He dropped out of school at age 17 to become a Marine, went to language school and translated Japanese in the Pacific campaign.
She was one of the first female instructors to train Navy pilots at the Pensacola, Fla., airbase.
Another guy received most of his medals before age 20. Another gal was a French interpreter in Europe for the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps.
They’re turning up on public TV stations and their websites, with thousands of other World War II vets whose stories will be told in September along with those in Ken Burns’ The War.
For some, the struggle was back home—the conscientious objector who fought fires as a smokejumper, the woman who held down the fort on the Crow reservation in Montana when her husband was called up.
Another couple met far from home: He almost died when his plane was shot down over Japan. His nurse then has been his spouse for more than 60 years.
Spurred by the national event of Burns’ series and assisted by the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project, this nationwide oral history endeavor — reminiscent of the Depression-era Federal Writers’ Project and public radio’s ongoing StoryCorps — has the potential to be quite a large exercise in oral history.
The collecting process, particularly for smaller stations lacking spare production crews to make extensive local docs, has had a boost from PBS: a new web-based story collecting tool, StoryShare. It helps stations put user-generated content into their own documentary projects, creating public TV’s first large-scale history project to integrate viewers’ contributions.
In the wake of charges that Burns didn’t fully represent the ethnic reality of the U.S. forces, the local projects — by virtue of their extent and their localness — are likely to excel at diversity.
Wisconsin PTV, Arkansas’ AETN and other stations began documenting WWII stories many months ago, and with the documentary push surrounding The War, big stations such as WNET and WTTW will be producing big documentaries. For stations with fewer reporting resources, the CPB-funded grants for outreach projects surrounding The War will only go so far. In February, WETA—co-producer of The War with Burns’ Florentine Films—was overwhelmed by grant applications, says Anne Harrington, director of web and outreach. WETA eventually awarded grants to 117 stations, with 48 stations receiving $10,000 and 69 receiving $3,000.
StoryShare, the web-based tool for collecting viewers’ stories, may have as great an impact. Developed by PBS and the National Center for Outreach and funded by CPB, stations can add StoryShare to their own website.
The tool lets users type in their stories and upload photographs. To record audio, they can call an 800 number. A future version of StoryShare will add video uploading capability, says Cristina Hanson, community planning manager at NCO.
Without that technology, some stations send viewers to YouTube to put video online. Others provide their own upload tools. [WNET enlisted Open Media Network to host viewer-generated videos.]
Then some stations incorporate the user-generated content into their documentaries for broadcast or post it on websites where users can search by topic, battle and name.
Stations will also feed StoryShare material to the Library of Congress project. PBS and WETA aim to create a central storehouse for all the WWII stories from StoryShare.
About 60 stations are using the tool, developed for The War but likely to be used for future projects, too. “It’s really important to create a space where the entire community can interact with their public television station,” says Hanson. “When you can connect community engagement goals to such large pop-out PBS shows, there’s so much more potential for impact within the local community.”
Most stations are going far beyond StoryShare. They’re sending cameras across states, interviewing veterans, training young people to do oral history and make docs, and profiling local industries that played a role in the war.
Local WWII programming will run alongside The War in many areas. The activity by both viewers and stations is too widespread to sum up comprehensively.
The more people involved, the better, says Monica Mohindra, program specialist at the Veterans History Project. The project produced a field guide with PBS to guide stations and individuals in collecting stories. “We’re trying to encourage and instill and inspire the public to be involved in this process, so you’re asking your neighbor to go interview Uncle George on Memorial Day,” she says. “It’s important . . . that it not be too regimented by the academia of oral history because in fact the public part of it is crucial.”
Indeed, the “public” is a repository of complex and conflicting stories that aren’t guaranteed to make a neat package. In Montana Homefront: United or Divided [program website], MontanaPBS talks with a conscientious objector who fought forest fires in the state rather than go to war and a miner who wanted to go to war but had to stay in the mines, extracting copper for the war.
