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Using Oral Histories: Introductory Lesson and Small Group Activities

Wisconsin World War II Stories: The Struggle

Wisconsin WWII Stories: Introductory Lesson and Small Group Activities | Wisconsin Historical Society

Grade level: Secondary

Duration: More than one class period

In the first video, Wisconsin World War II Stories: The Struggle, you will see and hear from some of Wisconsin's soldiers whose World War II service ranged from the Pacific to North Africa and Europe. Their stories support the classroom activities found below. This video is divided into individually titled segments.

The following Teacher Preview can serve as an orientation to the video. The small group questions/activities are suggested ideas to engage students with the material. Consider assigning students to small groups, based on the segments. This can be assigned as in-class research or as homework, depending on time and availability of resources. Students can, if they wish, use the video clip that corresponds to their question as part of the oral report. This is an excellent alternative to showing the video to the whole class in one sitting.


Students will:

  • Get an overview of the first video, "The Struggle," in Wisconsin World War II Stories
  • Analyze maps and primary sources for information
  • Present their conclusions in a variety of written and oral formats


The first part, The Struggle, in the Wisconsin World War II Stories series helps us recognize the importance of oral history in interpreting our past. In listening to these World War II veterans, we learn that the personal experience of history's many and varied actors can enrich our understanding of a given historic moment. In the following lessons you will have an opportunity to explore World War II, as witnessed by Wisconsin veterans. These lessons are intended to make history come alive for you in much the same way as the telling of their stories did for the veterans.

The videos and the coordinated lesson plans can be used in various ways. The lessons can be combined with part or whole use of the videotapes or online video clips, or the lessons can "stand alone." The five video series and lesson plans can constitute a complete World War II unit. Alternatively, any one component may be added as enrichment to an existing unit or program.





Review the events that led to the attack on Pearl Harbor and other islands in the Pacific on December 7, 1941. Included in that review should be the U.S. acquisition of territory in the Pacific during the 19th century, the political status of those islands in the early 20th century, the purpose for which they were claimed, Japanese interests in Asia throughout the 1930s, and the U.S. trade embargo on oil.

Small Group Questions/Activities
  • During World War I, Japan was allied with the U.S., Great Britain, and France against Germany and the Central Powers. What major events between 1918 and 1941 brought that alliance to an end?
  • How do natural resources figure into the story of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor? In more recent wars?
  • How did Americans on the mainland first hear of the attack? Listen to or read the live broadcast called, This Is No Joke: This Is War, from KTU in Honolulu. What was the reaction of the "average American" to the December 7, 1941, attack?
  • Read or listen to The 'Man in the Street' Reacts to Pearl Harbor to find out. Discuss among your group members how you would have reacted. What are the similarities and differences to the September 11, 2001, attack?
  • Then, study both the text and audio of President Roosevelt's address to Congress, asking for a declaration of war, A Date That Will Live in Infamy. Use the Document Analysis Worksheet and the Sound Recording Analysis Worksheet in your work. Explore the changes he made to the original text and consider reasons for his decisions to do so. In your group report, handout the original document and use the sound recording, if time permits.



"We came as young men, we left as old men." This statement, made by a veteran of the Pacific Theater, sets the tone for understanding the difficulties encountered by soldiers stationed there.
The Red Arrow Division's role in the Pacific, General Douglas MacArthur's leadership, and the physical geography of the region arise as topics of possible further study. In the end, students should be able to discuss what made this soldier's comment true.

Small Group Questions/Activities
  • These veterans state that there were "no roads, no vehicles... everybody was sick..." [It was a] tough time." "It rained everyday for 90 days... that was the worst." Using a textbook or other source of Asia and the Pacific Ocean, identify the colonial holdings of Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, and the U.S. in that region in the early 20th century.
  • Use textbook or other maps to determine what distances were involved in moving soldiers and equipment from the North American continent to those territories? What form of transportation was used?
  • Use an atlas or online source to analyze the climate, vegetation, natural resources, and physical geography of specific islands in the region. What new diseases did soldiers from Wisconsin encounter in the region?
  • Discuss how climate and geography could have contributed to the difficulty of fighting in the South Pacific and Wisconsin soldiers' sense of returning as "old men." Are there parallels today? Make a large chart that explains your findings and use wall maps to point out locations during your group's report.



