A review of The American Soldier in World War II, a digital project studying U.S. Army surveys on the experiences of troops in the Second World War, directed by Edward J.K. Gitre
The American Soldier in World War II
Edward J.K. Gitre, Virginia Tech
A full list of the project team and partners is available on the site.
Matthew F. Delmont, Dartmouth College
Edward J.K. Gitre
During World War II, the U.S. Army administered more than 200 surveys to over half a million American troops to discover what they thought and how they felt about the conflict and their military service. The surviving collection of studies is now accessible to the public for the first time through The American Soldier in World War II. This digital humanities project hosts 65,000 pages of uncensored, open-ended responses handwritten by servicemembers; viewable and downloadable survey data and original analyses; topical essays by leading historians; and additional learning resources.
In 2009, Ed Gitre encountered the survey records held by The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Though unclassified, the only way to read the soldiers’ commentaries was to visit the archives to read them on microfilm. Gitre initially requested two microfilm reels be digitized so students could transcribe them. Based on this student-sourcing success, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) awarded Virginia Tech a $50,000 Division of Preservation and Access planning grant in 2017.1
Gitre and the Crowd Intelligence Lab at Virginia Tech designed and launched a transcription initiative on the popular crowdsourcing platform Zooniverse.org in May 2018. Over the course of the two-and-a-half-year transcription drive, nearly 7,200 citizen-archivists and citizen-historians submitted over a quarter-million transcriptions and annotations. In 2019, the NEH Division of Preservation and Access awarded the project a second, $350,000 implementation grant to sustain these transcription efforts, modernize NARA’s data files, and build an open-access website.2
Gitre worked with data scientists at Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia Biocomplexity Institute to produce quantitative datasets from the U.S. Army’s survey program and to improve website performance. In 2020, the project received $15,000 of financial support from Virginia Tech’s Data & Decisions Destination Area. Student teams from Virginia Tech’s Computational Modeling and Data Analytics program and summer interns from the University of Virginia’s Data Science for the Public Good Young Scholars Program implemented national language processing (NLP) techniques to determine the order of how free responses are presented, based on an NLP-generated “interest score.”3 Funding also supported data cleaning, undertaken by the Virginia Tech University Libraries’ DataBridge lab. Additionally, Virginia Tech Publishing facilitated a Creative Commons licensing agreement for The American Soldier volumes, supported and hosted transcribathons, and copyedited website content.
The project is continuing to grow with transdisciplinary efforts. Virginia Tech’s Center for Human-Center Interaction graduate student Lee Lisle designed a virtual reality (VR) prototype for displaying large document sets in an immersive environment, called Immersive Space to Think, which has resulted in two IEEE VR conference proceedings.4 In 2020, Kurt Piehler, a project advisory board member, began discussions on creating a public museum exhibit. This interactive exhibit would combine physical artifacts from World War II with a virtual reality/augmented reality (VR/AR) tool for visitors to explore free responses in an immersive environment. To prototype this VR/AR technology, Virginia Tech’s Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology awarded the project a $25,000 Major SEAD grant.5
The American Soldier in World War II provides access to rarely viewed uncensored reflections on war and military service that U.S. military personnel composed during the conflict and with the promise of anonymity. As such, this site captures a wide and unfettered range of U.S. servicemembers’ experiences, beliefs, and viewpoints. We present these materials as historical records and are committed to making them available to encourage and facilitate historical research, awareness, reflection, and discussion. While we have updated their format and presentation to ensure accessibility and equitable dissemination, we have left them uncensored and as unexpurgated and unedited as possible. This decision aligns with the core values and code of ethics of the Society of American Archivists.
Matthew F. Delmont
The American Soldier in World War II is an exciting and impressive digital public humanities project focused on surveys that the U.S. Army collected from officers and enlisted personnel during World War II. Fifteen topical essays provide an overview of several of the most important topics related to the war (e.g., “The Home Front,” “Discipline & Military Justice,” “Women & Gender”), while also introducing visitors to the surveys. At the start of the war, the United States War Department created a Research Branch in the Morale Division of the U.S. Army to examine soldiers’ morale, broadly defined. Over a four-year span, this division administered more than 200 surveys to over 500,000 servicemembers in every theater of the war, covering topics such as leave policies, radio listening, combat experiences, racial views, mental and physical health, and postwar plans.
These surveys are the project’s foundation and visitors can engage with them in a number of ways. The essays include highlights from the surveys, using soldiers’ responses to illuminate key points. Navigating from the “Topics” to “Surveys” tab, visitors can search all 90 surveys known to exist by date, topic, or keyword. Depending on the type of survey, the results are rendered as scanned images of handwritten responses, text transcriptions, or bar charts. Visitors can also download compressed survey-level and respondent-level folders, including SPSS files in sparse allele vector (SAV) format, raw data in comma-separated values (CSV) format, JPEG scans of microfilm, and text transcriptions. By making the surveys and datasets available and searchable on an open-access website, the project does an important service to the field. The project will enable scholars to investigate the attitudes of World War II soldiers at both the granular and large-scale quantitative level. In addition, the project includes more than two dozen lesson plans to help guide teachers and students through this vast digital archive and enable new ways of engaging with the history of the war.
Project Director Edward Gitre and the project team have secured substantial funding to develop the project from the NEH, SSRC, and Virginia Tech. In addition to these financial resources, NARA’s Digital Engagement Division digitized the entire collection of surveys, totaling more than 65,000 pages. The project team also led a large-scale initiative to transcribe these surveys by using the crowdsourcing Zooniverse platform and organizing 10 transcription events at libraries and universities across the country.
The site is easy to navigate, which will help ensure that it is widely visited not only by scholars, but also by students and people with a general interest in the history of the war. Given the current battles over how U.S. history is taught, there is great value in historians presenting primary sources alongside their analysis. From this vantage point, The American Soldier will not only help people better understand the history of the war, it will help them better understand how historians use primary sources and evidence to make scholarly arguments.
Along these lines, it would be helpful if the project had a more thorough introductory essay to establish its voice and point of view. The “Project History” section notes: “The American Soldier in World War II Project was initiated in 2015, but inspired by a discovery six years earlier, when Project Director Ed Gitre first encountered the handwritten commentaries that are at the heart of this project.” This could be the starting point for an introductory essay that explains the project’s motivations and contributions. This essay could note how the project builds on or complicates work by historians of mass publics such as Sarah Igo and Dan Bouk. The project makes significant contributions to the field, but this could be made more explicit.
Personally, although I have researched World War II for several years, I learned a great deal from the project and the surveys. While there are many worthy scholarly monographs, journal articles, and edited collections on World War II, The American Soldier is unique and original because it embraces the opportunities of the digital format to present a range of scholarly analysis, archival data, and pedagogical materials in one coherent project.