War in their own words: Eastern Michigan University receives oral histories of Ypsilanti veterans

Stock photo of a gray-haired man in a hat decorated with a Veteran of Foreign Wars patch while saluting the American flag.

YPSILANTI - The Eastern Michigan University Archives got an unexpected gift this year, when a volunteer for the Veterans History Project donated roughly 150 video interviews with American war veterans from the Ypsilanti area.

Bill Vollano, himself a veteran, began collecting the interviews just a few years after the Library of Congress established the Veterans History Project in 2000. Though sanctioned by the federal government it was not federally funded, so volunteers were crucial to the project. Eastern’s JoEllen Vinyard, now an emerita faculty member in history, participated as well, even taking a group of students to the Leelanau Peninsula to get interviews.

According to Alexis Braun Marks, University archivist, after taping the interviews Vollano copied them to DVDs and submitted them to the Library of Congress, but kept the originals, which were recorded on mini video cassettes, at his home.

Braun Marks says Vollano, 91, was intent on having the tapes pass into the care of an institution that understood their value.

“When we sat down and talked with Bill, it was clear this had been weighing on him heavily,” she said. “I think he was tired. He’d been collecting the interviews for twenty years, and it was time for someone else to take the reins.”

Braun Marks says she was familiar with the Veterans History Project, but not at all aware of the cache of interviews from local service members.

“You can go to the Veterans History Project webpage and find a lot of these videos, but you either need to know the name of the veteran or which theater of war they served in,” she says. “There’s no one place to find all the Ypsilanti veterans.”

Which is to say, there wasn’t.

Since the archives took possession of the tapes, Connor Ashley, a grad student in history, has been cataloging the donated materials, cross referencing them with those already available at the Library of Congress, and digitizing the videos that haven’t yet been made available there.  

“The Library of Congress does have the interviews,” Braun Marks says. “They just haven’t gotten to everything yet because they have such an extensive backlog.”

Ashley, meanwhile, has uploaded the digital copies to YouTube to fill that gap, so that between the EMU archives’ YouTube channel and the Library of Congress website, all but two of the interviews of Ypsilanti-area veterans are available.

“There are two exceptions where both the mini-tapes and the DVD copies were corrupted,” Braun Marks says. “It’s unfortunate, but honestly, considering the obsolete media and the age of everything, the fact that there were only two is pretty impressive.”

Impressive, too, is the webpage the archives launched on Veterans Day, to introduce the collection and eventually provide access to all of the Ypsilanti veteran interviews in one place. For the launch, 11 veteran stories were featured.

“We talked about what would be possible for Veterans Day, and decided 11 videos on the 11th day of the 11th month was a crisp and viable option,” Braun Marks said. “We selected veterans we felt really embodied the collection Bill gave us.”

Among them are EMU alumnus William Henderson, who flew 125 missions in Vietnam and later rose to the rank of major general in the Air National Guard; journalist and voice of the Detroit Tigers, Ernie Harwell; and alumnus Charles Kettles, who saved the lives of 44 American soldiers ambushed by Vietnamese forces, for which he received the medal of honor in 2016. Eastern’s Veteran’s Services Center is named in Kettles’ honor.

Braun Marks says the full website is nearly complete, and is hopeful the tapes will be a gateway for future projects.

“We’re thinking through how we can engage the ROTC and history programs to collect additional stories for the Veterans History Project,” she said. “I think that’s what Bill was asking for, without actually asking for it.”

Visit the full Veterans History Project Collection on the Eastern Michigan University Archives website. 

About Eastern Michigan University
Founded in 1849, Eastern is the second oldest public university in Michigan. It currently serves more than 16,000 students pursuing undergraduate, graduate, specialist, doctoral and certificate degrees in the arts, sciences and professions. In all, more than 300 majors, minors and concentrations are delivered through the University's Colleges of Arts and Sciences; Business; Education; Engineering and Technology; Health and Human Services; and, its graduate school. EMU is regularly recognized by national publications for its excellence, diversity, and commitment to applied education. For more information about Eastern Michigan University, visit the University's website.

January 19, 2022

Written by:
Amy Campbell

Media Contact:
Darcy Gifford