As a proud new team member of Recollection Wisconsin, I’ll be writing a series of dispatches from my travels all over Wisconsin to find oral history collections at libraries, archives, museums, historical societies, and other memory organizations. I have this rare opportunity thanks to our NEH grant-funded yearlong project, Listening to War: Uncovering Wisconsin’s Wartime Oral Histories. You can read more about it by visiting recollectionwisconsin.org/wioralhistory.
At the end of August, I had the pleasure of making the long drive north from Madison to Superior, Wisconsin to visit the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center. I had never been so far north in Wisconsin before, so this was a real treat – and I had a great time, meeting quite lovely and dedicated people.
The BVH Center’s namesake, Richard I. Bong, was born in Superior in 1920. He became a pilot during World War II, and was one of the most decorated “ace” pilots, including a Congressional Medal of Honor. Sadly, he died after he left the Pacific Theater, while test piloting a P-80. His death, at only age 24, was a national tragedy: the announcement was front page news, right next to the Hiroshima bombing.
After opening in 2002, the BVH Center focused on World War II history, especially related to the Pacific Theater. More recently they began to collect memorabilia, papers, and recordings from other conflicts. This is reflected in the oral histories recorded by the Center: a large majority are from World War II, while the more recent digital recordings include veterans and civilians from the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and the Persian Gulf War.
While I spent most of my two days with the oral history collections, curator Briana Fiandt took me on a tour of the exhibit floor and the storage rooms for the museum collections. The museum has a large collection of well-preserved uniforms and boots, photos and papers donated by veterans, and even the tail end of a Nazi Stuka bomber.
One of Fiandt’s biggest passions is the oral history collection housed at the BVH Center. I got to meet a few of the talented volunteers – mostly Vietnam veterans from the local American Legion Post 435 – who assist with interviewing, digitization, and indexing for the collection. Fiandt has also been working with the local radio station to feature interviews on-air.
Most of the World War II recordings are on cassettes, but the Center has a large amount of video recordings on miniDV and Hi-8. Both of these formats are high risk and important to include in our NEH inventory. The video and audio recordings capture a multitude of experiences and viewpoints of life during war. The Center houses stories from veterans and civilians, from a Navajo code talker with the 2nd Marine Division, a shipbuilder here in Wisconsin, a man who spent 4 years in a Russian POW camp, a librarian/teacher who taught on a Marine base, a woman whose family was taken to Auschwitz, and so much more to hear.
The Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center was an ace of a museum. I deeply thank Briana Fiandt and all of the other dedicated employees of the Center for taking me in for two days.
For more about the Center, check out their website.
We are currently reaching out to Wisconsin libraries, archives, museums and historical societies with relevant materials for this inventory project, but we may have missed you. Does your organization have oral histories? We’d love to hear from you! Please use this form to tell us more about your collections.