Collecting and preserving the stories of WWII vets

While the Atlanta History Center conducts interviews with the help of volunteers at their in-house studio (and can make house visits for homebound veterans), the following is a guide for interviewing the veteran in your life:

Think of the interview as a walk through the veteran’s life — before, during and after their time in the military.

Biographical details: Where and when were you born? Who are/were your parents and what are/were their occupations? Who are/were your siblings? Names and genders? Which, if any, serve/served in the military?

What were you doing before you entered the service?

Early days of service: In which branch of the military did you serve? Did you enlist or were you drafted? If you enlisted, why did you choose that specific branch of the military?

How did you adapt to military life, including the physical regimen, barracks, food and social life?

Other questions: Ask about wartime service, coming home after the war and reflections on how the experiences affected their life.

Go to Sept. 2 to read a special section commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. The special section will include local veterans' stories and much more as we celebrate a heroic generation.

Getting help

The Atlanta History Center encourages veterans to participate in the Veterans History Project since they have the equipment, trained interviewers and ability to preserve not only the interview itself, but any photographs and memorabilia the veteran would like to share.

It will all be preserved at the Library of Congress as well as the Atlanta History Center, and will be accessible to family, friends and researchers in Atlanta and on the history center’s website.

For more information or to request an interview, contact Sue VerHoef at 404-814-4042 or by email at

To view veteran interviews, visit (The center expects to have all 550-plus interviews available online by the end of the year.)

For more ideas about questions, more information about the project, and specific guidelines on submitting an interview to the Veteran's History Project, go to

On a recent afternoon, Burlyn Michel took a seat in a soundproof studio at the Atlanta History Center to share his story about life as a young man serving in World War II.

Michel, 92, a retired University of Georgia professor who lives in Athens, spoke for well over an hour with great detail about enlisting the Army while studying at Purdue University in the early 1940s, and then being sent to a southwestern corner of Germany.

He talked about firing his rifle only once in combat — at windows to make sure there were no snipers hiding inside. He talked about guarding buildings and moving, not always sure where he was headed, just knowing he couldn’t stop.

And he talked about meeting a German girl who taught him how to waltz.

Michel’s story will join thousands of others in the Library of Congress Veterans History Project.

Since its start in 2000, the project has amassed more than 98,000 collections, which include interviews as well as photographs, diaries and letters from veterans who served from World War I through recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. (About 16,000 are available online. To view and listen to the collections available, go to click yes in the box for digitized collection.)

About 57,000 of the collections come from World War II veterans. The collections are open to the public at the Library of Congress, with the Veterans History Project searchable by names, wars, branches of service, units and medals.

But, time is running out for collecting first-person oral histories from WWII vets. The 70th anniversary of the war’s end (the Japanese officially signed their surrender on Sept. 2, 1945) serves as a stark reminder of the dwindling veteran population from that war. About 16 million Americans served in World War II, but veterans in their 80s and 90s are dying at a rate of about 500 a day, according to U.S. Veterans Affairs figures.

There are about 850,000 living U.S. WWII vets.

The Atlanta History Center, a founding partner in the program, has collected about 550 interviews from various wars and conflicts since the Veterans History Project started.

At the history center, the actual interview is conducted by combat veterans from the Atlanta Vietnam Veterans Business Association. The center arranges house-visit interviews for homebound veterans in metro Atlanta. All of the interviews are archived at the history center as well as at the Library of Congress.

Sue VerHoef, senior archivist at the Atlanta History Center and manager of the Veterans History Project there, said the stories told cover a broad spectrum of military life and range from the humorous to the tragic.

Among the stories: a soldier who described living in the same uniform for six weeks; a former prisoner of war who made friends with his captors 30 years later; an airman who flew a cargo plane over the Himalayas loaded with 50-gallon drums of jet fuel topped with 500-pound bombs; a paratrooper who landed in Normandy on D-Day; a sailor who watched the Japanese surrender on the USS Missouri; a dustoff pilot whose crew clung to the helicopter skids to save room inside for more wounded; and an infantryman who landed at Anzio Beach alongside the best man from his wedding, only to watch his friend shot dead moments later.

Michel, who was encouraged by family members to share his story about serving in the war, minimized his role, saying it “was very small.”

VerHoef is used to hearing veterans downplay, even dismiss, their role in the war.

“These men and women, they all say they didn’t do anything significant, but once they start talking and tell their story, you find out that what they did was remarkable,” VerHoef said. “Their stories run the gamut — from the lighthearted to the emotional; they remember their comrades, and their military experience has informed the rest of their lives.”