Interview with a WWII vet....


February 25, 2011, 05:07 PM
I wasn't sure where to put this post but I figured this was a rallying point so I could use a few pointers to help me with this interview.

So, a friend of the family asked me to do her a favor and sit down with her father who is a decorated WWII vet in failing health. She asked me to take video and pics of the sit down interview so that she could share this with her family and have a way of remembrance of her father and the great things he did for this country. She has told me a few things about him and I am truly humbled by her request, she knows that I am very interested in WWII history for my own personal reasons and this opportunity is indeed an honor for me. I am asking for you guys to help me out with a few ideas on questions to ask and I want to make this as meaningful as possible for her and her family and for anyone she cares to share this video with as well. I am looking forward to this opportunity and it really hits home because I had three great uncles that were in the war and I never got the opportunity to sit down with them and talk about it before they passed. Any help is greatly appreciated and if this post is in the wrong spot please correct my error if you would please.


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Shadow 7D
February 25, 2011, 05:15 PM
Ok, first, what are you
have you served, because most veteran who have, um seen the ****, real deal, don't really want to talk about it, then don't really like to tell their family, because, why burden them, taking a human life, isn't nice, nor fun.

If you are a veteran, its easier, because you both have the shared experience of your service.

So the next question is WHY YOU, why isn't his daughter doing it?

Finally, the Library of Congress has a Living History project, which interviews and records veterans histories, sorry, but a professional might have more luck getting a veteran to open up than some guy off the street.

February 25, 2011, 08:54 PM
Good points, I have never served in the military my only connection is a few family members who have served in WWII, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. I know the family members that are still with us that served do not care to talk about their experiences so I see what you mean. I don't want to get into the gruesome facts of war and I was hoping to make it more about him and what he was willing to share, I will definitely look into the link you posted thanks. I may have oversold the "interview" it's really something that she just wanted to have and she didn't want to do this herself so she put her trust in me to sit down and just talk about it with him so she could have that memory of him. Unfortunately he's in failing health and they think he may pass soon so she wanted me to do this asap.

Shadow 7D
February 25, 2011, 11:28 PM
They have a how to, and resource packets

February 26, 2011, 10:02 AM
They have a how to, and resource packets
Here is one source from the Library of Congress.

February 26, 2011, 10:21 AM
That is an awsome request and what a responsibilty it will be. My thoughts to you are to be patient and respectful. Don't pry.

February 26, 2011, 10:22 AM
I did a similar thing with my grandfather. The truth is I would stick to more mundane stuff of what he saw, what he did, what types of aircraft and tanks, high level of where he was, what unit he served in etc.

With my grandfather, he saw the me262, one strafed his column a few times. They had no clue what the heck it was. About the towns he saw, the people he met. He volunteered some about small things like how the germans would put sticks in the treads of their tanks to immobilize them and force someone to come out and get them out while the rest of the crew laid down suppressive fire (imagine the pucker factor of getting out of that tank).

As for the details, we went to see "Saving Private Ryan" at a huge theater with him and his brother (his brother landed at Normandy, my grandfather was in the Battle of the Bulge), first time they had been in a theater since the 50's. After the movie, he and his brother agreed the battle scenes were pretty realistic, that was as much as we got into the details of what he saw, he did not want to or need to go more in detail than that and that was alright with me. I heard enough to know I would not ever want to relive what they went through.

Also consider, his age at the time. My grandfather was 17 when he went overseas to fight. He left High school to do so. Imagine a 17-18 yr old going through that type of crud. I am amazed any of them came back sane.

one other thing. My grandfather told me this stuff over a period of a decade and to my knowledge, outside the VFW, I was the only person he chatted with in detail about any of it.

February 26, 2011, 10:47 AM
I did something very similar, putting together a family history book on my fathers service during WWII after his death.

If you want to leave tracks for a descendant to do more research down the road, you need to get the basic information - which Division, which Regiment, which Battalion, which Company he belonged to. That gives descendants a source for detailed information.

With that out of the way, I'd try to follow a linear time line with remembrances of each campaign, country, action and so on. Try to get some background on "real" stuff that nobody ever talks about such as general living conditions; food, clothing, hygiene, lice, etc. Ask him about the treatment of prisoners because you may learn some very surprising things about how generous and caring GI's often were with Wehrmacht soldiers, and how callous they could be with SS troops.

Don't try to get the big picture, try to get his story and what day to day life was like.

February 26, 2011, 11:30 AM
Make sure to document what units he was assigned to, where he served, general timelines, etc.

Personally, I'd start chronologically: Ask, "What were you doing before you joined the service? How did you enter the service? Were you drafted? What do you remember most about your training? Who were some of your buddies in training? How well did your training prepare you for your service?"

Then go into: How much time after your training before you were sent overseas? How did you travel? Where were you stationed? What unit were you assigned to? Who were your buddies? What did you do during that time (more training, etc?) What do you remember most about that time? What was most important to you at that time? What's your favorite story from that time?

Then go into when he enters the combat zone: How did you enter the combat zone? What unit were you assigned to? When was that? Did you stay in that unit the whole time or where you reassigned? What was your job? What were your experiences like in that time? What do you remember most from that time?

What were you doing when the war ended? How did you find out? What did you do from then until you went home? How did you get sent home? What was it like to return home?

These are just some suggested questions. I'm sure your develop your own as well. However you approach it, have a plan, and take notes on things you want to cover.

Make sure to give him time to answer. Watch for opportunities for follow up questions.

Remember, you can always edit down the raw material later if needed, but if you don't get the info now, you won't have another chance to ask later.

February 26, 2011, 12:25 PM
I did this with my Father for the congressional library.

I had him take me through from the time he was enlisted until VE day.

