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Last update: 5/15/08

[University of Wisconsin-Green Bay News Release]

For Immediate Release:

May 14, 2008

UW-Green Bay student history project remembers forgotten World War I archives

GREEN BAY - "The last front we was on, we did not even have a dugout. All I had was a shell hole, and I had to lay there all day without moving. The second you stuck your head above the ground, there would be six or seven machine guns shooting at us and we could not shoot back."

Pvt. Chester Rice of Green Bay wrote those words near Germany's Rhine River on Dec. 11, 1918. They were in a letter he sent home to his mother.

Real words from a real war, written by a real soldier.

"When Sherman said, 'war is hell,' he did not know anything about war of this kind, where they have shells as big as a house. A 14-inch shell tears a hole in the ground about 12 feet deep and 30 feet across and they were thicker than bees around a hive," Rice wrote home in an earlier, July 28, 1918, letter from "somewhere in France."

Rice's words, letters, biographical information and even photos are real history.

They are among the documents collected from more than 1,700 Brown County World War I veterans shortly after the Treaty of Versailles ended the "War to End All Wars." The Brown County War History Committee gathered soldiers' information to use in a commemorative history book. It was never completed, says Trevor Jones, today the curator of history at the Neville Public Museum in Green Bay.
    
Currently, the information sits in nearly a dozen boxes in the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay's Area Research Center in the Cofrin Library. It was never indexed and is ordered only by number, the soldiers' address, municipal ward or community.
    
That is changing.
    
Jones and UW-Green Bay History Prof. Andrew Kersten developed a project for University students to digitally scan and index the information so it is accessible for the community and in fact the entire world.

UW-Green Bay students taking the History Seminar course started the legwork this year.

"We've been working very intensely," Kersten said. "Soon we will have a web site created by the seminar students that will allow access to the files of the Brown County War History Committee. (See http://www.uwgb.edu/kerstena/firstworldwar/homepage.htm). In other words, people will be able to view the images and the letters and the interviews that we've scanned. It will also contain a research page, with bibliographies and other things for investigating World War I, and lesson plans for history teachers."

Students have scanned and documented information from more than 300 soldiers, but there is a long way to go.

Kersten and Jones are applying for a "Save Our History" grant from the History Channel to continue the work. If awarded, it would allow for the hiring of a student worker to work to complete the project.

In addition to the Web site, the culmination of the work will result in a computer kiosk at the Neville Public Museum where visitors can conduct keyword searches of Brown County's World War I veterans and see some of the things they might have done, said or wrote.

Senior history major David Deprey, of Green Bay, recognized some of the family names from around the city as he was scanning the documents, letters and photographs.
    
"It's a lot easier to understand the scope of the war and how it affects cities," he said. "It was a World War, but it was interesting to see how it affected local history."
    
The database, if completed, should allow researchers to find out where every soldier lived in the city, or how many were of a particular religion, or how many were related, Kersten said.
    
Both Kersten and Jones expect active community use of the database when it becomes available.
    
"I think the public will be very excited," Kersten said. "This will be a great chance for people to honor veterans, and for genealogists to find family members."

However, the work will not be completed without financial support. Kersten rotates his history seminar subjects annually, so his seniors will not continue the work next school year.
    
If a grant is awarded or other funding is secured, the project could be finished later this year. Jones said it is possible the museum would have a special exhibit featuring artifacts and a completed database in 2009.
    
The Neville Public Museum is currently hosting an exhibit called "The Traitor State," which focuses on the dark, World War I-era of Wisconsin's history when German immigrants and culture were looked down upon because of the war. Some of the artifacts from the archived files are included in the exhibit.

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08-136 | Contact: Mike Heine heinem@uwgb.edu, (920) 465-2526



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