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The Importance of Capturing Oral History from Veterans

Last Updated by Tom Gibbs on

Tom Gibbs explores the importance of capturing the oral history of WWII.

The National WWII Museum in New Orleans, La., is America’s official WWII Museum as designated by Congress. We are dedicated to telling the entire story of the American experience during World War II: why it was fought, how it was won and what that means today so that all generations will understand the price of freedom and be inspired by what they learn. The National WWII Museum currently possesses approximately 10,000 personal accounts of the war, and many of these accounts laid the cornerstone of the Museum’s founding by Dr. Stephen Ambrose and Dr. Nick Mueller.

In my role as Special Programs Manager at the National WWII Museum, I had the absolute pleasure and privilege of working for three years as a traveling historian. During my time traveling the country, I conducted 313 on-camera oral history interviews with WWII veterans, including anyone having to do with the American experience during the war. This included Rosie the Riveters, defense industry workers, atomic bomb scientists, and even oceanographers that worked for Scripps and predicted tidal patterns for amphibious landings. My grandfather served as a radio operator in the 341st Bombing Squadron; 97th Bombardment Group; 15th Air Force in Foggia, Italy and flew 25 missions. He passed away the year I was born, and I never got a chance to speak to him. Doing this work on behalf of the Museum allowed me to highlight other people’s grandparents and ensure that their stories lived on for all posterity.

Many people have asked me, “What was the coolest interview you did?” Or, “Which interview impacted you the most?” Truthfully, they all did in their own way, and I learned something from each person. The true value lies in how these oral histories impact our guests. It is one thing to learn that D-Day occurred on June 6, 1944; however, to look into the eyes of someone who lived it, as they tell their story, is deeply impactful. WWII is truly the first war in human history for which we can capture on-camera the stories of the men and women who endured that conflict, and this ability to tell the story of WWII through the people who lived it provides an incredible educational benefit for our visitors.

Speaking with WWII veterans allows us to see the results of broad policy decisions that have been studied ad nauseam, and in particular how these massive decisions affected the lives of 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds tasked with executing these decisions. We no longer have folks with us who I call the “decision makers.” Now we are left with the “decision implementers,” and their stories of combat and heroism allow the story of WWII to be told from a personal perspective at the Museum. It is this perspective we seek that allows our visitors to be transported back to the 1940s for a glimpse at the sacrifice required in order to restore freedom to Europe and the Pacific.

This perspective is what we work on every day to preserve here at the National WWII Museum. If you know of a WWII veteran whose history you are interested in preserving, please contact me at tom.gibbs@nationalww2museum. Our President and CEO Dr. Nick Mueller hit the nail on the head when he said, “Every time we lose a veteran, we lose a library.” Thank you for reading, and thank you for thinking about what you can do to preserve our country’s history.

Tom GibbsTom Gibbs About Tom

Tom Gibbs originally hails from Alexandria, VA. A graduate of Thomas Edison High School in 2005, Tom decided to pursue his passion for history at Loyola University New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans on what was supposed to be his first day of college, sending him to Georgetown University for a semester. Returning to New Orleans, Tom completed his degree in history, and decided to pursue a M.A. in Military History from the University of New Orleans. As a result of the M.A. program, Tom took an internship at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, and was hired as a special projects historian, tasked with conducting oral history interviews across the country. After three years, 38 states, and 313 on-camera interviews with WWII veterans, Tom took a new role at the National WWII Museum where he currently manages a partnership with the Gary Sinise Foundation called Soaring Valor which allows for WWII Veterans to have their oral history recorded, as well as provides for trips to the National WWII Museum in New Orleans. Tom also manages and produces the WWII Air, Sea, and Land Festival which is a 3 day air show event hosted by the National WWII Museum, Commemorative Air Force, and Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation. The event is dedicated to preserving the memory of WWII aviation, and the WWII generation as a whole. Tom is incredibly honored to be a part of such a wonderful program he grew up watching and attending as a Beltway native.