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Historians launch website offering uncensored views from American soldiers in World War II

Virginia Tech
(© Andriy Blokhin – stock.adobe.com)

The good, the bad, the ugly, and the heroic. Historian Edward Gitre believes every aspect of World War II matters.

Eleven years ago, he discovered a trove of firsthand reflections written by American soldiers through surveys conducted by the United States Army. The uncensored documents detail soldiers’ opinions on a range of topics, such as warfare, race and ethnicity, health care, and their own military service.

When Gitre first located the records, the National Archives and Records Administration held the sole copies. Quickly, Gitre realized the surveys deserved more sunlight.

An assistant professor in the Virginia Tech Department of History, Gitre began combing through the unclassified microfilm reels.

He moved forward to expand access to the records with the help of Virginia Tech students; the Crowd Intelligence Lab led by Kurt Luther, a Virginia Tech associate professor of computer science and history; and grant funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and Virginia Tech.

In 2018, Gitre and colleagues launched The American Soldier in World War II project, an international initiative that uses crowdsourcing and natural-language-processing techniques to transcribe, mine, and increase access to the archives. Transcribers from several countries contributed to the project.

According to Gitre, their mission was “to quite literally write these tens of thousands of personal expressions of soldiers into the historical record.”

Now, the project is poised to reach an even wider audience.

The American Soldier in World War II website officially launches on Dec. 7, offering the general public a remarkably honest glimpse into the minds of military service members amid humanity’s deadliest war.

Gitre said the project team found meaning in opening the website for public access on Pearl Harbor Day.

“We found it especially fitting to coincide with the 80th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor,” he said, “because the WWII research branch administered its first large-scale survey to soldiers the day after the attack.”

With a user-friendly interface, americansoldierww2.org provides easy access to documents once challenging to access or navigate. Historians, journalists, students, educators, and the general public can all benefit from exploring the array of records.

The website features 65,000 pages of open-ended, unfiltered survey responses by an estimated 500,000 services members. Users can view and download survey data and original analyses, and access learning resources and topics essays written by leading historians.

In total, the website offers users the following options:

  • browse 86 unique studies administered stateside and around the world;
  • filter soldiers’ survey responses by rank, education, and other demographic variables;
  • download 139 complete datasets;
  • read and download 65,093 pages of transcribed soldiers’ handwritten remarks;
  • search the entire collection and filter the results by date, theater of war, and characteristics of surveyed soldiers, such as race, rank, and combat experience;
  • download lesson plans that help students explore the collection and learn about the war from the soldiers’ perspective;
  • read 15 topical background essays by leading historians of World War II; and
  • view glossaries of World War II slang and jargon as well as other helpful guides to the army’s survey program and datasets.

Gitre, who serves as project director, said he’s proud of the work of both his transdisciplinary team and the contributors from around the world who devoted their time to creating the robust online database.

When the U.S. Army conducted the surveys in the 1940s, army command closely guarded the results. Troops only received carefully vetted summary digests, and the general public had even less.

Uncensored access to the authentic views of service members is important from historical and societal perspectives, Gitre said.

“So much of what we know about the everyday experiences of Americans who served in the war comes from such sources as letters that were censored, memories recorded later, or films,” he said. “What struck me when I encountered these soldiers’ commentaries was not only the volume, numbering in the tens of thousands, but also the raw and unfiltered nature of their words.”

Story by Andrew Adkins


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