Over the past 25 years, the Center for the Study of War and Society (CSWS) at the University of Tennessee (UT) has conducted hundreds of oral history interviews with World War II veterans. These interviews are especially unique because they take a holistic approach to the veteran’s story by allowing them to provide a broad context for their war-time experiences. This includes narratives about their lives before combat, motivations to enlist, personal experiences during the war, and attempts to adjust to civilian life afterwards.
The founding of the CSWS, more than 30 years ago, was motivated by two urgent concerns. First, it was imperative to document veterans’ experiences of the war before their generation passed. Second, the historians who founded the center wanted to move beyond traditional military history—with its focus on great leaders, battles, and troop movements—to embrace a wider focus that includes social and cultural history. The founders’ early focus on the relationship between war and society proved to be prescient; it is now a recognized area of historical inquiry. Today, the Center’s mission is to provide public service education on “the human experience of war and peace” and to “to preserve the voice of the American veteran through an ongoing oral history program and a large World War II archival collection” (CSWS Mission Statement).
The oral histories uniquely capture what is described as the whole-life approach to a veteran’s experience. Similar efforts most often focus specifically on a veteran’s years of service and particular battlefronts, but this project encompasses the veteran’s entire life story within a social context. Veterans were asked to speak about their childhood, family, upbringing, and memories of life before service, as well as their individual experiences in the war. Their descriptions of life following the war yield valuable information about readjustment to civilian life and processing traumatic memories of combat. The interviews powerfully capture the experiences and memories of a diverse group of American veterans—from all regions of the country, from Medal of Honor recipients to Navajo code talkers, intelligence officers to Army engineers, nurses to Marines—each offering in his or her own voice a unique perspective on conflict.
The oral history collection is one of UT Libraries’ Special Collections’ most highly used collections; however, the histories were originally captured on audiocassette tapes which made them only available in the reading room. While the original tapes were duplicated for the use of interested researchers, the aging cassette tapes were vulnerable to deterioration and eventual loss of the priceless personal stories. Migrating the fragile audio recordings to a more stable format became an urgent priority. The goal of the project was to convert 375 audiocassette tapes, containing interviews with 167 individual veterans, into a digital format that would make them more accessible and ensure their long-term preservation. Over the past year and a half, with the help of a National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) grant, the UT Libraries oversaw the conversion of the taped interviews, created an online digital collection, and are maintaining preservation-quality digital copies for long term storage. The World War II oral histories have gone from audiocassette tapes available only within the Special Collections Reading Room to streaming audio available online for the world to hear and experience. The digitization project grew from a long-standing partnership between the CSWS and UT Libraries’ Special Collections. Together they are making the university a national center for the study of America’s experience of international conflict by collecting, preserving, and making accessible the letters, diaries, photos, memoirs, and oral histories of American veterans. The material that is donated to the CSWS is organized, preserved, and made available for research through the UT Libraries’ Special Collections.
The online oral histories can be browsed by interview (respondent), personal name, geographic region, or subject. Listeners can hear interviews with several veterans of German-Jewish descent who immigrated to America as teenagers and learn how their personal experiences of Nazi Germany motivated their later military service. Other narratives recall life during the Great Depression, the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the development of the “secret city” in Oak Ridge.
Explore this exceptional digital collection at http://digital.lib.utk.edu/collections/wwiioralhistories.
Center for the Study of War and Society Mission Statement. (2014). Retrieved from http://csws.utk.edu