How to Capture veterans' stories

Interview Preparations

Before doing anything else, you'll need to select an interview subject. Look for someone who has interesting experience and perspectives to share, who is willing to participate and who is well spoken and able to tell a story effectively. If you are submitting materials to the Veterans History Project, follow the guidelines and restrict your pool of interview candidates to men and women who served in World War II or in defense-related industries. If you are not submitting to VHP, consider interviewing others who were alive in the 1940s and have a war-related story to tell. For instance, think about interviewing someone whose brother or sister served overseas. Don't rule out a subject just because of his, or his family's, lack of direct World War II service. The experience of living in wartime America affected all citizens, regardless of their direct involvement in the conflict or war-related industries.

Finding a World War II Veteran to Interview

Finding a veteran to interview may be as easy as talking with family members, friends or co-workers; someone you know is likely to have connection to the war or war-related services. In addition, there are numerous local, state and national organizations with which veterans are affiliated. Look for one of the following online or in your local phone book.

Organizations and Agencies Representing Veterans

Once you've chosen a subject, your next step will be to gather as much background information about that person and her wartime experience as you can. The research phase is of paramount importance. The effectiveness of your interview will hinge on the planning and forethought that take place here. First, talk with your subject and find out the basics of his wartime experience, making a note of the branch of service and unit in which he served and the campaigns in which he participated, and what his jobs were during his service. Encourage him to bring photos or memorabilia to the meeting. Look at these materials together, making notes about the places and dates to each. If your interviewee brings a telegram or letters that are difficult to read, look through these together and then type up any passages you might want him to read on camera. Print these passages in large type and bring them to the interview.

Armed with this personal information, you're now ready to begin your research. Visit your local library or online sources, to get books and background information on the basics: the timeline/events of the war and the historic period in which it occurred. Find out what it was like living in the 1940s and what the average family experienced during wartime, in America and in the country where your interviewee served. Do your best to become familiar with the terms and facts your subject is likely to discuss. Then, focus your research on your interviewee's unit, the specific campaign in which he served or the industry in which he worked.

Resources to Consult for WWII Background.

  • General Online Histories of WWII
    World War II History
    http://worldwar2history.info/
    A great introduction to the war, with an historic overview. FAQ and lists of other sources to consult.
  • Hyperwar: A Hypertext History of World War II
    http://www.biblio.org/hyprewar/
    A collection of public domain documents about the war, including official government histories, source documents, primary references and detailed information on battles.
  • WWII History Books
    Alastair Cooke, The American Home Front: 1941-1942.
  • John W. Dower, War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War.
  • David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945.
  • Eric Larrabee, Commander in Chief: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, His Lieutenants, and Their War.
  • Donald L Miller, Masters of the Air: America's Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany.
  • Ronald H. Spector, Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan.
  • Ronald Makati, Double Victory: A Multicultural History of America in WWII.

As you do your research, take notes on what you find. From these, compile your list of topics to cover and questions to ask during the interview. Be sure to ask questions that are open-ended and aren't likely to result in simple "Yes" or "No" answers. For example, instead of asking "Did you fight on Omaha Beach?" ask: "Where were you on D-Day?"; instead of: "Did you feel scared?, ask: "How did you feel?" These less specific questions will encourage your interviewee to tell his story more completely and more authentically. Once you've finalized your list of questions, have a conversation with your interviewee about the topics you might cover, but don't send him the list of questions in advance. During the interview, you'll want the energy and spontaneity that comes with telling someone a story for the first time.

Sample Questions for WWII Veterans

  • Were you aware of the war that was already going on overseas before Pearl Harbor was attacked? Did you think American should get involved?
  • When did you go into the service - did you enlist, were you drafted? How old were you? Which branch of the service did you choose/get assigned to?
  • How did you feel when you said goodbye to your family, left home, and went into the military? What was it like going from civilian life to military life? What do you remember during your training? What did they teach you in the army/navy/marines?
  • Where did you serve? (dates/which division/which unit/ which ship, etc. - as much detail as possible).
  • (If in combat) Which theater of the war were you in? Were you ever wounded? What specific details do you remember - sights, sounds, smells, sensations? What was the worst moment?
  • Tell me about the chaos of the war - did you know where you were most of the time, where the enemy was? Where your objective was? What to do when you found it?
  • What did you believe, at the time, was at stake in the war, what did you think you were fighting for? Did that change once you actually got overseas and into combat?
  • How did you feel about the enemy (German, Italian or Japanese .. ) that you were fighting? How do you feel about them now?
  • Did you write home often? Did you describe what you were actually experiencing in your letters? What reminded you most of home when you were overseas? What did you look forward to the most when you thought about coming home?
  • After the war was over, was it possible for you to put it behind you completely? What parts of the experience have stayed with you?
  • What do you think people today should know about what you went through? What do we need to remember about World War Two?

Interview Equipment

General Guidelines

A huge variety of video and audio recording equipment is available today. The simple rule in conducting taped interviews is to use the best equipment available to you, whether that's a state-of-the-art broadcast-quality digital camera or a handheld camcorder.

