WASHINGTON – When Richard Hartman sent letters home from a Prisoner of War camp during World War II, he wanted to be certain his mother sent him “toilet articles, socks, hankies, cigarettes and food.”
The Baltimore resident’s letters and recollection of wartime service is one of more than 50,000 oral histories already contributed by veterans and civilians to the Library of Congress Veterans History Project.
On Friday, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, helped usher 65 more entries from Maryland veterans into the American Folklife Center collection, gathered by the College Park Aviation Museum and students from Frederick Douglass High School in Prince George’s County.
“It’s going to be extraordinary when 50 years from now, or 100 years from now people look back and say, ‘What was it like? What did they experience?’ related to what their experiences are, hopefully not war,” Hoyer said during the presentation at his office in the Capitol.
Hoyer, a member of the initiative’s advisory council, which includes other members of Congress and distinguished veterans, interviewed a member of the Tuskegee Airmen at the College Park Aviation Museum for the project in February. That interview was one in the group donated Friday.
“I know (Hoyer) was only supposed to come for 15 minutes. An hour later, he was still talking to (the Tuskegee Airman),” said Cathy Allen, museum director.
“I think he disrupted his whole schedule, but it was so fascinating,” she said. “It was wonderful to hear him interviewing these Tuskegee Airmen who are unbelievable guys anyway.”
Allen has been reaching out to veterans statewide to get their stories recorded, but she said some are resistant.
“It’s very important for everyone to do, but obviously we’re very concerned about getting the Maryland population interviewed,” she said. “A lot of veterans just don’t see that their service was just so important.”
“We get a lot of calls from people that say, ‘Oh, I was a veteran, I really don’t have anything to say.’ And we are educating them and letting them know that every person’s story is interesting,” Allen said.
Bob Patrick, director of the Veterans History Project, has also struggled to get veterans to share their stories. His tip to Allen was to ask the veterans to do just one more patriotic thing by telling their stories.
Although many veterans are unsure about sharing their stories, Allen said they have heard “unbelievable” accounts from every theater of war. Just recently, the museum interviewed its first Iraqi war veteran.
“The differences in all of these veteran’s stories, it’s fascinating,” she said.
There are more than 17 million living wartime veterans, but Patrick said the project has not even collected 1 percent of their histories.
Last week, Congress designated the week of Nov. 11, 2007, as National Veterans History Project Week to rally veterans to record their wartime memories.
The National Veterans Project has catalogued histories from veterans serving in World War I through the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Congress unanimously passed legislation to create the project in October 2000.