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Oral history program

Veteran helps others share their memories

Saturday, November 9, 2013
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Oral history program


Wayne Clarke of the oral history program at the New York State Military Museum in Saratoga Springs cues up his interview with Colonie resident Calla Dever Osborne.
Wayne Clarke of the oral history program at the New York State Military Museum in Saratoga Springs cues up his interview with Colonie resident Calla Dever Osborne.

— When Wayne Clarke got out of the Army in 1970 after spending two years in Vietnam, he figured he was pretty much done with the military.

He figured wrong.

Still ahead of him was a 15-year stint with the Army National Guard that included deployment during the Bosnian crisis, and after that was another long hitch with the state Division of Military and Naval Affairs, where he worked on the oral history program at the New York State Military Museum in Saratoga Springs.

At a glance

• 2013 Veterans of the Year Calla Dever Osborne, of Colonie, and James A. Haggerty, of Valatie, will be honored Saturday at 1 p.m. at the New York State Military Museum in Saratoga Springs.

• Osborne is a former U.S. Army nurse who served in World War II in Europe. Haggerty is a former Marine Corps heavy weapons specialist who served in the Korean War.

• The award is sponsored by the Friends of the New York State Military Museum and the Capital District of New York Chapter of the Association of the U.S. Army.

After more than 10 years of helping veterans document their military experience, Clarke retired in December 2012. He hasn’t, however, left the oral history program.

“Because of budgetary concerns, they couldn’t replace me, and I didn’t want to see the program go away,” said Clarke, a Connecticut native who lives in Malta. “I decided I’ll continue the program on a voluntary basis, so I go into the office at least once a week. I just didn’t want to see the program end. There are still vets out there who need to be interviewed.”

The museum’s interviews were typically videotaped by Clarke or a co-worker, Mike Russert. While one of the men taped the process, the other would start off the interview with a few general questions. The veterans then had the option to tell their complete story or just respond to further questions from Clarke or Russert. The interviews, now archived at the museum’s library, range in length from 20 minutes to more than an hour.

The oral history program is no longer running the way it was when Clarke was working full-time at the museum, traveling around the state to conduct interviews. People can no longer walk in off the street and tell their stories, but they can submit their own oral interview or make an appointment to meet with Clarke either at the museum in Saratoga Springs or their home.

“If I do any interviews, I try to stay within the Capital Region, but we also have people who have a family member conduct the interview, either audio or videotaped, and they send them to us,” said Clarke. “That’s worked pretty well, and we have 10 volunteers who are constantly transcribing these interviews so that hopefully we’ll have them all online for people to listen to or at least read.”

Michael Aikey, who recently retired as director of the Military Museum in Saratoga Springs, was one of the people who helped kick off the oral history program with Clarke back in 2000.

“Wayne has been very good for the program,” said Aikey. “He has the ability to relate very well with veterans, being a vet himself, and he understands what they went through. He can talk to people, interview them in a fashion that some other people just can’t do. He establishes a comfort level with people that makes him a very successful interviewer.”

Jim Brown, who grew up in Stillwater and now lives in South Glens Falls, sat in front of Clarke’s video camera about five years ago and spoke about his experiences in Vietnam in 1967, just a year before Clarke was there.

“They were pretty sensitive about what they were doing, and made you feel quite comfortable,” Brown said of Clarke and Russert, who retired five years ago. “I wouldn’t say the experience was hurtful, but it does bring up moments that were kind of sad. Of course, there were also some good moments. There were good times.”

Brown, who recently became a docent at the museum, got interested in telling his story after seeing a photograph in a newspaper about the program.

“I noticed the guy in the picture, and I recognized him because he was in my squadron in Vietnam,” said Brown. “So I came down to the museum, asked a few questions and decided to do it. The value to me is pretty obvious. You look at our World War II vets today, and for many, many years most of them never wanted to talk about it. Suddenly, they see the end is coming, and they want to tell people their stories. And these are great pieces of history you’ll get no other way, from the people who were there and lived it.”

