Oral histories help students tell, preserve World War II era stories

Under Professor Birkner's guidance, students recently held an event at a local retirement home to advertise their work with World War II era stories, while also encouraging attendees to share their own experiences.

A soldier anxious to get home.

A civilian witnessing the Pearl Harbor attacks.

A child experiencing life on the home front during wartime.

These stories won’t be found in any typical text book. Instead, these stories were collected by history professor Michael Birkner’s methods students during a recent event held at the Cross Keys Village retirement center.        

This event was part of an effort to reach out to people who lived through the war and convince them to share their experiences with Birkner’s methods students. Over the past 20 years, Birkner has used his Historical Methods class to collect World War II era oral histories. So far, they have created a collection of over 650 stories.

Birkner

“Everyone has a story to tell,” Birkner repeated to each of the residents who stopped by the event.

In addition to presentations by three of his students regarding their experiences conducting oral history interviews, there was also a question and answer session about the interview process. Residents were encouraged to share any memories that the conversation stirred about their lives during the Second World War.

From the students’ perspectives, conducting these interviews was important because it helped to connect them with the past and gain a better understanding of the circumstances that shaped our nation.

They argued that these stories prevented students from creating a whitewash of history, in which the focus is on big issues that tend to devalue everyday experiences of the average person.

Kevin Bardin ’15 was one of the students who attended the event. He interviewed a Mechanicsburg-native, Roy Cramer, who served as a barber in Norfolk, Virginia.

After the war, Cramer returned to the area and operated his own barbershop. “He loved to talk about his barber shop,” Bardin recalled. “That and his family made him the happiest man I’ve ever met.”

They talked about Cramer’s childhood and life during the Great Depression, which Cramer described in one word: hardship.

“You wouldn’t see his story in a text book or watch it on the History Channel,” Bardin said, “but it is important to hear. My generation has no real understanding of these events [without these stories.]”

John Denny ’16 also went to the Cross Keys Village. He interviewed Carroll Adams, an airline pilot who served during the war. However, the war ended shortly after he enlisted, so he played a role in the occupation of Japan.

BirknerDenny

“We weren’t reading about the war in a textbook or learning about some distant conflict in class,” Denny said. “Talking to these people really humanized these events. It made the conflict and their experiences more tangible.”

Denny continued, “We [as a society] tend to focus on large events and important people, but we need these personal accounts to better connect with our past.”

Afterwards, residents were able to share a bit about their stories.

One of the women told the audience how her grandfather owned a restaurant during the war. A young girl during the war, she remembered how her grandfather bought a school bell and placed it in front of the restaurant for everyone to see. “He told all of the kids, ‘Don’t you dare touch that bell until we win the war!’”

“Well,” she stated, “the war was won and those children rang that bell for days. He gave each and every one of them free cokes and ice creams, too!”

Another member of the audience shared his excitement at returning home after being stationed in the Pacific. “I was so anxious to get home,” he said, “I didn’t even wait for a bus. I hitchhiked from Fort Indiantown Gap to York, and about half way, a guy picked me up and said, ‘I’ll drive you all the way to your front door!’”

Another woman mentioned that she had been at church in Honolulu when the Pearl Harbor attacks took place.

While these and other stories were being shared, a list was passed around for those present to sign up for interviews. Using the event to as an advertisement to convey the importance of collecting these oral histories, Birkner was pleased with the results: many of the Cross Keys Village residents walked away from the event having signed up to participate in future interviews. 

All of these interviews are saved by the College, along with material items from the time period, to be used by students and historians interested in researching the time period and learning about the American story. Musselman Library plans to use excerpts from these interviews to compile an exhibit on the invasion of Normandy this June. 

In the long term, Birkner plans to work with Archives Assistant Devin McKinney in order to publish these stories in thematic volumes based on subject matter.

Founded in 1832, Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences with a strong academic tradition that includes Rhodes Scholars, a Nobel laureate and other distinguished scholars among its alumni. The college enrolls 2,600 undergraduate students and is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.

 Contact: Nikki Rhoads, Senior Assistant Director of Communications 717.337.6803 

Article by: Kasey Varner '14, communications & marketing intern

Posted: Mon, 17 Mar 2014

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