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Utah archivists seeking stories about U.S. vets

Tales are being compiled for national project

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Across the United States, hundreds of thousands of war veterans are going to work, playing with the dog, cutting the grass, living out their lives like anybody else — and yet, there's something different about these people.

Beneath the placid veneer are stories of blood and grime and horror and humor and camaraderie and honor and pain. Stories that, in many cases, have been lying dormant for decades.

Randy Williams wants to get those stories out.

She is curator of the Fife Folklore Archives at Utah State University, a partner with the Library of Congress in the nationwide Veterans History Project, whose purpose is to gather veterans' oral histories and record them before it's too late.

The project is for veterans of all wars.

"About 1,500 veterans die every day, and we're losing an important piece of history if we don't collect it," Williams said. "You and I both have had history classes and learned about wars and campaigns, but these are people who were there, who experienced it."

The Library of Congress is coordinating the effort, but many of the actual oral histories are being collected and kept at "regional repositories," of which USU, the University of Utah and Brigham Young University are three. There are a total of 10 in Utah in various locations. The centers gather histories and turn the names of the veterans into the Library of Congress, which collects them on its Web site; www.loc.gov/vets, and directs people to where the history they want is stored.

"They (the Library of Congress) have been at me because I haven't turned in names," said Winston Erickson, former program director of the U.'s American West Center and now a volunteer there.

Talk to anyone involved in the program and you quickly discover how deeply they feel about it. Air Force Lt. Col. Jeffrey Bateman is pursuing a master's at USU and has collected seven veterans' oral histories.

"I've been in the Air Force 24 years and participated in all kinds of deployments and exercises and gone to war, but talking to these folks is extremely humbling," he said. Bateman went to Afghanistan after 9/11 and fought, and "what we did seemed pretty momentous at the time, but it pales compared to some of the things these people did."

One veteran Bateman interviewed was in a foxhole in Iwo Jima with his twin brother. His brother was killed. Living with the memory, he has told the story exactly twice — once to Bateman, and once at a war memorial dedication.

Other stories, running the gamut of human experience, abound. Infantry men tell of looking into the eyes of their enemy, knowing one of them is about to die. Pilots tell of the more impersonal but just as deadly threat of being shot down. And then there are stories like Richmond veteran R. Dell Tripp, who parachuted into North Korea only to have his rifle and almost all of his equipment tear from his harness and drop into oblivion during his jump. He landed on the ground entirely unarmed, and yet a North Korean soldier standing 10 feet away gave Tripp his rifle and surrendered.

"I think he was so dumbfounded about what was going on that he was just ready to give up," Tripp said. "When you see 5,000 parachutes in the air, it kind of overwhelms you."

E-mail: aedwards@desnews.com