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Veterans get to tell their stories to Library of Congress

Stacks of books. (Abhi Sharma/Wikimedia/Released)

Libraries are places to get information. But recently the East Baton Rouge Parish Main Library was the place where information was being gathered — in many cases, before it might be lost forever.

The Veterans History Project, a program of the Library of Congress, recorded the stories of about two dozen area military veterans who showed up on the Saturday before Memorial Day. Volunteers also plan to collect more stories at several assisted-living homes to add to the project’s archives.

It’s all part of an effort that started in 2000, said Andrew Huber, liaison specialist with the Veterans History Project. U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., came up with the idea after he recorded his father and uncle sharing some of their World War II stories at a family gathering.

“He realized if this was so valuable to him and his family, we should be doing this for all the World War II veterans,” Huber said. “The next time Congress was back in session, they introduced a bill.”

The project, however, isn’t limited to World War II veterans. It includes interviews from veterans who served in World War I and every era since then, including those who are leaving service now. The project has more than 110,000 collections, which includes interviews, diaries, photos, letters, journals and original artwork, all of which is available to the public at loc.gov/vets/.

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It’s the first time the Library of Congress has come to Baton Rouge, said Jennifer Cramer, director of LSU’s T. Harry Williams Center for Oral History. The LSU Libraries, the USS Kidd Veterans Memorial and the America, My Oyster Association joined the EBR Library in the effort locally.

“We want to preserve these histories of our veterans,” said Bea Gyimah, president of America, My Oyster Association. “We want them to know they have a story that is worth listening to. Most importantly, everyone has a story in America.”

The veterans came from all branches of service, and the interviews focused on each one’s personal experiences.

George Livers Jr., 93, of Baton Rouge, was a B-17 tail-gunner for 16 bombing missions over Germany in World War II. His last mission ended early when his plane was shot down after bombing Dresden on March 17, 1945. Livers was able to avoid being captured and stayed on the run for two weeks in enemy territory before being liberated by the Soviet Army, which was attacking Germany from the east. He was taken overland to Iran before being shipped back to England.

“At first, I thought they’d rather shoot me, but I finally convinced them I was a friend of theirs,” Livers said. “By the time I got back to my outfit, all the shooting war was over.”

Leroy Poydras, 98, of Baton Rouge, only wished he could have been part of the shooting. Serving in the Navy aboard two battleships, two patrol craft, two transports and an oil tanker in World War II, Poydras sailed into dangerous water, but his hand held a spatula.

When he finished high school in Lafayette, Poydras couldn’t afford to attend college, and he said he was too proud to take a job cutting grass for 50 cents a yard. He enlisted in the Navy, earning $21 a month. In that era, however, most African-Americans were given limited choices — cleaning, cooking or waiting tables in the officer’s mess, Poydras said.

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“I didn’t like that,” he said. “I tried to get out. They didn’t let me go.”

Poydras said a patrol craft officer from New York named Thurber apparently hadn’t read the memo.

“He called me in his office,” Poydras said. “He said, ‘You’ve got too good a mind to be in the … mess. What are you doing there?’ I said, ‘Uncle Sam wouldn’t let me go anywhere else.’ Blacks couldn’t do anything but be stewards, regardless of what you had up here.

“He said, ‘I’ll write Washington, D.C.’ He wrote Washington. Washington didn’t write him back; they sent him a cablegram back, told him ‘no.’”

After the war, Poydras earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s degree in chemistry and taught science in high school and college.

History, however, is the subject of this project, which didn’t end at the library. In addition to volunteers being trained to record interviews, the Veterans History Project accepts individual submissions. Go online to loc.gov/vets for information.

“It’s become more grassroots-y,” said Mary Stein, EBR Library assistant director.

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© 2019 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.