They didn’t surf the internet, listen to a lecture or crack open a textbook, but a group of Pewaukee High School students still learned plenty about World War II this summer.
The five students were part of an oral history project sponsored by the board of directors of the Bell Tower Memorial, a yet-to-be-constructed public amenity in the city of Pewaukee that will honor veterans and pay tribute to loved ones.
The students served as interviewers. Seven veterans -– most World War II vets –- were the interviewees. The conversations were captured on video and will be submitted to the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.
The wheels were put into motion on the project late last school year, said Bell Tower Memorial board member Mike Cady, also the chief academic officer with the Pewaukee School District.
Cady said he recruited five students willing to volunteer their time, and Bell Tower board members found seven veterans who offered to do the same.
The interviews were conducted Aug. 23-24 at St. John’s Northwestern Military Academy in Delafield.
But the students didn’t just show up and wing it.
“They had to do research, they had to prepare questions, they had meet-and-greets with their veterans, they completed full mock interviews with members of the Bell Tower as we prepared them, then they completed the interviews themselves,” Cady said.
Students were presented with brief bios of the veterans and were able to choose which person they wanted to interview.
Because she plans to go into the medical field, Pewaukee High School senior Liana Jackson chose to interview Marge Behlen, an Army nurse who served in the European theater during World War II in 1944-45.
Jackson said for one, she was surprised to learn that there were no male nurses at that time. She said she also had a preconceived notion about what Behlen’s job might have entailed.
“For me, when I think war, I think bombs and things, so it was new to me that she was just doing daily patient care after they came off the field hospital,” Jackson said. “She wasn’t seeing trauma; she was doing minor things that you would do at a care facility or just making sure they’re getting their meds.”
Conducting an interview was new territory for many of the students, including senior Aidan Nordquist, who interviewed Wayne Iverson, who served with the Navy Seabees at the tail end of World War II.
“It was definitely a new experience for me – preparing for the interview, having questions ready and just letting him lead the conversation,” Nordquist said. “Just keeping an open mind and having a lot of questions prepared was one thing I really keyed in on.”
Each student interviewed one veteran, Cady said. Two Bell Tower Memorial board members interviewed the other two veterans.
The unedited interviews, each 30-plus minutes in length, will be sent to the Library of Congress, which will determine whether to accept them into the library’s collection.
The U.S. Congress created the Veterans History Project in 2000 as part of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. VHP’s mission is to collect, preserve and make accessible the personal accounts of American war veterans so that future generations may hear directly from veterans and better understand the realities of war.
For her, Jackson said interviewing someone directly involved in the war effort was an extremely effective educational tool.
"At school, we learn a lot from videos and textbooks, so being able to hear from someone like that, in that moment, it’s a lot more special, and it kind of hits you more," Jackson said. "A lot of the stories that they tell are personalized to them, it’s not like generalized like in a textbook.”
Cady said the plan is to make the oral history project a yearly effort and involve other area schools.
Bell Tower Memorial
Land for the Bell Tower Memorial has been purchased; the site is on the southeast corner of Busse Road and Highway 164 in Pewaukee.
Cady said the next phase will include work on the grounds. Building the bell tower structure would follow. Fundraising efforts continue.
Plans call for a three-story bell tower with carillon bells to serve as a place to honor and remember veterans and loved ones. There would also be a memory garden with plantings and a walkway paved with inscribed memorial bricks.
Among other things, Cady said it's hoped the veterans history project will bring some awareness to the Bell Tower project.
"It’s more than just building a memorial to walk through," Cady said. "We want to really support and honor the veterans, in particular from our community. This we hope helps generate some attention and interest in the effort that the Bell Tower is undertaking."
More information about the Bell Tower Memorial can be found at www.belltowermemorial.org.