Band of Brothers
March 2, 2020
The quick, sloping cursive handwriting fills the computer screen. It reads, “Spam, Spam, Spam. All I dream about is Spam.”
These words of complaint about the much-maligned canned meat were captured in a World War II survey conducted by the Army Research Branch of the U.S. War Department. The anonymous soldier’s response is one of 65,000 included in The American Soldier in World War II, a Virginia Tech digital project that recently received a $350,000 implementation grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
“What’s great about these sources is they’re uncensored,” says Edward Gitre, the assistant professor of history who is leading the project. “The soldiers answered the surveys during the war while they were serving — in uniform and in combat.”
During the war, the Army Research Branch’s social and behavioral science advisors and staff had been looking for a way to create a more efficient and effective fighting force. The survey was a first step.
The National Archives digitized the 44 rolls of microfiche holding the surveys. Now they are available on Zooniverse.org, a crowdsourced social research platform.
Gitre’s history students are joining a cadre of volunteers nationally in transcribing the documents. The ultimate goal is to make the soldiers’ responses available to scholars and the public.
When he first started teaching World War II history, Gitre says, he struggled with the immensity of the subject and the challenge of personalizing such a global war and series of events for his students. This project provided an answer, as he now finds that the collection helps humanize the past.
“I knew the students would appreciate the sources and find them interesting,” he says. “These soldiers were their age, and because these surveys were firsthand and anonymous, the soldiers spoke frankly. It’s not as though the documents are reporting an oral history 40 years after the fact from recreated memories. The gripes the soldiers had are ones most people would understand.”
Written by Leslie King