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Veterans memorabilia collected for state archive

South Boston News
Donna Wilbourne and granddaughter Kendall Whitt brought in a roughly three foot long photograph that had to be scanned in multiple parts. Wilbourne took the time to annotate the photograph with notes on where her uncle, Charlie H. Guill, is pictured and the other notable people who are pictured.
SoVaNow.com / July 18, 2019

Peg Anderson’s father was a prisoner of war during World War II after he accidentally landed in Switzerland and wandered into German territory. As a POW, he recorded day-to-day life in captivity by using his pocket Bible as an impromptu diary. His notes include details on how he felt and the weather, and he used each chapter to mark another passing day. For historians, stories like his are the basis of new insights on the war and its combatants.

But the Bible-journal would have been overlooked by historians if Anderson had not brought it to her hometown library branch in Halifax on Monday, where she handed it over to members of the Virginia World War I and World War II Commemoration Commission. Commemoration commission staff were in Halifax for veterans scanning day at the library, inviting community members to bring in their personal artifacts for archiving in the Library of Virginia.

“It’s covering WWI and WWII from basically sea, air, land, homefront. We try to get people from all over Virginia so we have actual veterans’ stories for air force, for navy, for marines, for armor. We’re just trying to get different perspectives,” said Lauren Frazer, a tourism counselor who was operating the scanner at Monday’s event.

Frazer is a tourism advisor for the WWI and WWII Commemoration Commission, which she and her coworkers referred to as “the commission.” The Commission was established by the state legislature in 2017 and is administered by group of lawmakers from both houses of the General Assembly. State Sen. Frank Ruff (R-15) is vice-chair of the commission.

The staff who were at the Halifax Public Library, however, were state employees, mostly college history graduates who were excited to have a chance to do field work.

“I like history. I had a friend who was a part of [the commission], but she left, but she said ‘I know you’re looking for something to do and they’re hiring, and I know you really like WWII history and stuff like that.’ I was like, ‘Cool! What do you do?’” Frazer recounts.

Her friend described the Commission’s work as “we go around and talk to veterans and scan their stuff and documents and pictures, and whatever other memorabilia they have.”

Frazer’s coworker Breck O’Donnell, a senior tourism counselor, said that the Commission is not doing an oral history, but that workers do take notes of individual veterans’ stories. “We try to collect the stories of WWII veterans while they are still alive,” O’Donnell explained. Unfortunately, the reality is that there are not many veterans left to interview. 2019 is the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI and the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

Many people come bearing photographs or documents from their parents and grandparents, which the Commission employees dutifully archive in the Library of Virginia. Frazer has seen tons of family histories in four months.

“Oh my god, there are so many,” she said. “I’ve lost count.”

The Commission has been archiving Virginia’s scattered primary sources about the world wars since its founding. Employees previously used a mobile trailer to show up outside of libraries, museums, public schools, or at public events such as fairs and festivals. Monday’s event was the second time the Commission had come to Halifax County; previously they set up a scanning day in the South Boston Public Library.

“That was a pretty well attended event,” recalled O’Donnell.

Sometimes the Commission workers will visit an area and no one shows up, but O’Donnell seemed pleased with Halifax’s turnout.

“We’ve already had something to scan, so that’s a great start,” he said.

O’Donnell said that the Commission only recently switched to the library scanning day. This was the third event they had done, and they had been unsure whether it would be effective, but Halifax did not disappoint. O’Donnell and other coworkers showed up at noon with a series of display racks about the stories of various notable Virginia veterans (including two dogs), and took over the library’s scanning room. Barbara Bass of the Halifax County Historical Society came by to speak to them as well.

The highlight of the scanning day is seeing what sorts of treasures people will bring. Frazer said that she has seen uniforms, rifles, and all kinds of documents that can and cannot be scanned.

“You get some really cool stuff that people just find in their attics,” Frazer said.

She remembered there was one man living on the Eastern Shore who came to the mobile trailer the Commision previously used to display artifacts. The man was upset about an inaccuracy in the Commission’s exhibits on anti-aircraft shells. “He came in and said, ‘You have the wrong anti-aircraft shells, because the ones you have look to be Russian and not American, but here are some American ones,’ and just put down a brace of like 10 anti-aircraft shells,” Frazer said. The man later donated a Japanese bomb trigger because, according to Frazer, “You don’t have anything Japanese.”

“If he comes back with an actual bomb, I’m getting out,” Frazer laughed.

Most revelations are not so dramatic. Halifax resident Donna Wilbourne and her granddaughter Kendall Whitt brought in a three foot long photograph of her uncle’s unit. Her uncle, Charlie H. Guill, served in WWII and was from Halifax County. Wilbourne also brought a reunion program listing the names of every man in the picture as well as their status as deceased or living, the sort of information that historians crave.

There are, however, some truly incredible finds that the Commission uncovers, the kinds of things that belong in action movies. O’Donnell said that he could remember the most incredible veteran he interviewed. “Russell Scott. He’s 99 now. He was a tailgunner in WWII,” O’Donnell said.

Scott, while flying over Italy, felt his plane catch fire and begin to plummet toward the earth. Being locked in the ball gunner turret, Scott had no escape route, but he used the butt of his pistol to shatter the glass on his turret and climb outside. From there, he had to swing himself from the underbelly of the plane onto the top so that he could open his parachute without being crushed under the flaming wreck. He survived the fall, but broke his back. Then he was captured.

“He then spent the rest of the war with a POW with a broken back until the Russians freed him,” O’Donnell said.

That story came out at a scanning event just like the one on Monday.

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