Veterans and Memory

Brooklyn College student Elizabeth Jefimova interviewed World War II veteran Seymour Kaplan on February 24, 2017, at Kaplan’s home in Brooklyn.

In this clip, Kaplan recalls how his willingness to tell his story of service was shut down. He did not speak of the war for fifty years. In my experience as an interviewer, I have often found that veterans are encouraged to be silent about what they have seen and done in war — often by their very own families.

Day Two


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Day two of the VVA Board of Directors and Conferencen of State Chapter Presidents meeting, Silver Spring, MD. Very moving and useful. Great opportunities for oral histories here.

The VVA is worrying about its longevity. Some years ago it decided to be a ‘last man standing’ organization. How long can it hold out? If the decision is made to close down, how will this be done? The VVA has assets that will have to be disposed of. But, even as discussion about this issue grows, membership numbers are increasing nationally; VVA now has 78,816 members, an all time high. 

Interview with Peggy Cornett

One of my favorite interviews for demonstrating my preferred interview technique was conducted in 2005 with Peggy L. Cornett.*

That November I traveled to Washington DC to assist the Texas Tech University Vietnam Center and Archive as they collected oral histories with the men who had served and fought with the 1st Calvary Division at the Battle of Ia Drang Valley, in 1965, and their families.

This was the 40th anniversary of the battle, and many veterans and their families had come to Washington to pay their respects at the Vietnam Memorial wall on the National Mall, and to attend a gala banquet hosted by General Harold G. Moore and journalist Joseph L. Galloway.

Over a very intense weekend I conducted 18 interviews, most of them relatively short, running between 45 minutes and an hour.

In the course of those interviews I met and interviewed Peggy L. Cornett, whose brother 1st Lt. Donald Cornett had been killed in the fighting.

Peggy volunteered to be interviewed, because she felt she had a story to share about her brother and the aftermath of his death. She wanted to make sure that her — and his — experience was memorialized in the Texas Tech Vietnam archive. She came in the room knowing what she wanted to say.

What I like about this interview is the fact that the momentum develops naturally. After speaking a few introductory words, I let Peggy have the floor, to say what she needed to say. I did what I try to teach my undergraduate oral history students to do; that is to say, I placed my hands underneath me; I sat on them. I leaned forward in my chair, and I gave Peggy my full attention. I tried to focus on her eyes as I listened. I didn’t interrupt her or stop the flow of her words for at least 12 minutes. When I did so, it was only in order to request a clarification, and then I fell silent again, until she finished that segment of the interview.

Now, of course I don’t know for certain that my body posture and behavior played a significant role in the resulting narrative that Peggy shared. But what I can say is that what followed was  a very intense 12 – 14 minute story of her life.

She told of growing up with her brother, and why he was so important to her. She spoke of her deep family history and brought the story up to 1965. Then she described what happened when her family learned that Don had been killed. At that point, the narrative turned inward, as Peggy began to relate the impact of his death on her. She used a story of a dream she recalls having soon after he died as a way of illustrating its identity – shattering impact. The dream story itself illustrates powerfully symbolic themes in her life, with its emphasis on earth, water, burial and regrowth. And she spoke of how she and her mother began to come to grips with Don’s passing, and the way that grieving process influenced her life, long – term.

If you listen to the interview, you will hear that Peggy is a gifted storyteller. I have often compared this narrative to the kind of short story you might read in New Yorker magazine. I claim no credit for the power of her narrative, of course.

But, if you want to know how I interview, look at this video and watch me, effectively ‘disappear,’ as she makes clear what’s important to her.

This is my goal in interviewing.

I am not the most important person in the room — my interviewee is. I want their recollections to flow, relatively untrammeled by interruptions. I want access to the past, as the interviewee recalls it, in all of it’s color and emotional intensity.

I am not a journalist, seeking some specific bit of information; nor am I a therapist, trying to heal. I’m an oral historian functioning as a student, trying to “gather a little knowledge,” as one of Alessandro Portelli’s interviewees said to him.

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*Interview with Peggy L. Cornett,  11 November 2005, Peggy L. Cornett Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University. Accessed 25 Apr. 2014. <http://www.vietnam.ttu.edu/virtualarchive/items.php?item=OH0481>.

