As military history struggles within the academy, it continues to flourish among journalists — whether Rick Atkinson’s best-selling ongoing trilogy of World War II, Michael Yon’s erudite dispatches from Iraq, or Oliver North’s weekly War Stories on FOX News Channel (the longest running military documentary series in television history).
Some might not connect Lt. Col. North’s War Stories with military history research per se, given its popular audience and television format. But an underappreciated aspect of the series — now beginning its seventh season after some 100 episodes — is its rare documentary film footage, and thousands of interviews with veterans, many of whom have passed on since the show’s inception.
Given the need to interview eyewitness participants, the episodes range chronologically from World War II (nearly half the topics) to the present War on Terror (North has reported from Iraq on eight occasions and twice from Afghanistan), but are not exclusively confined to the American experience. Some have explored the Russian front and the horrific fighting in Eastern Europe as the Wehrmacht collapsed, or involve little known campaigns such as this week’s broadcast on how U.S. Special Operators and their Filipino counterparts track down and eliminate Islamic extremists in the southern Philippines.
As FOX News Channel prepares to begin the series’ seventh season on November 3 (9:00 P.M. EST/ 6:00 P.M. PST), I talked with Ollie North about the nature of the research, film footage, and archives that War Stories has assembled.
Victor Davis Hanson: You’ve interviewed hundreds of veterans from World War II, whether American, Japanese, German, or Russian. How many separate interviews of these first-hand witnesses does War Stories now have on file, and are there plans to archive these accounts for future generations of historians?
Oliver North: From World War II alone, we now have more than 300 eyewitness accounts of veterans from every branch of the U.S. Armed forces, allied and enemy combatants, and civilians engaged in that global conflict. Typically, these videotaped interviews run more than two hours each, and we ask our subjects about everything from their childhoods during the Great Depression, to what they have done since the war. Though only a portion of what each subject has to say appears on our broadcasts and DVDs, their recollections, thoughts, and emotions have been preserved on videotape, transcribed and carefully archived by our War Stories production unit.
We have done the same thing for every conflict since WWII – from the Cold War, Korea, Vietnam, and now to the War on Terror. When we can, we take the veterans to where they fought — and use historically accurate documentary footage. Our mottos — “We go to where the history is” and “get it right” — have taken us to 16 countries and 48 of the United States to collect what has become an irreplaceable treasure for future historians.
HANSON: Which interviews do you remember were the most moving or graphic?
NORTH: That’s a tough one. My dad and all of my uncles fought in World War II, so our ETO interviews mean a great deal to me. But I’ve also videotaped very powerful conversations with soldiers, sailors, airmen, Guardsmen, and Marines I came to know during, and since, my own military service.
Medal of Honor recipient Joe Foss was a long-time, close friend. His account of how he became America’s leading ace is unforgettable — as are the interviews we have done with seventeen other men awarded the Medal of Honor.
Lorelie Prior, the mother of my long-time assistant, was a “Rosie the Riveter” in a defense plant during World War II. Her moving story about meeting her husband — and then seeing him off to war — sums up my parents’ generation.
When we took John Ripley, a highly decorated U.S. Marine, and Frank Boccia, of the 101st Airborne, back to where they had fought in Vietnam, we interviewed a disabled North Vietnamese Army soldier who had once fought against the Marine unit in which I served. He could barely see, so I gave him a pair of my glasses.
For our “Paratroopers” episode, we interviewed Claude Scoggins, a veteran of Market Garden in the 101st Airborne. Shortly after, in Ramadi, Iraq, I unexpectedly met and interviewed his grandson, Phillip, serving with the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines. Their gripping stories have told me a lot about what makes America great.
HANSON: Given that we are now in our seventh decade since World War II, how do you substantiate or assess the accuracy of the accounts you air, to ensure that they are not mere “stories”?
NORTH: It isn’t easy – as you know from researching, teaching, and writing history. We require multiple sources – other eyewitnesses, veterans who were there, unit histories, official operations reports, historians. That’s getting to be a tougher task now that we are losing WWII veterans at a rate of 1,200 per day. Our producers are devoted to accuracy – and they spend months digging through archives to validate the facts before we put something on the air.