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When Chance Price, Noelle Robert and 17 other University of Wyoming students enrolled in History 3020 this fall, they had no idea what to expect.
None of them expected this.
On the first day of class last month, Professor Marianne Kamp sprang the news: The students would be spending the semester interviewing veterans of World War II and the Korean War and contributing those interviews to the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
"I didn't know what we'd be doing. All I knew was that I had to take the class," says Price, a junior from Wheatland. "I had no clue."
Neither did Robert.
"I found out on the first day of class with everybody else," says Robert," a second-year student from Laramie. "I knew we'd be doing a research project, that's all I knew about the class. I had no idea we'd be doing oral interviews with war veterans."
Until a few months ago, Kamp wasn't even sure what type of research project the students would be doing in the class, a required historical methods course for all history majors at UW. Then she recalled learning about the Veterans History Project while on sabbatical in 2006-2007 at the Library of Congress.
"And a light bulb went off in my head," Kamp says with a smile. "When they all came to class on the first day, I said, ‘Surprise, this is what we're doing!'"
The Veterans History Project, created by the U.S. Congress in 2000, relies on volunteers to collect and preserve stories of wartime service. The primary focus of the project is on first-hand accounts from World War I and II, the Korean, Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars and the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
To date, Kamp says the project includes some 55,000 memoirs, collected by, among others, the family members of soldiers, Boy Scout troops and elementary school classes.
"It's very much a citizens project," she says.
Soon, UW will add to the collection of memoirs. The class recently completed its first interview, a two-part session with Herb Dieterich, a UW history professor emeritus who served in World War II, and plans to conduct other interviews through Oct. 13.
During his interview, Dieterich touched on a broad range of topics from his tour of duty some 65 years ago, including military segregation, morale and life after the service.
He also discussed the slow speed of the mail in the wartime 1940s, noting that it sometimes took up to two months for a letter to get from its sender to recipient.
While Dieterich only recalls receiving letters from his family, he chuckles and says, "But I must have gotten letters from young ladies at some point," drawing laughter from Kamp and the students.
Typically, History 3020 is a writing-intensive, book-based research course. But the students are excited for a change of pace.
"This is a sweet deal," says C.J. Bates, a senior from Chicago. "This is my first exposure to oral history and I think it's going to provide another avenue for us to learn. You're not going to read about people like Mr. Dieterich in the history books, so this type of project will give us the opportunity to hear the other side of the story, the common man's story."
Adds Price, "Personally, I'm pretty excited about it. This is going to give us a chance to step away from the books and do something that's more personalized. From listening to Mr. Dieterich, I've already gained a different perspective, from somebody who was not in combat situations, and I think it's going to be cool to hear the stories of other veterans, too."
After conducting interviews, which will last anywhere from 2-3 hours, Kamp's students will transcribe the interviews, word-for-word, and prepare them for submission to the Veterans History Project.
"It's a time-consuming process," Kamp admits. "But this is such a cool opportunity for the students -- and for me -- to contribute to this national project."
If you are a World War II or Korean War veteran and are interested in telling your
story, contact Kamp at (307) 766-3427 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a time
and location for your interview.
For more information on the Veterans History Project, go to the Web site at www.loc.gov/vets.