Honoring noble service

Last summer, I wrote a story in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution titled “The replacement soldier.” The piece, one of our ongoing “Personal Journeys” series, recounted the experience of a World War II veteran.

Eddie Sessions was a farm kid from rural Mississippi when he was sent to the front lines in France as a member of the 95th Infantry Division during the war. Sessions’ tale captured the experience of “replacements,” teenagers by and large, who were sent to the European front to take the place of dead and wounded foot soldiers. They were ill prepared for what they faced when thrown into battle, and typically were wounded or killed within a few days. Those who survived did so by using the wits they brought from home.

Like most of our “Personal Journeys” stories, Sessions’ story elicited a powerful reaction.

Said one reader: “Thank you very much for bringing to light the difficulties our troops experienced during WWII. I have visited the cemetery at Omaha Beach and viewed the results of the carnage from just one battle. We owe them much!”

That reaction was among dozens I received to the story. Some were from veterans sharing their own experiences. Others were from family members seeking a more thorough understanding of a father’s experience. One veteran even sent me the memoir he’d written of his time during the war.

Since then, I’ve been working on a way to gather these folks, and to let them meet each other and share stories.

Enter the Atlanta History Center.

The AJC has been working with the Atlanta History Center since we published “The replacement soldier.” We’ve set an event for Nov. 11, which is Veterans Day, at the AHC, and we’ve invited the veterans who contacted the newspaper after the story was published. The public is welcome too.

The Atlanta History Center has an ambitious and impressive Veterans History Project. It works in cooperation with the Library of Congress.

One of the center’s central efforts is compiling oral histories from veterans, and we’ll highlight those efforts at the event. Attendees will get to see recordings of veterans recounting their experiences.

As part of its Veterans History Project, the AHC conducts and records interviews with veterans about their experiences. The center also houses a studio for StoryCorps, a national non-profit effort to record and collect the stories of the lives of Americans. If you listen to NPR’s “Morning Edition” on radio, you’ve probably heard some of those personal recordings. StoryCorps also has a Military Voices Initiative.

This style of “oral history” has become increasingly popular, and the AHC offers veterans a chance to make an appointment and tell their stories.

According to Sue VerHoef, senior archivist, the Atlanta History Center has recorded about 450 interviews of veterans from all branches of the service who served in conflicts including World War II to more recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We’re excited about collecting, preserving and making them accessible for everyone,” she said.

There is, of course, great power in hearing veterans recount their experiences in their own words; it can be much livelier than reading a history book. As I experienced with Eddie Sessions, the story comes to life, and we can all connect to what it felt like to face enemy fire or to see someone wounded.

Of course, there’s a great emphasis these days in preserving World War II history because aging veterans won’t be around for much longer.

“Every time you lose somebody, you lose that perspective,” said VerHoef. “We’ve lost a piece of the puzzle.”

In addition to encouraging veterans to tell their story and recording them, the AHC is working on transcribing the interviews and also making them available and searchable online. With a recent grant, the center has made a strong move in that direction, and hopes to soon make its work widely available.

That’s because, as VerHoef said, when it comes to the experiences of veterans we should “hear the stories from their mouths.”

BOX: An event to honor veterans

What: “Stories of Sacrifice: Listening to America’s Veterans.” Sponsored by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

When: Monday, Nov. 11; reception at 6 p.m and event at 7 p.m.

Where: Atlanta History Center. Program is free. RSVPs requested. Call (404) 814-4150 or visit AtlantaHistoryCenter.com/VeteransVoices.

Details: Celebrate Veterans Day by hearing firsthand accounts from the Veteran’s History Project and StoryCorps Military Voices Initiative. Free and open to the public. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is using the occasion to also honor Staff Sgt. Josh Bowden, who was killed serving his country in Afghanistan and is the son of AJC employee Ray Bowden.