Saving private stories

They're preserving history before it passes them by.

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World War II veteran Ollen Rhodes (left) is interviewed by Donald Patterson for the Veterans History Project at Aldersgate Methodist Church in Augusta.   Zach Boyden-Holmes/Staff
Zach Boyden-Holmes/Staff
World War II veteran Ollen Rhodes (left) is interviewed by Donald Patterson for the Veterans History Project at Aldersgate Methodist Church in Augusta.

Local volunteers are working diligently to locate and interview World War II veterans living in the region and archive their interviews in the Library of Congress. Although they've completed about 700 interviews, time is of the essence.

"At least 100 of the vets we've interviewed have passed on, so at least we got their story," said Fred Gehle, coordinator of the Augusta project. "We've missed a few. By the time the volunteer got around to it, they were gone. So we have to watch the obituaries."

The effort is part of the Veterans History Project, which was created by Congress in 2000. The project collects, preserves and makes accessible the personal accounts of American war veterans so that future generations may better understand the realities of war.

"Many of the stories, I've read about in books," Gehle said. "But these are folks right in front of us. Now, when I see an elderly gentleman walking down the street, I'll stop him and talk and find out he was at Iwo Jima."

Gehle started the local project about four years ago after returning from a national conference in New Orleans. A friend encouraged Gehle to attend the conference because they knew of his obsession with the Second World War. Gehle said he was a child in New Jersey when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He clipped newspaper articles on the war from then on and pasted them in books.

"I built my own books of information," Gehle said. "It's been a passion of mine that continues to this day."

Since starting the Augusta project, Gehle's dining room table has become his desk, stacked with papers and DVDs. Although he doesn't do many of the actual interviews, Gehle makes the initial phone calls to set up the interview and takes notes on the veteran's health. He also sends the completed files to the Library of Congress American Folklife Center. Gehle has kept up with almost 1,000 veterans without using a computer.

"I work on my dining room table seven days a week," he explained. "We haven't been able to use it in four years. But my wife (Jane) knows my heart. She understands."

Fifty local volunteers help Gehle with the project, conducting interviews, operating the video camera and adding the details for researchers. Each DVD must be marked with highlights of significant events, along with where the event is on the DVD, Gehle said. For instance, three minutes and 20 seconds into the recording, the veteran talks about Guadalcanal, then at 5:48, he talks about Bataan. A summary of each interview also has to be included. Besides the Library of Congess, a copy of the DVD is given to the veteran who was interviewed, and two copies are archived at Augusta State University.

"A lot of effort has been put out, not just by me, but all of the unsung heroes," Gehle said. "I've had so many good and generous volunteers. That's how I've been able to do this."

Retired Maj. Gen. Janet Hicks has conducted and recorded about 120 interviews. Hicks said the process is very time consuming, but worth every minute.

"It's unbelievable what I've learned, and from a bird's-eye view," the head of upper school at Augusta Preparatory Day School and former post commander of Fort Gordon said.

One interview in particular stays in her mind. The veteran was Jewish, involved in the French Resistance, and unable to communicate with his family until the war ended and he knocked on their door.

"For about eight or nine months after I interviewed him, I could not recount his story without being in tears," Hicks said, adding that interviewing the veterans always brings memories of her father, who also was a veteran.

Gehle estimates there are still three or four thousand more veterans in the Augusta area who have not been interviewed. He encourages anyone who knows of such a veteran to call and talk to him. In addition, civilians who were actively involved in supporting war efforts (such as war industry workers, USO workers, flight instructors and medical volunteers) are also invited to share their stories, according to the Library of Congress Web site.

"We do not have a termination date," Gehle said. "We will continue until we interview the last veteran who wishes to tell their story."

Although the local project interviews only veterans of World War II, the national project includes veterans of World War I, Korean, Vietnam, Persian Gulf, Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Gehle said anyone interested in coordinating local efforts to chronicle the other wars may call him.

"I'll be happy to coach them how to do it," he said.

Reach Gehle by calling (706) 738-8242, or e-mailing fpgehle@bellsouth.net.

Veterans online

Almost 450 local veterans can be found on the Library of Congress Web site. Most include only the basic information online, but a few include the actual interview video.

To find them, visit www.loc.gov/vet and click on "Search the Veterans Collections."

Highlight "contributor/interviewer affiliation" and type "Augusta Richmond County Historical Society" in the search box.

The list of veterans' names will come up alphabetized, and individual veterans may be viewed.

Correction

- A story in the June 30 edition of the Richmond County Neighbors incorrectly reported funding sources for the Veterans History Project.

The effort has been sponsored from its beginnings in 2007 by the Augusta Richmond County Historical Society. The society pays for the production of the DVDs in addition to producing all forms and documents before and after each interview. The only funds besides membership dues to cover on-going costs come from occasional donations from veterans who ask for additional copies of the interview for family members or friends.


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