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Courting Veterans' Voices

As a court reporter for 37 years Dee Doubet has been a silent witness to hundreds of skirmishes and full-fledged battles. But in her spare time she find herself in the throes of the liberation of Belgium from Axis grip, the jungles of the South Pacific, or the simple act of coming home after the Vietnam War. Doubet is just one member of the National Court Reports Association (NCRA) using her skills to record the stories of America's wartime veterans.

Created in 2000 as part of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, the Veteran's History Project is the largest oral history project in the nation. It holds more than 60,000 collections of audio- and video-taped interviews, photographs, letters, diaries and other personal documents from veterans of World War I, World War II, the Korean, Vietnam, and Persian Gulf wars.

"I come from a family of veterans, yet seldom heard my dad speak of his wartime adventures," said 56-year-old Doubet. "A week after he died I found an engraved bracelet commemorating his work as a sonar specialist. That bracelet spoke volumes about how he felt about his service, but no one recorded his story."

Not only has Doubet transcribed 10 audio tapes, but also personally conducted three interviews including Gene Danner, who was at the Battle of the Bulge.

"Gene's recollections were so detailed," Doubet said. "After the invasion of Belgium he and his troops went into villages and if they found an empty house they would move in for a while. One family caught them napping and the wife started yelling at him in Flemish for being on the bed with his boots on. In the end, she invited the soldiers to stay and gave them soup. The soldiers were so moved by her generosity they brought the family extra rations."

That court reporters would become so integral to the Veterans History Project makes sense, though all admit it was a bit of serendipity. Legislation to fund the project was introduced by Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) and soon hundreds of audiotapes were in hand. As luck would have it the congressman's wife, Tawni, was a court reporter. "Oral histories are great but they are hard for historians to use. We really needed them transcribed into the written word," recalled Bob Patrick, Veteran's History Project director. "Tawni pointed out that court reporters are good listeners, good note takers, and do transcription for a living."

NCRA Executive Director Mark Golden agreed. The organization challenged its 23,000 members (who must be able to capture 225 words per minute with 98 percent accuracy) to transcribe 1,000 taped "voices." They met that goal and are now well past 1,500 transcriptions, with almost 100 members now actually voluntarily conducting their own interviews.

Among them Karen Yates of Minden, Nev. After transcribing tapes of two soldiers, she interviewed one of her uncles. "He lied about his age to join the Army so he could fight in World War II and instead never saw action," she said. "But he traveled the world which was a real eye-opener."

Later she interviewed 85-year-old twins Ernie and Everett Stedman, while another court reporter simultaneously transcribed the interview. The World War II Army Air Corps tailgunners spoke of missions over Europe. "They had a completely different attitude of coming to the aid of their country. They took it as a personal war: making sure those folks don't come here and harm my family," said Yates, 55, who has also recorded and transcribed the recollections of three of her uncles. "I have a few more uncles to interview along with some of their buddies. A line is forming."

Court reporter Geri Halma of Newton, N.C., isn't shy in her pursuit of prospects. Often she approaches veterans for their tales after hearing them mention wartime experiences in depositions. Frederick G. Lampe told Halma of his days on a Navy destroyer in the South Pacific surviving typhoons and kamikaze attacks.

Gathering these recollections is a race against the clock. Halma, 64, spent two years compiling the tales of Leo C. "Pat" Williamson, who by age 25 was a decorated lieutenant colonel. "Pat died before we could finish, but he was an amazing man who fought his way across Tunisia, Morocco, Sicily, Normandy, and finally Germany. He helped his comrades escape being captured from a German platoon and later took back the position with only eight soldiers at his side," said Halma, who also interviewed Eldon Hunsberger. He flew 65 missions as a B-26 bomber pilot over Italy. "Eldon tried to re-up at 84, but they wouldn't take him. He says it's age discrimination," Halma chuckled.  

With the project receiving 100 to 200 collections  a week, the work may never end for the volunteer court reporters. Said Patrick, "Transcription doesn't come cheap ($50 to $100 per hour by most estimates), so this is invaluable to us." Almost 5,000 collections are entirely available in an online database searchable by name, gender, service, conflict or battles, or the public can visit the American Folklife Reading Room in Washington, D.C.

For Doubet, who hopes to next corner her brother-in-law, a Vietnam veteran living in Alaska, the Veterans History Project is a perfect match. "After all, this is what we do for a living: memorialize the spoken word."

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