Back in 2018, I was one of about 7,200 citizen-archivists and citizen-historians who participated in an initiative to transcribe comments handwritten by military personnel about their service during World War Two. Soldiers on active duty filled out questionnaires on topics like: women and gender, race and ethnicity, recreation and welfare, ground combat, air combat and medical care.
Unlike memoirs which are written after some time has passed, these questionnaires were filled out while the soldiers were still involved in the war. So unlike writing from memory, their responses were reactionary, honest, fresh and unfiltered.
Because they were handwritten and old, some of the words were difficult to make out, so each passage was given to multiple transcribers then compared to achieve the most accurate transcription.
Subjects discussed in the questionnaires include things like military posts, assignments, food, housing, medical care, furloughs and recreation. The respondents didn’t hold back, speaking their minds on such touchy topics as attitudes toward women in uniform and attitudes toward black soldiers serving in a segregated military. The comments were not edited for spelling or grammar which lets the respondents’ education and upbringing shine through. They are compelling, authentic and eye-opening.
Here are a few examples:
This excerpt is from one who has had his fill of fighting:
“If the Italian Front is important enough to continue why in the hell can’t there be a few more divisions sent here instead of replacements.”
From a battle weary soldier:
“I think battalions like mine that have been on the three invasions should get a chance for some relief. We have been in all the big battles. Most of us are getting very nerves [nervous].”
From a black soldier:
“In a Nazi dominated country perhaps I would be required to wear a badge to show that I was inferior, even though I know I am not, but in America my badge is the color of my skin.”
From a soldier annoyed by what he has read in the newspaper:
“About these strikes back home they ought to put them men in the army (I mean over here on the front) and then they wouldn’t call to strike and be satisfied with there [their] high wages.”
There are about 90 different surveys which have been preserved, with as many as several thousand responses to each. Most contain questions to which the survey taker chose the answer that most closely aligned with his/her beliefs. Only a few of the questionnaires offered an opportunity for the survey taker to write out a free response to questions.
The completed, searchable survey came out earlier this year. You can check it out on the site: The American Soldier in World War II.
While the surveys help to draw a general consensus of conditions and attitudes, for me, the free responses are of most interest. One drawback is that if you leave one questionnaire, you can’t easily pick up where you left off. When you come back to that survey, you have to click your way back down to where you left off. But all in all it’s worth checking out.