Review with students the events leading up to U.S. involvement in the War in Europe. The veterans discuss the Merchant Marine, convoys to England, the Geneva Convention, and submarine attacks. What is the role of the Merchant Marine? What were the experiences of the soldiers on those convoys? How did England become the staging ground for a major Allied attack on the Axis in Europe?

Small Group Questions/Activities
  • What is the Merchant Marine and what is a convoy? Locate sources to explain these terms. Then, create a diagram for your report to explain how a convoy functions.
  • What do you suppose is meant by the term "coffin corner" when referring to a convoy?
  • What are the rules of war (Geneva Convention)? In small group discuss your opinions about such rules - effectiveness, importance of, consequences for violation? Do they work in 21st century warfare?



Through the use of textbook or online maps, review information on the progress of the Axis in Europe up to 1943. How do North Africa and Italy figure into the Allied strategy for victory? How do the experiences of soldiers in this theater of war compare and contrast with those in the Pacific? Students will read soldiers' letters to learn how personal experiences fit into the larger picture of secondary source histories of the War.

Small Group Questions/Activities

Study the colonial status of North Africa in the early 20th century. Use map sources such as "Africa: Physical and Political (1928). Then, using your textbook, create a chronology of Axis victories in Europe and North Africa up to 1943.

Study textbook or other maps to understand the strategy behind Allied attacks in North Africa and Italy.

Use information from the audio or transcripts of Dick Lundberg and Urban Sippel and the three letters from Roy F. Bergengren, Jr. in Letters from the Front to describe soldiers' battle experiences in this part of the War.

Look at the 24 sketches done by a soldier in North Africa and Italy. Compare and contrast your textbook's secondary source description of this phase of the war with those of the soldiers.



This portion of the film is told by Hochungra Native American, Gilman Lincoln, Sr., of Tomah, Wisconsin. His comments raise questions about race and the integration of the Armed Forces, the legal status of Native Americans during the first half of the 20th century, and the meaning of the word hero ("I didn't deserve a hero's welcome"). Ask students to consider these issues as they study this piece of the story.

Small Group Questions/Activities
  • This portion of the film is told by Hochungra Native American, Gilman Lincoln, Sr., of Tomah, Wisconsin who first volunteered for duty at age 14. Questions about the desegregation of the Armed Forces and Native American citizenship rights are central to this story. Why does Gilman Lincoln not get the chance to fight that he had hoped for? To prepare your report, review Native American citizenship rights history and study when and how the U.S. military became racially integrated. The story of how the U.S. government came to enlist Navajo Indians as "Code Talkers" should be included in your report.
  • Finally, consider Mr. Lincoln's comments: "My people, the Hochunks, they uphold their warriors very highly," And, "The hero's welcome they gave me, I didn't deserve." What is the traditional meaning of the word "hero" as it applies to wartime? Create a webbing for the word HERO to demonstrate what other kinds of heroes there were during World War II, or in more recent wars.

B-17 1944


Two B-17 bomber veterans describe the plane, its crew, the high casualty rates for B - 17 missions, and their own experiences as POWs, following being shot down. Life in a POW camp and encounters with Resistance fighters highlight the reminiscences of these Wisconsin soldiers. Student activities will draw upon soldiers' letters and visual sources.

Small Group Questions/Activities
  • Two B-17 bomber veterans describe the plane, its crew, the high casualty rates for B-17 missions, and their own experiences as POWs, following being shot down. Create a diagram (exterior and interior) of the B-17, identifying space, size, and load, and showing the position and duties of each of the 10 crew members. Since fewer than one in three crew members reached their full tour of 25 missions, your task also includes investigation of what happened to those who survived being shot down.
  • Draw upon the full text of the oral interviews with C.A. Van Selus of Portage, Wisconsin, and Jim Magruder of Peshtigo, Wisconsin to create a 10-minute re-enactment of one of their stories as part of your large group report.



In preparation for this very moving segment of the film, students should, again, examine maps of the Pacific Theater of the War. Places such as New Calendonia, Tarawa, Saipan, the Solomon Islands, Guam, and Guadalcanal should be identified. As two veterans tell he "never made another friend." In this lesson, students will be asked to consider the meaning of friendship and loss in war and the long term impact of war on the men and women who experience it.

