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Centre College class recording oral histories of Ky. WWII veterans

Conley Wilkerson, 92, during an interview with students at Centre College in Danville.
Conley Wilkerson, 92, during an interview with students at Centre College in Danville. Photo provided by Sara Egge

An assistant professor and her students at Centre College in Danville are searching for World War II veterans in Kentucky to record their oral histories.

Students in Sara Egge’s class — America in the World Wars — conducted 21 interviews this spring with veterans near Danville and are traveling this summer to reach more veterans.

Egge said it is important for her students to experience veterans’ stories first-hand and to see what a career in research looks like.

“Knowing how to conduct interviews is a really good skill for research,” Egge said. “As a historian, there is a practicality to capturing these voices, and this might be the last chance we can record the histories of some of these veterans.”

The project was assisted by a $5,000 grant from the Kentucky Oral History Commission and the interviews will be donated to the Kentucky Historical Society for unrestricted public access.

Tori Parker, a senior who graduated in the spring and is a volunteer with the project, said she first was involved because of her interest in gender and women roles through American history. Parker, who was able to interview the only female veteran recorded so far, explained why she chose to join the project.

“WWII has become a cinematic juggernaut, and I only knew what I had seen on TV, but, for the moment, these people are still alive,” Parker said. “History is made of individuals and learning about those individuals’ stories is important.”

Parker said that, during the interviews, two students talked to a veteran while Egge observed and a cameraman from Centre recorded the conversation. Although some of the stories were still hard for the veterans to tell, Parker said the team tried their best to encourage them to share their experiences.

“When they came home, there was this idea that they weren’t supposed to talk about their hard times,” Parker said. “These are stories that they have been telling for their entire life and we are there to unpack it further.”

2036 the year the National WWII Museum in New Orleans estimates that there will be no more living veterans

One of the stories the group at Centre collected belongs to Conley Wilkerson, of Perryville, who served on the USS Frazier in the Pacific. Wilkerson said he shared some of his eye-witness accounts of landing operations and mine sweeping this spring to help younger generations understand what life was really like during that period.

We have a tendency to teach history as facts and dates but don’t put the human factor into it. Sometimes you have to feel it. Let these people know who was serving in WWII.

Conley Wilkerson, World War II veteran

“We have a tendency to teach history as facts and dates but don’t put the human factor into it,” Wilkerson said. “Sometimes you have to feel it. Let these people know who was serving in WWII.”

While explaining a landing operation his destroyer was involved in on Corregidor Island in the Philippines, Wilkerson said he tried his best to make people understand the emotions soldiers must have felt. He described the young men crowded together in small, flat-bottomed boats as they circled the destroyer in the tropical waters, waiting for a signal to storm the beach.

“I would like to see the kids know a little bit more, make it become real and understand it,” Wilkerson said. “I think it’s important that we help the younger generation understand us.”

Egge’s class will be traveling this summer in order to reach veterans that might have been unable to participate otherwise and Parker said interviews have already resumed. Any veteran or their families who wish to share their stories are encouraged to contact Egge by phone at (859) 238-5732 or email at sara.egge@centre.edu.

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