Published November 11, 2003
EVANSVILLE, Ind. – Charles Huppert's nightmares were so terrible after World War II (search), his wife hid with their toddler son in the bathroom as he fought the Gestapo (search) police in his sleep.
"I'd scare her to death," Huppert, a former prisoner of war, said at his kitchen table recently with a tape recorder running. Once awake, "I'd yell, 'I'm OK,' and she would come out."
Huppert's story is among about 3,900 oral history submissions collected so far for the Library of Congress' Veterans History Project (search). Indiana veterans have contributed 1,450 of them and the stories of 375 others were submitted on their behalf.
The emphasis is on recruiting World War I and World War II veterans because thousands of them die each week.
Donald Ritchie, a historian for the U.S. Senate who was a project adviser, said older veterans are often more willing to talk about the ugliness of war years later.
"For a long time people shy away from talking about painful subjects. They saw friends die and feel guilty almost," Ritchie said. "They have trouble bringing it up. They don't want to burden their families with stories."
Later, "they review their lives. They sort out the good and the bad, he said. "They go from wanting to talk about it to feeling compelled to talk about it."
To get Huppert to tell his story, Larry Ordner, who works for U.S. Sen. Dick Lugar, attended an MIA/POW luncheon at a restaurant and sought him out.
While talking at his home, Huppert told Ordner of having his plane shot down and eventually helping to design and build escape tunnels in a German POW camp. Huppert was transferred from the camp to another, but he later heard that 50 men were executed for escaping or attempting to leave.
"I never gave up hope," Huppert said when asked how he survived POW camps.
While Huppert's story is one that movies are made of — the film "The Great Escape" is based on the men killed at his former camp — Ordner said he found something compelling in all of more than 200 interviews he has done.
"The people who thought they had nothing to say actually had the most poignant" accounts, Ordner said.
One reason that the stories of so many Indiana veterans have been collected is that Lugar and members of his staff have gone to schools and civic meetings across the state, encouraging veterans and volunteers to participate.
Ordner makes it a point to ask the veterans what it was like to come home from war. Huppert said his nightmares eventually went away, but he knew he wasn't the same person after the experience.
"Every time I'd enter the room, I'd see where the exits were," Huppert said.
When talking about coming home, veterans from different wars tend to describe varied receptions. While World II veterans tend to express pride and say they would do it again, many Korea and Vietnam veterans don't always share that view, said Ellen McCulloch-Lovell, director of the Veterans History Project.
"What we're starting to hear from Vietnam was how hard it was to come home and not be appreciated," McCulloch-Lovell said.
Some veterans say it is easier to tell their story to a stranger.
Guy Stephens, 78, of Yankeetown, said he told his interviewer about the day he was liberated from a German POW camp — something the retired school principal said he had never discussed with his family.
"It's hard for POWs to talk to your family about combat or what you've experienced as a POW," Stephens said. "There's something about POWs, we never talk about things. I told him things I've never told my family ... I don't know why."
Ritchie said the project, which is also accepting written memoirs, letters, diaries, maps, photographs and home movies, would provide a wealth of information to historians.
Jon Carl, a history teacher at Reitz High School, assigned two classes last spring to interview a veteran for the project.
"I think it sparked a lot of questions that the kids had. To me, that's what history is all about," he said. "You never know the whole story. There's always another question that needs to be answered."