Preserving the Stories of the Second World WarHistorians/History
tags: military history, oral history, air power, World War 2
Colin Heatonis a military historian, former soldier and Marine sniper, professor, and specialist in interviewing military veterans. He is the author, with Anne-Marie Lewis, of ABOVE THE REICH: Deadly Dogfights, Blistering Bombing Raids, and Other War Stories from the Greatest American Air Heroes of World War II, in Their Own Words (Dutton Caliber, June 8).
My interview methods were rudimentary and virtually nonexistent when I first met some of the men I would later interview. I had luckily written to a military historian whose books I devoured as a child, the late Colonel Raymond F. Toliver. He had been the first to release books full of information gathered from his many years of friendships and interviews with the German fighter pilots of World War II. He was also friends with and had interviewed many of the American and a few British pilots also.
It was due to Ray Toliver’s guidance that I learned about these men, and I studied the best ways to speak with them as I began making contacts. I took his advice to heart: “Read everything you can and know as much about your subject as possible before you meet them. Write down the first twenty primary questions you want answered, and the rest will fall into place as the interview goes along.”
As I went along, I began to develop my own methods of weaving into the history when speaking to these men. From my first contacts at symposiums and gatherings with men such as James H. Doolittle, James Gavin, Matthew Ridgeway and Omar N. Bradley (just to name a few), I read all I could. I took copious notes and cross-referenced data.
As I began my first serious sit-down interviews in Germany, I learned something more of the process. Very seldom do subjects give their story in perfect chronological order, and they seldom give you everything that they experienced. There is always something they later remember. Hence, many of these interviews lasted from a few hours to several years. For example, I first interviewed Erich Rudorffer (224 kills) in 1984, and the last time we clarified his information was in 2009.
Regardless of nationality or language, I almost always found these subjects willing to discuss their wartime service, though of course some were more open to discussion than others. I also learned that, if the research was well-done before the actual encounter, I would have to tailor the interview to the individual. Many subjects before they came to know me wanted to see the list of basic questions in advance. Others (especially the SS) wanted to know why I wanted the interview, and what my motivations were. They did not want to speak to a young man with a politically motivated approach to their stories.
Another thing I learned was that, as I transcribed the interviews and sent them back to the subjects to check for accuracy, I developed a trust with them. They saw that I had no hidden agenda. That led them to tell me about others I should interview, who may have an interest in telling their stories. Most of these names I had never heard of so I researched before I made contact.
For anyone wanting to embark upon a career as a historian specializing in interviews, World War II is pretty much closed out, same with Korea, and Vietnam veterans will not be around much longer. However, regardless of which era of conflict you wish to focus upon I would say that you must maintain perspective. Accessibility and availability are key to a successful interview, and with modern technology the in-person method is not always required. However, it was always good to have a few drinks with the older guys as I was made welcome inside their inner circle.
The American and British sources were far more easily approached when compared to most of the Germans, and for obvious reasons. After many years (when I had the time) of writing and responding to letters, making telephone calls and then meeting in person when I could afford it, their stories began adding up to a great collection.
The greatest difference between former Allied veterans and the Germans was that many of the Americans and British were rather well known in their own countries. The Germans were virtually unheard of, as if the German people wanted to simply forget the Third Reich and the men who fought for it.
What I learned, and tried to pass on to my readers, and when I was a professor, pass on to my students, was that if you research history, let alone war, if you only access one side of the story, then you have an incomplete research project. As a result, I tried to be open minded and give others their voice. They fought a longer and harder war than most, and most of these men had no love for their leadership.
However, as U-boat commander Reinhard Hardegen said; “Few of us were in a position to tell Hitler, Goering or anyone else that they had made great mistakes, and that we were paying for them. In a dictatorship like ours, there was only one voice. All others were silenced.”
The men interviewed for this book (my first collection of Americans) were very welcoming. They were eager to speak with a historian of a younger generation. As Robert Johnson said, “I travel to schools talking to the kids about World war II, why we fought it, and how important it was that we win it. I will not be around much longer. It’s good that guys like you can carry it on and educate the next generations. They should never forget that history.”
The American veterans were all rightly proud of their service, our nation’s place in the history of the war, and the fact that I was wanting to join the pantheon of people who had already interviewed them over several decades. Few of them tired of receiving historians; all of us eager to collect their memories. When I started the process, it was a hobby. Only later did I realize it would be a career.
Later on I read some magazines such as World War II, Military History and Aviation History. I saw that every now and then there were question-and-answer interviews with veterans, a few well-known, most just average people who served during the war. I also found out they paid for the articles.
I wrote for these magazines with the mentoring of senior editor Jon Guttman and managing editor Carl von Wodtke. Jon was already an established historian and an interview specialist who had gathered the stories of the most obscure airmen from the war, and some quite famous. During the long road to eventual authorship, I made friends with the late pilot and historian Jeffrey L. Ethell, a man I thought the world of. Jeff then gave me more contacts, even in Japan.
I would say that the purpose of a historian, especially military history, is to secure the information from both sides of a conflict. It is fine to get an interview with a person who fought a war. It becomes a full circle event when you get the story from his enemy. On that note, I was able to assist other historians and also myself connect various enemy pilots who had fought each other. After examining the interviews, comparing dates, and researching records, you sometimes get lucky.
Examples are when Adam Makos was writing his book, A Higher Call, about the encounter between Luftwaffe ace Franz Stigler and the crew of a B-17, Ye Olde Pub and its pilot, Charles Brown. Another revelation was when my research connected the dots for the surviving Allied airmen who were held under sentence of death at Buchenwald concentration camp. They were saved by an unknown Luftwaffe colonel. That mystery was solved in the last few years when I dusted off a couple of old interviews. I knew that German officer who saved 164 surviving airmen. His name was Hannes Trautloft. Such is the satisfaction of seeing your historical research solve long standing mysteries.
I know that public schools no longer teach history, not as I learned it, and that is a great intellectual tragedy and a disservice to the memories of those who came before us. Another mission I have embarked upon is to dispel the myths and rumors regarding the total sainthood of all of the Allied soldiers and the complete evil of every German or Japanese serviceman. Good and evil exist everywhere. Recognizing the truth behind the post war propaganda and assigning blame where warranted preserves the truth.
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