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Putting a human face on wartime

Atlanta History Center works to preserve veterans’ stories

“The red light came on and we stood up, and the green light came on. That’s when we were fighting to get out of there … normally you just move down the aisle and jump, but, with the plane bouncing around and the anti-aircraft fire tossing it around, it was a struggle. … That was the worst part. …. Probably the most scared I’ve ever been in my life.”

That’s the late Robert Williams, who served as an Army paratrooper in World War II, talking about getting ready to jump behind enemy lines on D-Day.

It’s the kind of very human, very personal recollection that makes the oral histories collected by the Atlanta History Center’s Veterans History Project so compelling. The archived videotaped interviews are full of stories that put a human face on the experience of war.

Williams died in 2016, but his memories of his wartime service live on in the interview that the Atlanta History Center recorded with him in 2003.

That’s exactly the point of the oral history collection, which includes video and audio interviews with veterans of World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf and post 9/11 conflicts, as well as civilians who supported them. The center collects, preserves and shares these accounts, so that future generations can hear directly from veterans and better appreciate the realities of war and the sacrifices made by those who serve in uniform.

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The oldest interview in the Atlanta collection, created in partnership with the Library of Congress American Folklife Center, dates to 1999, said Sue VerHoef, director of oral history and genealogy at the history center.

Sue VerHoef is the Atlanta History Center’s director of oral history and genealogy, and oversees the Veterans History Project. (Photo by Phil Skinner) (For the AJC)

The impetus for the project was the 50th anniversary of World War II, VerHoef said, and “the realization we were losing our World War II veterans at an alarming rate.”

Of course, she added, “now we’re getting to the time when we’re starting to lose our Vietnam War vets as well.”

The center averages about 40 new interviews a year, she said, and has about 730 in its archive, 330 of which can be accessed online by anyone. VerHoef said the center recently received a donation of $20,000 to finish cataloging, indexing and putting the rest of the interviews online.

VerHoef said more than half of the collection’s interviews are World War II veterans, another third are Vietnam, and the rest are Korea and post-9/11.

“We don’t have as many Korean War vets as we ought to have,” she said, but the most urgent priority is the WWII vets, who are in their 90s now.

Retired Marine Tony Hilliard is one of the volunteers who conducts video interviews of veterans for the Atlanta History Center’s Veterans History Project. (Photo by Phil Skinner) (For the AJC)

Tony Hilliard, a retired Marine who is one of VerHoef’s interviewers, recalled a World War II paratrooper who had agreed to participate in the project. “We had him lined up for an interview, and it snowed or something and he couldn’t get down here and he had to reschedule.” But, before the interview could take place, Hilliard said, “he was gone. He had passed away.”

“We never ever let our soldiers die by themselves. We were always there with them. One of us would be assigned to that patient, and we would be there with him the whole time, holding hands, talking with them. If he wanted us to write to his mom or his dad, we did. We just wanted to make sure that their mom and dad or their loved ones knew that they were not alone.”

That recollection is from the interview with Ginny Dornheggen of Eatonton, who served as a nurse in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. She’s one of two Vietnam nurses in the history center’s collection, and VerHoef would like to have more. “We’re always looking for diversity in every respect — ethnic background, gender, all of that,” she said. “They all served. We want to preserve their stories.”

She said her team “recently interviewed a transgender woman who was dealing with her transgender issues while she was serving in Vietnam. That was a very compelling interview.”

Hilliard recalled interviewing a woman who worked for a supply depot in downtown Atlanta during World War II. He was skeptical about what sort of stories she’d be able to tell, but, “it was one of the best interviews I ever did, because she talked about … how working through the time of World War II had changed her life.”

VerHoef noted that “we were lucky enough to interview a Vietnam POW. A B-52 navigator who was shot down in December 1972, and spent three months in the “Hanoi Hilton” (as U.S. POWs called their prison in North Vietnam). I wanted to interview his wife, because I felt like that was a piece of the story that just needed to be told. So, we did that interview, which was amazing.”

And, she said, a couple of years ago, the history center played host to a Rosie the Riveter convention of women who worked in traditionally male roles in WWII, “and I was able to interview two or three Rosie’s which was, again, amazing.”

Sue VerHoef displays artifacts from the Atlanta History Center’s Veterans History Project collection. VerHoef is holding an unexploded Viet Cong hand grenade from the Vietnam War. (Photo by Phil Skinner) (For the AJC)

The collection also includes photographs, uniforms and other artifacts donated by veterans. VerHoef used some of those materials in a Vietnam War exhibition the center put on last fall, including a Montagnard crossbow, “Ho Chi Minh sandals” made from old tires, POW pajama bottoms, a brick from the Hanoi Hilton and an unexploded Viet Cong grenade.

Building up a group of good volunteer interviewers has been key to the history center’s success, VerHoef said. Most came to the project through the Atlanta Vietnam Veterans Business Association, and she’s now recruiting additional interviewers from the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History.

