By George Mauzy
Before the end of the calendar year, Alden Library's Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections will have video and transcripts of 20 in-depth oral interviews with veterans of the U.S. Army's 1st Infantry Division added to its collections.
The individual interviews, which can last more than one hour, are the second phase of the Cantigny First Division Oral History Project. Ohio University Visiting Assistant Professor of History David Ulbrich is leading the project.
Ulbrich, who grew up in a military family, said the Cantigny project is capturing the recollections of First Division veterans since 1945. "During the video interviews, we ask the good questions -- the precise and pointed questions that promote in-depth answers," Ulbrich said.
"Many veterans are happy to share their stories, which often become therapeutic for them. Sometimes they even break down in tears while discussing their war memories."
The project is being funded by a $25,000 grant from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation through its First Division Museum at Cantigny, which is located in Wheaton, Ill. The museum's mission is to preserve the history of the U.S. Army's storied 1st Infantry Division. Most of the interviewees are veterans of the Iraq War, but some served in World War II, the Cold War and the Vietnam War.
Ulbrich said it is important to capture the veterans' stories because their personal recollections help fill out the documentary record with the human experience. The McCormick Foundation's interest in the 1st Division stems from the World War I service in that division of its benefactor, the late Colonel Robert R. McCormick, longtime publisher of the Chicago Tribune, and from his lifelong devotion to the 1st Division thereafter.
The 1st Infantry Division, famously nicknamed the "Big Red One" for the red numeral "1" insignia worn on the soldiers' uniform sleeves, was the first American "division." It was formed in 1917 for WWI and has been on continuous active duty since. Some 6,000 Big Red One troops currently serve in Iraq.
Ohio University students are playing a major role in the grant-funded project.
The 20 veterans are from Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia and were interviewed this summer and fall by four current and former Ohio University students.
WOUB-TV students were responsible for taping the interviews and transcribing the footage, which will be webstreamed and recorded on DVD. After completion, the interviews will be available at the Alden Library Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections Web site and at the Cantigny Museum.
Interviewer Tony DeRubertis, who earned a bachelor's degree in history in June from Ohio University, said he has been impressed by the veterans' ability to explain the details of their war experiences during the interviews.
"I have learned a lot of stuff you don't read about in the news about what's going on in Iraq," DeRubertis said. "They give you a different view of the war than the media and it is interesting to see the differences."
Interviewer Seth Givens, who is pursuing a master's degree at Ohio University, said it has been a thrill for him to serve as an interviewer because he is a longtime military history buff.
"I like the personal stories," Givens said. "It's interesting to hear the veteran's experiences and hear them talk about things that you can't read in a book. This is a neat project that benefits everyone -- the interviewers, the veterans, the museum and the university."
Last year, Ulbrich and Michael William Doyle, his former faculty colleague at Ball State University, completed phase one of the Cantigny First Division Oral History Project. With the help of Ball State students, they interviewed 40 First Division veterans from Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana. Those interviews are now available on the BSU Library Archives and Special Collections Web site located at www.bsu.edu/libraries/archives/newcoll.html.
Paul Herbert, executive director of the Cantigny First Division Foundation, said the museum has been building its oral history collection for many years and currently has about 550 interviews in its archives, including some from World War I veterans. He said the museum is always looking for academic partners to help them gather these historical interviews because the museum staff is too small to perform them all and it gives college students a unique learning opportunity.
"This project provides a one-of-a-kind experience for students to perform serious interviews," Herbert said. "Oral interviews are great because they are informal conversations that help the veterans convey meaning through their voice inflections and facial expressions rather than just written words. We don't just stick a microphone in their face and say 'tell us about the war' -- we want to hear about their life before, during and after their military experience."
Ulbrich said he has been impressed at how quickly the veterans relax while talking to the student interviewers and forget that there is a camera in the room. He said after the first five minutes, the interviews become conversational.
"This has been an intense learning project for me as well as the students," Ulbrich said. "But, I want to make it clear that we are not glorifying war, we're just treating the vets with dignity and respect."