If you make a chronology you will have an easy set of references. Once they start retelling they will remember more with a bit of reflection than they will recall on first recounting.

Some of the incredible things you will discover that he was witness to include the massive mobilization carried out by the United States. It was on an incredible scale. How he went in, where he trained, how he deployed and how he got to his assignment are all fascinating as you contemplate the scale of the effort. It is also very interesting if you can get some news and political chronology to go along with your interview. He will remember where he was and what he was doing when some of his life shaping events happened. Some historical and political events will stir his memory.

For every WWII Vet that directly saw combat there were five in a support role of some kind. Many in a support role had additional duties that exposed them to what are now unpleasant memories.

It is a worthwhile and very interesting project to undertake. Good luck!

February 26, 2011, 03:48 PM
And some thing were ment to be left on the field of battle.

February 26, 2011, 04:04 PM
My Grandpa on my dads side died when I was just a kid. All we have are fragments of stories: We know he was a doctor on a tramp steamer in South America, and that he worked in a logging camp in Blaine, WA. Other than that, we don't know too much about what he did before he moved out west and married.

I'd suggest start chronologicaly, and try to get a picture of what his life was like: What did he do before the war, what did he do after the war, what were his friends like, what was he planning on doing beforethe war broke out? Don't let the fact that he is a Vet blind you to the rest of his life.

Hope it all goes well,

Chris "the Kayak-Man" Johnson

February 27, 2011, 11:53 AM
The replies are great. However I would get him started using some of the ideas above BUT DO NOT INTERRUPT HIM, even if he goes in a tangent.
It is best for him to re-live the time his way. If you don't understand something or jargon just make a note of it and ask him at another time. You will find you will get more info that way and will have openings for future sessions. DO NOT start with "how did you get your Bronze V, got hit etc" . These experiences are usually very difficult situations and might well shut him down emotionally, make him have nightmares for weeks. I have an uncle that has that situation.
He did it anyway as a favor to us.

Those that have been in the thick of things really don't want to relive those experiences.. Tread lightly with much respect and love

Shadow 7D
February 27, 2011, 03:31 PM
I personally would ask what his life was before joining, then walk through induction (joining the military) basic training, advanced training, ask about freinds, drill seargens, things he learned, then what unit was he in, where did the unit form, what was it like, was he in the build up in europe, was he in the pacific theather, ask about what he saw, concentrate on the nice stuff, the cool stuff that saw

You might do best by asking him to help you outline the interview, and ASK HIM, what he is comfortable talking about, do try to find out what major military battles he was in, but try to stick to/be happy with stuff like, 'I was at Ardennes, and hurtzgens forest...'
if he doesn't want to say more, be happy, he problably just told you more than his family knows.

February 27, 2011, 04:30 PM
i had a few dozen friends who were WWI and WWII vets; now all of the WWI vets and most of the WWII vets are gone.

Some of those old vets seldom talked of their war experiences, but all would talk under the right circumstances. Jack had been a machinegun platoon leader and company commander in WWI. We often deer hunted together and one day he just started talking about the war: Jack would answer any question that i had. Jack was mustard gassed and phosgene gassed: Mustard causes the fingernails and toenails to fall out. In the late 30s some new meds were developed that allowed his nails to grow back.

IME: Approached in the right humble way most vets will talk about their war experiences.

February 28, 2011, 12:12 AM
Thanks guys for all the ideas and help on this subject it's greatly appreciated. I'll keep y'all posted with the results.

Harve Curry
February 28, 2011, 01:19 AM
Do it in increments, 2 or 3+ interviews over a few days time, depending on how it goes. Allows for time to think in between interviews.

February 28, 2011, 01:41 AM
Finally, the Library of Congress has a Living History project, which interviews and records veterans histories, sorry, but a professional might have more luck getting a veteran to open up than some guy off the street.

Agreed. Unless you've got a decent camera, a lav mic, and the ability to compose a shot, the chops to put someone at ease when they're on camera for an interview, it would be much better for you to get a professional videographer and/or interviewer to do the sit down.

February 28, 2011, 01:51 AM
It would be interesting to know what he fought for, in other words, what drove him to see the war through:

- was it patriotism, a sense of duty to country?
- maybe his buddies enlisted and he wanted to do his part?
- did he do it for "democracy" or "freedom"?
- out of a sense of survival?
- to protect his family?
- to protect the American way of life?
- out of hate for the enemy?
- out of wanting to get even, to avenge comrades?
- or was it for a job and three squares a day?

When he came back, how did the people (family, neighbours, townfolk, employers) he knew before the war treat him?

I'm not saying to ask these questions point blank, but to find a way to bring out the man's motivations during the war, and his experiences when back home.

Maybe his wife or someone else in his family have some of the letters he sent home during the war?

Shadow 7D
February 28, 2011, 04:41 AM
I can answer that, and it's pretty easy
It was his job
It was his duty
If he didn't one side would kill him, the other had the right to kill him
If he didn't his buddy would die
and finally, they were the enemy, and thats what you do to the enemy.

Asking a vet that, when he isn't prepped will get him pissed off, or you blown off.

February 28, 2011, 03:32 PM
My daughter (now 35) did a videotaped interview with my Dad about what his WWII service was like and things that stood out in his mind and memory (North Atlantic Convoy Duty from Newport News to Murmansk Russia and to Liverpool, via Rekyavik Iceland). The sound of the submarine warning klaxons, praying for a foggy day, seeing a ship blown up and all the things that go with it.

But she also interviewed my mother about what life was like on the home front with rationing for gas and tires, the black market for some things and how they all feared the sight of the old men and boys on bicycles that delivered the Western Union telegrams.

I transferred both to DVD a while back to play for my grandchildren.

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