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World War II interview

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by joe, Sep 14, 2008.

  1. joe

    joe Active Member

    I'm -- finally -- going to talk to my grandfather about his European theater World War II experience. And by talk I mean that I don't have a real set of specific questions going in except for the dates he went in and got out and stuff like that.

    Probably 12 years ago or so, he started talking about some of his experiences in the war, which was maybe the first time he had talked about them to anyone in my family; he never talked about it with my mom or my aunts. I'm his first grandchild, and the first male after he had four daughters, so I hold kind of a special place for him.

    I come here because, during the course of our conversation, I might just forget or not think about certain things that would increase my understanding or help tell his story better. So, what would you ask if you had the chance? What should I not overlook? What should I ask to make my story -- which I'll write at least for my family, if not for public consumption -- as good as it can be?

    There are great reporters and writers on this site (which, really, kind of go together), whether nationally known or more locally known. Ahead of time, I appreciate any advice you have.

  2. Johnny Dangerously

    Johnny Dangerously Well-Known Member


    First, congratulations on such a meaningful undertaking. I did a piece earlier this year on a fantastic student athlete who graduated from college and went almost directly to combat in WWII, where he died. I spent a long time talking with family members. Off the top of my head, here are some things to consider:

    -- Find out if there are letters he sent from the war and see if you can read them.
    -- Ask if any of his war buddies are still alive, and if so, can you contact them.
    -- If his hometown paper has good microfilm archives, see what you can read during and after the period of time he was in the war. This could really be fruitful.
    -- If he went to college, see if the college has records of him or his classmates and the things that happened to them.
    -- Consider doing the interviews with a video camera if you can do so without making him uncomfortable or more reluctant to open up. Get a clip-on mic but ease him into wearing it if you can.
    -- Let him tell the story at his pace.

    Good luck
  3. OTD

    OTD Active Member


    I did this with my father in law. My wife was his only child, and he never talked that much about his WWII Pacific experiences with her. I ended up learning as much about his service as anyone. Here's my advice.

    First, try to do a little research on his unit, where it served, when it landed in Europe from England (assuming it did), things like that. What track did it take through France? This way, if he's talking about some town, you'll already know it and won't have to interrupt his train of thought. Also, try to find out first a little about what your grandfather did. If he was a supply clerk (no shame in that, btw), you don't want to ask him what it was like to kill Jerries.

    Second, I'd just let him talk. I wouldn't ask a lot of questions. If you've got something specific you need to know, go ahead, but I'd start with something like "Tell me about landing in France." Then let him go. Sometimes these guys need to talk at their own pace. Try not to rush him.

    Good luck. I'd love to read the book when you do it.
  4. SoCalDude

    SoCalDude Active Member

    Try to keep it casual and from time to time try to get the conversation started again.
    My dad was in WWII, he was in troops following behind Patton through France into Germany. He has talked a little bit about it, but not all that much. From time to time, something new will come out.
    My dad is 91 now, we have been trying for more than 20 years to get him to go to Hawaii with us. He won't go. We've tried to get him to take a cruise, eating and gambling are two of his favorite things. He won't do it. Then during a family occasion a couple of months ago, he revealed that he prayed to God that if He would let him get home safely, he would never leave. My dad has never left the mainland or left the country since he returned in 1945.
  5. Shaggy

    Shaggy Guest

    I interviewed my grandmother for a WWII paper in college. She was about 9 years old when the US entered the war and had three brothers go fight.

    It was easily one of the most interesting subjects I ever had the pleasure of writing about. She had one of the flags that her parents put in the window that signified a member of the house fighting in the war. Obviously, they had three and one got passed down to her.

    All the stories about the victory garden, the recycling of metals that were sponsored by her school, and other sacrifices that were made by everybody during that time was fascinating, especially for someone in their 20s right now like I am.
  6. NoOneLikesUs

    NoOneLikesUs Active Member

    Ask about the home front. What was he doing right before he got pulled into WWII? Was he (And others around him) aware of the state of affairs in Europe in the late '30s? Did he think the USA would get pulled into war?

    Ask about what happened after the fighting stopped too.
  7. Corky Ramirez up on 94th St.

    Corky Ramirez up on 94th St. Well-Known Member

    Everyone has great ideas on here. I would also suggest this: tape record it. Because someday, those will be treasured.

    My grandfather used to put his reel-to-reel recorder on during family gatherings (which were plenty, since he was born in Italy). So now we have a bunch of tapes of parties from the early 1960s. He's been gone for more than 10 years now, so those just add so much more.

    I did something similar when I was a freshman in high school (1990, eesh). I sat down with him and he described about going through Ellis Island as an 18-year-old in 1921. He remembered every little detail, and I still have that paper. We still have a box of love letters that my grandfather and his soon-to-be wife wrote between 1924-27. His are all in Italian, so I hope to get them translated soon.

    One final note: a few years ago I did a two-day project on an abandoned state hospital here in town and interviewed seven people who had some kind of connection (groundskeeper, superintendent, nurse, that sort of thing). I spoke to that groundskeeper in length; he had worked there for 47 years. Anyway, he died soon after, and I gave the tapes of our interview to his daughter. She was so grateful for those because it was his voice describing his time there.

    So, moral: tape record it. You and your future family will treasure it.
  8. buckweaver

    buckweaver Active Member

    Joe, I'm living vicariously through you on this one, bud. This is a great project for you. Both my grandfathers are dead and, while I did manage to talk to them about their war years on more than a few occasions when they were alive, I was too young to know what to do with it. Never did record it or get it down on paper and, now, it's too late.

    And check your PMs ...
  9. In Exile

    In Exile Member

    When interviewing anyone up in years, I've always found it best to make sure they have afew days heads up on when the interview will take place - it primes the memory pump - and then, after the first interview, follow up as day or two later and go over the same ground again, asking some more questions based on the first interview. Often, this second interview has been much more fruitful and detailed.
  10. that's pretty damn cool
  11. trifectarich

    trifectarich Well-Known Member

    Yes, get it recorded. You never know when some of what he talks about might be worthwhile for your local library's audio files or some history project.

    Good luck.
  12. Twoback

    Twoback Active Member


    One piece of advice, if you haven't considered it.
    Get a digital recorder. $50, or less. Turn it on when he begins to speak.
    That's a small cost for a priceless piece of your family's -- and this nation's -- history.
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