Recording memories for future generations

Is it an oral history or a personal history

Oral History or Personal History: There is a difference between the two. An oral historian is focused on recording events and stories in history that will help document history for history’s sake. A personal history records your unique story in the scope of history.  It details parts of your life with your thoughts, emotions and the experiences that you’d like remembered.

Here’s an example between the two.

Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration


At the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia there is an exhibit on the second floor showcasing letters home during American wars.  It’s an example of the personal experiences soldiers felt while serving the cause.  They are personal histories. Sharing them for the ages, however, in way that millions of people read them annually in museums across the country makes them a part of oral history. They are helping to document the events that happened.

The following is a letter that was written by a veteran who served in the Vietnam war to a fallen brother in his platoon.  It was left at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC in 1985.


June 8, 1985

Dear Eddie

Although it’s been 15 years since you’ve been gone it seems like it’s been 15 days. Many times I have regretted not getting to know you better than I did. There was a quiet sensitive goodness about you. You were one of the guys, who had been in the unit for awhile and was getting “short.” I knew about your girls, your Mom & Dad and that you wanted to put your time in and go home. If anyone knew you at all they liked you a lot.

I’ll never forget being awakened at 3 in the morning by the hysterical crying of Danny Newbill and Jerry Hall. “One of our guys is dead!” was all I could get out of Newbill. When Jerry told me it was you I remember demanding an answer – “Oh God, why? Why not any of us? Why Eddie?”  I never did get any concrete answers. Our whole company felt a tremendous loss. When I left in August there was still a sense of grief around. Things never got back to “normal.”

I hope you don’t mind, but I recently made contact with your parents. They moved twice and are now retired to Missouri, trusting in the Lord that you are at peace. They can’t afford to travel much, so I have sent them pictures of the Memorial and your name. They are good people, too. I hope to meet them someday.

For years I felt that your life, and the other 58,000 lives, was wasted and anyone who wasn’t there could not or would not understand what we went through. That’s changing now. People are beginning to realize that we were doing our jobs and doing them well. We had to pay the price and, until recently, we were the ones tagged as the losers, not our government. So if your names on this wall makes it harder to send guys half way around the world to die, then maybe it wasn’t a total waste.

I love you, brother. I pray someday we can welcome each other home. Peace

John “Soup” Campbell

335th Radio Research Co.

CanTho Vietnam

Aug. 1969 to Aug. 1970

(left at the Vietnam War Memorial, Washington, DC)


This soldier wasn’t just a number on a casualty list, but someone whose friend thought enough of him to write a letter 15 years later and leave it at the only memorial spot he knew, hoping his message got to heaven. It details a friendship and a legacy that still matters to someone. John Campbell wanted his friend Eddie to be remembered in the best possible way.

From the standpoint of recording a personal history it shows how to take a point in time and add your own personal accounts to history.  There is so much more to that story that could be told. The friendship, the soldier’s bond, the job they did, what they experienced, one soldier coming home, returning to civilian life, feeling normal, not feeling normal and, even, reconnecting with Eddie’s family.

The fact that I read it in a museum in a display documenting the war makes it a part of oral history.


Tags: , , , ,