Nearly three-quarters of the 16 million U.S. veterans who served in World War
II are no longer alive to tell their stories. As the 62nd anniversary of the
Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor approaches, the Veterans History Project is attempting
to preserve that chapter of American history by collecting the experiences of
World War II veterans, particularly those who remember Pearl Harbor.
"Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy, the United
States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces
of the empire of Japan," announced president Roosevelt.
Frank Sogi, 80, a Japanese-American war veteran, remembers listening to President
Franklin Delano Roosevelt's words.
He was 18-years-old and living in Hawaii when he first heard news on the
radio of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, and later, remembers hearing
that the Japanese national symbol had been spotted on the enemy aircraft.
"It was a strange feeling, because my mother had just visited Japan, and
came home on the last boat from Japan," he recalls. "And I had known from my
young days that my mother's family came from a military family. I had seen
pictures of my uncle and others in naval uniform. When I heard the word that
the red Rising Sun was on the airplane, I had a very strange feeling, because
my relatives were my enemies now.
Mr. Sogi later learned that one of his uncles from Japan was a flight officer
assigned to one of the carriers that launched the attacking aircraft that day.
From that moment on, the course of Mr. Sogi's life changed. His parents had
planned to send him to Japan after secondary school, so he could join the military
there. Now, he decided his military career would be spent fighting for his
birth country, the United States. In 1944, he became a linguist for the Military
Intelligence Service, and he served in the U.S. Army until 1953.
Stories like Mr. Sogi's are the kind the Veterans History Project is trying
to collect by recording oral histories and archiving personal diaries, memoirs
By some estimates, only 25 percent of World War II servicemen and women are
Ellen Lovell, who heads the Veterans History Project, says that is why it
is critical to collect these stories now.
"We want very much to hear from the World War II generation," she explains. "We've
got to hear the history as it was actually lived, and listen to people tell
their first-hand experiences about what war is really like. And these are the
narratives of a lot of ordinary people. They did extraordinary things."
In the three years since the project began, volunteers and archivists have
been able to accumulate 11,000 stories from men and women who served in World
Wars I and II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Persian Gulf War.
The Veterans History Project is run by the Library of Congress, and is sponsored
by the American Association of Retired People (AARP). The stories and artifacts
are kept at the American Folklife Center in Washington. A selection of personal
histories is available on the Internet.
One oral history is given by William Jennings Arnett, an army sergeant who
fought in a tank destroyer during World War II. His niece Elizabeth Johnson,
interviews him about his experiences, and asks what it felt like to fight in
"JOHNSON: Could you describe that a little bit more? ARNETT:
Well, I'd say, after about a week in combat, you're old. I don't care if you're
19-years-old or what. But you are an old person. You realize that, like people
know that you could get drunk and drive, well you could have a bad wreck, but
nobody thinks it could happen to them. But when you're in combat, you know
that you can be killed. No doubt about it."
Like his fellow war veteran William Arnett, Frank Sogi says these personal
accounts of World War Two can change the way we understand ourselves, our past
and our future.
"I certainly believe that the past is very, very important for us as to how
and what [the] future will be," he says. "And Pearl Harbor, as disastrous as
it was on that day, looking back on it, it really improved the world. It became
much more global."
The Veterans History Project is marking the 62nd anniversary of Pearl Harbor
with candle lighting ceremonies in four major U.S. cities.