WWII in a new light: Anonymous soldier surveys tell stories of morale, race relations

A group of soldiers take a break from fighting in Okinawa to listen to reports of Germany's surrender on May 8, 1945. Moments after the announcement, the men returned to the fighting against the Japanese. The American Soldier in WWII, a history project directed from Virginia Tech, is converting microfilm of surveys from WWII soldiers into a searchable internet database.


By WILL MORRIS | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 7, 2018

A Virginia Tech group is looking for history buffs, grateful citizens and others to enlist on V-E Day to help catalog thousands of firsthand accounts from soldiers in World War II about their daily lives.

The personal, handwritten accounts come from 65,000 documents collected during the war by the Army’s Information and Education Division Research Branch. Army leadership created the branch to tap into the mindset of its troops on a variety of issues. They issued surveys to soldiers on everything from field rations to the horrors of combat.

The frankness of the narratives is surprising, said Edward Gitre, Virginia Tech assistant history professor and director of the American Soldier in World War II transcription project.

In one survey, a soldier in the 28th Infantry Division — which would spend 196 days on the front lines as it fought the Germans — laments that morale was low because of his unit’s leadership.

“The 28th Division on a whole is run not for the soldier, but for the officers. I have no grudge, nor am I jealous of them, I have seen some good ones but they were regular Army men,” he said. “This Division is run on a ‘who you know’ basis. If the officer doesn’t know me, I haven’t a chance. The men here are all right but have lost all respect for the Army and don’t care what they (do) to the officers. All in all it adds up to one thing — the men are O.K. but the officers stink.”

Beginning on Tuesday, online volunteers can read stories like these while helping the project transcribe them from scanned microfilm into an online searchable database. Volunteers in the transcription effort can find the directions at the project's online repository.

Gitre knew he had found a historian’s “gold mine” when he first saw the surveys in 2011, because soldiers were instructed to write freely and anonymously.

“So much that comes to us from that time period is censored, but these are anonymous and uncensored,” Gitre said.

Gitre was struck by how respondents expressed the issue of race. Many soldiers expressed racist attitudes toward blacks and Jews, while others talked about Jim Crow laws.

“It didn’t surprise me they would hold the views,” Gitre said. “But that they would share these views with a level of openness and candor.”

The research led to dramatic changes eventually, including the desegregation of the Army. There is no evidence, however, that top Army leaders at that time wanted to study integration to see if it would work.

“The Research Branch had an interest and were careful to embed questions about race without making the survey about race relations,” Gitre said. “They had to be careful and were. After the fact, they were quite proud of the research and touted it as a significant outcome.”

In units where black and white soldiers worked closely, racism began to fall away, as people of different backgrounds were exposed to one another and tasked with goals for the common good, such as staying alive, the Research Branch found.

“They discovered that not only did the units perform just as well but that the contact between the races helped to defuse some of the racial tensions in the units,” Gitre said.

The American Soldier in World War II is a collaborative project, directed by Virginia Tech’s library and its history and computer science departments. It is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and is receiving technical support from the National Archives and Records Administration.

The narrative portions of the surveys from WWII will be linked to other survey data collected at same time. All of the documents from the surveys will be made public online.

Kurt Luther, project technical director and assistant computer science professor at Virginia Tech, said that the soldiers’ daily struggles resonated with him.

“It’s really powerful to hear what these soldiers felt in their own words,” Luther said. “Seeing their handwriting. To see what these soldiers went though is remarkable. It’s a shame that these stories have been locked up for so many years.”

Twitter: @willatstripes

A handwritten response to a survey issued during WWII by the Army's Information and Education Division Research Branch. The American Soldier in WWII, a history project directed from Virginia Tech, needs online volunteers to transcribe the contents of the surveys into a searchable database.