Reporter takes on Veterans History Project
Central Oregonian reporter Ramona McCallister voluntarily archives veterans’ stories for the U.S. Library of Congress, Bowman Museum, and further generations
Florence Green, the last verified veteran of World War I, died earlier this year in England, and of the 16 million American men and women who served in World War II, less than 1.5 million of these veterans remain, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The National World War II Museum estimates that every 90 seconds a veteran from that war passes.
With each death comes the permanent loss of that veteran’s experiences, which is why, in 2002, the U.S. Congress authorized the Veterans History Project. Veterans of any war are invited to tell their stories, which are documented — generally through audio or video means, but also on paper — and then archived in the U.S. Library of Congress.
It was a project that piqued the interest of Ramona McCallister, who at the time was a video instructor at Crook County High School. Six veterans were interviewed during her tenure.
“It turned out to be a great project,” McCallister related. “Those veterans would come in, talk to the students, and the kids were riveted. It really comes alive when you hear it (first-hand) from somebody. We heard some incredible stories from people, and we had no idea that they had done that.”
At least locally, the project lapsed when she became a reporter for the Central Oregonian. However, after she consulted with the Bowman Museum for their purchase of professional-grade video gear — and volunteered to help document local history — her interest was rekindled.
“Once we had the equipment,” said the museum’s director, Gordon Gillespie, “and she started putting out feelers on folks to interview, she herself kind of discovered this cache of veterans, and it fit our mission of capturing people’s stories, and archiving them here.”
“I kind of picked up where I left off,” said McCallister. “I started archiving veteran’s stories again, using the format of the Veteran’s project, and also getting the stories for the benefit of the museum.”
She’s completed eight video interviews to date — five of veterans and three of others with a local historical perspective. All will be archived not only in the museum, but also in the Library of Congress. She values the experiences and stories of the veterans, but there’s an even more personal motivation.
“My dad was a Korean veteran,” she said. “We didn’t know hardly anything about his time in the Korean War. We didn’t know that he had six or seven medals. As a child, I didn’t think of the importance of asking him those questions. Now, I can’t get those stories back.”
The Band of Brothers, a local group of veterans, has been “very helpful” in finding people who are willing to be interviewed, McCallister said, but not everyone is eager to go on camera.
“What I’m seeing is it’s not something every veteran wants to talk about,” she said. “And after you talk to them, you kind of understand why. War’s not a pretty thing. It’s not an easy thing to go through some of the things men and women have gone through and (then) talk about it.”
McCallister said she’ll honor someone’s desire if they don’t want to be interviewed, but most really appreciate a chance to tell their story. Many have unfounded concerns, though, about how much they’ll remember after six decades.
“It’s amazing,” she said. “You get them to talking, you get them comfortable, and they just remember details. They just remember it so clearly.”
Perhaps not remembered so clearly are their personal exploits, or so it would seem.
“They don’t brag about their accomplishments,” she said. “They might have saved 10 people, and they would never tell you that. It’s like, ‘That was my job. I’d do it again. It was no big deal.’”
George Browning, a local veteran who was featured in a Pearl Harbor story, is a case in point.
“He was so humble about his contribution to that part of the war,” McCallister said. “Later I found out that he got a considerable number of medals. He never once said anything about it. A lot of these war veterans are like that.”
Those who share their stories do so for different reasons.
Local WWII veteran Ray Demaris fought in Okinawa, the last major battle of that war. He said things happened during that battle “that we wouldn’t even talk about.”
“There’s only a few people that know about it,” he said, “so if they (the public) want to know, I’ll tell them. They ought to know what the war was. It wasn’t no picnic, I know that.”
Another WWII veteran, Denny Thomas — who agreed to do an interview for McCallister “because she asked me” — is completely supportive of her efforts.
“I think the value of these interviews is to preserve some of the recollections of veterans, particularly as they age,” he said. “Their stories will soon be untold unless they’re recorded here very soon.”
“As with a family, we wished we asked more questions,” he said. “As a society, a community, this plays the same role. Once the people have passed, all that information goes with them. So capturing that information, archiving it, for not only today’s generation, but generations to come, is a great way to understand and appreciate lifestyles of bygone times.”
“There is a tremendous value in documenting the stories of these brave men and women veterans, who sacrificed so much for our freedom,” echoed McCallister. “Their stories are a part of American history that should not be forgotten. By documenting their stories, I feel like I am honoring their service and their contributions to our country.”
McCallister’s project is a daunting task by any measure, not only because of the time required, but because of the sheer number of potential subjects.
“This is just five veterans (interviewed to date) out of more than 200 in (just) the Band of Brothers,” she said. “In this town, there are a lot of both veterans and veterans’ organizations — more than I thought — and everybody’s story is just as relevant and important as the next. I hope that I can do lots more.”