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The Time Is Now: Securing First-Hand Accounts of History for Writing Projects

Writer Stephen L. Moore discusses the benefits of having first-hand accounts for historical writing and offers advice on best practices in securing interviews while there’s still time.

The value of first-hand accounts in recording history was a lesson I learned in seventh grade. It was a project for Texas history, one in which I was to write about a figure of state history, with the slate for choice wide open.

I selected my great-great-great grandfather, William T. Sadler. I knew from family stories he had fought at the Battle of San Jacinto in which Texas secured its independence from Mexico. He had also served as a captain of Texas Army, Texas Rangers, and Texas Militia companies. But I knew little more of him.

So, I took the time to interview my grandmother and some of her aging cousins to collect stories on Captain Sadler. I was pleased at the time to earn an “A” grade on my school report but had little idea the research would be used again many years later when I did a biography on Sadler called Taming Texas.

(Tom Clavin: On the Voyage of Writing Historical Nonfiction)

In a matter of years, there will be no more of our World War II veterans living from the so-called “Greatest Generation.” Thankfully, amateur and professional historians have been dutifully gathering oral histories from these veterans at a healthy pace over the past couple of decades. But the clock is ticking.

History for me took on new meaning when I read works from such as authors as Walter Lord, who spent countless hours interviewing veterans from Pearl Harbor, the Battle of Midway, and other historic events for his manuscripts. The results were pages of rich narrative that gave me a new appreciation for what these common men and women experienced during the actions related in these books.

My recommendation for anyone tackling military history as a genre is to first seek out living veterans of your area of study. Many of them may have only shared their war stories with their close buddies at reunions of their company, ship, or squadron. While history may often be told from the war rooms of military brass, I can guarantee you that every foot soldier, aviation mechanic, or teenage sailor that took part in these actions has a story to tell as well.

You can always fill in the facts for your story later with the necessary action reports, war diaries, and other military papers that can be unearthed from our country’s vast archives. But the human element to your story, particularly those of the World War II era, have serious limits to their availability.

With my latest book, Patton’s Payback, I followed my own rule by first seeing what veterans I could track down. Networking is key, and I had ample contacts through military museums, fellow authors, and veterans’ roundtables to seek out living sources. Others I connected with by searching the Internet for hometown articles on veterans who were recently interviewed.

The Time Is Now: Securing First-Hand Accounts of History for Writing Projects

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One of my prized connections for this project was Lester Cook, who turned out to be the last living veteran of the 500 or so men on the original muster rolls for the U.S. Army’s fabled outfit known as Darby’s Rangers. Mr. Cook was kind enough to share some of his recollections of their intensive training and their history making offensive raids against enemy positions in the deserts and mountains of North Africa in 1943.

I traveled to North Carolina to spend a day with Hubert Edwards, a 101-year-old artillery veteran who had served under General George Patton during the Battle of El Guettar. Edwards shared his feelings on “Old Blood and Guts,” and even a memorable exchange he had later in the war with General Dwight Eisenhower. Although each incident is but a tiny drop in the sea of history surrounding the North Africa campaign, the stories of men like Edwards and Cook for me make the reading that much more personal.

In approaching such aging veterans, it may require the assistance of their children or other caregivers to conduct an interview. Where personal visits are not possible—which has been a very real challenge during the pandemic—I recommend seeking permission to record a phone interview. I have worn out multiple hand-held digital recorders over the years but trust me: You don’t want to conduct an interview while hurriedly scribbling notes on a pad of paper. The digital recordings can be played back and transcribed at your leisure days or even weeks after capturing them.

The Time Is Now: Securing First-Hand Accounts of History for Writing Projects

Many veterans of advanced age have a set list of favorite stories they can still relate by heart. But the key is digging deeper with them to unearth the other hidden gems that time has blurred in their memory. Try having them go through their military scrapbooks and see what faces suddenly trigger the memory of a great story. Offer them assistance by producing a muster roll from their company to help with the names. Walk them through a key battle report to see where their recollection does not jive with the “official” version of what was documented by some company clerk or naval yeoman 70-odd years ago.

They say truth is stranger than fiction. I’ve had many veterans tell stories that even some of their comrades scoffed at, only to later dig up official documents that proved their story to be true. Capture their tales while you can, and then work to verify their accuracy later.

But above all, act swiftly when the chance presents itself to interview someone of interest. I have countless stories of men I planned to “get to later” that resulted in disappointment when I came to learn of their passing. With Patton’s Payback, and other past books, there are often veterans interviewed who are not with us by the time the manuscript is complete. In some cases, I’ve spent time on the phone with veterans and only weeks later received a call from their children that their parent had passed. In most cases, these veterans are pleased that someone cares enough to still want to listen to them and their children are often thankful to receive a transcription of their loved one’s final stories.

Follow-through is the key. Dig out the details as you can. What did they see? How did it sound? What were the smells? Little details, but elements that help bring events to fresh life for readers of an event more than a half century past.

For researchers of World War II or even Korea, we must work with our living eyewitnesses while their bodies and minds are still with us. Don’t put off an interview until next month if you can arrange it sooner.

The time is now!

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