What They Were Thinking: WWII Soldiers' Insights to Become Public Data Base

May 8, 2018

At the beginning of World War Two, the Army began an unusual project. It surveyed its soldiers for their comments and ideas. Participation was voluntary and anonymity was promised. For nearly 80 years, those comments sat in drawers at the National Archive. Now, a nationwide effort to digitize them, and make them available to the public, is being led by Virginia Tech.  

At first, military brass opposed the idea of surveying the rank and file.  But social scientists pointed out, the massive draft would bring great change to the Army, and better understanding the mindset of the new 'citizen soldiers' could help the war effort.

As World War Two got underway in 1941, the U.S. Army  Research Branch got permission to survey the rank and file, and what they got, was quite an earful.   Some soldiers complained about how the army was being run, others spoke of patriotism and sacrifice. 

By war's end, they’d collected 65,000 commentaries on all sorts of topics and some of them helped shape policy and planning.

Their anonymous, handwritten commentaries, on microfilm, were locked away in a drawer at the National Archives, until Virginia Tech History Professor Ed Gitre found them.

"I started to read what they had written, and I knew that I had found a gold mine, that these were completely unique documents. There was nothing like them, and I thought to myself, sitting there; the public needs to have access to these." 

Gitre  says there have already been some significant findings. One has to do with the then-controversial idea of integrating platoons of volunteer black soldiers into what were then all-white infantry companies.  

He says, "The concern was, if you integrate, it’s going to affect morale and efficiency. Well, what happened was exactly the opposite. Not only did the African American soldiers perform just as well, but it improved race relations."

This research undermined long-held views about black soldiers and the necessity of military segregation. Armed with new information and the efforts of black activists, President Harry Truman abolished discrimination in the armed forces in 1948, ultimately leading to de-segregation in the services. 

Most of the data from these surveys has never been mined. This week, Virginia Tech is kicking off a crowd-sourced project to transcribe the comments.  Organizers are hoping an army of volunteers will sign in to an online citizen-archivist site to help.  Supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the "American Soldiers in World War Two" transcription drive is expected to take a couple of years.

The project team invites your help transcribing soldiers comments using a crowd sourced transcription project on Zooniverse, an online citizen-science platform.  Anyone with an Internet connection may take part. You will work with scholar to check your transcriptions.