Veterans’ memories live forever at Atlanta History Center

Veterans across the nation will be celebrated and remembered Nov. 11. Photo by Brandi Sission, courtesy of the Atlanta History Center.
Veterans across the nation will be celebrated and remembered Nov. 11. Photo by Brandi Sission, courtesy of the Atlanta History Center.

Credit: Brandi Sisson Photography

Credit: Brandi Sisson Photography

Tony Hilliard had been in Da Nang, South Vietnam, for a matter of days in January 1968 when a Marine battalion commander ordered him to his first post.

Hilliard was going to help lead a squad of men whose job it was to clear mines and booby traps from the roads used to supply American soldiers during the raging war.

He recalled the commander telling him that he would be taking the place of the squad’s lieutenant, “who was killed yesterday.”

"It became serious at that point,” Hilliard says of his Vietnam War experience.

Tony Hilliard was a combat engineer, clearing mines and booby traps around Da Nang in Vietnam.
Tony Hilliard was a combat engineer, clearing mines and booby traps around Da Nang in Vietnam.

Hilliard’s story is one of more than 800 video interviews that are part of the Atlanta History Center’s veterans oral history project.

In the testimonials, amassed over the past 20 years, members of the armed forces and some civilians recount stories that range from flying at 20,000 feet in a bomber over France during World War II to nursing the wounded in Vietnam to fighting across the deserts of Iraq.

It’s part of a national program that preserves first-hand accounts of some of the most critical times and events in the nation’s history. Some of the recordings end up in the Library of Congress Veterans History Project.

Hilliard, now 76, was interviewed 10 years ago. He so believed in the project that he volunteered to help and has interviewed dozens of veterans of other wars.

“When I came back (from Vietnam) nobody talked about it,” Hilliard told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week.

“I started writing things down for my own benefit. That is really it. It was for the memories. And it was always about the people, the people that I served with,” the Acworth veteran said.

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Sue Verhoef, the Atlanta History Center’s director of oral history and genealogy, said histories are typically written from the top down.

The oral histories preserve what “actually happened on the ground,” she said. “How did people feel about it? What did they do to keep spirits up? How did their service impact the rest of their lives? Those are stories we often don’t get.

“These accounts are so personal and fill in so many gaps in the records we have,” she said.

The center posts most of them online at the Atlanta History Center’s website.

Outtakes are often used in its exhibits and the center’s annual Veterans Day celebration, this year a virtual event because of the pandemic. It is scheduled for Wednesday at 11 a.m. The broadcast can be picked up on Facebook or Youtube and through links on the center’s website. The center’s senior military historian Gordon Jones will be the featured speaker.

Voehoef said the pandemic has slowed the oral history project. She fears some aging veterans will never get to tell their stories if life doesn’t get back to normal.

To find veterans willing to tell their stories, the history center relies on help from participants like Hilliard and members of the Atlanta Vietnam Veterans Business Association and the Atlanta Branch of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.

Hilliard saw Ginny Dornheggen of Eatonton speak at a veterans event in Cherokee County and asked her to come in to share her experiences as a nurse in Vietnam. She declined — she said she wasn’t ready to relive all of that. But then, Dornheggen thought about it and got back in touch with Hilliard.

“I mainly did it for my children and grandchildren,” she said.

Ginny Dornheggen was an Army nurse in Vietnam.
Ginny Dornheggen was an Army nurse in Vietnam.

She wanted them to understand what she did and why she volunteered.

Hilliard said many veterans are encouraged by their families to take part in the project. His father-in-law served in the submarine service in World War II, but never talked to his daughters about it. After Hilliard did his interview, the women talked their dad into doing one.

When the interview was finished, the last thing he said before the video camera was switched off was “'I’m glad you guys made me do this,'" Hilliard recalled. “That kind of summed it up.”

His father-in-law has since died, Hilliard said, "but that is something that the family has.”

Anyone interested in participating in the veterans oral history project can contact Verhoef at 404-814-4042 or sverhoef@atlantahistorycenter.com.

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