During a recent visit to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut, U.S. Sen. Jack Reed listened as World War II veteran Frank DeVita recounted his experience during the D-Day invasion.
DeVita – now in his mid 90s – was a 19-year-old Coast Guardsman on that day in 1944. According to Reed, he spoke of his emotions as he and his fellow soldiers approached the landing point on Omaha Beach – and of the well of courage he found amid the indescribable scene.
“He described the sheer terror that he felt as he tried to open the front ramp of that Higgins boat to let those soldiers hit the beach. And then to go back – it was a 10-mile trip back to his ship – and thinking all the way, ‘Can I do this again?’” Reed said. “Well, he went back 14 times to the beach that day.”
Since 2000, more than 110,000 veterans have shared stories like DeVita’s through the Veterans History Project, an initiative of the American Folk Life Center at the Library of Congress.
On Monday at the Cranston Public Library’s Central Library on Sockanosset Cross Road, Reed and others kicked off the celebration of the initiative’s 20th anniversary – and issued a call for more Rhode Islanders who have served in uniform to share their stories.
“[DeVita’s story is] the kind of story that has to be told, not through some kind of abstract, but first person … That’s what we’re trying to capture,” the senator told an audience of veterans, their family members and others from the community.
Monday’s event drew one other particularly notable guest – Dr. Carla Hayden, the 14th Librarian of Congress. She is the first woman and the first African American to hold the post, and her visit was the first to the Ocean State from a sitting Librarian of Congress.
Hayden said the American Folk Life Center and Veterans History Project – which is led by former U.S. Army aviator Karen Lloyd – are “dedicated to making sure that the stories and the voices of all Americans are heard.” She said the project is working to include more women and Gulf War veterans – and more Rhode Islanders.
“We’d like every veteran, if possible, to have their story told,” she said.
According to a field kit distributed during Monday’s event, the Veterans History Project is designed to share the stories of veterans who served in any capacity from World War I through recent conflicts. Since 2016, it has also collected the stories of Gold Star Family members.
The project collects personal narratives captured through audio and video interviews, as well as items such as photographs, letters, diaries, journals and military documents.
Full information – including guidance on how to conduct an interview – is available at loc.gov/vets.
Hayden said the collected interviews may be found through the site, as can many of the related photographs and other documentation. She also noted that recording an interview does not require any advanced equipment – a cell phone’s camera or microphone, she said, are more that sufficient.
The way in which the Veterans History Project’s archives are used, Hayden said, are as “diverse as the stories being told.” Some are searching for people they served alongside or are seeking information about the service of family members. Many schools also use the archives while researching history projects.
One of the most notable researchers, she said, is Ken Burns, who utilized the Veterans History Project for his recent “The Vietnam War” series with Lynn Novick.
“He used the Veterans History Project and the recordings heavily,” she said.
At the end of the speaking program on Monday, several veterans in attendance left for various spaces in the library to be interviewed for the Veterans History Project. Ed Garcia, director of the Cranston Public Library, said the hope is for the library to host periodic interview events and establish a local archive for the collected recordings and materials in the months ahead.
Preserving local stories is a priority for Hayden, Reed, director of the state’s Office of Veteran Affairs Kasim Yarn and others. According to Reed’s staff, approximately 260 Rhode Islanders have been interviewed for the project since its inception – leaving many stories still to tell in a state more than 60,000 veterans call home.
“We need more,” said the senator, a West Point graduate who recorded his own Veterans History Project interview in 2007.
Yarn said capturing and preserving the first-hand experiences of veterans helps to lay a “foundation” for future generations.
“The words that you provide through your testimony, through your story, will transcend time,” he said.