Bentonville High School’s Lily Musengwa might argue that the most rewarding projects are the ones that never really end. They may be imbued with so many countless details that completion isn’t really a feasible end goal, or they derive from other projects and then spawn other related endeavors, themselves. Her latest efforts happen to be both.
The idea was relatively straightforward: create a story map showing involvement of Bentonville High School students in World War II. The idea came about after classmates started a project to digitize old yearbooks, which go back more than 100 years. One in particular they found no trace of: 1942. It was never produced, they learned, because the class donated all the yearbook funds to the war effort.
That little tidbit came to them via an alumna of that class, Tennie Russell, whom the students set out to interview for a documentary about the school’s involvement in the war.
“I thought it was interesting and kind of shocking, because I can’t really imagine us making those sacrifices today. We don’t have to deal with stuff like that. So I wanted to hear what Mrs. Russell had to say about it and what her feelings were and how that felt back then,” said Lily, who interviewed Russell for the film.
Doing research beforehand, she was struck by the numbers of students who went to war. And she was even more struck when those numbers became names and faces. She wanted to find a way to represent them.
“I really wanted to know where people went and how it all worked out after.”
Drawing on training and experience in ArcGIS in the classroom and in EAST student trainings — work that’s earned her an internship with the county GIS office — she set about putting locations with those names and faces. It was easy, she said, until it wasn’t.
“I didn’t expect it to be that hard. When I first started looking for the information, I was just Googling the names, and the first names I tried happened to be really easy. I searched for them and could see that, ‘oh look, one of them built this famous building.’ But after that, when I started going through people who didn’t make it through, it was a lot harder.”
She found records to be vague, absent or contradictory. She might know a student-turned-soldier served in France, but that’s not much to build a map out of. Others she got specific information for — one was part of the Normandy invasion on D-Day. Others she only had an obscure picture of a gravestone.
Then there were those who returned. Many left legacies in public service. A pair of brothers went into law enforcement, one for the city of Bentonville, the other for Benton County. Another was a noted builder under E. Fay Jones. His structures are still standing today. Many, many others, however, simply disappeared.
“The ones who did come back either did something really interesting and fairly important, like they worked for the government, or they just didn’t do much that got recorded. They disappeared. It was interesting how different people reacted. They were either a policeman or with the FBI or you just can’t tell where they went.”
That’s not to say Lily and a team of classmates haven’t been looking. They have been, through Google and genealogy sites and military records and everything else they can find. Sometimes the information is just not there.
“You’d think they would have records, but unfortunately they didn’t have computers back then. Someone had to go through and type all that information out [in hard copy].”
Sometimes they didn’t, or if they did the record isn’t digitized. For that reason, the map’s early stages have leaned on service records of those soldiers killed in the field. Lily hopes to continue adding more information and, as a senior, pass the project on to later students.
“There are a lot of people helping with research by putting the information they find into a shared folder on the computer. And we definitely have more names to research and more points we can put on the map.”
As for Lily, the documentary and story map have given her a new appreciation for her community and history in general.
“Before I started, history was just something far off, like I couldn’t really understand it. But after talking to people who were there and that this happened to, hearing how this felt, it’s really changed how I think about all periods, not just World War II.”