Joan Furey

I just stumbled on two YouTube videos related to Joan Furey, whose story I tell in my book, Bringing It All Back Home.

The first is an ABC news segment, recorded in 1969. In it, Joan explains why she took part in a Thanksgiving Day fast — a protest against an on-going war by soldiers in the field. This was an extraordinary moment in U.S. history. It was widely seen as an emblem, a signal, of the growing disaffection of American troops in Vietnam. Joan had gone to Vietnam determined to do her part in the American war effort. However, as her tour of duty progressed, she became increasingly disillusioned with what she saw going on around her.

In the second clip, Joan speaks about the book she co-edited with nurse Linda Van Devanter, entitled Visions of War, Dreams of Peace (1991).

More on Rudy Thomas and the Power of Oral History

At a panel presentation held at the Brooklyn Historical Society in 2008 called The Impact of Listening and Being Heard, Rudy Thomas said the following:

My grandmother raised me from 2 months old. She brought me here at age 16, I never lived with my mother, and I visited, but never stayed with her.

I had the opportunity to see [her] after 30 years and I wanted to talk to her about my life, One of the first things she said to me was, “Oh you’re a killer, I hear you killed people, you did this and you did that.” And I shut down instantly. As of a matter of fact I didn’t speak to her after that.

And coming from my mother telling me I was a killer and all this stuff, I said, ‘Damn, if she felt that way I can’t imagine what the other people who didn’t even know me would feel.’

Then I had the opportunity when I spoke with Phil to talk about my experience, and I said you know what, a lot of people have the wrong impression about Viet Nam veterans, maybe if I say something about what I did and how I felt in my experiences it will shed a little light, a different light and help.*

Oral history does hold power. And Rudy Thomas will be missed for his honesty and his courage to speak.

*Lightly edited by me, PFN

 

Rudy Thomas, photo by pfn April 2011

Rudy Thomas, photo by pfn April 2011

Baby Killer Myth

At the NYPL panel discussion I moderated the other night, Earl Jacobson recalled being asked if he had killed babies while serving abroad. (He actually served in Thailand.) This was an accusation frequently — but not invariably — heard by returning Vietnam veterans. It is hard to describe the shock and pain caused by remarks such as this.

Veteran Ron Jensen, who served with Marine Corps unit Kilo 3/26 in Vietnam, and author of the book Tail End Charlie, a memoir that recounts his experiences, told me the following story when I interviewed him in 2004.

They put the platoons into villages that we had worked in near Hill 190 and they put us in the village and now we had to live in the village and then they put an ARVN Platoon in there with us. Now this is my real first contact working with them. And they put us in the village and then I really got to live with the people. 

I got to live in the village and it was interesting. I liked the kids. The kids used to come and sit with me to eat and I used to give them my crackers and my candy and stuff like that.

And there was one little girl–she always had–I don’t know what they call it–peasant dress–plain little dress, you know like American clothing, with bangs, and she–she never said too much but she’d always sit right next to me and it used to puzzle me now. Here I am loaded with you know rounds, magazines all across me, and a rifle in my hand and I said, “You know if I was that kid’s age and I sat down next to somebody that was loaded down with all that ammunition–rifle, I’d be scared.” This kid wasn’t scared; it was just like normal and then she’d wait for me to take out my c-rations and the regular routine; she knew exactly what I liked and what I didn’t like. [Laughs] and–and she’d take it and I lived with them. And I got to deliver a baby.

After returning from Vietnam, he eventually found work as a New York City corrections officer. One night he and a number of fellow officers were sitting at a large table—discussing the politics of the day in the aftermath of president Carter’s amnesty for a Vietnam-era draft evaders.

We were sitting at a table all talking–a bunch of Officers about current-day event stuff. And one guy said, “Hey yeah, Jensen; you were over there, right?” And I said, “Yeah.” “How many babies did you kill?” And I just sat there stunned. I was just stunned that I actually heard it. You know all the other Officers were just sitting there you know and then everything went quiet at the table. I didn’t answer it.

Now that I think of it I should have said, “I delivered one.”

Ron Jensen passed away in 2010.