Preserving the Army's 'Big Red One'

Topics: College of Sciences and Humanities, College of Communication Information and Media, Immersive Learning

June 3, 2008

A group of Ball State University students will spend its summer interviewing 40 veterans of the U.S. Army's First Infantry Division — commonly known as the "Big Red One" — to preserve the memories of soldiers who have fought around the globe since the late 1940s.

With funding from Chicago-based McCormick Tribune Foundation and administrative support from the staff of the First Division Museum, the student team's work is part of the Cantigny First Division Oral History Project.

"Tens of thousands of American men and women have served in the Big Red One," said Michael Doyle, who is coordinating the project with fellow history professor David Ulbrich. "These ordinary Americans were called upon to perform extraordinary acts for their nation. It is important from a historical standpoint to hear what they went through and what they were thinking when they served."

The students will focus on veterans currently residing in Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky. University Teleplex staff member Chris Reidy is serving as assistant director and will lead a team videotaping the interviews.

Soldiers are not being selected for interviews based solely on combat experience. Ball State is also seeking men and women who served in the First Division during its numerous peacekeeping and humanitarian operations.

"When possible, spouses or partners will be included in the interviews to give home front perspectives," Doyle said. "The project aspires to help create a more holistic picture of the division's past activities through the eyes and memories of a wide assortment of those who compiled that meritorious record in disparate ranks and theaters of operation.

"This project is not meant to glorify combat or whitewash military service," he added. "Student interviewers will ask veterans of the Big Red One about such topics as their experiences of racial and gender integration of the U.S. Army during the Cold War era.  Likewise, queries about combat experiences in the Vietnam War may also illicit candid and compelling answers from the veterans of that conflict."

Interviews will be videotaped in high definition, transcribed and Web streamed as part of the digital media repository at Ball State University Libraries. Copies will also be deposited at the Robert R. McCormick Research Center at the First Division Museum in Wheaton, Ill.

'Echoes of War'

The project builds on the partnership forged between Ball State and the First Division Museum during production of the award-winning WIPB-TV program "Echoes of War: Stories from the Big Red One" that was broadcast nationally in 2007 as a companion piece to the "The War," a television documentary by Ken Burns in which World War II veterans told of their often dramatic stories of life on the front lines.

While it is important for World War II veterans to provide accounts of their experiences, there also is a need to hear from other aging military personnel. Veterans of the Army's First Division whose service entailed occupation duty in Germany until 1955 are now more than 70, and those who fought in Vietnam with the Big Red One from 1965 to 1970 are in their 60s or older, Doyle said.

"Even the youngest veterans who saw action in Operation Desert Storm are now approaching their 40s. We do not want to let these soldiers' stories go unrecorded. The Cantigny First Division Oral History Project will seek to do for these newer generations of servicemen and women what Ken Burns and others have done for the World War II veterans."

To nominate a member of the Big Red One, contact Doyle or call 765-285-8732.

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