- By Richard Chin
Seventy years ago, one of the deadliest battles involving American forces during World War II was waged.
On D-Day, June 6, 1944, 150,000 Allied soldiers hurled themselves against Hitler’s “Atlantic Wall,” a crucial turning point in the liberation of France and Western Europe from Nazi occupation.
On “Bloody Omaha” beach, where German forces were the strongest, one out of 19 men who stepped on the beach were dead or wounded by the end of “the longest day.”
But World War II veterans are now finding themselves facing an even more formidable enemy: Old age.
During the war, 16 million Americans served in uniform. About 1 million of those are alive today. And every day, an estimated 555 World War II veterans will die, according to estimates from the National WWII Museum. By the end of the year, one out of five of the remaining World War II veterans will be gone.
Which means if you have a parent from the Greatest Generation, now is the time to preserve his or her story before it’s too late.
The Minnesota Historical Society recently collected oral histories of former World War II GIs for a Greatest Generation exhibit. It created a resource page on its website with tips on how anyone can do it.
(MORE: How to Craft Your Memoir)
Here are suggestions on how to go beyond asking, “What did you do in the war?”
- Begin by recording a brief introduction that includes the date and location of the interview, your name and name of the narrator.
- Keep questions brief, and ask one question at a time. Listen to the answers carefully, and be ready to ask follow-up questions when necessary.
- Occasional silence is fine. Everyone needs a moment now and then to collect his/her thoughts before talking. Keep the recorder running. Never interrupt a narrator while speaking.
Suggested questions for interviewing a veteran include biographical information such as:
- Where were you born and when?
- What was your life like before the war?
- Where were you when you heard the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor?
Cover wartime experiences with questions like:
- What was your branch of service? Why did you choose that branch?
- When and where did you enter service?
- What was basic training like?
- What was your job? Were you sent overseas?
- What type of equipment were you issued before you were sent overseas?
- Were you involved in combat? If so, what were your most memorable combat experiences?
- How was the food while you were in the service?
- How did you keep in touch with your family?
- What did you do for entertainment?
- Did you go on leave, and what did you do?
- How did you feel about the people you served with? Can you describe some of them?
Some questions for post-war experiences include:
- What was your homecoming like?
- Did you return to the job you left? Did you take advantage of the GI Bill?
- How did your military service affect your life in the years afterward?
- Do you still have friends you made while in the service?
“The main thing I always tell people is that it’s not so much about asking the right question but knowing how to get the narrator to talk,” says Ryan Barland, oral history curator for the Minnesota Historical Society.
Barland says when he interviews someone, he structures his questions so that if he asks about an event, he will follow up with a question about a feeling or an opinion.
“That way you can dig deeper into events,” he says.
“Interviewing your mom or dad is easier because there is a level of trust and you already know most of the good stories,” Barland says. “A lot of times these interviews are just about questions like, ‘Dad, remember that story you used to tell us about …? Tell me that story. How did you feel doing that? Did you think that was the right thing to do?’”