Although the Veterans History Project will accept an audio-only interview, it's highly preferable for you to record your subject using a video camera. Using video allows you to capture facial expressions, gestures and other nonverbal information, as well as photographs and other materials your subject brings to the interview. If you don't have video equipment, it may be possible to borrow what you need from friends, family or the interviewee. Many stores that sell audio-visual equipment will also rent on a daily basis, but often at a substantial cost. If you or a member of your immediate family is associated with a college or school, it may be possible to borrow or inexpensively rent equipment through the school's audio-visual department.

Basic Equipment Checklist

  • Video camera
  • Microphone (preferably a lapel or lavaliere mic)
  • Tripod
  • Headphones
  • Extra tapes and batteries for all equipment used
  • Extension cord and/or power strip

Cautionary Notes

  • Always check your equipment - cameras, recorders and microphones - a few days before the interview to make sure it is working properly. If you're using borrowed, rented or new equipment, be sure to familiarize yourself with it thoroughly well in advance of the interview.
  • Be sure all equipment batteries are fully charged and bring plenty of extra batteries to the interview.
  • Bring more tapes than you think you'll need. You won't want to run out in the middle of a wonderful story.

Camera Work

Careful placement and use of your camera is essential to a good video recording and often determines whether your interview will be effective. If at all possible, find someone to operate the camera for you while you conduct the interview. Not having to worry about tapes, sound levels and the other variables of successful recording will allow you to focus full-time on your interviewee and what she is saying - your most important task as an interviewer.

Be sure to use a tripod when setting up your camera. Camera shake can become a serious distraction and in severe cases, has been known to cause motion sickness in viewers. Be certain the image in the video screen is level by lengthening or shortening individual tripod legs. Make sure all legs are firmly locked in place.

Look for the most flattering angle for your subject, using the widest-angle lens possible. To do this, place the camera fairly close to the subject and zoom out, rather than placing the camera far away and zooming in. The shot should look more natural, and if the microphone built into the camera is the only one in use, being closer to the subject will ensure considerably better audio quality.

Keep on-tape camera movements - like zooms and pans - to a minimum. A well-composed static shot of your subject, framing their upper body in the view screen, will produce the best results.

Use the settings on your camera to their best advantage. Be sure to record your interview at the fastest speed possible, sometimes called two-hour mode or SP speed. Set the white balance on the camera to ensure accurate color reproduction. Check the camera focus to be sure your interviewee's features are crisp and clear.

Audio

Good, clear audio is essential to an effective interview, since the majority of information communicate will come through this channel. If at all possible, use a separate microphone - not the microphone built into the video camera or tape recorder - and place it as close as possible to the speaker's mouth. It's best to use a lapel or lavaliere (lav) mic. Lapel mics tend not to record as much background noice as freestanding ones because the body of the wearer helps to absorb unwanted noise. If you don't have access to a lapel mic, use a microphone on a stand placed 6-12 inches from your interviewee, but try to keep it out of your camera shot. If possible, try to use a uni-directional or cardioid microphone, which picks up sound in front but not behind. Be aware that when you ask a question during the interview your voice will, in all likelihood, be quieter than your interviewee's, given the placement of the microphone. Be sure to speak clearly and loudly to ensure that your question is audible.

Check the sound quality of your recording before you begin the interview. If you have headphones, put them on and listen closely to the sounds your recording device is receiving. Listen for any unwanted noises - whirring fans, equipment noises or sounds from the microphone rubbing on clothing or jewelry, for example - and take steps to eradicate them, either repositioning the microphone or removing the sound. If you hear hiss, your recording level may be set too low. If your subject's voice sounds distorted, the level is set too high. If you hear a humming sound, your microphone may be too close to the recorder or another electrical device.

Choosing an Interview Location

When deciding where to tape your interview, there are three imporant factors to keep in mind"

  • The environment of the room, specifically its lighting and sound qualities
  • Access to electrical outlets and
  • The comfort of the interviewee

When you call to set up the interview, ask your subject where he would like to be interviewed. In most cases, the person you interview will be most comfortable in his own home. Suggest this as one option. Other suggestions include a comfortable room at your local public library or public television station, or in your own home or office. Explore the room in question before suggesting it to be sure that it is a place where you won't be interrupted. The ideal recording room has soft furnishings and carpet, which allow your interviewee to sit comfortably and also serve to absorb, rather than reflect, sound (which can cause an echo effect). The room should also have a source of bright, even light, no distracting noises and plenty of electrical outlets for plugging in your equipment. Avoid conducting the interview outside, where it is impossible to control the background noise.

Regardless of where the interview takes place, you will need to be sure that the environment is conducive to video and audio recording. The most important elements are the lighting and sound in the room. Be sure there are no distracting sounds in the room - buzzing from flourescent lights, loud traffic noice from beyond the windows or clanking from a radiator, for instance. Be sure there is enough light for the camera to function properly and avoid situations where the subject will be lit strongly from behind, such as being seated in front of a daytime window. Avoid mixing daylight and incandescent sources of light as this can confuse the camera's built-in color-correcting function. An easy way to fix this is either to close the curtains, using only incandescent light, or turn off the lights and open the curtains wide, bathing the subject in natural light.

