Oral history archive bridging gap between young and old

Retired Canadian Army Major Gary Del Vallano works on a project for Royal United Services Institute Vancouver Island (RUSI-VI) at his home in Victoria. Del Vllano, 80, enjoyed a 38-year military career and is the director of RUSI-VI Military Oral History program. Photo by Peter Mallett, Lookout

Retired Canadian Army Major Gary Del Vallano works on a project for Royal United Services Institute Vancouver Island (RUSI-VI) at his home in Victoria. Del Vllano, 80, enjoyed a 38-year military career and is the director of RUSI-VI Military Oral History program. Photo by Peter Mallett, Lookout

Peter Mallett, Staff Writer ~

A joint research initiative connecting university history students with veterans and currently serving military members continues to write new chapters in Canadian military history.

Royal United Services Institute Vancouver Island (RUSI-VI) oversees the Military Oral History program involving third-year students at the University of Victoria. Students are assigned topics in early January and post their recorded interviews to the school’s Military Oral History program archive, while also making written submissions for grading.

Since it first commenced in the 1970s, the Military Oral History program has amassed an impressive archive of over 1,400 hours of interviews with over 700 current and former soldiers, sailors, air force personnel and military police, focusing on defence and security topics. It’s one of the largest oral history projects in Canada and is archived on the project’s web page, and in the university’s library.

Visitors to the digital archive can listen to the memories of interview subjects from Victoria and across Canada who discuss their personal recollections of a variety of military-related subjects dating back to the First World War.

First-hand Accounts

The Military Oral History program was founded by RUSI-VI, UVic professor and military veteran Reginald Roy. The project can trace its beginnings to his recorded interview about the military career of First World War veteran and Victoria Cross recipient Major General George Randolph Pearkes, who went on to become Lieutenant-Governor of British Columbia.

After the Pearkes interview was complete, Roy started to build an extensive archive of other interview subjects, many of whom served in the First and Second World Wars.

But submissions and participation gradually began to decline in the 1990s. Fifteen years ago the Military Oral History program was revamped and resurrected by UVic Professor of Military History David Zimmerman as a way to engage students in recording oral histories. 

Zimmerman says the project is an excellent way to give students real-life, first-hand accounts on military and security topics.

“Students get a chance to meet someone who has served in the armed forces and often involved in very important historical event and gain valuable insight into what it is like to serve,” said Zimmerman. “The program gives students insight into these historical events and also the individual experiences in a way that they likely feel more connected to history than anything else they do during their time in university.”

Students begin their work each year in January when they are assigned a topic and are fully focused on the Military Oral History program until the end of the second semester. Zimmerman says the process requires intense study and planning well ahead of the interviews and right up until the point when their research papers are completed by the end of March.

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The interviews are conducted on-campus or through a specially designed web-based video conferencing program similar to Skype.

This year’s group of nine students interviewed three individuals on each of the following subjects: Kandahar, Afghanistan headquarters; 4 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group Southern Germany, Lahr/Baden; UN Headquarters, South Sudan; Naval Engineering-Damage Control; Main Battle Tanks Operations, Afghanistan; UN Operations RCMP/Police, South Sudan; maritime air Sea King helicopters final year of service; and naval logistics and supply.

Interview subjects are recruited through the RUSI-VI membership base that numbers approximately 150 current and past serving military and civilians, leaning heavily on their numerous contacts within Canada’s military community.

After the interviews have been completed, students then write their term papers based on input from the veterans, with their assignments counting as credits in their course of study.

Veterans having their say

The process is a two-way street says Military Oral History program Director Major (Retired) Gary Del Vallano, who enables the interview subjects to connect with Canada’s newest generation of aspiring historians, and impart their knowledge and experiences surrounding military and defence issues.

“It’s an opportunity to give back, despite the fact the public is very supportive of veteran’s issues but really don’t have an understanding of the actual work service people do,” said Del Vallano. “The Military Oral History program helps develop a basic understanding, covering a broad range of everything a soldier experiences, from operations in the field right down to individual postings.

Del Vallano, 80, enjoyed a 38-year military career in Canada’s army beginning in 1953 with the Algonquin Regional Reserve, the Royal Canadian Dragoons, and Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadian) armoured regiment. After beginning his career as a loader and operator of the army’s Sherman tanks, he spent most of his career as an instructor teaching new recruits on tank tactics and employment of tanks. In the field, he served Canada’s peacekeeping mission in Cyprus and Canadian military installations in Germany. 

He joined RUSI-VI after moving to Victoria in 2003.

“I love history and being involved in this project brings great satisfaction to me,” said Del Villano. “I like to read about history, but I was also part of it and so are all the rest of the veterans, as well as currently serving military personnel.”

Esteemed lineage

RUSI-VI is one of 27 United Services Institutes in Canada and was founded in 1927 to provide a forum for defence and security issues for current and former military.

RUSI-VI is an international chapter of the parent organization Royal United Services Institute, a highly-respected, research-focused defence and security think tank based in London, founded in 1831 by the Duke of Wellington Sir Arthur Wellesley.

RUSI-VI’s 150 members hold monthly lunch meetings at the Bay Street Armoury that feature guest speakers discussing a range of military-related topics. They also fund community initiatives and provide prizes for area cadet regiment’s annual band competitions and Broadmead Care’s annual golf tournament.

But like its parent organization, it also focuses on research, with most of RUSI-VI efforts focused on through its Military Oral History program.

RUSI-VI is also a member of the Conference of Defence Association Canada, an organization boasting over 400,000 members who study the problems of defence and security to promote the efficiency and well-being of Canada’s Armed Forces. Both groups were important components in the public consultation process conducted by the Government of Canada’s recent Defence Policy Review.

RUSI-VI is currently seeking out donors for its endowment fund and also to bolster its membership. Annual membership dues are $40 per person or $50 per family. For more information visit their website: www.rusiviccda.org.

Filed Under: Top Stories

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