The conflict in the title of the half-hour doc, directed by a graduate student in video, refers in part to Rep. Jeanette Rankin of Montana, the only member of Congress to vote against entering WWII. The state was also the site of many camps where conscientious objectors served as firefighters and road builders.
mokejumping COs were trained in Missoula to parachute into the wilderness to put out fires, though some locals did not appreciate their presence. The doc also features a Crow woman whose husband went to war. She talks about what it was like for women to be left in charge on the Crow reservation.
MontanaPBS hopes to collect more stories from Natives at recording booths at the state fairs — one in Billings, near the Crow reservation, and one in Great Falls, near the Blackfeet reservation.
In Arkansas, AETN is engaged in one of the largest WWII oral history projects, In Their Words. Since 2005, AETN producers have conducted more than 230 video interviews for web and broadcast. [Most of the material will be presented online on a special site, www.intheirwords.org.]
Producer Gabe Gentry is struck by the formative experiences these men and women had before age 30 — from the Great Depression to the horrors of war. He’s noticed a deep sense of community engagement in the Greatest Generation, which he attributes to their struggle and survival.
He’s also gotten some surprising answers to a few pointed—and fairly loaded—questions he asks at the end of each interview, including “What is liberty to you?,” “What is the greatest hope for our nation today?” and “What is the biggest threat to our nation today?”
In response to the last question, the vets rarely mention what’s on the nightly news today. “They wouldn’t say terrorism,” says Gentry. “They would say our inability to compromise,” for example.
AETN’s doc Their Journey follows 45 randomly selected Arkansas interviewees who went to Washington, D.C., on a trip led by the network. They visited the WWII memorial, talked with the state’s reps to Congress, and had lunch with Burns and PBS President Paula Kerger. The doc also features stories from the 45 and looks closely at four WWII experiences.
In the Philadelphia area, WHYY is also mining the community in StoryCorps fashion. Its producers are traveling more than 2,000 miles in their Y Arts Van to record interviews. The station has also partnered with local newspapers — the Philadelphia Daily News, the Philadelphia Tribune, a historic black paper, and the Spanish-language Al Dia—to gather stories from residents. Readers can send personal essays to the newspapers or submit them to the WHYY website, and judges will select several essays to be printed in the newspapers.
In addition to two documentaries, New York’s WNET and WLIW are working on several youth documentary projects. In a partnership with the nonprofit teen film school Reel Works, WNET will work with six to eight students to produce a doc by December.
In many cases, the effort to document regional WWII stories had begun long before questions about whether Burns should modify The War to include Latino and Native American vets.
For most stations, the controversy had no impact on their documentary plans, because they set out to cover regionally distinct experiences and populations in the first place.
The pubTV station in Guam, for example, will document the Japanese invasion and occupation of their island during the war. Stations in the Northwest are focusing on Japanese internment camps. In Wichita, Kan., a half-hour doc by KPTS will look at the role of the area’s big aircraft industry.
In Austin, Texas, where KLRU is producing a two-hour documentary, Latino stories were naturally a part of the project.
“We have worked hard to get stories that represent a cross-section of our population,” says Karen Quebe, outreach coordinator. “Like most everybody else,” she says, “[our documentary] started on a very small scale but now has grown to epic proportions.”
KLRU had already made a local WWII documentary in 2002, during the run of PBS’s American Family drama series, as part of a collaboration with the U.S. Latino and Latina WWII Oral History Project at the University of Texas-Austin. That project, incidentally, is headed by journalism professor Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, who has been a leading voice against Burns’ interview choices (separate story).
Stations and the Library of Congress expect a new wave of story submissions after The War premieres Sept. 23. User contributions to StoryShare stream in steadily, and stations may keep using the module well into next year. “If a station is having success with it,” says Harrington, “why not keep it up?”
Web page posted Aug. 13, 2007
Copyright 2007 by Current Publishing Committee