The Korean War
Oral History Project
When American soldiers returned from Korea in 1953, they found themselves in a homeland that
had no wish to memorialize their battles. The public as a whole had little desire to remember the
unpopular and unwanted war. Thus, the Korean War has come to be known as the “Forgotten
War.” Most history textbooks discuss the war only in brief passing, and some omit it altogether.
It wasn’t until 1995 that a U.S. monument was raised to the American soldiers who fought in
Korea. But this was a conflict that spanned four years, and, according to the Department of
Defense, cost 54,246 American lives. The Korean War deserves to be remembered. Thankfully,
numerous Korean War veterans are still alive today, and able to tell their stories. Now is the time
to talk to them. This activity is designed to bring students into direct contact with history and to
engage them in historical inquiry. By interviewing veterans and helping them tell their stories,
students will gain valuable insight and understanding into the “Forgotten War.”
Depending on how in-depth you choose to make this project, it can span anywhere from two to
three class periods, to one month.
1. Choosing a topic - Present students with a brief background of the Korean War. Once they
are familiar with the conflict, ask them to decide upon an area of focus for their interview
projects. Possible topics might include Truman’s decision to fire General MacArthur, the
effects of America’s Red Scare, or reasons for U.S. entry into the war. Students may also
choose to find out more personal remembrances of the veterans, including their experiences
on the front, their opinions on communism, or what type of homecoming they received.
Students should do at least a little background research on their topic before conducting their
2. Finding an interview subject – For shorter lessons, you could invite a veteran into the class to
give a short presentation and have the students as a whole interview him (each asking
questions related to their topic). For more in-depth, one-on-one interviews, the easiest way to
find interview subjects is to ask students to contact older family members or friends who
fought in Korea. For those students who have no connection to a veteran, you might consider
contacting the local VFW for the names of veterans who might be willing to give interviews.
Another option is to allow students to conduct their interviews either over the phone, by mail,
or by email.
3. Preparing for the interview – Pass out copies of “Tips for Conducting Oral History
Interviews” and discuss with students the rules and etiquette of interviewing. You might also
consider having students do a 5-10 minute mock interview with their peers in order to teach
them proper questioning and note-taking techniques. Make sure to have each student prepare
a preliminary list of questions before going into their interview.
4. The project – A variety of end-stage projects can be used with this assignment. You may
choose one or more options from below, or allow students to come up with their own creative
project. The important thing is that students pass on their interviewee’s story and draw
conclusions based on what they have learned during their interview and research.
*Make sure that each project includes an introduction, the interviewee’s story, and a
conclusion. Encourage students to present their interview in a “story” format (drawing quotes
from the interview to illustrate certain points) rather than a verbatim Q and A.
- Short Paper (3-4 pages)
- Display board
- Oral Presentation (4-5 minutes)
- Original artwork
- Dramatic production
5. Wrap-up and discussion- The class as a whole may wish to present their findings either to the
veterans they interviewed or to the community at large. Regardless, students should be
encouraged to share their projects personally with their interviewees as a final wrap-up to
their project. A class discussion is also a wonderful way to end the project and allow
students to share their experiences with one another.
*Possible Discussion Questions:
- Did you learn anything new? What was the most surprising piece of information that you
gathered from your interview?
- Why is it important to document this person’s experience?
- Did anything happen during your interview to make you question the accuracy of oral
histories as a source of historical fact?
- How might you confirm some of the information presented in your interview? What
sources would you use?
- What can we learn overall from these oral histories?
Creating a Release Form
If the students are doing individual interviews, a release form should be used (it is not necessary
if, for instance, one veteran is coming to the class to talk to them). A basic release form should
include the name of the interviewer, the name of the interviewee, the name of the school and
teacher, and the release information. The interviewee may release the information to the public,
to the school, or to the student interviewer alone. The release form should also note that the
interview information will be used for educational purposes only. Both the interviewer and the
interviewee should sign and date the slip.