Veterans oral histories project preserves legacy of service

November 13 2008

On the 90th anniversary of Armistice Day, now known as Veterans Day, members of the Indiana State University community and the Wabash Valley took time to honor those who have served their country.

The veterans oral histories presentation, held at Cunningham Memorial Library on Nov. 11, was designed to share the legacy of veterans in their own words. It also offered students a chance to work with community members to preserve local history.

"The goal of all of this has been to take the study of history in the community," said Chris Olsen, chair of the history department and director of the Research Center for Local History and Culture. "We wanted the students to see the possibility of doing oral history here."

Excerpts from two oral history interviews featuring veterans were shown at the presentation.

The first interview was with Walter Sommers, a veteran of the U.S. Army who served in World War II. Sommers and his family fled Germany during Nazi rule and came to the U.S. right before the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

"It was a total surprise, not only to us but to the American people," he said.

Sommers recounted memories ranging from the bombing of Pearl Harbor to the dropping of the atomic bomb to becoming a U.S. citizen in 1943?all unique stories that shaped his life.

"That's almost a whole history lesson itself," said Anne Foster, assistant professor of history at ISU. Many of Foster's students have conducted oral histories.

The second interview featured the late Chuck Miles, a U.S. Air Force veteran and the father of ISU head football coach Trent Miles.

Chuck Miles talked about his experiences with segregation during his time in the service. His memories painted a picture of the racial climate in the U.S. during the 1950s. He talked about having to look for "colored" signs at restaurants and how whites were served better popcorn than African Americans in segregated movie theatres.

"People got hung up on the wrong things," he said.

Foster told the audience that oral histories like Miles' help to make major aspects of human history more accessible on a personal level.

"For me, this interview with Chuck is such a wonderful example because he shines so much as a person," she said.

Juanita Carothers, a senior double major in history and political science, conducted a demonstration interview with Douglas Herrmann and Jessica Saunders. Herrmann, professor emeritus of psychology, served in the U.S. Marines during the Vietnam War. Saunders, a senior psychology major and director of the ISU Vet-to-Vet program, served in the U.S. Navy and later in the National Guard during the Iraq War.

When Carothers asked the veterans to recount their most memorable moments from their experiences in the military, she received emotional responses.

Herrmann recalled how he and fellow Vietnam War soldiers returned to the U.S. to face protesters who didn't support the war.

"I would say the lowest moment was coming back," he said.

A much different crowd awaited Saunders and her unit's arrival from Iraq.

"We had just cheers and respect. I wish you had had that," she said to Herrmann, eliciting applause from the audience.

Carothers conducted other oral histories during her undergraduate work and she said the project has given her a deeper understanding of the need to document history through personal accounts.

"The interviews have taught me that history can be observed in more than one way," she said. "To actually hear and see the expressions on someone's face, just that interaction, is a great way to learn history."

The Veterans Oral Histories Presentation was part of a week of activities surrounding a celebration of community engagement and the installation of Daniel Bradley as ISU's 11th president.

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Contact: Chris Olsen, department of history, Indiana State University, 812-237-2710 or colsen@isugw.indstate.edu

Writer: Emily Taylor, communications and marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3790 or etaylor16@indstate.edu

Photo: Juanita Carothers (left) talks with veterans Douglas Herrmann and Jessica Saunders during a demonstration of an oral history interview. (ISU/Tony Campbell)

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Story Highlights

On Veterans Day, members of the Indiana State University community and Wabash Valley took time to honor those who have served their country. A collection of oral history interviews were shown and a demonstration interview was conducted, both part of a larger effort to preserve local history.

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