The American GI in WWII, uncensored

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, but 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 in 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.

Unprecedented opportunity

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, over 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.