Recording American History

Every veteran has a story to tell, and that story is a part of American history. The Veterans History Project, a project of the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress, exists to archive first-person accounts of wartime experience and to preserve those narratives forever. On May 28, two VVMF staff members, Col. Steven Delp, USA (Ret.) and Col. David Napoliello, USA (Ret.), and the President and CEO of Princess Cruises, Alan Buckelew, officially donated their oral histories to the Library of Congress in a special ceremony. We will continue to work with Princess Cruises through our Cruise for a Cause to benefit VVMF and Operation Homefront. On board this cruise, Princess will offer veterans the chance to record and submit their own oral histories to the Library of Congress.

Below are the words of Col. Napoliello, as spoken during the ceremony.

Col. Napoliello (left) and Col. Patrick

Col. Napoliello (left) and Col. Patrick

Let me thank you for joining Alan, Steve and me as we share our moments in time with the Veterans History Project.  I pray they are worthy of the generations that have come before and useful to those to follow.

Bob, (Colonel Bob Patrick) to you and the talented and caring staff of the American Folklore Center and the Veterans History Project, there are not adequate words to express the gratitude for this noble undertaking that you have accepted. The challenge of gathering the recollections of America’s combat veterans is a daunting task.  Yet you have implemented in a manner befitting the veteran – their service and their sacrifice. The Veterans History Project focuses on his or her experiences:  the memories, the privation, the anguish and moments of sheer terror and the comradeship of battle buddies who sustained them.

Yours is a task that must not end; not until every veteran who wants to, has had the opportunity to tell his or her story – be it viscerally from the gut, emotionally from the heart, or with Solomon-like perspective from the soul.  Regrettably, there are forces in opposition to this great task that all here today or who might see the webcast in the future must use to spur us collectively into action.

The elder statesmen of the veteran population – the 1.4 million WW II veterans – are reuniting with their fallen comrades at a rate of 680 a day.  In less than six years they will have all passed away. Vietnam veterans are alive in greater numbers, but they too are succumbing at an increasing rate – 417 a day.  For too many, the sands of time have passed through the hour glass and their stories will never be known, depriving future generations of the window into their service and valor and sacrifice.

Fewer and fewer Americans know what military service is like.  That phenomenon is depriving the nation of an aware citizenry. 12.2 percent of the population served in World War II and today, only 0.7 percent have served or are servicing in America’s current conflicts.  Therefore, few citizens will know someone who served much less served themselves. How then will they learn and understand what it means to don the Nation’s uniform and served under the Stars and Stripes? Only through history books and the stories and experiences of those who served. Where will those stories come from? Who will gather them? Will they be recorded in time?

From left, Alan Buckelew, Roberta Shaffer, Col. Patrick, Col. Delp and Col. Napoliello present their oral histories to the Library.

From left, Alan Buckelew, Roberta Shaffer, Col. Patrick, Col. Delp and Col. Napoliello present their oral histories to the Library.

My Army career and years of teaching military history both suggest that the great lessons of past wars were gleaned only from the broad sweeps of strategic insight gained from the memories of commanders like of Pershing, Eisenhower, King, Arnold, Thurman, Schwartzkof, Grant, Sherman and countless others.  The unrepeatable lessons of the past come from them and not the infantry rifleman, the mortar man, the medic or cook.  Thankfully the Congress and the Veterans History Project believe differently.  I commend the insight behind the VHP and applaud your work in maintaining its focus on the veteran – regardless of branch of service, grade, MOS or period of service.

My time spent with you was painless, immensely rewarding, yet humbling.  I am privileged to be here today, participating in your program, and to present this collection. I am humbled to give to you and the Library of Congress this very small window into a troubling place and time, so many miles from home, and, oh so, so many years ago.

And someday in the distant future a student who for a required history course, grudgingly may peruse this collection and conclude, ‘You know old George Santayana got it all wrong when he said, “History is a pack of lies about events that never happened told by people who weren’t there.”  If that happens, it will be because of you and the work of the VHP.

Thank you and let us all be committed to encourage other veterans to tell their stories and to help them when they are ready to do so.