Unexpected Connections

by Megan Harris '03

Senior Year At Scripps, 2002

The prospect of writing a thesis looms over me. As an American studies major, I agonize over what to research. Finally, I decide to examine the collective memory of World War II. The recent wave of public remembering of the war, a cultural phenomenon that seems to have taken place since the mid- 1990s, prompts my decision. I focus on the ways in which World War II has been represented in film, culminating in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. I look at the efforts to memorialize the war, specifically through the new National World War II Memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C. I become fascinated by the ways in which we—as humans and as Americans—relate to and remember the past. As the granddaughter of World War II veterans, this topic holds special meaning for me.

Graduation From Scripps, MAY 2003

I apply for a fellowship to work with the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. I am accepted, depart for D.C. a week after graduation, and find myself knee-deep in oral histories, photographs, and memoirs submitted by World War II veterans (as well as veterans of other wars) to be archived.As a library technician, I organize and catalogue the hundreds of submissions that arrive each week from veterans around the country. It is my thesis brought to life. On a daily basis, I read first-hand accounts of soldiers who stormed the beaches of Normandy, the same incident that Spielberg depicted in his film. Listening to oral histories, I hear 90-year-old men dissolve into tears as they describe what their experiences in the war meant to them, to their families, and to the trajectory of their lives. I look at photographs of sailors proudly posing in uniform with their families before going off to war; clowning around with their buddies aboard ship; standing tall against the backgound of exotic locales. I examine the photographs soldiers took as they liberated Nazi concentration camps, and at photographs they developed from enemy cameras, taken off of dead German soldiers. I read about miraculous escapes from POW camps, the mind-numbing boredom of soldiers who worked as clerks thousands of miles away from the front, and the experiences of women who left traditional jobs to serve as nurses, administrators, and even pilots.

Memorial Day, June 2004

Hundreds of thousands of American veterans and their families descend on the Mall for what is billed as the “reunion” of a generation, the dedication of the World War II Memorial.Veterans are decked out in their vintage military uniforms, or sport hats or medals that denote their status as honored guests.Working in the Veterans History Project tent, I ask veterans to consider donating their memoirs and photographs to be preserved in the Library of Congress. I interview a veteran who tells me his Army nickname was “Red,” and sheepishly points to thinning hair that has long since faded to white. I am awestruck to be face-to-face with the same veterans whose lives I have been studying for the past two years. For these men and women,World War II was the defining event of their lives, and the memorial stands as an overdue recognition of and tribute to their experiences.

Present Day, Summer 2006

I am at work on another thesis, as part of my graduate work in history at the University of Maryland. Similarly, this thesis examines the ways Americans collectively remember the past. In sifting through potential research topics, I realize how important my Scripps thesis has been to me—personally, professionally, and academically. I suspect many Scripps graduates have learned this over the years: that the process of writing a thesis can hold meaning beyond simply fulfilling graduation requirements.Writing my senior thesis solidified my interest in the connection between history and memory and led me down the road to working at the Veterans History Project. Most important, it enabled me to engage with scholarship on a deeply personal level. For current Scripps students, the moral of the story is: don’t dread writing your thesis; you never know what might come of it!