Virginia Tech hosts its second World War II transcribathon to commemorate Veterans Day
“The chow is really bad and there usually isn’t enough.”
“The damn officers ought to dig there own fox holes. After all we don’t give a damn what happens to them!”
“We need more women!”
“Will the Bill of Rights permit me to go to a white law school?”
“Many are the nights I’ve layed awake and dreamt of cream toasted cheese sandwiches.”
These sometimes imperfectly spelled comments came from the scrawls of thousands of U.S. soldiers during the midst of World War II.
To capture more candid comments, Virginia Tech will host its second Veterans Day transcribathon on Nov. 11–13 on behalf of The American Soldier in World War II project. This groundbreaking digital initiative provides public access to a one-of-a-kind documentary collection: 65,000 pages of uncensored reflections of U.S. military personnel in their own words.
Since the project’s May 2018 launch, citizen-archivists on the 1.9-million-member crowdsourcing platform Zooniverse.org have transcribed 46,000 pages in triplicate. The goal of this 72-hour event is to complete another 2,000 entries. The organizers are asking the public to help by visiting a local event, hosting one, or simply logging onto The American Soldier website.
“These wartime documents are unlike any others," said Edward Gitre, the Virginia Tech assistant professor of history who directs The American Soldier in World War II project. “On Dec. 8, 1941, the day after Japan’s Pearl Harbor assault, the U.S. Army embarked on a novel experiment of administering ‘attitude surveys’ to U.S. troops. The goal was to improve the army’s fighting efficiency and raise troop morale.”
During the conflict, more than half a million service personnel filled out opinion surveys, sometimes just off the frontlines. Tens of thousands went a step further. Promised anonymity and provided an extra, blank sheet of paper, soldiers wrote frankly about all facets of their experience, the war, and the U.S. Army, from the quality of rations, clothing, medical care, and leadership to the personal impact of service and the effects of battle.
For decades, their moving remarks could only be read on microfilm at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. With funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, an interdisciplinary team of Virginia Tech students, faculty, staff, and digital humanities experts has been collaborating with the National Archives Office of Innovation, Zooniverse.org, and University of Virginia data scientists to make these unexplored documents widely accessible for the first time using innovative human and artificial intelligence.
Support for the American Soldier in World War II project has also been provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, which awarded the project a startup planning grant; the National Archives; and the Social Science Research Council.
“The American Soldier in World War II project is bringing to light 65,000 individual troops’ uncensored thoughts about their military service, thoughts that are sure to inform new angles on military history and our understanding of the Greatest Generation and American society during this defining conflict,” said Jon Parrish Peede, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. “The Veterans Day transcribathon is a fitting tribute to our country’s armed forces, past and present, and one which NEH is proud to support.”
Special transcribathon events will be held in Blackburg on Nov. 11 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the Athenaeum of Virginia Tech’s Newman Library, 560 Drillfield Drive, and on Nov. 12 from noon to 4 p.m. in the Blacksburg Public Library, 200 Miller St., SW. To learn more, visit The American Soldier website.
The transcribathon is one of several commemorative events the Department of History will host in honor of Veterans Day. A free screening of “Let There Be Light,” a 1946 documentary directed by John Huston, will take place Nov. 10 from 1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. at the Lyric Theatre; a brief Q&A will follow.
On Nov. 14 at 5 p.m., Kara Dixon Vuic, the Benjamin W. Schmidt Professor of War, Conflict, and Society in Twentieth-Century America at Texas Christian University, will deliver a free public lecture, “Donuts and Dancing: Entertaining America’s Wartime Military,” in Room 203 of the New Classroom Building, 1455 Perry St., Blacksburg.
— Written by Jessica Brabble, a first-year graduate student in the Department of History and a graduate research assistant for The American Soldier in World War II project.