In 2019, the US Department of Veterans Affairs reported that 389,292 of the 16 million World War II American veterans were still alive. Of those 389,292 veterans, 3,693 lived in Kansas. You might have heard about the alarming rate at which WWII veterans are dying (294 deaths per day in 2019) but might not have thought about what that means for the experiences and memories that pass on with our country’s heroes. However, in 2005, the Kansas State Historical Society, the Watkins Museum of History, and the Lawrence Public Library received a grant from the Kansas Legislature to capture the stories of veterans who lived in Douglas County. Between 2005 and 2007, staff members from the Watkins and LPL embarked on the Lawrence Remembers the World War II Years Project, in which they interviewed over 250 veterans and their family members to ensure that their memories live on.
This summer, I have been working as the Hall Center Intern at Lawrence Public Library to make Douglas County’s veterans’ stories available on our digital archive, Digital Douglas County History. When given this assignment, I knew I would have to watch hours of interviews and read through the transcriptions on the Kansas Memory site. I expected to listen to battle stories and perhaps learn a little more about the United States’ involvement in the war. The interviews met my expectations. Many of them are full of harrowing and heart wrenching stories that seem made for the movies. What I did not anticipate, however, was how much I would discover about the history of Lawrence during the war years. As someone not native to Lawrence, these oral histories are a rich source of local history. While many men and women left their homes to join the fight, others tended to their liberty gardens, farmed, or carpooled to work at Sunflower Ordnance Works (an ammunition plant in De Soto). No matter their role, these interviews are a testament to how much the people of Lawrence contributed to the country’s war effort on a grand scale.
As we approach the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, it is important to remember the sacrifices made by those here in Lawrence. It is also important to reflect on how we are connected to the past, and the people who made our present possible. To find peace in a time of turmoil, many people caught a movie at The Granada or strolled up and down Massachusetts Street. I cannot help but think back to the countless times I wandered the same street, finding solace in its familiarity, without realizing who stood there before me. The next time I find myself downtown, I will remember our veterans and think back on their experiences in our shared space.
The oral histories will be made available on the Digital Douglas County History site in August 2020.
-Ariel LaGue is the 2020 Hall Center intern at Lawrence Public Library.