Project voices WWII veterans’ stories

The Veteran’s Oral History Project started as a volunteer venture for Elisabeth Comer, who at the time was finishing her undergraduate degree in history at Northern Kentucky University.

Comer worked with the Louisville American Association for Retired People (AARP) to assist in interviewing people who were willing to share their wartime experiences. She wanted to help preserve memories for veterans in the form of video, audio tape and transcripts.

Unknown to Comer, her goodwill would lead to a significant project at NKU known as The Veteran’s Oral History Project. With more than 30 interviews in the archive, the NKU project began its affiliation with the Library of Congress Veteran’s History Project in spring 2005.

According to the Veteran’s History Project Web site, the United States Congress created the Veteran’s History Project in 2000.

NKU professors Dr. Jonathan Reynolds and Dr. Francois LeRoy have both lead research classes based solely on obtaining interviews from veterans and those affected by war. The research conducted in the class became a very important part of the students’ lives, said Rita Thomas, a student in the class. “The class was over, and come July we were rallying together to go do more interviews,” Thomas said. “We did not want the veterans’ stories to go to the grave with them.”

According to Dr. Rebecca Bailey, assistant professor of history, the project’s purpose is to document stories of American’s 20th century experience with war. “We are losing around 2,000 veterans a day, and their stories are leaving with them,” Bailey said. Although a goal is not set for a number of interviews, Bailey stated that reaching the older veterans is of high priority right now.

“What strikes me most now when interviewing veterans is how young they were when they experienced what we now study as history. I think this feeling really developed after I started teaching because I often see the youthful faces of my students in my mind while listening to the veterans tell their stories. I have had students mobilized out of my classes, and I am reminded of them,” Bailey said.

“This project is a prime example of doing history, rather than studying history,” Reynolds said. Experiencing the veterans’ stories can be very emotional, Bailey said. “A man I interviewed was a pilot in the CBI (the China-Burma-India) theater in World War II. One of his first missions was to fly reconnaissance over the now peaceful site of a recently waged battle. He punctuated how overwhelming the experience was by noting that the flight had occurred at dawn on his 21st birthday. Near the end of his interview, tears rose in his eyes when he related the shock he felt when he returned home at the end of the war, to find that his mother’s hair had turned snow white in the years that he and his two brothers were away fighting.”

“The foundation of this project is civic engagement and community outreach,” Reynolds said. The public archives are available on campus in the W. Franklin Steely Library for local use.

Anyone with an experience that reflects on the process of war is eligible to contribute to the project, Bailey said. Volunteer interviewers and transcribers are also needed to continue archiving veteran’s stories. “In the past, everyone was involved in war. Now it only touches lives if you let it,” Bailey said.

For more information about the project or to volunteer, please contact Bailey at 859-572-5176 or send an e-mail to