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University professor, students record World War II oral histories

A Nickel for Your Story project to submit recordings to Library of Congress

<p>Dr. Jim Kavanaugh said part of the reason veterans may not have shared their stories is they do not think anyone wants to hear them.</p>

Dr. Jim Kavanaugh said part of the reason veterans may not have shared their stories is they do not think anyone wants to hear them.

Dr. Gregory Saathoff, associate research professor in the Departments of Public Health Sciences and Emergency Medicine at the Medical School, recently partnered with a group of students at the University on a project called “A Nickel for Your Story,” in which oral histories of World War II were collected from local veterans

“On the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, we had a dinner in the Rotunda that featured World War II leaders … that was such a moving experience to be with these veterans that we began having some other commemorations,” Saathoff said. “Appreciating what’s around us is really what developed Nickel for Your Story.”

Nickel for Your Story’s first extended project has been recording the oral history of Dr. Jim Kavanaugh, a graduate and former faculty member of the Medical School. Kavanaugh flew in combat missions as a radio operator in the Army Air Corps during the war and is now 90 years old.

“If you just get the local paper and you read the obituaries, we’re losing these [veterans] and their memories at a rapid rate,” Kavanaugh said. “I was a little suspicious that there was real interest in this, but meeting with some of the young people … they really are interested. They want something kind of reality-based that isn’t a movie, and it isn’t a story and it isn’t the X-Men. It’s just people who would have been their neighbors.”

Nickel for Your Story will submit the oral hisitories to the Library of Congress for the Veterans History Project. While they have collected partial histories from several men so far, Kavanaugh’s is their first completed history. Saathoff said the project is important now, as members of the World War II era are leaving us physically or their minds are beginning to deteriorate.

“We’ve been contacted by people in hospice who are looking at the end, and they have expressed an interest in telling us their story before they go,” Saathoff said. “People have reached out to us [about telling their story] … We want to be very respectful and we’re most interested in listening to the people who have identified that they’d like to speak with us.”

Both Saathoff and Kavanaugh said once the men and women of this generation are gone, there will be no other way to tell their stories.

“Don’t assume that their families know their stories, and don’t assume that they’ve ever really sat down and told their stories,” Saathoff said. “We had a remarkable situation of a man who we asked to [participate in the project] and he had served in very, very dangerous missions … He showed our video to his family and they said, ‘We had no idea! Why didn’t you ever tell us this?’ His response was, ‘You never asked.’”

Kavanaugh said part of the reason veterans may not have shared their stories is they do not think anyone wants to hear them.

“I think one of the main things is because it was so long ago now, and in relation to myself then I’m so much older that I’m concerned a little that people somehow associated the World War II with old people because all the veterans are old now, but none of us were old then,” Kavanaugh said. “[For] the people that experienced [World War II], it’s part of their memories so it doesn’t seem as important, but I realize that my children and my grandchildren are generally interested and this gives them a more permanent record that they can refer to.”

While the project has focused on World War II veterans so far, Saathoff said the ultimate goal of the Nickel for Your Story project is to capture stories from the Vietnam and Korean Wars.

“We are focusing on this group because they are leaving us, but we have yet to hear the most important and powerful stories from our Vietnam veterans and our Korean War veterans,” Saathoff said. “The issue of fighting for one’s country and putting oneself in harm’s way, leaving one’s family and seeing friends, fellow soldiers, not be able to come back — this is an experience that soldiers have had for millennia.”

Saathoff said Nickel for Your Story will eventually extend the project to all veterans.

“We feel that lessons from those who fought in Vietnam are also extremely important and in a way, I mean, we see this as preparing our students for the process of getting those important stories as well,” he said.

Nickel for Your Story is currently raising funds through a Kickstarter campaign in order to continue to cover basic expenses.