Their stories aren’t often heard. The men and women who served in World War II were forever changed, but at the war’s end, they returned to their homes, carried on with their lives, and for many, never spoke of their experiences again. Some say they didn’t do anything special, anything worth talking about. Some say they were just following orders, that someone else deserves the credit.

Some say their stories are just too personal, that they should carry the burden of this knowledge alone.

But as each day passes, we lose another chance to ask a simple question: “What was it like for you?”

Thanks to a community-based learning grant from the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement (CCE), Betsy Mullen, adjunct professor of journalism, is working to collect answers to that question, and many more, before it’s too late. Students in her newswriting class — along with Tom Mullen’s newswriting section and civic journalism and social justice first-year seminar — are learning the ins and outs of interviewing while contributing to the Library of Congress’s Veterans History Project (VHP).

The VHP collects and preserves first-person accounts and other documents from veterans and supporting civilians from World War I, World War II, the wars in Korea, Vietnam, and the Persian Gulf, and the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq are included. Materials can range from 30-minute or longer audio and video recordings, to original wartime memoirs and letters, to home movies, artwork, and photographs. Through the CCE, Mullen partnered with Lakewood Manor, a retirement community in Richmond, where 17  veterans from World War II and the Korean War volunteered to share their stories.

The experience of interviewing was new for most students. Mullen ensured they were up for the challenge by practicing mock interviews, researching the backstory of their subjects and historical facts, and conducting an initial fact-finding interview before the recording a video to submit to the VHP. But interviews don’t follow a script, and the students had to be prepared not only for the subject that answers each question perfectly, but also for those who will start talking with the first question and never stop, and those who will barely speak a word the minute the camera starts running.

“I tried to encourage them to be flexible,” Mullen says. “Any interview you walk into, you don’t know what’s going to happen. It can change direction in a second. This was way outside their comfort zone, but it was a wonderful way to illustrate all of the things we see in the textbook and all of the things we talk about in class.”

The preparation helped students build up confidence before sitting face-to-face with unpredictable subjects. “I worked on my school paper in high school, but it wasn’t such a long, in-depth interview,” Ellie Potter, ’16.  “This was getting the span of her life and digging into a time period during her life. To actually sit down with somebody for a half hour or so and have constant questions because I had to have enough information to send to the Library of Congress and to write my final paper, that was different.”

As Amanda Haislip, ’14, a student in Tom Mullen’s section, learned, sometimes the best approach is to break from the plan and see what happens. “I used the tools we learned in class to come up with questions about his service, his life, his experiences in the military, and the different wars,” she says. “I had to learn how to draw out more information from him. It seemed like he had the story pre-scripted in his head, but then when I asked questions like, ‘what was your favorite experience?’ or ‘how was your family during the war?’ he’d tell some funny stories.”

Melissa Diamond, ’15, experienced similar challenges balancing her planned questions while letting the subject tell his story in his own way. “When we met, he basically told me his whole life story, from the day he was born until that day,” she says. “It was difficult trying to both remember all of my questions and make the conversation flow naturally, because he’d go in a completely different direction than I was expecting. I’d want to ask a follow-up questions, but I also had 30 minutes to get through all of my questions. I had to figure out how to modify some of the questions on my list to get the information I needed and hear all of his interesting stories.”

Even with occasional challenges, Mullen believes the final product was worth the effort. “The veterans are humble to an extreme,” she says. “Each one would try to send you somewhere else; they would say, ‘my story’s not worthy.’ They would say, ‘I was only in one war,’ or ‘I was only in one battle,’ or ‘I never saw combat.’ They’re all humble to a degree that it’s almost difficult to start the process of getting the story. You have to really convince them that they’re worthy and get them to open up.”

Photo by PhoM3c. Robert M. Warren, USN [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Quote from Melissa Diamond's VHP interview.