By Pat Fox
Long before it was common to peer into the minds and memories of war veterans, the Atlanta History Center began chronicling stories from those on the front lines.
What began in 1999 with a cassette tape recorder and a small VHS camera has grown into a collection of close to 600 high-quality videos containing the personal accounts of service men and women from five wars.
The Kenan Research Center, the library and archives branch of the Atlanta History Center is in the process of making these stories available to the public online.
“Even those interviews we were doing in 1999 with limited camera equipment and limited sound equipment, and even those captured only on an audio cassette recorder are still absolutely fabulous,” said Sue VerHoef, who heads the Oral History Project for the Kenan Center.
Over the past year, early recordings, both audio and video, have been copied onto digital platforms to join the other 200 or so that were recorded on the current state-of-the-art equipment, VerHoef said. Many abbreviated accounts are available online, and the full stories should be accessible within a year.
“We’re protecting not only the original recordings in their original formats, but we’re being very careful to preserve the digital surrogates that we’ve created,” she said. “The Library of Congress gets a DVD.”
The center has adopted a positon of honoring the men and women of the armed forces through a variety of programs and special events throughout the year.
This Veterans Day, the center will host a special event at 11 a.m. at its Veterans Plaza at 130 West Paces Ferry Road NW. The celebration will include music, a bagpiper presentation, an address by Dan Holtz, assistant commissioner of the Georgia Department of Veterans Affairs, a flag-raising ceremony, and a keynote speech by Brig. Gen. John King of the Georgia National Guard.
The 1-acre plaza features the stories and oral history of veterans on a series of panels, each containing a QR code – compatible with any smartphone – allowing visitors to access video files of veterans sharing their personal reflections.
The oral history studio, now equipped with wired, lavaliered microphones and state-of-the-art digital cameras, is generally operated by three people: VerHoef, who runs the lighting, camera and sound; a scribe, who fills out the recording log that goes to the Library of Congress; and an interviewer.
Joe Bruckner is one of the chief interviewers. As a Vietnam veteran and U.S. Army captain who was awarded the Bronze Star, Bruckner has gone through the process himself.
“Every time we finish an interview, I feel good that this person has had a chance to tell his or her story,” Bruckner said. “Invariably, a lot of them had to be pushed into it by their family.”
Sometimes, Bruckner said, emotions run so high, it is difficult to maintain a degree of professionalism as an interviewer.
“A lot of times, it’s a pretty emotional experience, and a lot of times, there’s some humor in it, too,” he said. “I tell myself I can’t show emotion…but the interviewee needs to know you are with him emotionally.”
With assistance from the Library of Congress and StoryCorps, a New York-based nonprofit founded in 2003, the Kenan Research Center is one of 45 organizations in Georgia and one of thousands across the country collecting veterans’ stories.
While the Center is beginning to broaden its collection to include Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, VerHoef said the main push remains recruiting World War II veterans to share their stories.
“Every World War II vet we interview, we always ask for suggestions for others that they may know,” she said. “Their families in particular are realizing that people really want to hear these stories.”
The campaign has turned out close to a dozen World War II interviews this year alone, most recently a 92-year-old B17 ball turret gunner.
VerHoef emphasized that the center is interested in all war stories from veterans, from the front lines of battle to the supply depot.
“Almost to a man, or a woman, they’ll say ‘I didn’t do anything important,’” VerHoef said. “We have the best luck convincing their families, who know that they did.”
The lion’s share of the interviews are from veterans in greater metro Atlanta and north Georgia, VerHoef said. A handful are with veterans from other parts of the country who either grew up in Georgia or trained here.
The project is special to VerHoef, whose grandfather, father and deceased husband served in the military.
“I love these guys,” she told a recent gathering of the Atlanta Vietnam Veterans Business Association. “They’re all gone now, all three of them. I would give anything to hear their voices again, telling me what they did, explaining the small part they played in the defense of this great country.”