library of Congress American Folklife Center.

Armed with tape recorders, NDSU students are serving as aides-de-camp to North Dakota veterans interviewing other veterans. It's a project NDSU English lecturers David Martinson and Eunice Johnston and teaching assistant Kim Sjurseth have turned into an "immersive" class that encompasses everything from reading essays on the war effort to taking swing dance lessons. The first phase of the project took place during NDSU's World War II Reunion in August.

There's no such thing as a typical interview. Content ranges from fact relating, to humorous storytelling, to emotional contemplation and even singing. When President Joseph A. Chapman interviewed former pilot John Donnelly during the reunion, Donnelly sang the president a song about the unwieldy B26, "... It was sad, it was sad when that 26 went down ..." Not that Donnelly ever had much trouble with that plane; from the time Lindbergh flew the Atlantic, Donnelly pined to be a pilot. As a sophomore at NDSU, he enrolled in Civilian Pilot Training, making his first solo flight at Hector Field in 1941. Before his discharge from the Army Air Corps in 1945, he flew 40 missions in Europe.

President Joseph A. Chapman interviews World War II pilot John Donelly

Because they are ardently personal and may contain what was once kept secret, the interviews have an off-the-record sort of air. In his interview, former North Dakota Gov. William Guy told a tale of a misfired American torpedo. "It did not hit," Martinson said, "but the astounding reality is that the ship targeted was carrying President Roosevelt to England." Roosevelt was on his way to meet Churchill and Stalin at the Yalta Conference.

How different history could have been.

As one might expect, the act of telling can be therapeutic. A former bomber navigator - survivor of four crashes - told Sjurseth he'd kept silent about his combat experience for 35 years. "Finally he hit rock bottom," Sjurseth said. "He lost all his money; he went bankrupt." Only then did he realize what damage the war had done and opened up to his wife. She was the only person who had ever heard his story, until NDSU invited him to the microphone.

NDSU is just scratching the surface of the oral histories stored in the minds of the state's veterans. Useldinger, former Adjutant of the North Dakota American Legion, has become one of NDSU's chief interviewers and is engaging other veterans in the story collecting. It's hoped other North Dakota colleges and high schools will follow the NDSU model and get their students involved. Certainly, there are plenty of stories to go around. Each factory worker, shipbuilder, dockworker, farmer and Red Cross worker who supported the war effort has a story to tell.

Carlson's transcript of the Useldinger interview is 12 pages long - a major typing task for any student - but he said it was worth his time because the document serves a purpose. "It's going to benefit someone. Maybe not today, but down the line," Carlson said. "It's the true-life part of the story, the feeling part of the story."

Student Focused. Land Grant. Research University.