By Miranda Campbell
In my family, we like to tell stories. My favorite activity as a child was to curl up next to my mother or one of my grandparents and ask for a story from when they were little. They were all true stories, but that never seemed to make them any less interesting or exciting. I feel much the same when I work at transcribing oral histories for the Center for the Study of War and Society. These are all stories that need to be told, to be written down, and preserved. They provide unique glimpses into the past, glimpses that we would never get to experience if not for the work of the Center and places like it.
Some of the stories may seem mundane, not centered in the thick of the action, but they all carry a visceral nature of how the veterans tell their stories. Interviewed veterans remember little things like how terrible the rations were, the trickiness of delivering ammunition in North Africa during the latter-half of World War II, how “Overcoat Charlie” got this nickname (he never was able to find an overcoat that fit him), or wishing that he had been able to keep that piece of paper with a message from President Eisenhower wishing the overseas troops well. In all of this, I seem to come back to those moments, which shine through the violence of military conflict.
Although the Center’s main objective is to collect, preserve, and share oral histories from veterans, it also undertakes compelling work in other venues. I have spent time attempting to locate soldiers [names] within the memorial lists that have attended the University of Tennessee, Knoxville to aid in future memorial projects. Looking through the long list of East Tennessean names, I discover that many of them have no stories to accompany their memory. Some that are lucky enough to have additional information, such as Staff Sargent Jeppie Payne, who died during the Vietnam War. Payne extended his tour of duty so that his son, also enlisted at the time, would not be shipped overseas. There are countless stories of men who died trying to save a member of their unit and countless more with no explanation at all.
Oral histories from veterans are important not merely for all the information they provide about military structure, leadership, and strategy, but to get a better understanding of how large-scale conflict affects both those who serve and those around them. While it may seem counterintuitive to study war and society together, they move throughout history in tandem. Our work at the Center is incredibly important because stories matter. History is built on stories and to gain understanding of the complex strands of history you need as many stories from as many points of view as possible. The Center helps us accomplish this goal.
Vital Service Beyond the Battlefield
By Bryson Williams
War is bloody, vile, and cruel. Those who have seen combat first-hand will echo this statement and likely see it as an understatement. When studying war, scholars often are consumed with the macro-details of conflict. Massive battles and decisions made by brass at the top of the chain of command typically steal the spotlight and dominate the content we read when studying war. While the victory at Normandy and the decisive strategies implemented by Admiral Nimitz are defining characteristics of US military history, we frequently overlook the impact that war has on a micro-level. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, roughly 57 million Americans have served in the US Armed Forces during a time of conflict. That is 57 million different experiences, 57 million unique attitudes, and 57 million diverse stories to be told. The Center for the Study of War and Society does its part to ensure that as many of these accounts as possible do not slip through the cracks into forgotten history.
While working at the Center this semester has provided me with a newfound appreciation for all that have served our nation. While I am confident that the overwhelming majority of service members would not bat an eye when faced with a life or death combat situation, most do not see the opportunity. We traditionally view bravery and valor as attributes of those decorated with medals and ribbons, but chest candy comes only with an opportunity to showcase those traits. Working at the Center has reinforced the fact for me that every veteran possesses these qualities, but not always in the traditional sense that we see in war movies.
I had the privilege of transcribing an interview with Captain Robert Moore, US Army, who left for one of the deadliest combat zones in all of Vietnam in 1968. Willingly putting himself in that sort of danger takes a great deal of courage, but what really stood out to me is the fact that Captain Moore volunteered to serve overseas knowing that he may not return to his wife and two children. Captain Moore sustained injuries, faced near-death encounters, and lost good friends during his year in Vietnam. Despite the terror he saw overseas, he still recounts that the separation from his family was worst of all. Captain Moore will likely never have a movie made about his life or a statue erected in his honor, but the true beauty of the work accomplished at the Center is that his stories and experiences can live on and give him the recognition he deserves for valiantly serving this country.
