Getting The Story

A recorder, a few guidelines, and a little patience are all you need to collect gripping, eyewitness history from the WWII vets in your life.

By Judy P. Sopronyi

As anyone who attended the May 2004 dedication of the World War II Memorial in Washington, DC, can attest, there are many WWII veterans still among us. All of them have stories to tell. You just have to ask.

Pick your time and place. You’ll want a comfortable location and a time when everyone’s rested, perhaps after breakfast on a weekend or some evening after dinner when no one has to rush off or get to bed early. Have some water at hand to keep everybody’s whistle wet, and maybe some snacks. Turn on the tape recorder and begin.

Your choice of questions will tend to shape the story you hear. Consider ahead of time the subjects you’d most like to hear about. Also, give some thought to what questions are likely to get the best response from the veteran, given his personality. (Although, for the sake of convenience, I refer to the veteran as masculine, many women served in the armed forces, too.) Chances are your questions will spark memories that take the conversation in directions you hadn’t anticipated. That’s good, because then you’ll be hearing the stories the veteran wants to tell—the things he remembers best because they mean more to him. It’s his story, not yours, so let him tell it. Help flesh out his story by asking more questions about the information he’s sharing, and don’t change the subject until he’s winding down and has clearly said all he wants to say. You can always come back later to other topics you want to hear about.


If the veteran you’re talking to is a man or women of few words and you’re having a hard time getting much response, consider inviting another veteran to your session. Then sit back a bit, throw out a question here and there, and let them get each other going. I’ve found that the veterans don’t necessarily have to know each other. In introducing themselves to each other—their branches of service, where and when they served—what they say can be illuminating even before they get into swapping war stories.

Another way to get memories flowing is to put some war-era music on—maybe some Benny Goodman, Harry James, Glenn Miller, or Artie Shaw—and ask him where he was when he first heard it, who was he with, what was happening at the time?

You may have read quite a bit about World War II and have a good idea of the events and the timeline. What the veteran says may not mesh with the facts as you know them. You can say something like, “Oh, I thought the 3rd Division took that ridge,” but do not contradict the veteran. He was there. In the confusion of war, perceptions of what is happening are quite diverse and as valid in their way as any historian’s account researched and written long after the fact.

You can never tell which question is going to bring out the surprising facts you’ve never heard before. It may take 10 or 15 questions before you feel you’re starting to get somewhere. Just keep plugging away, and sooner or later, you’ll get that surprise. For example, we knew my father-in-law was in an aircraft fire, but we didn’t find out about his second aircraft fire until one night when we were sitting around talking after dinner, asking him about his war years.

There were many facets to wartime service. Even the quietest veteran is likely to start talking about one or two of them, so jump around among the categories until you find those that work best. Here are some sample categories and questions that may spark some of your own.

Where were you when you first heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor? What did you think? What did you do? • Which branch of the service were you in? • What was your rank? • What were your responsibilities? • Did you sleep mostly in tents or in barracks? Ever have to sleep in the open? • Did you ever have to deal with terrible weather? • Did you ever have to go a long time without sleep? • How was the food? Did you ever have to go hungry? • Did you have to go on any long marches? • Were you ever really scared? • What were some of the things you did for fun? • Were you ever wounded? • Did you worry about your family back home? • Did you get a lot of letters, or not enough? • Are your memories of those days mostly good or mostly bad? • Did you bring back any souvenirs? • Did you keep a diary or journal? Do you still have it? May I read it? • Were any of your brothers or sisters in the service? • Do you still have your old uniform? Does it still fit? May I see it?


Have you stayed in touch with any of your buddies from the war? Do you ever talk about your wartime experiences with any of them? Where were they from? • Did you lose any friends in battle? Did any of them die from illness or friendly fire? • How long did it take you to get comfortable with the men in your unit? • How did you like your commanding officer? Did he ever give an order you thought was wrong? What did you do?


Where did you go to boot camp or training? What was it like there? • Did you go to any special schools? • What countries were you in? What were they like? What were the people like? Were they friendly and helpful, or antagonistic? Did the people seem well off or were they really struggling to survive? • Did your buddies go after the local girls? Anybody marry one? • Did you ever go to any USO shows? Who performed? What about USO dances? • What was the best part of being stationed where you were? The worst?


Did you and your buddies talk about why the United States was at war? Did everybody agree the war was necessary, or were there dissenters? What did they say? • Did you serve with anybody who’d been born someplace besides the United States? What was his take on the war? • Was anybody aware of Germany’s concentration camps? • Did you have any contact with citizens of other countries? • Did you really hate the enemy, or did you feel that they were guys in a tough spot, just like you? • What did people say about the internment of Japanese in the United States? • What do you think about the dropping of the atom bombs?


What types of plane were you in? What sort of reputation did the aircraft have? What sort of missions did you fly? What was your responsibility onboard? Ever get hit? Ever crash land? Ever have to bail out? • Did you ever parachute out of a plane? What was that like? Where did you land? How did you get back to your unit? Did all the other people who parachuted make it? • What kind of weapon did you carry? How did you like it? Was it easy to use? Did you use it much? Ever run out of ammunition in a tight spot? • What were the ships you were on like? What was the mission? What was your responsibility on the ship? • Were you ever in a troop transport truck? What was it like to ride in one? How long were the trips you took in it? Was it boring, or did you have fun talking with each other? • How did you like driving or riding in a jeep? • Were you ever riding in a truck or other vehicle that broke down en route?


Were you in a major battle? What was it like? What happened to your unit? • How did you feel about being somebody’s target? • How did you feel about targeting somebody else? • Did you ever come face to face with an enemy soldier? • Did you participate in D-Day? • Did you hear rumors or know about D-Day beforehand? • Did you know anything about the atomic bomb before the first one was dropped?


What medals do you have? • Are there any medals you earned but never received? Why didn’t you get them? • Do you still feel proud of your medals? • Which ones mean the most to you?

At the end

What did you hope or expect I’d ask you about that I didn’t?

There is so much to cover. Plan to have not just one conversation, but several, paced over several weeks or months. The break time gives the veteran an opportunity to reflect and may yield still more memories. Whatever you do, don’t wait too long. Voices of World War II veterans are falling silent every day.

Judy Sopronyi has been an editor for Early American Life, Historic Traveler, and British Heritage magazines. This article originally appeared in the June 2005, very first issue of America in WWII. Learn how to order a copy of this issue here. For more articles like this one, subscribe to America in WWII at or by calling toll-free 866-525-1945.

Top photo: The author’s father-in-law, Michael Sopronyi, as a 1st lieutenant in the 494th Bomb Squadron of the 9th Air Force. Image courtesy of Judy Sopronyi.

Bottom photo: The author’s parents, Charles and Lorrene Patterson, on their wedding day, November 13, 1943. Charles was stationed at Walker Army Air Base near Hays, Kansas, during the war. Image courtesy of Judy Sopronyi.

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