Documenting the ‘Greatest Generation’

By Dave Rogers | Published Saturday, October 15, 2011

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RECORDING HISTORY - A video camera on a tripod records stories told by C.B. Hoyle, 92, a World War II veteran from Decatur, during a Wednesday visit to Decatur High School. A journalism class is working with the Wise County Veterans Group to record oral histories. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

One of the United States’ great resources – the 16 million men and women who served their country during World War II and provided the backbone of what Tom Brokaw called the “Greatest Generation” – is fast disappearing.

Some local folks are working double time to capture and preserve a sample.

Decatur High School’s journalism class has been recruited by local vets Rachael Vance and Stephanie Cooper to join in a project to videotape interviews with Wise County’s surviving World War II vets.

C.B. Hoyle of Decatur, 92, and an instructor pilot in the Army Air Corps during World War II, was the first interview subject. He visited the classroom of teacher Cindy Berry Wednesday and sat for a 45-minute session of reminiscences as Austin Lamirand, a Decatur High senior, taped it all on a Flip camera.

“I think it’s very cool,” said Lamirand, videographer for the school’s online newspaper, The Journal. “You actually get a picture of what really happened back in the wars.”

Vance, a Marine Corps vet who serves as historian for the Wise County Veterans Group, said the oral history project is more than cool.

It’s vitally important.

“These guys are my movie stars,” the California transplant, born nearly 40 years after World War II ended, said of her elders in WCVG. “Several Saturdays a month (at WCVG meetings), I get to break bread with living history and sit in awe of their stories.

“I participated in several veterans’ funerals this summer and felt such a loss. Their stories may be recalled by a second or third party but the richness of the first-person account and the smoothness of the delivery from that story being told over a lifetime is gone forever.”

Midway through the last decade, America’s World War II veterans were dying at an incredible clip – 1,000 per day. That has slowed down, but only because there are so many fewer alive.

Anyone old enough to serve in the U.S. military before World War II ended in 1945 would be at least 83 years old now.

A statistical report by the Veterans Administration released earlier this year and based on its National Survey of Veterans showed slightly more than 2 million living World War II vets in the United States, with 250,000 of them expected to die this year, about 685 per day.

About 10 WWII vets regularly attend the WCGV meetings, Cooper said.

But the Durant, Okla., native, a Decatur substitute teacher who served in Air Force security during Operation Desert Storm, said she hopes to find more vets, and wants to honor them all.

“My passion and work is to recognize veterans,” Cooper said. “I want to honor them and to get young people, too, involved in recognizing their sacrifices and the sacrifices of those whose ‘boots are on the ground’ defending our country today, right now.”

That sounds great to Berry, who is in her 17th year at Decatur High.

“When Stephanie and Rachael contacted me about this project, I knew it would be perfect,” the teacher said. “This was their awesome idea. We just happened to be here and able to help facilitate.”

The oral history project, just in its infancy, was the idea of Cooper and Vance, who just recently met. Their goal is to collect the stories of every member of the Wise County Veterans Group, but they’re focusing on the World War II veterans first, because the clock is ticking.

And their project is not limited to WCVG members. If a reader or a family member is a World War II vet and interested in taking part in the project, call Cooper at (940) 393-5672.

Berry’s students at Decatur High School will edit the videos of the interviews and preserve them on DVDs. Plans call for copies to be made available to area libraries and schools, where the living words of the local vets could become part of a social studies curriculum.

“In my dreams, it would be great if these kids could piece together some award-winning documentary, win a scholarship to some prestigious film school and develop a lifelong appreciation for veterans and the limitless value of their efforts,” Vance said.

“Also, the vets would have the accounts of their time in service preserved so they can be learned from, laughed at, enjoyed after they are gone.

“I really just hope that people can see and appreciate in these men what makes me so attracted to them – a sense of duty, the lost art of a great work ethic, bravery, selflessness, pride, and honor, all rolled up and sprinkled with some cockiness.”


CAPTURING A STORY - Austin Lamirand, Decatur High School videographer (left) looks on Wednesday as C.B. Hoyle of Decatur, a World War II veteran, is interviewed by Rachael Vance. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

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