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True Stories: Oral History How-to's

Here’s how you can capture and preserve the memories of the World War II generation while they’re still here to tell their stories.

By Karen N. Peart
  • Grades: 6–8, 9–12

Reading or watching documentaries about World War II is a good way to learn about the history of the era. And with the 50th anniversary of the end of the war upon us, bookstores and TV will soon be filled with memoirs and other histories of the conflict. But there's an even better way for you to experience the events of the war: through oral history.

Oral histories capture the memories and experiences of ordinary people who have lived through extraordinary events and can bring those events to life in a way that no history book can. On the previous pages we presented the oral histories of people who lived through World War II. Each had a unique story to tell about the great drama of the war. Luckily, many people who have similar stories to tell are still alive and, with some coaxing, will be glad to tell them.

That's what students at Lewis F. Mayer Junior High School in Fairview Park, Ohio, found out recently when they were assigned to interview grandparents and others who lived through the war.

"It was hard for my grandfather to talk about the war at first, but he eventually told me a lot of stories," says Jim Brown, a 10th-grader. "My grandfather's in his 70s now. During World War II, he was a deck gunner and he got his thumb blown off when his ship was attacked." In another incident, Jim's grandfather was serving on an American submarine when an English ship mistook his sub for a German U-boat, and began firing on it. "Talking to my grandfather made me understand the war a little more," says Jim. "It seemed more real to me."

Fellow 10th-grader Craig Coles's grandfather was a truck driver on the European Front. "He never saw combat, but he was proud of serving his country," says Craig. On the day the war ended, Craig's grandfather was so happy that he "traded hats with a German soldier." A next-door neighbor also told Craig stories from World War II. "He used to fly B-29s in the Pacific and was shot down and taken to a Japanese prison camp."

If you'd like to compile your own oral histories of World War II, or any historic event, all you need are people to interview — grandparents, relatives, or neighbors — and the time to ask questions and listen. Tape-record your conversations and write down what you hear. Here are some tips to help you get started:

Oral History How-to's

1. Find an area of the war's history that interests you: World War II in general, the war in Europe, life on the home front, etc. Remember, almost any story that brings history to life is good oral history.

2. Look for people who are willing to talk to you about their experiences in your field of interest. Relatives, friends, or a local librarian might be able to direct you to people who would be interested in talking to you. Very often veterans organizations and senior citizens centers enjoy having young people visit and talk with members or residents. Check with the organization's director.

3. Do some research. For example, if your interview subject fought in World War II, get some good books on the subject and take notes. If the book says, for example, that the trip to Europe on troop ships was rough, ask your subject if that was true for him.

4. Prepare your questions in advance. If the subject is battle experiences, ask if he or she was afraid; find out if in addition to scary moments, there were funny or sad ones. Be sure to ask about where they were when Pearl Harbor was bombed and when the war ended, how they felt about Germans and Japanese, etc.

5. During the interview, follow your list of questions. But also listen to the answers. Press your subject for colorful details. Don't be afraid to ask other questions.

6. It is best to have a tape recorder for your interview. But if you don't have one, take notes. Write up the answers as soon as possible after the interview so you don't forget them.

7. After you transcribe the tape or write up your notes from the interview, shape what you have into a first-person narrative, one that is written with "I" as the subject, like those in the previous article.

 

Adapted from Scholastic Update, March 24, 1995

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