Local News

Thursday, Oct 04 2012 05:51 PM

Oral history project begins documenting experiences of WWII vets

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    World War II Navy veteran Jim McAdams, left, is interviewed by Bakersfield High School student Vanessa Moralez, center, as students from Bakersfield and East high schools listen. The interviews are part of an oral history project with the veterans of Kern County put together by BHS teacher Ken Hooper.

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Bakersfield High School student Aliyah Nelson registers Navy veteran Archie Webb, who is participating in BHS' oral history project of WWII veterans in Kern County. At left, Megan Stapp works with veteran Curtis Pearsey.

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    U.S. Navy veteran Jim McAdams was one of several WWII veterans interviewed by students at American Sound Recording Studios.

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Bakersfield High School teacher Ken Hooper, left, is seeing that WWII veterans like Archie Webb are having their stories told and preserved through an oral history project.

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Students like Liam Hodash of BHS conducted the interviews with the Kern County veterans.

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BY STEVEN MAYER Californian staff writer smayer@bakersfield.com

Few things are more alarming to historians than to see primary sources of valuable historical knowledge slowly disappear.

For years, Bakersfield High School teacher Ken Hooper has wanted to document and archive the experiences of World War II veterans in Kern County through an ongoing oral history project. Hooper and others are acutely aware that time is running out as most members of the "Greatest Generation" are in their late-80s or 90s.

"We are losing our World War II veterans without obtaining their stories," Hooper said.

So this week, with the help of several students from BHS and East Bakersfield High School, Hooper and East High history teacher Mike Warner began coordinating hour-long interviews with more than 30 World War II and Korean War veterans.

Virtually all of the veterans will be participating in Honor Flight Kern County's second flight to Washington, D.C., which leaves in mid-November. Recordings of veterans who participated in the first trip were made last spring, but Hooper said they were not long enough or complete enough to meet the standards of the Library of Congress.

Not only were this week's interviews recorded on video and audio at American Sound Recording Studios in downtown Bakersfield, the students scanned documents such as discharge papers and telegrams, shot photos of medals and war souvenirs and recorded the vital statistics of each veteran.

"It's almost intimidating at first, teenagers talking to 80-year-olds," Hooper said. "But the students got over it."

The finished archives will ultimately be held by both the Kern County Historical Society and the U.S. Library of Congress.

Jim McAdams, 86, a Navy veteran who served aboard the attack transport ship the USS Montrose in the Pacific theater during World War II, was interviewed by 17-year-old BHS student Vanessa Moralez.

"She did very well," McAdams said. "She wanted me to recall certain things. It certainly does jog your memory."

The Montrose transported U.S. Marines to invasion sites in the Pacific, and on March 26, 1945, participated in the landings in Kerama Retto, not far from Okinawa.

"A few days later we shot down two or three Japanese suicide planes, kamikazes," McAdams remembered.

Recalling events from more than 67 years ago can be a tricky business, but McAdams vividly remembers many of the most important events. For example, he recalled first hearing in April 1945 that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had died.

The news from stateside hit him hard and left him with a feeling of uncertainty.

"I remember thinking, 'What are we going to do now? Our president has died.'"

Over the course of Wednesday and Thursday, Moralez said she participated in interviews with several veterans.

On Wednesday, one veteran politely declined to speak about why he received a Silver Star for valor. But after the interview, the man's wife filled in the blanks by informing Moralez that he had risked his life under enemy fire to assist a wounded comrade.

Another vet survived the war only to come home to find that most of his family had died.

Some students finished the interviews with tears in their eyes.

"I was really touched," Moralez said.

Student Jacqueline Robles felt the same way.

"It's emotional. You can really get into it," she said of the interviews. "I cried."

Adam Torres, a 17-year-old senior from East High, wore light cotton gloves for careful handling of old artifacts and documents. He and other students were creating and archiving computer files containing photos, government documents and other items.

The documents, scanned for the new archive, included a Western Union telegram that arrived in Bakersfield March 5, 1951. It was sent to "Mrs. William Paul Boles" at 805 Lake St. All in caps, it contained only the barest of information.

"Regret to inform you that your husband, Private First Class William Paul Boles USMCR has been wounded in action 1 March 1951 in the Korean area."

The telegram didn't say how bad the injury was, what condition Private Boles was in or whether more details would be immediately forthcoming. But it did caution Mrs. Boles to expect delays in information.

The interviews, the information, the emotion and putting it all together is an invaluable experience for students studying history, said Warner, the history teacher from East High.

"Too often we forget that history is flesh and blood," Warner said. "They are seeing and interviewing human beings. These kids are being historians here."

And they'll never forget what they've done here.

"I love history too much to just teach to a test," Warner added.

There's a book available through the Library of Congress, he said, titled, "Listening is an Act of Love."

That's one reason this effort is so important, Warner said, and why it must continue through succeeding generations.

"I told my students," Warner said, 'You are actually conveying a feeling of respect and love just by listening to their stories.'"

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