My time at the Center has also offered me an appreciation for who these service members are as human beings. As a Navy veteran myself, I am aware that military life can sometimes be mundane and repetitive. Some of my favorite stories I heard were not of courageous acts on the battlefield, but instead those about the daily lives of service members and how they passed the time between missions. For example, I had the great honor of interviewing Henry Cooper, a World War II Army veteran who served in Burma. At ninety-five years old, Mr. Cooper was still as full of life as ever, and even told us about his bond with pet monkey in Burma. Whether it is playing a game of spades on the mess deck, pulling pranks on your Officer in Charge, or taking a primate in as a pet, the Center’s research allows us to hear stories about the unparalleled friendships, comradery, and unforgettable memories formed while serving, reinforcing the US military as the greatest fraternity in the world.
The accounts of veterans are precious and widely taken for granted, which is why the Center’s website offers access to dozens of these interviews in both audible and transcript form, readily available for viewing. It is of unequaled pertinence that these memories stay available to the public as a reminder of the sacrifices made and effects that war has extending beyond the battlefield.
A History Not Forgotten
By Zachary Brooks
Most history is forgotten. That is true whether it be the conquest of by the so-called “sea peoples” of the late Bronze Age or the experiences of layman twenty years ago. Most of the past is relegated to the dust bin of history; the Center for the Study of War and American Society at the University of Tennessee endeavors to rescue the pages of history hitherto left to fade away. The Center tells the stories that we never get to hear. Instead of dealing with war’s geopolitics and the great men who conducted them, the Center relates the stories of the men and women on the ground. They tell our stories.
One such story is that of Donald Hahn. He was a man who worked making concrete block in Midland, Michigan until he answered his country’s call in 1966. In Vietnam, Hahn would distinguish himself and join the Long-Range Reconnaissance Patrol teams. From 1967 to 1968, Pvt. Hahn went out on extraordinarily dangerous missions with one American and two South Vietnamese soldiers. On these missions, Hahn and his team members would go out and, as he put it, “look for trouble”. They frequently engaged vastly superior numbers of enemy and this necessitated their being roped out via helicopter. After his grueling service, Hahn refused to accept a medal unless his comrades received recognition as well. Upon his return to the United States in 1968, newly promoted Sgt. Hahn left the Army and went back to making cement blocks. Sgt. Hahn did not talk about his experience in Vietnam until his twilight years because of the public’s aversion to the Vietnam War and the trauma he suffered while in country. It is stories like Sgt. Hahn’s that the Center for the Study of War and Society endeavors to record and make available to Americans. They might otherwise be lost forever.
To listen to and transcribe stories such a Sgt. Hahn’s is an immense privilege, especially for an historian in training like myself. The Center for the Study of War and Society has given me the unique opportunity to see history from a whole new perspective. Instead of using primary sources others have gathered, I am creating the sources that future historians will utilize in their research. Though transcribing interviews can be frustrating due to the foreign nature of military vernacular, the frequent rewinding, and the strict format the experience has been instrumental in improving my abilities as a historian.
Perhaps my greatest take away from my experience at the Center for the Study of War and Society is the power of oral histories. The oral histories act to bring the experiences of veterans to life. Conflicts such as the Vietnam War transition from a controversial War in America’s past to an intense, very real drama, filled with more heartache and humor than any Hollywood movie.
The Center for the Study of War and Society has allowed me to contribute to a field that I am extremely passionate about as well as enrich myself. Though much of history is lost to us, my experience at the Center is one I will not soon forget.