Timeless experience

Librarian Jim Gandy oversees the museum’s group of enthusiastic volunteers who are transcribing the interviews for the website. The experience, he says, is a rewarding one for all parties, whether a combat veteran telling the story, the interviewer, or just an interested volunteer helping to document the occasion.

“I think it’s both therapeutic and educational, and it also serves purposes we don’t even think about,” said Gandy. “People doing research with plenty of questions have come across our website and found the answers looking at our interviews. In 100 years, we’ll still have these stories and people will learn from them. That’s why the program exists, and that’s why it has great value. It’s history, and history is important.”

On Saturday at 1 p.m., Clarke and many of his fellow vets will be at the museum’s Public Room to help honor 2013 Veterans of the Year Calla Dever Osborne of Colonie and James A. Haggerty of Valatie. The award is sponsored by the Friends of the New York State Military Museum and the Capital District of New York Chapter of the Association of the U.S. Army.

Osborne was a U.S. Army nurse in World War II in Europe, and Haggerty was a Marine Corps heavy weapons specialist in the Korean War. Osborne was also one of the many people Clarke has interviewed for the oral history program.

“I felt honored to be interviewed and to have what I said recorded,” said Osborne, who celebrated her 91st birthday Oct. 1. “I was just glad to serve my country, but it was a very busy time and very sad to see our men being killed and injured.”

Osborne was awarded the Bronze Star for her war experience, which included being at the Battle of the Bulge and in Krakow, Poland, in a Jewish ghetto created by the Nazi regime.

“She was one of the first nurses to walk into Krakow a day or two after it was liberated, so her experience was quite unique,” Clarke said of Osborne. “She had some amazing stories to tell.”

Telling his story

Before officially retiring last December, Clarke decided to tell his own story.

“Mike Russert came back and interviewed me, and I guess it went pretty well,” said Clarke. “I didn’t mind talking about it. I flew with a helicopter unit, and I started off as a door gunner and then a crew chief and eventually was a flight engineer. I definitely saw a lot of Vietnam.”

When his stint was done and he was back in the U.S., staying involved in the military was the farthest thing from Clarke’s mind.

“I really didn’t want anything more to do with the Army,” remembered Clarke, who earned a two-year liberal arts degree from City University of Seattle after getting out of the Army. “But I started missing it. I missed the flying, the aviation part of it, and I missed the camaraderie.”

Clarke, who worked as a welder for a short time and then spent 10 years employed by a local bank, eventually signed on with the National Guard and in 1997 found himself back in uniform in Germany.

“They took 44 of us from my unit and put us with an active Army unit in Germany, Bosnia and Hungary,” said Clarke. “I ended up staying in Germany, but here I was at the age of 47 thrust into the active Army. It was fun, and I enjoyed most of it, but I was glad when our nine months were over with.”

In 2009, Clarke self-published a book of his own poetry, “Soldier Ballads and Other Tales.”

“I read some poems by Robert Service back in high school, and then I got back into it in 2002 after I picked up a book by Rudyard Kipling,” said Clarke. “I put together my book of poems, and I’ve been reading some of my poetry at Caffe Lena. But I think if I had to do it all over again, I’d finish college and be a history major.”

In his position at the museum, Clarke had the opportunity to interview veterans, male and female, from all of America’s 20th century conflicts, including two doughboys from World War I.

“We had a guy who was on his deathbed in Albany, and another guy from Batavia who had lied about his age and entered the service at 16,” said Clarke. “We were very busy those first few years, and it was mostly about World War II. Lots of times the vets are apprehensive about their experience, and the young ones just aren’t ready to talk about it yet. Some of the guys are a little hesitant because they think they’re not going to have that much to say, but you ask them some questions and get them talking and they end up having a phenomenal memory.”

Clarke hopes to continue working with the oral history program as long as he can.

“I’m hoping to keep this going, and maybe when the budgetary concerns loosen up a bit, they’ll be able to find some guys to do this,” he said. “We need people to do this full-time. This program is too important to end.”

 
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