Make a note of where electrical outlets are located in the room. Even if the wall closest to your ideal camera placement, given sound and lighting considerations, contains an outlet, it's a good idea to bring along a power strip and extension cord, just in case. Plugging in to A/C power allows you to focus on the interview, rather than on whether your battery is running low.

Conducting an Interview

Your first priority upon entering your recording room, once you've determined where to set up within it, is your interviewee's comfort and convenience. If possible, set up your recording equipment before your subject enters the room. Arrange with others outside the room to have no interruptions, and turn off all phones and cell phones. When your interviewee arrives, seat her in acomfortable chair and offer her a glass of water. Attach or position the microphone, perform sound checks (see "Audio" section) and adjust your camera lens so that the interviewee's upper body is framed in the camera's view screen. Once you've double-checked your settings, tapes and battery levels, you're ready to begin the interview.

Start by asking your interviewee some "warm-up" questions - about his family, his hometown, his friends in school, and so on - to put him at easre and begin developing rapport. Once he is used to the camera, begin asking the questions generated by your research. Be careful not to become trapped by your list. If your subject has something interesting to say that's not written there, encourage him to talk about it. Ask follow-up questions to get more detail and clarity, don't be afraid to probe (politely!) for more information. Listen attentively and do not interrupt. If you have questions, jot these down and come back to them. Use a pencil and note cards to keep writing noise to a minimum. Sample questions.

If your interviewee brings photos or memorabilia to the interview, take these from her before the interview begins. You'll want to be sure to take video of the objects so the audience can see the items. At an appropriate time during the interview, show these to her, spending ample time on each. Keep the items in your hands, allowing your interviewee to remain focused on the camera, and use them as conversation starters. Ask about the people and places shown in the photos and about what was happening that day and the days immediately before and after. Ask about letters from home and friendships made during the war. If your subject brought letters or telegrams to your initial meeting, ask him to read some of the passages you prepared. Talk about the feelings upon receiving items from home. If your subject experiences sadness, be respectful and kind. Offer tissues, your understanding and more time to answer. Let him know that he needn't feel compelled to elaborate, if it's too difficult to do so.

End your interview with some concluding questions. Ask your subject his thoughts about the war and his role in it. What was it like coming home? What did he do after the war and how did his life change as a result of his participation? How did the world or America change? Ask about any positive or negative ways in which he is still connected to his wartime experience.

At the conclusions of your session, ask for any clarification or spelling of unfamiliar terms and names. Thank your subject for his generosity and let him know that you migh be in touch with follow-up questions. Encourage him to be in touch if he has any questions or concerns, too. Offer to send him a copy of the interview tape and discuss a possible family or community showing, if you think he might be interested. Follow up with a thank-you letter and the promised video promptly. Be sure to include your interviewee in any other activitiess involving his interview.

Interview Checklist Housekeeping

  • Note the name of the subject, the date and the location of your interview by making both an audio and video slate of the start of the interview. Speak the information directly into the microphone and also write it down and show the camera.
  • If you're running the camera yourself, keep track of battery levels and tape used; try to make changing these as quick and unobtrusive as possible.
  • When you've used a tape, be sure to slide the tab on the tape to the "lock "position, ensuring you do not accidentally record over the interview later.
  • Periodically look through your camera's viewfinder and listen to the sound to be certain your settings have not changed.
  • Write down unfamiliar names and terms and ask for clarification and correct spellings at the end of your interview.

How to Send Your Collection to VHP

Register the collection you wish to submit to the Veterans History project at www.loc.gov/vets. Once VHP has received your registration information, you will receive a reminder of what they accept and how to submit your collection. You may also submit your collection without registering, but this may delay VHP receiving and processing your collection.

  • Make a copy of the interview and any other items you are submitting. (VHP is unable to make copies of any items once you have submitted them.)
  • Make sure you fill out all the VHP forms marked REQUIRED. If you need guidance in completing the Audio and Video Recordings Log, go to the VHP Web site and click on "How to Participate," then "Learn About the Audio and Video Recording Log."
  • Please send original materials and forms to the Library of Congress via a commercial delivery service such as UPS, Federal Express or DHL. Do not use the U.S Postal Service. Security procedures require the U.S. Postal Service to irradiate all incoming mail to the Library of Congress. Unfortunately, this damages paper and melts plastic materials such as audio and video cassettes.
Send collections to:
Veterans History Project
Library of Congress
101 Independence Avenue, S.E.
Washington, D.C. 20540-4615


Veterans History Project Forms

Biographical Data Form REQUIRED [pdf file: 183KB / 2 pages]
Veteran's Release Form REQUIRED [pdf file: 153 KB / 1 page]
Interviewer's Release Form REQUIRED [pdf file: 159 KB / 1 page]
Audio and Video Recording Log REQUIRED pdf file: 165KB / 2 pages]
Photograph Log [pdf file: 175KB / 2 pages]
Manuscript Data Sheet [pdf file: 165KB / 2 pages]