Shoes, Outhouses, and Kerosene
By Peyton Snyder
Historians and history fans alike tend to fixate on the bigger, more dramatic episodes in our nation’s past. What is often lost—and what I have come to appreciate since working at the Center—are the details of everyday experiences; the minutiae that color our lives. While our main goal at the Center is to document the veterans’ experiences in wartime, our interviews house a treasure trove of significant anecdotes and telling details from bygone eras. Americans today might scarcely recognize the America of the 1920’s and 30’s. Shoes, for instance, appear to have held considerably more significance than they do today. Growing up in Louisiana, Jules Bernard (b. 1922) recalled that, on Sunday mornings, his neighbors would trudge barefoot down dirt roads their whole way to church; to keep their shoes clean and minimize wear, they’d wait until they arrived to put them on. Grady Corley (1916-2008) declared that, during the “misery” of the Great Depression, to have a good-fitting pair of shoes was the true mark of fortune. In his youth, Chattanoogan Charles Coolidge (b. 1921), one of the last four living Medal of Honor recipients from World War II, seems to have disregarded footwear altogether, scurrying barefoot across the industrial city to make some pocket change selling magazine.
Because many of the Center’s interviews have been conducted with veterans from East Tennessee, they reveal that domestic life in the region has evolved dramatically in the last century. Several readily admitted that they’d never lived with electricity until they moved into their barracks at Fort Bragg and Fort Oglethorpe. In the years leading up to World War II, only a handful of privileged Knoxvillians could speak fondly of pilot lights dangling from their kitchen ceilings. Outhouses were a ubiquitous phenomenon. Countless interviewees chuckle before joking that blustery Appalachian nights encouraged some of the quickest bathroom trips in the Volunteer State’s history. Running water, evidently, was only to be found in the more affluent communities in Knoxville and Chattanooga. Wages, too, have increased drastically. Coming from an environment where unskilled labor earned you less than a dollar a day, many Tennesseans positively jumped at the opportunity to enlist; privates in the US Army were paid $21 a month in December 1941. I marvel at how much has changed.
Looking back almost 80 years since the start of World War II, I find that these details of daily life—often forgotten or unappreciated by modern-day people—transform the way I view our past. A particularly witty WWII veteran and Knoxville native, incidentally named Benjamin Franklin (1925-2012), declared that his was in fact “the Desperate Generation,” and America has certainly come a long way since then. My time at the Center has instilled a deep sense of appreciation for these nuggets of historical context. If we are to truly understand our own history, we must record everything. Otherwise, we might take for granted the comforts of modern life: fitting shoes and in-house commodes.
Lives of Sacrifice
By Sam Allender
My work and time at the Center for the Study of War and Society is precious to both myself and the academic realm of history, but most importantly to the American veterans whose life stories I have the unique honor of transcribing. As part of my duties, I listen to interviews and hear the veterans recall their service, their early life, and their life since leaving the service. This allows for a vivid painting and understanding of how war has interacted with them and changed the way they were brought up, or how they carried on after the war. I have had the privilege to work on the interviews of two World War II veterans, both of whom are now in their nineties. While sometimes a struggle to transcribe due to occasional hiccups resulting from age such as memory loss, this work is extremely important, as these veterans’ memories and experiences are able to live on through these records.
One of the two veterans, James “Bud” Mynatt, was a bomber pilot in the Army Air Corps and flew during the D-Day invasion. Born in Fountain City, Tennessee, Bud enlisted while still in high school and entered service immediately following his graduation. He flew both the B-24 and B-25, only switching to the latter after his B-24 “Great Speckled Bird” (named after its many patched bullet holes) was shot down over France. This hero from the Knoxville area returned to civilian life afterwards and started the first Mercedes-Benz dealership in Knoxville. This particular interview and life story has stuck with me as a reminder that veterans are normal people put in extraordinary situations who have grit and determination. It is here that the oral interview and transcribing process show their worth, since veterans such as James Mynatt deserve to have their life experiences permanently recorded for future remembrance, appreciation, and study.
The Center provides a place for memories to live on. The introduction of modern technologies has made this work not only easier to complete, but also more accessible by those who wish to learn. The Center’s website has hundreds of completed transcriptions so that other students, researchers, or everyday people can easily access these veterans’ stories. It is important these memories stay accessible, as a reminder of the difficulties of conflict, and a reminder that the people interviewed have experienced more than most would in a lifetime. Their memories must live on, and the Center for the Study of War and Society has the unique privilege to bear that torch.