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Clarksburg veteran part of national historical project

The Associated Press

CHARLESTON -- Memories of the horrors he'd experienced during World War II plagued William Jennings Arnett's dreams for years.

"I just couldn't talk about it then," said Arnett, 85, of Clarksburg. "I was having nightmares and everything else. It was very difficult. It was me waking up in the middle of the night, hollering."

But earlier this year Arnett was finally able to talk about it.

He sat down with his niece, Elizabeth Johnson of Rhode Island, and a tape recorder and chronicled his experiences fighting in tank destroyers, going onto Normandy Beach and crossing the Rhine River on pontoon bridges.

Arnett's stories will join those of other veterans in a project sponsored by the Library of Congress -- "Experiencing War: Stories from the Veterans Histories."

"This is personal, vivid," Ellen Lovell, the project's director for the Library of Congress, told the Charleston Daily Mail. "This kind of history never is read in the history books."

Johnson heard about the national project on public radio. She then contacted the Library of Congress for a guide to interviewing veterans before talking with her uncle.

"World War II is not an easy thing to talk about," Johnson said. "I've known him closely for many years. As close as we are, it's hard to talk about something that's painful."

The project has 25,000 items so far from 7,000 people, including photographs and letters. The histories can be in video, audio or memoir form and include veterans of any war.

Lovell said the histories are truly personal, recalling when a former naval officer recently brought in a package of letters from D-Day.

"I've given you my youth, a whole chunk of my life," he told Lovell.

Several West Virginia organizations are taking part in the project.

West Virginia University Professor Joel Beeson built an entire course around oral history in journalism.

WVU Tech history professor Ronald Alexander interviewed an area veteran who had fought at Iwo Jima, seen many men die and killed several enemy soldiers.

"He said to me several times that he could not recall a single time of being afraid," Alexander said. "He also recalled the smell of sulfur from what had been a volcanic area -- the smell of sulfur and the smell of death. It was kind of an important interview, I thought."

He has since died, Alexander said.

The Clarksburg-Harrison County Public Library has produced 39 interviews with veterans for the project. Coordinator Diane Davis talked to a soldier who was onboard the U.S.S. West Virginia when Pearl Harbor was bombed, an officer for the project that developed the atomic bomb, an army nurse, a French war bride, a USO entertainer, former prisoners of war and a pilot shot down over the Alps.

"It was just a thrill to talk to these gentlemen," Davis said. "Just sitting there talking, you learned so much. It became not just something out of the history books, but something with a face and a name."

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On the Net:

The Library of Congress http://www.loc.gov