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By Nick Wakeman

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Nick Wakeman

Veterans Day project to digitize recollections of World War II service members

I’ll warn you ahead of time that this post has nothing to do with government contracting. But Veterans Day is coming and I think this is pretty cool.

Days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Army Research Branch began a social and behavioral sciences project to collect recollections from service members.

Before they were finished, they had collected information from 500,000 service members from across the globe. The surveys asked about a wide range of topics -- the quality of rations, entertainment, educational opportunities, training, medical care, and housing as well as the conduct of soldiers and commanding officers and other aspects of their wartime experiences.

The problem though is that this data is handwritten and not in any form where it can be collated and analyzed.

But a joint project by Virginia Tech and the National Archives is going to try to do something about that.

The website for the American Soldier in World War II includes examples of the surveys and handwritten recollections. "To hell with Hitler," wrote one soldier who wasn't too happy to be in the Army.

Another complained about how the 28th Division was run for the benefit of the officers, not the soldiers. "This division is run on a who you know basis, if the officer  doesn't know me, I haven't a chance," he wrote.

Virginia Tech and the Archives are conducting something they are calling a “transcribe-a-thon” to put the handwritten documents into a digital format. One event is at the Blacksburg, Virginia campus of the university on Nov. 12 and 13 and at the National Archives in Washington D.C. on Nov. 13. And the transcription will virtually online and anywhere from Nov. 11 to Nov. 13.

All the activity is around the Veterans Day holiday.

The surveys are currently available only with the microfilm readers at the National Archives facility in College Park, Maryland, so the project will make them much more widely available. Virginia Tech and the National Archives are using the crowdsourcing platform Zooniverse. You just need to register and you can participate in the project.

Once transcribed and integrated with other Army survey data, the entire collection will be available through a free and open-access website.

Edward Gitre is the Virginia Tech history professor overseeing the American Soldier in World War II project.

“These uncensored commentaries, while numbering in the many thousands, strike a human chord,” Gitre said. “They are bracing as well as inspiring, filled with decency, indignation, humor, despair, pride, and determination.”

The transcription project is using human and artificial intelligence to make the project widely accessible.

The prospect has history professors and researchers practically salivating.

“Never before, in more than three decades of historical research and university teaching, have I been so excited by a proposed project,” said Beth Bailey, director of the Center for Military, War, and Society Studies at the University of Kansas and a project advisory board member. “It promises to revolutionize the way we write about the U.S. experience of World War II. It has already led me to change my ‘War and American Society’ syllabus, and I am confident I will not be alone in so doing.”

My Uncle John survived the Battle of the Bulge and didn’t talk about the war much but I remember two stories. He talked to some German prisoners who said the Germans and the Allies should unite to face the Russians. He always told that story with the subtext that the Russians were much worse than the Nazis.

But he also spoke about liberating a concentration camp. Unfortunately, I can’t remember which one. He told me that he and other soldiers went to the nearest towns and gathered up the people that lived there and marched them through the camp.

He said it was a deliberate move to make sure none of them could ever deny that the atrocities that occurred at the camp in their backyard.

Of course, I have no idea whether he took the survey in this transcription project, but it is exciting to think of the window into the world he and other American soldiers lived in. It seems like a great way to bring history to life.

Happy Veterans Day, everyone, and thank to all the vets out there. Your service and sacrifice is appreciated.

Posted by Nick Wakeman on Nov 06, 2018 at 9:47 AM

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