Posted by: philipmartin | November 5, 2010

What Did You Do During the War, Dad? (Part III)

[This is the 3rd in a series of posts by Nancy Martin, co-author with her father-in-law of the book, Patton’s Lucky Scout.]

Veteran’s Day (November 11) is coming soon. That’s a great time to begin interviewing the veteran in your family, if you haven’t already.

To help you, here are the rest of the story prompts I’ve developed. Make your own list . . . a running list of topics to explore, tailored on what you already know about your vet. Of course, addressing these questions will take more than one session! That’s part of good oral-history interviewing . . . taking the time to develop a rapport, to show a genuine interest, and getting a basic foundational understanding of what a veteran did. Then, in follow-up sessions, you may be able to explore deeper, to fill in blank parts, to enrich accounts with interesting details.

Here, then are some more questions:

  • Who was your commanding officer? What was that person like?
  • Who did you most admire in your outfit?
  • Who was the funniest guy in the group?
  • If you were in a firefight, who would you want beside you?
  • Do you still keep in touch with anyone from your old unit?
    • Who would you most like to know how their life turned out?
  • What kind of food did you eat? What was the best? What was the worst?
  • How much time did you spend “on the line” vs, behind the lines?
    • How many foxholes do you think you dug? Any memorable ones?
    • Did you get any good R&R (rest and relaxation) breaks?
  • How/Did you keep in touch with folks back home?
    • Best/worst care package or letter?
    • Did you write home?
      • Did you or any of your buddies get a ‘Dear John’ letter?
    • Did you carry a picture of someone with you? Who?
    • How did your family handle you being gone?
      • Did they keep newspaper clippings/a scrapbook/your letters?
        • If they still have them, this could lead to hours of stories.
  • Tell me about your time in the service  (be as open-ended as possible)
    • In Africa, Italy, England, European campaign, Pacific Islands?
    • When did you land?
      • If Europe, D-day or how many days after (D+)?
        • Stage in England or shipped directly from stateside?
      • If the Pacific, how many islands – Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, the Philippines?
    • Did you go into combat with the same guys you trained with or did you go in another unit as a replacement?
      • What unit did you serve with?
        • Knowing the unit allows you to research the unit, which can lead to more questions. There are also a lot of veteran associations for various units that love to share info and reconnect vets.
    • If in the Navy – how long were you at sea?
      • Did you experience any kamikaze attacks?
    • Did you see any good USO shows? Who were the headliners? Where and when was the show?
    • How many battles were you in (where, when, how long)  – keep this open-ended, let them tell it in their own way
    • Were you ever injured (Purple Heart medal)?
    • Were you ever captured? Where/how were you captured/with others/how long were you held/how and when did you get away/were released?
    • Did you keep any souvenirs?
    • What medals did you earn? NOTE: there are internet sites with images of all military ribbons and medals, to confirm what you have (e.g., http://www.usamilitarymedals.com). What can you tell me about why you got them?
    • Common ribbons/medals for WWII Army infantry service might include
      • Weapons qualifications Medal – in order of skill Expert/Sharpshooter/Marksman  (earned during training – will have bar for each weapon qualified)
      • Motor Vehicle Badge (with bar indicating Mechanic or Driver A-amphibious, M – motorcycle, S- special mechanical, T-tracked, W – wheeled)
      • American Defence medal (if in service a year before Pearl Harbour)
      • American Campaign medal – WWII (service 12-7-1941 to 3-2-1946 in continental United States, the Atlantic, Alaska) service stars may indicate action with U-boats
      • European Campaign medal (stars indicate major campaigns)
      • Asiatic-Pacific Campaign medal (stars indicate major campaigns, arrowheads indicate amphibious landings)
      • Good conduct medal (three years of “honorable and faithful” service or one year in times of war or if killed in line of duty)
      • WWII victory medal (for WWII service)
      • Army of occupation medal – (for Germany or Japan)
      • Honorable Service Discharge emblem (“ruptured duck”)
    • Common but for a good reason.
      • Purple Heart (if injured during combat)
      • Prisoner of War (if held captive or taken prisoner)
      • Combat Infantry Badge (recipients had be under hostile fire in a combat area)
    • There are many other medals, among them several for bravery Bronze Star Medal, Silver Star Medals, Soldiers Medal, Distinguished Service Cross and the highest the Medal of Honor.
  • How/where/when did you learn about VE Day (May 8, 1945)?
    • What did you think would happen to your unit next?
  • Do you consider VJ Day August 14 (cessation of hostilities announced by Hirohito) or September 2 1945 (when the treaty was signed aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo harbour)?
    • What did you do to celebrate the end of the war?
  • When did you get back home?
    • How did you get back home?
  • What was the food you most missed while gone and did it taste as good as remembered when you had it again?
  • What did you most want to do when you got back home?
    • Did you and was it as good as you imagined?
  • Tell about your homecoming – did they know when you would arrive or did you just show up?
    • Did you still fit into your “civies” or did you have to get new clothes?
    • What was the easiest/hardest thing to readjust to being home?
    • Did you join any veteran’s groups?
  • What did you do after the war?
    • Did you go back to school on the GI bill?
    • Did you go back to your pre-war job or into something else?
    • Did you have any problems getting housing when you got back

But polite and deferential, of course. Some veterans will downplay their role with the catchphrase of their generation, “I just did my job.” True, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to talk about it. It may mean they want your respect and serious attention, to know you aren’t just looking for a funny or sensational tale, that you really are interested in what they did . . . everyday, mundane stuff. Ask them. Start with the surface stuff.

And slowly, you may develop the rapport needed to learn more about what they felt inside about what they were doing and what was happening around them.

Some jobs were heroic, some were critical but tedious and some simply kept things going.

Some last general reminders for collecting and writing down stories:

  • Don’t try to write an epic to start out, start with “slice of life” and particular incident write-ups. You may wind up with a book, but enjoy whatever you get.
  • Be as descriptive as possible
  • Try to involve several senses in your story. The most vivid memories are sensory.
    • sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch
  • Try to be an old-time reporter; anticipate the questions of your reader and answer them
    • When, where, who, what and how
  • Use dialog, when approporiate, to give ‘voice’ to the characters in your stories
  • Read your work in progress out loud to see if it “sounds right”
  • Start by writing down all your ideas and thoughts for the story and then later go back to edit/fill-in/delete/rearrange the parts.
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