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Veterans History Project continues despite cuts to funding

Wednesday, November 10, 2010 | 7:55 p.m. CST; updated 11:08 a.m. CST, Thursday, November 11, 2010
Pat Shay (center) stands with friends during his time serving in the Marine Corps during World War II. The three men called themselves the three musketeers.

COLUMBIA — When Pat Shay was asked recently to be interviewed for the Missouri Veterans History Project, he agreed instantly.

Shay, 84, from Quincy, Ill., enlisted at 17 by forging his father's signature and became a Marine. He served in combat from 1943 to 1945 and made friendships that lasted for decades.

“The war wasn’t all bad,” Shay said. “We had a lot of fun, especially on Guam.”

But as he talked about those years, it didn't take long for the hard times to flood back as well.

“We saw a lot of bad things,” Shay said, his voice cracking. “All this has brought it back.”

Shay is one of 15 veterans who was interviewed by amateur historian and American Legion member Mike Trial at American Legion Post 202. It's part of a grass-roots effort to capture the stories of World War II veterans for posterity in the Library of Congress.

At the opening Thursday of the new MU Veterans Center, snippets of the project will be shown to the public. It showcases the voices of the "Greatest Generation," which is shrinking rapidly. According to the Veterans Administration, World War II veterans are dying at a rate of 850 people per day, or 310,250 people each year. As of late 2009, there were only 2.2 million living World War II veterans.

Congress saw that time was running out for these veterans' stories to be recorded and created the national Veterans History Project, which President Bill Clinton signed into law in 2000. The project was set up to preserve the recollections of veterans all over the country. The Missouri Veterans Stories project, a state initiative officially launched in 2007, provided material for the national project. 

Trial, 64, who retired from the Army Corps of Engineers, got involved after he heard that government funding had been cut for the state project.

“When I heard Representative Jill Schupp was trying to continue the project without public funds, I spoke up,” Trial said.

Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, had a role in cutting the funding but said she did not want to see the project die.

“Here we are a half an hour from one of the best broadcast journalism schools in the world," she recalled saying to the legislature. "Why don’t we see what we can work out?”

What Schupp and MU worked out was access to students, faculty and equipment. There is now talk at MU and Columbia College of creating an accredited class in which students would conduct interviews and produce videos for college credit, Schupp said.

Schupp is looking for people to bring whatever time and skills they have available to the project.

Trial figured he had the time and interest to help get the project rolling again.

“I brought a big mouth and said, let’s do it,” he said. Trial said he is picking up the tab for costs that his part of the project incurs along the way.

“All the big stories about World War II have been told,” Trial said. “We are looking to find out how veterans felt, where they were, what they were doing, what friends they made, what friends they lost.”

Stories like the one about the gasoline-operated Maytag washing machine Shay found on Guam.

Desperate to wash their clothes, “we got that washing machine going. … We had to have gasoline, and we had to have water. And we got a trailer. We stole this trailer,” he said with a deep chuckle. “… And we put a big sign up. It said, ‘wash your clothes for 50 cents.'”

Earning a base salary of $21 a month, the extra change meant a lot, Shay noted, though he said he forgot how much he made off the scheme.

That story is now part of the record, and Trial hopes to get more like it and of a quality worthy of their final destination.

“We are aiming to consistently attain a quality of interview that will have no problem getting into the Library of Congress Veterans History Project,” he said.

Midwest Litigation Operations Manager Mary Gaal doesn’t think that will be a problem.

“They will definitely be accepted by the Library of Congress,” she said. Midwest has signed on to do most of the recording and all of the production work to get the videos onto DVDs.

The National Court Reporters Foundation and the National Court Reporters Association have both partnered with the Library of Congress to use their expertise to produce professional quality video of the interviews.

“It’s such a fabulous project, and we are so honored to be involved,” Gaal said.

Gaal feels personally invested in the project.

“Before my grandfather passed away, I sat him down with my grandmother and recorded all their stories for my children to someday listen to," Gaal said. "My kids were young, and I wasn’t sure they’d ever get the chance to hear this otherwise.”

There are still many stories left to capture and veterans eager to share what they saw, but time to listen is running short.

“We are hoping this effort of ours in Columbia serves as the new prototype for getting these interviews done,” Trial said.

Shay said he has seen the numbers of his fellow veterans dwindle.

“I made a lot of friends in the war and we stayed in touch for a while after we got back," he said. "But now, I’m the only one left.”

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