Richard Bailey, retired UMC minister, may have been only seven years old when Pearl Harbor was attacked, but growing up in wartime America inspired him. Now, more than sixty years later, he has deployed a project to preserve the memories of those who fought in the ensuing war. Thanks to his efforts, the Rotary Club of Charlotte, in collaboration with the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and Central Piedmont Community College, has produced a collection of video interviews with more than 100 WWII veterans native to Charlotte, and is currently raising funds to produce a two-hour WTVI documentary based on those interviews.
As the “greatest generation” ages, according to Bailey, over 7,000 WWII veterans die each week, taking with them their memories of this defining era in American history. “I felt that we ought to do something to preserve these stories,” says Bailey, who began brainstorming for the project in 1999. He garnered the support of his rotary club, whose members today include about fifteen WWII veterans, and recruited Dan Morrill, professor of history at UNCC, to perform the interviews. “I decided right away to be a part of the project,” says Morrill, whose background in history and experience in public television made him the perfect candidate.
The interviews are preserved on DVDs, accompanied by a transcript and photos of each veteran’s memorabilia – medals, uniforms, newspaper clippings, even guns. They will be archived and digitally indexed, and will be available at the Mecklenburg County public libraries as well as the libraries of UNCC, CPCC, and any other interested local university.
Although Morrill cites a “compelling diversity” among the interview subjects, he and Bailey agree there were some common threads among them, including a certain modesty about their role in the war. For instance, one gentleman who, at the age of 18 was promoted in the field to commanding officer, insisted that he wasn’t a hero: “Those who didn't come back are the heroes.”
But along with the modesty abides a common sense of pride in having done their duty. Also, says Morrill, a sense that they “had to grow up very, very fast.” But that doesn't mean they wanted to remember the war. “It was a tough war,” says Bailey. “The worst thing was seeing their buddies killed.” Morrill concurs that one of the most emotional aspects for many was the question of why they had survived, when “I had so many friends that wanted to live just as much as I did, and they didn’t live.”
Finally, adds Morrill, “One thing I don’t think has gotten the attention that it deserves is the place of religion in sustaining these people. Many felt that God’s hand was upon them.” And that, he says, was what helped many of them get through the war and helped them adjust afterward.
Some other frequently raised issues fell along racial and gender lines, or varied according to whether the subjects served overseas, in combat, or on the home front. For instance, segregation in the military deeply impacted black veterans. Morril describes one African American gentleman who served in combat and came back from the war determined “not to put up with all that [segregation] crap any more.” The first thing he did when he returned to Charlotte was to buy himself a firearm to protect his rights. Others, including a gentleman who served in the Tuskegee Airmen, expressed frustration and disappointment at the lack of recognition given to the black forces who served in the war. At the same time, African American contributions to the war increased their own sense of pride while beginning to open doors toward equal treatment.
A Research Arsenal
The final collection of DVDs is expected to be a major boon to WWII researchers. The archives will be indexed by category, so that researchers can readily find interviews covering their area of interest. And the oral histories included in the collection aren't limited to just recollections of the war itself or the memories of those actually in combat.
“We studied other [WWII oral history] archives,” says Bailey, “and the most successful were those that were whole life interviews.” So his project includes subjects’ memories of childhood, upbringing, religious values, and how the war affected the rest of their lives. In addition, they recorded the memories of those working on the home front – administrators, nurses, and civilians, for example.
They also strove for racial and gender diversity in their subjects. The project even includes a few veterans who fought for the Germans and later immigrated to Charlotte and became U.S. citizens. The archive “will be very valuable for research, especially as the years go by,” says Bailey. “We’ve uncovered stories that have never been told before.”
Shooting for the Limelight
The project has garnered so much enthusiasm and support that additional projects have sprung from it, including the upcoming WTVI special and a book. The WTVI documentary boasts an award-winning crew including producer Eric Davis, photographer Randy Fulp, editor Del Holford, and executive producer Elliot Sanderson.
The documentary will feature between ten and twelve of the individuals interviewed in the archives, and will include additional footage shot on location around Charlotte specifically for the documentary. It will start with a segment highlighting pre-war America and the interviewees’ backgrounds and training. Later portions of the first segment carry the titles “Shipping Out,” “Living on the Battlefields,” and “Worried at Home.” The second segment includes portions titled “The Edge of Life,” which will cover the heart of the war itself and the experiences of those in the thick of it; “Returning Home”; “The Challenges of Everyday”; and “So What,” which will cover the opinions and outlooks of the interviewees, and thoughts on the meaning of the war.
The documentary will broadcast initially in 15 counties and will then be available for distribution to public television stations across the nation; educational materials will be developed to expedite its use in classrooms. Then, if sufficient funds are in place, the first half of the documentary will air at the beginning of September, to coincide with the end of a summer-long celebration in honor of “the greatest generation.”