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Kimberly Powell

How Much Do You Really Know About the Veterans in Your Family Tree?

By November 10, 2008

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Every veteran looks at war differently, offering a unique perspective and memories of these important periods in world history. So for each one of you who has a veteran somewhere in your family tree (should be just about all of you), I challenge you to spend this week researching the many narratives, photos, histories and perspectives that can help you fill out that veteran's personal story. Learn the history of any battles in which they fought. Learn what life was like at home for the family members they left behind. But most importantly of all, explore veteran oral histories - a treasure trove of feelings and personal recollections left behind by other men and women who experienced the same wars, battles, struggles and triumphs as your veteran ancestor.

In the United States, which celebrates Veterans Day tomorrow, the Veterans History Project of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress collects and preserves the oral histories and personal narratives of American war veterans and civilian workers who supported them from World War I through the present. Over 55,000 individual stories are already included in this collection, with over 5,000 available in digitized format for online researchers. The Veterans History Project also offers Field Kits to assist people in collecting and submitting the stories of veterans. Dozens of similar U.S. Veteran Oral History sites are also online, focused on specific wars, branches of service, localities and military units.

Over 1,600 hours of digital audio files on Heroes Remember from Veterans Affairs Canada recount the personal experiences and memories of Canadian service men and women who participated in the events that helped shape Canada as a nation. Most oral histories are from wartime, from the South African War through the Korean War and afterwards, including interviews with approximately 75 veterans of the First World War and another 675 with Second World War and Korea veterans. Oral histories of Canadian veterans can also be explored on Oral Histories of the First World War: Veterans 1914-1918 and The Memory Project Digital Archive from the Dominion Institute which hosts an online database of oral histories and artifacts of more than 1,000 Canadian veterans to complement its goal of connecting veterans with students online and in classrooms across the country.

In the United Kingdom, BBC People's War collected over 47,000 stories and 14,000 images from veterans who servied in the armed forces during WWII, and those who lived through the war at home. To celebrate not only the veterans but the every day citizens of World War II, the Heritage Lottery has funded a great nationwide "Home Front" initiative to collect the memories from those who "kept the home fires burning" during World War 2. Most of these projects are regional or group-specific, such as Home Front Histories: A Collection of Londoner's Memories and The Workers' War: Home Front Recalled. These and other WWII oral history collections can be found through the Recollections of WWII directory.

Victorians at War is a great place to start your search for oral histories of Australian veterans. Sponsored by the State Library of Victoria in Australia, the site features audio and trasncripts of Australia war vets from WWI to the present day, along with digitized versions of diaries, letters and other artifacts. Over 200 interviews with New Zealand veterans can be viewed online at Nga Toa, which means "Many Warriors" in the Maori language. The collection features videotaped oral history and personal accounts from WWII veterans and their experiences in major theaters such as Greece, Crete, North Africa, Italy and the Pacific.

On a final note, if your veteran ancestor is still living, then please take steps now to preserve their personal story!

November 10, 2008 at 4:40 pm
(1) Vickie says:

I tried to get military records for some of my WWII veterans and found a lot of the army records were lost in a fire. What a disapointment.

November 11, 2008 at 1:35 am
(2) Lisa Louise Cooke says:

Kimberly, Thanks for the great overview, and particularly the reminder about talking to the living veterans in our family so we can document their story, particularly in light of the lost military records due to fire in the past. And if not our relatives, perhaps someone they served with. Lisa of The Genealogy Gems Podcast

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