Learning about the personal experiences of people who participated in World War II or lived during it enriches our understanding of the history. It gives knowledge about the reverse sides of the war that is hard to find in the textbooks. For many of us, history is a list of dates and events, and we know only about prominent historical figures. However, this is ordinary people who live during that historical events and whose lives are the part of the history. Reading the interviews, one may see a human face of the distant historical tragedy, and find out how those people felt living during the historic times.
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Some of the thoughts and memories of the interviewees are quite surprising or even contradicting to each other. For example, a journalist McNultry recalls that the attack on Pearl Harbor was not really a surprise: “I think most of us thought we’d be in it sooner or later”, whereas another woman, a WAC officer Gwynne says that “Pearl Harbor was a terrible shock”.
Memories of different interviewees about the pre-war England also differ. Gwynne states that everybody was preparing for the war and the “factories going day and night”. I thought England was doing everything to avoid the war and was quite reassured by the Munich agreement, so I did not think they were prepared to the war. The Polish immigrant Chilewich, who studied in England in the late thirties, confirms my assumption stating that in England “the population was not sensing a war”.
It was very interesting to know about the feelings of people about the atom bomb. It is a subject of discussion today, and some believe it should not have been dropped, but at that time this decision seemed to be the only possible solution. As Gwynne notes, “I’d be very surprised if anyone of my generation would think it wasn’t very worthwhile to drop those bombs on Japan”. Cousart, a military pilot, even says that he was glad though he felt sorry for “all the innocent people over there that had nothing to do with it”. Indeed, the people simply wanted the war to end, and the bomb had ended it, so they had a mixed feeling of relief and sorry for the innocent people; and though dropping an atom bomb may seem inhumane today, it was accepted as the correct decision then.
It is even more exiting to learn about the feelings of the people and their everyday life. Looking into the past from the position of the peaceful future, we may think that they did not have any joy or any rest in their lives; however, they did. McNultry recalls her stay in London with pleasure though it was dangerous: “I saw it as a very exciting adventure – to be in London in wartime”. Eskey, one of the WAVES, says that she has “some very treasured memories” about the war despite all the troubles they had to overcome. One of the best illustrations of people’s ability to love the life even in extreme conditions can be found in Votta’s interview. She recalls the wedding of her friend during the war, and her wedding “dress that was made from one of his [her fiancé’s] parachutes”. This demonstrates that the war was helpless to suppress the manifestations of life and love.
It is also interesting that the odds of civilian life took their place in military, and the blacks had to experience the same pressure they had used to experience in peacetime. Lt. Colonel Herbert E. Carter recalls that “at first Army Commanders said the Negro couldn’t fly (…), then the question was could the Negro fight.” This attitude prevailed, and they had to prove that they are not inferior to white soldiers. It would be natural to suppose that the war made the nation more united and if not eradicated then a least smoothened some conflicts, but unfortunately, that was not true and discrimination was a regular thing in the army.
Indeed, studying the interviews of the direct participants of the events provides a deeper understanding of history. It gives a feeling that this science is not simply a collection of facts but a collection of stories about real people. However, interviews as historic sources have some limitations, as the interviewees cannot take a sight of the event in full; they can only tell you what they saw with their own eyes, which is only a part of the mosaic. Besides, there is a serious touch of subjectivity, since everybody introduces something personal to the story and may unwillingly distort the picture. The contradictions in the memories of interviewees noted above can serve as a proof to this statement. Therefore, the use of interviews as sources is very helpful in studying history but it should be integrated with the study of other sources.
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