Going to the Source

When the North Vietnamese shot down his plane and took him prisoner in March 1967, they put Jim Hiteshew, then a 36-year-old Air Force pilot from North Carolina, in a concrete-floor cell with a wooden board for a bed, and they gave him a porcelain cup. It was white with a thin blue band around it.

When he needed to relieve himself, Hiteshew, who lay in a body cast for months with two broken legs and a broken arm, would aim into the cup and fling his waste as far from his battered body as he could. When his captors came with water for him to drink, he’d hold out the same cup for them to fill. And when they released him, a week shy of six years later, he took that cup with him as a reminder of what he’d lived through.

Chipped as it is today, Hiteshew, 74, from Pikeville, N.C., said in an interview, the little cup still is his vessel of choice when he gets a hankering for a good, stiff drink.

“Whenever things get pretty low,” he said, “I look at that cup and I think, ‘It could be a hell of a lot worse.'”

Hiteshew’s accounts of his experiences as a soldier and a prisoner of war in Vietnam became a part of the nation’s history last week. He was visiting the nation’s capital for an annual reunion of the River Rats veterans group when a friend urged him to stop by a booth set up at his hotel for the Veterans History Project, a national oral history project created by Congress in 2000 to chronicle the stories of thousands of soldiers who served in every U.S. conflict since World War I.

Hiteshew said he wouldn’t have sought out the organizers on his own but that he’s glad he participated.

“History is what we’ve been and where we’re going,” he said. “Right now, all the World War II guys are dying off and there’s still so much history we don’t know. These oral histories are a wealth of information.”

Project organizers estimate 19 million U.S. soldiers and veterans from 20th century conflicts are alive today. So far, the project, which relies mostly on volunteers and is being overseen by the Library of Congress, has collected audio and video interviews, diaries and letters from 35,000 soldiers and their families. The interviews span every congressional district in every state.

“We’re not attempting to interview everyone,” said Anneliesa Clump Behrend of the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center, who took Hiteshew’s oral history. “For some people, the memories are too painful to bring up. For others, they feel it’s important to share with this generation and the next what they went through, and document America’s history.”

Vets who would like to participate need not travel to Washington. Youth groups, historical societies, veterans groups and retirement communities throughout the country have organized oral history drives for the project. And individuals can visit the project’s Web site, www.loc.gov/vets, or call a toll-free number, 1-888-371-5848, to order a free kit that explains how they can submit oral histories on their own.

Several members of Congress and some celebrity figures have participated. The project is not limited to soldiers who served in combat. Those stationed stateside during wartime, or housewives who entered the workplace as a matter of economic necessity when their husbands shipped out, also are encouraged to submit their stories.