Up and down the Pioneer Valley, the members of the “Greatest Generation” answered the urgent call to wartime service in the 1940s, joining the Armed Forces or taking jobs in vital home front industries. Soon—through to a collaboration of the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association (PVMA) of Deerfield, the Veterans Education Project (VEP) of Amherst, and the Springfield Armory National Historical Site—some of these elders will embark on a different mission, heading back to classrooms to tell their stories to students.
Beginning this fall, the veterans and one-time home front workers participating in the collaborative Seldom Heard Voices of World War Two Oral History Project—all now in their 80s and 90s—will visit local schools, providing students with an a first-person connection to events that shaped the course of world history. They also will speak to community audiences in venues such as the Springfield Armory. Some will be filmed in classrooms and interviewed on videotape. By training the project participants to speak publicly and on videotape, organizers say, the project will provide in-person forums for the Greatest Generation while they are still physically able to make appearances at events, and preserve the stories for future generations.
The project—which will work with elders living in Hampden, Hampshire and Franklin Counties— recently received grants from the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities and the Harold Grinspoon Foundation. Project organizers say their collaboration is seeking additional funding from foundations and local businesses.
Rather than focus on traditional war stories, according to Robert Wilson, VEP’s Executive Director, the project will work to uncover first person accounts of some of the significant social and cultural changes that occurred overseas and on the home front during the war. During the project’s first year, organizers are focusing exclusively on the stories of subgroups of Pioneer Valley residents who experienced some of the greatest changes and challenges of the era: African American, female and Jewish American vets and home front workers of WW2.
“By necessitating the mobilization of millions of American men and women into the military and home front war industries, World War 2 provided a powerful catalyst for social change,” said Wilson. “Nationally and in the Pioneer Valley, blacks, Jews and women all confronted different kinds of prejudices and barriers in the community and the workplace. As they joined the military or worked on the home front, in places such as the Springfield Armory, many made tremendous contributions and broke through some of the barriers. Through their personal stories we want to capture and present some of the challenges these men and women faced, as well as the victories they achieved.”
Ultimately, Wilson said, the project will provide public access to interviews and school presentations in video format on the internet, sharing the videos and other resources for free with future generations of students, teachers and historians, on PVMA’s acclaimed educational website. The project also will produce CDs of the oral histories for use in local classrooms.
“These oral histories help to tell a vital part of America’s story,” said Timothy Neumann, PVMA’s Executive Director. “The research and interviews we are conducting already have revealed very compelling personal accounts of some of the small yet important struggles and advances that many historians say paved the way for the large equal rights, anti-discrimination and women’s movements of the 50s and 60s. This project includes presenting engaging personal accounts on our museum website www.AmericanCenturies.Mass.edu within a wider historic context, drawing on local and national photographic and document resources, an enrichment that many oral history projects have not incorporated as it is time consuming and expensive.”
Neumann added that the stories also contained vivid oral histories of boot camps, foreign battlefields, concentration camp liberations, Civil Defense air raid drills, busy wartime factories, U.S.O. tours and more. The first person perspectives, he said, were a lively complement to drier text book accounts of the war.
The Seldom Heard Voices of WW2 project is collaborating with a number of area organizations and colleges. The Springfield Armory National Historical Site—a chief partner in the project featuring a National Park Service museum and archive that tells the story of one of the largest and most important home front industries to Springfield’s war effort—will host public events and help to locate and interview Pioneer Valley residents who worked at the Armory during the war. The Smith College African American Studies Dept. will assist in project research and possibly host an event. Two area synagogues—the Jewish Community of Amherst and Congregation B’nai Israel, in Northampton—will co-sponsor events and assist in interviewing veterans.
Wilson added that other Pioneer Valley organizations will help with various aspects of the project and host events. The project will begin to present in area schools and at public events beginning this fall.
As part of the project’s live events, the project will offer “living history” presentations in local schools that feature a PVMA educator dressed as a WW2 factory worker or housewife, reenacting the role of WW2 era figures such as “Rosy the Riveter” and teaching about the home front. Some of the future home front presentations in schools will feature a Springfield Armory NHS staff person and an ex-Armory worker sharing a first-person account of working for the important WW2 weapons manufacturer.
“Battle front – home front” presentations, featuring the PVMA educator and VEP Board member Ray Elliott, an African American veteran who served in the segregated Army in the Pacific, were piloted last year to very enthusiastic public high school audiences, Wilson said.
For more information on the Seldom Heard Voices of WW2 Oral History Project, or to contact the project about a potential veteran or home front participant, email the VEP at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Veterans Education Project (VEP)
P.O. Box 416,
Amherst, MA 01004-0416