Small Group Questions/Activities
  • Review maps of World War II in the Pacific to locate significant battles.
  • As two veterans tell their stories in this segment of the video, it becomes clear that friendship and loss are prominent aspects of the war experience. One soldier explains that after two of his best friends were killed within twenty days of each other, "thereafter, I never made another real close friend again." The men and women who served in WW II continue to carry the impact of that experience with them today. Use the letters and stories to create a "storyboard" of American men and women's war experiences and memories. Give special attention to the meaning of friendship and loss in war and the long term impact of war on those who served.



This very brief introduction to the Normandy Invasion will pique students' interest in an upcoming video that covers the last year of the War in Europe. Veteran Milo Flaten talks about a little- studied aspect of wartime: music. Students will have an opportunity to explore questions related to media influences on soldiers during wartime.

Small Group Questions/Activities
  • In this very brief segment, you will be introduced to the D-Day Invasion. It will be dealt with more thoroughly in a future program. The veteran, Milo Flaten, reminisces about the music soldiers heard as they were preparing to land at the beaches in France. This leads the viewer to consider the impact of the radio, print media and popular music on World War II soldiers. What songs were popular? How did the lyrics and music reflect wartime concerns? What radio programs did soldiers have access to? What magazines did they read? What was the content of those publications?
  • Read an issue of the weekly magazine, "Yank," and note especially the Memo to a Meat Packer submitted by Pfc. Cappon stationed at Truax Field, Wisconsin and listen to a broadcast of "Tokyo Rose" called, Hello You Fighting Orphans. Then, analyze the songs found in the Modern History Sourcebook: There'll Always Be An England and Other War Music. What themes or subjects are addressed in the various media?
  • Compare and contrast the media and music of the World War II era with those of more recent eras when our country was at war (Vietnam or Desert Storm). What do the similarities and differences tell us about the World War II period of our history? Try to locate World War II era music to use in your oral report.


National Standards for United States History: Exploring the American Experience

(National Center for History in the Schools, UCLA)

Era 8, Standard 3 - The causes and course of World War II, the character of the war at home and abroad, and its reshaping of the U.S. role in world affairs.


Standard 3B - The student understands World War II and how the Allies prevailed.
5-12 Explaining Axis and Allied military strategy and contrasting military campaigns in European and Pacific theaters in the period 1939-1945.


Standard 3C - The student understands the effects of World War II at home.
5-12 Explaining military mobilization during World War II and contrasting the contributions of United States minorities to the war effort with the racism and discrimination they faced analyzing the effects of World War II on gender roles.


Wisconsin's Model Academic Standards for Social Studies


Standard A - Geography: People, Places, and Environments
A12.1 Use various types of atlases and appropriate vocabulary to describe the physical attributes of a place or region.
A12.13 Give examples and analyze conflict and cooperation in the establishment of cultural regions and political boundaries.


B. History: Time, Continuity, and Change
B.12.1 Explain different points of view on the same historical event, using data gathered from various sources, such as letters, journals, diaries, newspapers, government documents, and speeches.
B.12.2 Analyze primary and secondary sources related to a historical question to evaluate their relevance, make comparisons, integrate new information with prior knowledge, and come to a reasoned conclusion.
B.12.6 Select and analyze various documents that have influenced the legal, political, and constitutional heritage of the United States.
B.12.15 Identify a historical or contemporary event in which a person was forced to take an ethical position, such as a decision to go to war…and explain the issues involved.
B.12.17 Identify historical and current instances when national interests and global interests have seemed to be opposed and analyze the issues involved.
B.12.18 Explain the history of…racial and ethnic discrimination, and efforts to eliminate discrimination in the United States and elsewhere in the world.


These lesson plans are designed to be used with Wisconsin World War II Stories: Part I: The Struggle, a video series created by Wisconsin Public Television and the Wisconsin Historical Society, in association with the Wisconsin Dept. of Veterans Affairs. The lessons in this part of Wisconsin World War II Stories span interest areas and levels. They include geography, technology, and human interest studies, and draw upon a wide array of social studies skills. Information on the series can be found at Wisconsin Stories: WWII.

Author: Victoria Zuleger Straughn.