The Greatest Generation Inspiring the Next Generation
Imagine walking down your street. One of your neighbors has recently moved away and there is a pile of odds and ends sitting at the curb for the trash collector. As you walk past this pile, you notice a box filled with photo albums and stacks of letters. Curious, you stop, and after a quick look to your left and right to make sure no one sees you digging through the trash, you open one of the photo albums.
In it, you find hundreds of photos taken during WWII. Upon further inspection, you find that the letters were also written during the war, from a soldier to his family. You pull the box out of the trash, thinking, “Why would anyone throw these precious artifacts away?”
Dr. William O. Oldson, director of the Institute on World War II and the Human Experience at The Florida State University, can describe several instances like the one above. The Institute now houses several collections that were saved from the trash.
Founded in 1997, the Institute is the nation’s largest non-federally funded archive of WWII materials housed in a public institution. Items housed at the Institute range from paper documents, such as letters and photographs, to clothing and weaponry.
All of the collections housed at the Institute have been donated by veterans, their families and other concerned citizens. The Institute is supported through the generosity of many people, including George and Marion Langford, who made a gift of $100,000 to support the Institute, and NBC News special correspondent and author Tom Brokaw, who gave $100,000 that was matched by the GE Foundation and Florida State.
Highlights include a scrapbook from Hitler’s office, an unopened bottle of Scotch Whiskey preserved from the Battle of the Bulge, silk maps, and letters to and from the home front. Brokaw chose the Institute to house the collection of letters, memoirs and photographs he received after publication of his book, “The Greatest Generation.”
While these items are fascinating in and of themselves, the purpose of the Institute is not just to “save stuff” from WWII. The focus for the archive is on the people behind the “stuff” and how they experienced WWII. “I can lecture all day about World War II,” said Oldson. “But there is nothing like coming in to class with a letter or diary, something that was there, to capture students’ attention and bring history alive for them. All of a sudden they realize, ‘My grandparents were real people!’”
Each semester, Oldson teaches an undergraduate class on World War II. The final assignment is for each student to choose one of the more than 7,000 collections housed at the Institute and, as he puts it, “Figure out what it means.” According to Oldson, this experience has led several students to pursue graduate studies focusing on WWII.
Oldson describes a student from a recent class, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who had served a tour of duty as a combat engineer. “During his project, he discovered letters and materials from a combat engineer in WWII, and he found it fascinating to see the similarities and differences in the job from then to now,” Oldson said. “That young man just told me he has decided to go to graduate school to continue studying WWII. That is the impact of this archive—to keep this history, these people, and their experiences, alive.”
To learn more about the Institute on World War II and the Human Experience or make a donation of memorabilia or a financial gift, visit www.fsu.edu/~ww2/.
Founded in 1997, the Institute is the
nation’s largest non-federally funded archive of WWII materials housed in a public institution.
Items housed at the Institute range from
paper documents, such as letters and
photographs, to clothing and weaponry.