Slices of history wait to be discovered online through Recollection Wisconsin’s “Listening to War” project.
The collection includes 501 first-person accounts from Wisconsin veterans and civilians during World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Persian Gulf War.
The array of auditory time capsules include 128 oral histories from the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center collection:
- Alex Wizbicki, a Marine who gathered information behind enemy lines in Okinawa, Japan during World War II.
- Air Force meteorologist Ken Juvette, who used weather forecast information to advise generals about air missions in Vietnam.
- Navy veteran Richard Thorson, who was knocked out of his bunk when a torpedo struck the USS Raleigh at Pearl Harbor.
- Agnes Kindel, who left her job at a Superior café and moved to Seattle to build planes for Boeing during World War II.
- Eleanor Pyle of Superior, who delivered planes to airfields across the country as a pilot with the Women Airforce Service Pilots during World War II.
There are also interviews by familiar names like newscaster Lew Martin and Maj. Richard I. Bong’s wife, Marge Bong Drucker.
These oral histories are the best part of the job, said Briana Fiandt, curator of collections at the Bong Center in Superior.
“Because we’re preserving these stories for future generations, forever. And the fact that we are capturing the stories of the people who aren’t going to be in the history books, for the most part,” Fiandt said. “We are getting the everyday stories.”
Recollection Wisconsin received a grant from the National Endowment for Humanities to take these pieces of everyday life and digitize them. Emily Pfotenhauer, program manager for Recollection Wisconsin, said the work started in 2016 and involved histories from more than 20 libraries, archives, museums and historical societies throughout the state.
The project aimed to preserve the histories — many of which were in outdated, deteriorating formats that couldn’t be easily accessed — and to focus the lens on smaller communities throughout the state.
“Our goal with Recollection Wisconsin is to kind of bring to light some hidden stories or hidden histories, especially things that have been collected or created by smaller organizations in the state, to give those a bigger platform or more visibility,” Pfotenhauer said.
The interviews are presented in their entirety, but some had to be stitched together from multiple tapes, and audio cleanup was done to improve clarity.
“These were done in a lot of different settings by different folks with different equipment, so there was a really big variance in sound quality,” Pfotenhauer said.
They came in on a wide array of formats, including videotapes, cassette tapes, reel-to-reel audio tapes, DVDs and mini DV — a miniature videotape. They were sent to a company to be digitized, Pfotenhauer said. The majority of the grant funding went to people who listened through the histories, writing up indexes to help others navigate to different sections of each interview.
The largest and most diverse selection of interviews came from Superior, Pfotenhauer said. But those 128 are only a quarter of the Bong Center’s archives. The museum has gathered 447 oral histories since 2000. The others involve veterans and civilians from Minnesota and other states. Fiandt said there has been some interest in digitizing them through Minnesota Reflections, a database of digital materials that document the state's cultural heritage.
The Bong Center continues to gather oral histories from veterans, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. The center has new protocol in place for in-person interviews and has taken some over Zoom, Fiandt said. There is also a do-it-yourself option available, which includes a backpack containing the equipment needed to collect an oral history, as well as a binder with suggestions for how to conduct the interview. Oral histories from all eras are being sought, with a focus on veterans from World War II and the Korean War.
"We are appealing to anybody who knows a World War II vet, knows a Korean War vet, we would love to capture their story while we can," Fiandt said.
Call 715-392-7151 or email Fiandt at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Recollection Wisconsin, a collaborative program, released the “Listening to War” project in November. The Wisconsin Veterans Museum stores and maintains the digitized files, and the access platform is supported by the Wisconsin Historical Society.