A First-Hand Account of the 20th Century

Brody Eller

Jan 5, 2017

The 20th Century was a mix of events and time periods ranging from the first world war to the cold war. The best way to learn about this time period is to learn it from a person who lived through it. Yesterday night, I conducted an interview with Hugh Hagan, a member of the 101st Airborne Division. The interview began with Hagan giving a synopsis of events starting in 1941. Hagan was born in 1938, which made him 3 years old when Pearl Harbor occurred. Even though he was only 3, he still remembers the attack to this day. He recalls people talking about the attack all over the streets, calling it the Sneak Attack.

“The whole mood of the country changed. I couldn’t talk much about that because I was still very young at the time but I do remember we used to collect papers and fats—Beef Fats, Bacon Fats—because they used that to make ammunition or gunpowder. We would go around the neighborhood and collect it and take it to the local butcher and he would weigh it and he would give you a nickel or a dime or whatever it was. You know, whatever the weight was.”

In addition to talking about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hagan talked about his family members that fought in the war. The troops, including his Uncle, lined up in Grand Central Station. The troops said their goodbyes to their families, loaded onto the train, and were shipped off to war. Another family member of Hagan’s, his godfather, was killed when his B-17 was shot down over Germany in 1945.

He also states that people did not believe the atomic bomb would end the war. When it was finally over, there was a clothes shortage while transitioning to a peacetime economy. Soldiers were allowed to stay in their uniforms for extended periods of time due to the lack of clothes.

Military Service

Hagan entered the military in 1957. He was deployed to the Puerto Rico Air Force base in 1958 during the same time Nixon began to get into trouble. He told be about a jump he was to make at Fort Campbell. Many planes went into the air to make the jump, but due to a problem with the plane he had boarded, he was never able to make the jump.

The 1960s

Hagan talked about how the 1960s was a very exciting time. He talked about how folk music began and how Bob Dylan, Rod Stewart, Jefferson Airplane, and the Mamas and the Papas were popular.

Another topic he talked about were the 1964 and 1968 riots. At the time, Hagan was a firefighter in New York City. The riots in 1964 were due to the shooting of a 15 year old black man.

“People went crazy. They burned everything. You went out of the firehouse at around 6:00 at night and you didn’t get back to the firehouse until 12:00 the next day and it was pick your fire on 7th Avenue, 8th avenue… You could just pick your fire from 125th Street to 145th Street. That was probably about 64, then there was another set of riots in 68 where they did the same thing only they were much more prepared. They would hook up a hook on a chain to a tow truck and pull all those scissor gates out and loot all the stores and set them on fire. It was wild.”

After recounting the riots, He told me that in 1964, Harlem went crazy and in 1968, the entire city went crazy. At the time, he worked in Harlem.

“There was no relief or anything. You went down 7th Avenue and every fire you saw you just sort of knocked it down and then went to the next one. You just kept going and going and going. On the department radio, they would communicate that the crowd, the rioters, were coming up 7th Avenue so you’d have to take a side street and then you would go down 8th Avenue and then they’d say the rioters were on 8th Avenue so you’d have to go back over to 7th Avenue and then over to 5th Avenue and you had to keep moving around because they kept coming after you.”

The Kennedy Shooting

Hagan recounts the memory of JFK’s assassination very clearly. He stated that everyone remembered where they were when JFK got shot. Hagan was on 230th street in front of the post office.

“Everyone knew where they were when Kennedy got shot. Then all the conspiracy theories started. They were trying to figure out who really shot him.”

He remembers Lee Harvy Oswald recieving the blame for the shooting and being killed by Jack Ruby. He told me that the Kennedy investigation was very botched.

John F. Kennedy

To this day, no one knows where John F. Kennedy’s brain is. Instead of letting the doctor that performed surgery on JFK do the autopsy, JFK’s body was brought back to Washington D.C. and the autopsy was done there. Jackie Kennedy sat with the casket all the way up to Washington.

“We stopped by a guy named Mike Morry who told us. He said they just shot the president. We said what are you talking about? He said they just shot Kennedy, they shot him down like a dog. We couldn’t believe it. That’s how we found out.”


The 20th Century was an exciting time full of many different events. This interview has helped me understand the time period better. The events of the 20th Century are no longer something written in a book, but events learned through the experiences of another. History becomes much more realistic when you hear the story from someone who has lived through it. This interview has opened my eyes to the reality of history and has made me appreciate it even more.