VerHoef likes having veterans interview veterans, because “we hope that sort of sets up a feeling — a safe space where there’s nothing they can say that would be shocking.”

Most of the interviews are done at the history center’s studio in McElreath Hall, but VerHoef and her crew will go on the road, if necessary. One such interview was with Michael Schlitz of Columbus, who served as an Army Ranger in Iraq. He was riding in a Humvee just outside of Baghdad when it hit a roadside bomb. A couple of people in the vehicle were killed; Schlitz was thrown clear, but suffered extensive burns to his body, face and head, and lost both hands from the elbow on. In his interview, he talked about the reaction he draws from the public, compared with other veterans:

“What really kind of bothers me is when I go in public, I could have three veterans with me. Two might be suffering from post-traumatic stress, one could have a TBI, a traumatic brain injury, and there’s me. And the only one they’ll think of is me. They just forget about these guys. But those guys’ service is no different than mine. And, I have guys that have multiple deployments coming up to me (saying) ‘My service isn’t quite the same; it isn’t like yours.’ No, your service is the same, same as mine. I had one bad day, which changed this part of me, but the actual service, serving your country, is no different. Anybody on any given day can have a bad day. And, I’m what a bad day looks like.”

It’s a challenge not to get emotional in cases such as Schlitz’s, VerHoef said. A veteran interviewed recently “talked about some North Vietnamese atrocities that he witnessed. His squad was pinned down in a village … and they had to watch. If they had done anything, they would have all died. They had to stay in their place of concealment. … I think that was the hardest one.”

Joe Bruckner (from left), Tony Hilliard and Sue VerHoef look over artifacts from a Vietnam War exhibit held earlier this year at the Atlanta History Center. (Photo by Phil Skinner) (For the AJC)

Joe Bruckner, a Vietnam vet and retired lawyer for Bell South who’s been doing interviews for the history center for 15 years, said, “The tough part for any of them during an interview, if they were in combat, is when some of their fellow soldiers were hurt or killed. Initially, a lot of them say there are some things I’m not going to talk about, and I say, that’s completely up to you. It’s your interview. But, invariably, as they get into it, they will start talking about some tough times in the field, and I always tell them, if you need to stop a minute, let me know. … Yeah, I think that’s the toughest time.”

Bruckner said such moments aren’t easy on him, either. “But, I think those of us who do the interviews realize it’s our responsibility to try to help them. Just listen to them.”

The most memorable interviews he’s conducted were with African-American veterans from World War II, because they served in the era of segregation.

He recalled one veteran who had been to Fort Dix in New Jersey for training, and then was traveling to a base in the South. “The train was integrated till they got to Washington. The train stopped, and all the black soldiers had to go to some cars, and all the white soldiers went to other cars, and just watching his face and listening to him talk about that …

“Another African-American soldier was somewhere out in rural Texas, and went into town to go to a movie on a Saturday night with two or three of his buddies,” Bruckner said. “They were told, you can’t go into this movie theater. But they saw this long line of men (in line at the theater). Turns out they were German POWs. They could go to the movies.”

However, not all the veterans’ stories are tough to hear, fellow interviewer Hilliard said. “Once they get going, you can see them kind of fall back into that mindset, when they were 18, 19, 20 years old. That’s what’s fun about it.”

Particularly with the elderly World War II veterans, Hilliard enjoys taking them “back to that period of their life … it was exciting, and you can see it in their faces when they light up. ‘I remember.’”

“It’s every bit as rewarding to us as it is to them,” Bruckner added.

All veterans’ stories are worthwhile, he said. “That’s what you’ve got to convince people. They say, ‘I didn’t do anything.’ And then you get in there, and it’s fascinating.”

WHO IS ELIGIBLE TO BE INTERVIEWED?

Anyone who served in the U.S. military is eligible to be interviewed for the Veterans History Project, along with civilians who served in their support, said Sue VerHoef, director of oral history and genealogy at the Atlanta History Center.

Although there should be a connection to Georgia, if not metro Atlanta, VerHoef said, “I will do everything I can to preserve anyone’s story,” including connecting the veteran with another partner in the nationwide oral history project.

VerHoef said the project prefers to conduct interviews in its soundproof studio at the history center’s McElreath Hall, but, especially with World War II and Korean War vets, that’s not always feasible, “so we are more than happy to take our show on the road.”

If you would like to be interviewed, or you know someone you think the project ought to interview, send an email to veteranshistoryproject@atlantahistorycenter.com or call VerHoef at 404-814-4042.

For more on the Atlanta History Center’s Veterans History Project, go to

atlantahistorycenter.com/research/veterans-history-project.

VETERANS DAY PROGRAM AT ATLANTA HISTORY CENTER

The Atlanta History Center will hold its annual Veterans Day program at 11 a.m. Nov. 11 in Veterans Park, at the corner of West Paces Ferry Road and Slaton Drive.

For more details, go to

atlantahistorycenter.com/programs/veterans-day-commemoration-2.

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