I can still recall the exhilaration I felt in the reading room of the National Archives in College Park, Maryland.
It was mid-April 2009. I was scrolling through roll after microfilm roll of the War Department’s “Opinion Surveys Relating to the Morale of U.S. Army Personnel.”
What I had discovered were tens of thousands of statements written by World War II American soldiers about their military experiences. Not only were they uncensored, they were also composed during the conflict — not afterward, from re-created memories.
A postdoctoral fellow at the time in modern U.S. history, I felt confident that no other collection of WWII records compared to what had been saved on these unreproduced 44 microfilm rolls. Neither had I ever seen these documents used in any history of WWII.
I had just discovered a historian’s gold mine.
If only the public had access to these, I thought to myself.
Collecting Opinions and Measuring Morale
The Army scheduled its first, benignly titled “Planning Survey,” for early December 1941. The survey was created by an internal Army research branch staffed and advised by some of the country’s leading social and behavioral scientists.
The objective of this and other subsequent surveys was to collect information that would help improve the Army’s organizational efficiency and effectiveness and shore up the adjustment of “citizen-soldiers” to their military service.
The research team started with some 1,900 soldiers from the Ninth Division stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The first group of roughly 50 men ordered to report to the camp theater that Monday morning in 1941 had no idea why they had been selected.
Once inside, the assembled GIs were told by the private responsible for administering the survey that the military was doing something that had “never been done in this Army, or in any other Army in the world.” The researchers described this scene and reprinted the survey instructions in a February 1942 Army report.
The survey asked troops about their pre-enlistment civilian occupations and job skills; their Army pay, classification and assignment satisfaction; their training, unit coherence and pride; leadership, Army command and fitness for war — as well as about food, uniforms, medical care, entertainment and athletics.
The novel idea of surveying GIs reflected the growing prestige of opinion polling and social surveying. Yet, as a global war was being fought against authoritarianism, it also demonstrated an important democratic virtue. Citizens of a democracy ought to “have a say” in how things are run.
At locations around the globe, from Alaska to Panama to the Persian Gulf and the far Pacific, more than half a million WWII service members eventually filled out surveys or were interviewed by this research branch.
As the war progressed, the number, range and specificity of questions increased. Did GIs like stew or eggs in their rations? Did they use condoms and understand the risks of venereal diseases? What did they think of America’s allies?
Fair Play, a Square Deal
Soldiers were also given open-ended prompts to write about whatever they wanted.
These “free comment” statements were later preserved on microfilm. The photographed statements — handwritten, all — were what I discovered in 2009 at the National Archives.
Respondents wrote often and at length about democracy.
To them, it seemed that a country defending democracy abroad would want to set an example at home, especially on behalf of those willing to serve and die for the cause. From the War Department, the de facto largest employer in the country, they expected a “square deal.”
“Entirely too much boot-licking going on,” one soldier wrote. “Some sort of a merit system should be instituted. Closer supervision by officers. And stricter discipline enforced where the rights of others are concerned. … No patronage. Ability should be rewarded. Equality for all.”
The War Department’s top brass wanted the Army to be a more efficient and effective organization, yet as these commentaries reveal, so, too, did the rank and file.
The war effort, then, was teaching milk farmers, longshoremen, cooks, surveyors, machinists and nurses about more than civic duty. By inculcating the principles and values of “fair play,” equity, teamwork and merit, it was also teaching them how to be a part of a large, modern, bureaucratic organization.
Victory at Home
Histories of the U.S. civil rights movement draw a bright, bold line from the military service of African-Americans and the wartime persistence of Jim Crow practices to the broad movement for racial equality after the war.
Black GIs in their open-ended survey responses wrote passionately against the injustice of their forced military service as “citizen-soldiers” in a war to defend democracy while being denied basic civil rights at home. Anonymity provided them an exceptional opportunity to speak their mind without fear of retribution.
While reading these commentaries, I was struck by their frankness. Yet I also took note of how similarly black GIs wrote about the Army as a modern organization and about how, in their thinking, it should be run. That is, they were equally insistent as their white comrades that the rule of equity and merit should prevail, irrespective of race — theirs especially.
“The men should be selected for their merit and not by favour because you can’t defeat the enemy by favour,” wrote one black soldier in a survey of race relations in the Army. “Some men aren’t doing the type of jobs they can produce more of and are working at a disadvantage. Too much dissatisfaction and friction, otherwise OK. But good leaders necessary.”
Another black respondent said, “The negro soldier would easily be one of the best and loyalist men in the army if given a half way chance. But the way this army is working, you have no chance.”
He had been a wing assembler on B-17s, and now he was a hospital porter doing “a job that a 70-year-old man or woman could do. … Do you think I feel as if I was doing anything in this war? Hell No.”
Personal sacrifices and national ideals
The handwritten commentaries the researchers preserved — photographed in 1947, and amounting to some 65,000 pages — capture for posterity converging and diverging plotlines that ran through the same organization.
It has taken a decade, but with the indispensable help of volunteer citizen-archivists on the 1.7-million member Zooniverse crowdsourcing platform, the entire collection of now-digitized commentaries are being transcribed, so the public can finally access and read them. The commentaries will not be available — as a complete collection — until the project is complete.
The collection, above all, will showcase the essential humanity of the individual soldier.
It will provide the public with the most comprehensive portrait of the largest citizen-soldier Army in U.S. history.
It will capture, too, the collective making of many of the social motifs, conflicts and movements that came to define American culture after war — from the so-called “Organization Man” and second-wave feminism to the organized fight for racial equality.