Wearing their pressed uniforms, veterans representing World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the Cold War era filed into the Bret Harte High School gym to participate in Bret Harte’s annual Veteran Oral History Project.
The project was started in 1997 by Bret Harte High School history teacher Jennifer Truman with the desire to teach outside the box.
“The old school way of teaching, opening a book and simply reading,” was not engaging her students, said Truman. As she brainstormed how to connect young people to history, to make it real, she realized that she herself remembered the many stories her grandfather had told her as a young girl and how those stories were still fresh in her mind. It was then that she knew oral history would bring history alive for her students.
Truman said the students were excited about the event this year because of the high publicity of her recent State Veterans of Foreign Wars Teacher of the Year award for this project. She also contributed the extra appeal to last year’s juniors giving this year’s class the heads up on who to talk to and what to see.
Though it is a junior class-only event, seniors begged Truman to be able to come back and visit, saying they missed talking to one of the vets. Truman arranged for the seniors to visit during their senior seminar class time.
The juniors sat three or four to a table with one veteran. They had a short list of basic information to collect from the vets: Branch, rank, conflict and dates, among other facts. After getting the answers, the kid gloves were off and the questions began to flow, as another part of the assignment was to outline a story from each vet visited.
At a far table sat Jessica Moore. Her smile beamed as the veteran spoke; she seemed to be bursting with pride.
“That’s my dad,” she said. “When I found out about the project, I asked him if he would participate. …Some stories I have never heard before. He traveled to Singapore, Japan, Hawaii and Vietnam replenishing supplies.”
Jessica’s father is Fred Moore, Navy 1972 to 1976. Fred Moore is also an associate pastor at the First Baptist Church and the chaplain for the fire and police departments.
Ric Ryan, Marine Corps 1968 to 1972, spent his 21st birthday in Vietnam “in a foxhole with a warm Schlitz beer that my buddies found for me.”
The students at his table, all seniors, seemed to favor his humorous stories.
“I was supposed to be building roads but that didn’t happen. One time the camp commander asked for us to clean his latrine, back then we used diesel fuel to burn off the stuff in the barrels. Well, my men used jet fuel and burned the commanders latrine down. He was OK with that but wanted a new latrine by the time he finished dinner. My men built him one and painted it pink!”
Stan Anderson, Navy 1967 to 1972, was aboard the USS Puffer, an attack submarine that ran espionage missions off the coast of Russia.
“I spent seven-and-a-half-months out of the year submerged.” He explained the more creative ways submariners “packed” the sub.
“We would pack the cans of food tight together and walk on cans until we ate our way through the canned goods. We had an escape hatch – with no chance of escape – so we would wrap lettuce in saran wrap, shoot nitrogen into the wrap and put it in the escape hatch. We had fresh lettuce for at least two weeks.”
The project follows the completion of world studies curriculum through the Vietnam War. Due to curriculum and time constraints, the students have only a “simple idea of the conflicts that the presenters were participants of. The event helps students better understand the person behind the history, the ones who were there, to hear history in their words,” said Truman.
More than one student was heard whispering, “He was my age when he was in the service.”
About 300 students participated in the event this year, bringing the total students participating since the inception in 1997 to about 2,900.
Charity Maness is an Enterprise community correspondent. Contact Charity at email@example.com.