Oral-History Project Captures War Stories

Curator Meredith Davidson interviews World War II veteran Elvert Pooler.

Curator Meredith Davidson interviews World War II veteran Elvert Pooler.

Jacob Erickson long wondered about his grandfather’s service in World War II but, he said, “Understandably, he never wanted to talk about it—and he passed away a few years ago.” A new oral-history program started by Meredith Davidson, the museum’s curator of 19th– and 20th-century Southwest collections, and Department of Veterans Services Secretary Jack Fox fulfilled that interest for him.

Erickson and Ivana Vidal, part of New Mexico Highlands University’s Media Arts program, were picked as interns, partly funded by Fox’s agency. They tracked down people to interview and videotaped Davidson’s conversations with them. Over the summer, the trio traveled from Las Vegas, NM, to Santa Fe, Rio Rancho and Las Cruces, interviewing a total of 18 men and women, including draftees, enlistees, and home-front workers.

“It’s important for New Mexicans to capture New Mexicans’ stories,” Fox said. “We have so many. When people come to a museum, they tend to look at `stuff,’ but stuff is people. Behind every little bullet or every little button, there’s a story.”

Davidson wanted new material that can someday be part of the World War II section in our Telling New Mexico exhibit and added to the oral-history archive in our Fray Angélico Chávez History Library.

“Capturing them now while we have people to interview is really important,” she said.

Erickson, who graduated in May and is headed to a post-graduate film program in England, took a lead role, with assistance from Vidal, a senior majoring in visual communications.

“My grandfather fought in Korea, and I have friends starting in the service now,” Vidal said. “It’s an unwritten rule for you to not ask them about it and, if you do, a lot of them can’t tell you or don’t remember. So I went into this with no expectations—and my expectations got blown out of the water at the things they were willing to share.”

Veterans included Ruth Schuerman Reiners, who was in the first group of WAACs in 1942, and Daniel P. White, an armament gunner and photographer. “The main thing I found really cool is he mentioned Tokyo Rose and Axis Sally,” Erickson said. “I didn’t know what those were. I asked my dad, and we sat down and had this long conversation about it. You can imagine what kinds of conversations other people might have after seeing these.”

At a staff presentation of their work, the interns received “challenge coins” from Fox as an encouragement to keep pursuing the work. And he vowed the department’s help as well. “I would say, `Meredith, what’s next, and we’ll work with you.’”