Documenting the Lives of Veterans During World War II

This post is by Matthew Poth, 2017-18 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence and an Iraq War veteran.

As November 11th approaches, there is no better time to discuss with students the importance of our nation’s veterans and the roles they played in some of the United States’ most trying times. From the first shots of the American Revolution to the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, brave men and women have been defending the rights of Americans across the globe.

Two collections of eyewitness accounts from the Library of Congress offer insights into the daily lives and struggles of soldiers during World War II: the drawings by Yank magazine artist Sergeant Howard Brodie and interviews through the Library’s Veterans History Project (VHP).

Sergeant Brodie captured the daily struggle of the men fighting through the jungles and in the air above the Pacific island of Guadalcanal through his sketches. The various images offer insights into every aspect of the life of a soldier, down to even the most mundane, on the front.

Scene in a Guadalcanal foxhole near the front at midnight. Howard Brodie, 1943

Earl J. Ripstra Lt Col 132d Inf. Nashville Tenn. Howard Brodie

Rd. to Kokumbona a GI passes a roadside grave moving up. Howard Brodie, 1943

VHP has more than 3,200 interviews from veterans as far back as the First World War.  Listening to a veteran recount events helps students understand the impact wars have on a personal level that is not possible to see from the general textbook overviews that only cover the dates, names, and places of battles. Interviews with Navajo Code Talkers may be of particular interest for students hoping to understand the complexity of codes and their importance in winning in the Pacific during the Second World War.

To tie both of these collections together, a teacher could facilitate a lesson focusing on the role that the Navajo played during the island-hopping campaign across the Pacific Ocean. Students could first read about the overall U.S. strategy and learn about the need and development of an unbreakable code. The class could include a brief overview of the Navajo people and the start of the Code Talker program. Then, students could move through various stations where they

  • learn about how the Navajo language was used as code, either visually or through an audio clip,
  • view part of an interview of Chester Nez, who was one of the original 29 Code Talkers, discussing his experience during the Battle of Guadalcanal, and
  • work with the Brodie images.

Exploring these rich and varied resources can give students a better understanding of the human toll war has and the conditions, in addition to the enemy, that those fighting had to endure.

Once students gain a better understanding of the Navajo language and how it was used during the war, their skills as code talkers could be put to the test. Challenge students to send and receive a number of coded messages in order to help the Americans win the war. This could be followed with a short research project or a quick write to tie the lesson together.

How did your students respond to studying eye witness accounts in these very different formats?

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