News

May 2, 2008

Preserving Stories of WWII

Fred Gehle ’55 leads group of 50 volunteers in Veterans History Project

“There’s a time bomb ticking,” says Fred Gehle ’55, a director of the Veterans History Project in the Augusta, Ga., and Aiken, S.C., area. Sanctioned by Congress in 2000, the project collects video and audio recordings of wartime tales of U.S. veterans. For Gehle’s crew of about 50 volunteers, seeking out World War II vets among a population of half a million people in their region is a time-critical mission.

“Second World War vets are in their mid to upper-80s,” he notes. “Five years from now, this portion of the project will be defunct because 99 percent of these vets will be gone.”

Gehle, a psychology graduate, has always found joy in discovering more about the people he meets. Now retired, he spent 50 years in personnel and human resources roles with companies such as Western Electric, Fisher Scientific, and Dunhill Professional Search, listening to others and directing them toward work that best fit their goals and dreams. Today, he uses his skills to connect with former veterans of all services.

“I’ve logged [more than] 1,500 phone calls to vets since last summer,” he says.

His interest in WWII started as a child.

“I was eight years old when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. From that point on until the Japanese surrendered, I followed the war,” he recalls. His family housed a couple Royal Air Force pilots temporarily. “I brought these two Brits to school as part of show and tell.” Collecting newspaper articles from those times, from D-Day to V-J Day, he turned his schoolboy interest into “a lifelong passion,” eventually amassing about 1,500 books on WWII.

Not until November 2006 did he find his current calling. An international conference in New Orleans sponsored by the National World War II Museum introduced Gehle to the project. There, he met Donald Miller, John Henry McCracken Professor of History. Both Miller’s and filmmaker Ken Burns’ involvement firmed Gehle’s commitment to preserve the stories of servicemen and women for future generations.

Since that time, Gehle has used his role as one of the directors of the Augusta Richmond Historical Society to convince others of this pressing need. To generate interest for this national, all-volunteer project sponsored by the Library of Congress, he’s appeared on TV and radio, and been featured in newspapers and regional magazines.

His team videotapes and logs the details of veterans’ stories, cross-referencing specific details for historians. Members then send the material they collect on the 300 known vets in their area to Washington, D.C. and Augusta State University. “Each day, the Library of Congress receives 200 stories from across the nation,” Gehle notes, “with about 50,000 responses [through March].”

For what has been labeled “The Greatest Generation,” the cost of freedom meant giving all. Though Gehle labels all vets heroes, those who fought remind him that “the real heroes are those under the crosses and stars in cemeteries scattered across this country, Europe, and around the world.”

To find out more about the Veterans History Project, visit http://www.loc.gov/vets.

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