Interview your Veteran before it's too late!
World War II 
(Article compiled by Flora L VerStraten)


When our grandchildren are grown, and all of the men and women of the Great Generation are gone, what will genealogists have as resources for the study of this group of people?

There seems to be an awareness of the importance of the stories that the Greatest Generation has to tell.  There also seems to be a great deal of material preserved-from books written by soldiers and civilians-to web sites by units, bomb groups and POW organizations- to newsletters that link descendants of those who served in various units.

What we as researchers need to remember about this information is that it is primarily subjective- it is often based on memories that are 50-some years old.  However, since a fire at the National Personnel Records Center in 1973 destroyed a great number of military records from the twentieth century, secondary and subjective material and oral history will be quite important in painting the picture of the lives of the young men and women on the home front. 

During the  holiday season, take advantage of the opportunity to interview the soldiers in your family.  Take down notes, write a paragraph or a book, make an audio or videotape.  In some way, preserve what you or your relative remembers from the turbulent time of WWII and the period after.  By recording in some way the personal stories of the individuals of the time, we can give the genealogists and historians of the future a fighting chance to know what things were really like. Don’t you wish more Civil War soldiers and their women contemporaries had written their memoirs?

The following are some questions and topics about the WWII time period to jog the memory and provide topics of reflection.  Some of them have been adapted from a list distributed by the U.S. Army Military History Institute at the time of the 50th anniversary of WWII.  (You can also use some of the following for other military interviews such as; The Korean War, Vietnam War, and Dessert Storm, etc.) Don’t let your soldiers’ experiences fade with their memories!

  • Begin by giving basic informationabout the subject of the interview: name, date of birth, current address.
  • Service information: branch of the service, highest rank or grade, number of unit, commanders’ names, date(s) and place(s) of enlistment, length of service.
  • Background information: address or hometown at the time of WWII began, previous occupation or name of school if a student, previous military experience.
  • Reason for joining the service: Why did you fight? If voluntary enlistment, why? If drafted, what was the feeling about the draft?
  • Where were you and what were you doing when you heard about Pearl Harbor?
  • How did the people around you react to the news of Pearl Harbor? How did you feel and react?
  • Did the war make an immediate change in your life? In your family’s life? Your neighborhood or community’s life?
  • Enlistment: when and where was your training? In what specialty were you trained? What was it like leaving your family? Did your training prepare you for your service?
  • Weapons and equipment: Describe the weapons, equipment, clothing and rations received.  Were the weapons reliable, the clothing appropriate for the weather conditions the rations adequate? Any particular memories regarding these items? How adequate was medical care?
  • Do you have specific memories of good or bad leadership, heroism or related topics?
  • What was discipline like during your service period? Did you have any experiences with military courts and justice? Did you have any experiences with desertion in your unit?
  • Recreation and camaraderie: What did soldiers do when they were off duty? What did they buy with their pay? Were drinking and drugs a problem in your unit? Was there gambling? What songs were popular? Did you notice discrimination of any kind?
  • Overseas service: When and where were you stationed overseas? How did you get there? What were your impressions of service overseas? Did American soldiers get along with civilians?
  • Morale: How was morale in your unit? Do you have any specific memories of enemy propaganda?
  • Combat service: Describe your combat experiences in terms of date, place, enemy and details.  What were your thoughts and feelings at the time?
  • Describe a typical day on the front lines.
  • How would you describe your unit’s combat performance?
  • Were you wounded in action? Did you know anyone who was killed? Do you know anyone who experienced “shell shock?” How effective was medical training behind the lines? Do you still suffer any effects from your wounds?
  • How did you and your fellow soldiers regard enemy troops as fighters? Were they well trained and were their weapons effective?
  • How did you view the enemy as individual people? Did this view change after you encountered them in battle?
  • Were you a prisoner of war? When and where were you captured? How long were you a POW? Did you escape?  What was your experience in captivity?
  • Did you capture any enemy prisoners? How did U.S.Forces treat enemy prisoners?
  • What were your feelings about the atomic bomb?
  • What awards and decorations did you receive?
  • What was your date and place of discharge?
  • What was your welcome like when you returned?
  • What did you do following the war and how did it affect your occupation once returning? Was it easy or difficult to readapt to civilian life?
  • How did people keep their spirits up during war?
  • How did the community receive you when arriving home? How did others react to you?
  • What do you want people today to know and remember about World War II?