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‘My Trusty Pad’: Diaries in the Veterans History Project

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I don’t keep a diary, but I used to. When I was in graduate school, I kept a diary on my computer, a la Doogie Howser. I wrote in it nearly every day, sometimes multiple times a day, venting my frustrations with my thesis and my anxieties about the future, and composing cheesy pep talks to cheer myself onto the next chapter. Keeping a diary helped me to navigate a stressful time; it gave me an outlet for my discombobulated thoughts, and a way to make sense of them. The diary lapsed post-grad-school, as I no longer had such a pressing need to write in it.

It’s crass to use my own experience with keeping a diary as an entry point into a discussion of military diaries–grad school and military service are radically different experiences. However, to chronicle one’s journeys is a universal human impulse, and many members of the military kept diaries during their time in the service. The Veterans History Project manuscript holdings include nearly 150 original diaries, from veterans of all wars and all branches. These diaries are unparalleled historical documents, invaluable in what they can tell us about military culture and historical events. With these diaries, their writers captured first-hand intimate details of war that might otherwise be forgotten. Beyond their modern-day use as unique primary sources, these diaries served a functional purpose during wartime: they provided members of the US military with a way to cope with the different traumas they endured.

Scanned image of piece of paper starting with "Mon. 9 " detailing out arrival, tents, sleep, mud, rain and more.
Diary entries, November 1917. Harry Frieman Collection, Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/23600.

Like civilians, members of the military kept diaries to fight off boredom and to record the day’s events. They wrote to capture the sights and sounds of what the writer was experiencing far away from home and to cope with loneliness and fear. This recording of information was particularly important given that correspondence sent back to the United States was censored; servicemembers could not necessarily share the details of where they were stationed, or about their combat experiences. In addition to official censoring, veterans also engaged in self-censoring: purposefully glossing over the graphic details of what they saw, did, and felt, for fear of worrying their loved ones. Thus, diaries served as a place in which they could share more fully. This use of “diary as outlet” was particularly important for soldiers in combat, or for those interned in POW camps.

So strong was the impetus to keep a diary that servicemembers ignored regulations against keeping a diary (the military was concerned with troop members recording details of movements and operations, in the case that diaries fell into enemy hands). Servicemembers often went to great lengths not only to keep diaries, but also to keep them secret from their commanding officers. Army Corporal Alfred C. Harrison explains his method of keeping and concealing a diary during his time in France during World War I:

[I would] write my notes on scraps of paper, keeping them concealed in the waist lining of my breeches. When orders would come through to move from rest area to reserve or line positions, I would compress all the papers into one small packet, wrap it well in a paper covering and securely bind it with adhesive tape which was easily procurable from the infirmary stores. These little packets would then be made to look like pieces of soiled bandage or refuse by rolling in dirt and mud. My collection numbered six of these packets and the record built up from them is accurate and true.

The topics covered in these diaries range  from combat operations to c-rations. Entries in Harry Frieman’s World War I diary cover single phrases (“drill as usual”) to more descriptive entries that painting a stark portrait of the gruesome realities of war: “We were advancing very fast… one man… attached to our unit was hit by a shell and killed. All that was found of him was an arm.” In his diary, Earl Harvey Morris chronicles his time aboard the USS Walke during the final days of World War II, during combat off the coast of Okinawa. Consistent entries citing “bogies” and “splashed” aircraft—slang for unidentified aircraft and downed planes, respectively—give a sense of the grueling routine of facing the enemy, day after day. Not involved in combat, Army chaplain Jacob Wendell Beck gives a very different account of life aboard ship during World War II. Sailing in the South Pacific aboard the SS Mormacsea, Beck led religious services and made hospital visits, and coped with shipboard politics and war-weary sailors. His journal includes brief, vivid descriptions of the devastation of the Philippines following the war. In one entry, he catalogs detritus on the ground in a cemetery: “A partly used clip of 30 Ammo… a shoe… a native girl’s two-toed slipper; a piece of a blue china cup; the jacket of a canteen… these and countless other little items left behind in the wake of war.”

Scanned image of handwritten diary on the back of Lucky Strike Cigarette labels.
Homer Hall’s POW Diary. Homer Hall Collection, Veterans History Project, AFC 2001/00/74621

Even more so than other combat soldiers, prisoners of war faced extreme deprivation and boredom. In order to record their thoughts, soldiers made use of the limited supplies around them, appropriating any sort of paper they could find. Captured by the Germans just after D-Day, and interned in Stalag Luft IV, Staff Sergeant Homer Hall cobbled together a diary that was written on the backs of cigarette papers and held together by a strip of tin from a container of cheese sent by the Red Cross. Some POWs, such as William Isadore Teller, were lucky enough to be given blank books, distributed to German prisoner of war camps by the YMCA. Known as Kriegie books, after kriegsgefangene, the German word for prisoner of war, these diaries were often treated more as journals. In addition to prose narratives, POWs would add sketches and illustrations, lists, and poems to them, and they were often collaborative works, passed back and forth so that multiple prisoners could make entries in them. Teller’s Kriegie book evokes his day-to-day life while interned in Stalag Luft III. In it, Teller recorded a narrative of his service, lists of novels, expressions common in the camp, “Kriegie recipes,” and important dates, including April 29th, 1945, when he wrote in large letters that he and his fellow prisoners were “FREE MEN AGAIN.”

Scanned image of writing on a piece of paper.
Leon Jenkins Diary, September 2, 1942. Leon Jenkins Collection, Veterans History Project, AFC2001/00/91622.

Even for veterans who were not interned in POW camps, keeping a diary could provide a sense of self and solace amid terrifying conditions. A Pearl Harbor survivor, Leon Jenkins went on to serve with the Marines during the battles of Midway, Tulagi, and Guadalcanal. His diary begins on July 21, 1942, four days before his 21st birthday, as he is en route to Guadalcanal. Subsequent entries narrate his combat experiences on Tulagi and Guadalcanal; he describes bayoneting a Japanese soldier, and gives an account of an incident in which his wristwatch is blown off his wrist by the force of a nearby explosion. Within these entries, he makes several references to his “pad”—that is, his diary.  Keeping a journal was vitally important to Jenkins, to the point where he even made entries during combat. Reading Jenkins’ entry for September 2, 1942, gives a visceral sense of the impending action:

Bomb thirty. Planes will be here in 10 minutes. We’re already in the woods. I have a different place today. It’s a nice little hollow where a direct hit or a very near miss would be the only thing to get me. I see the planes. 18 of them. Coming in same as yesterday. Just a little to my right. The winds from that way too. This is going to be close. AA opened up and first bomb landed about 100 yds + next bomb right in line with my…

Here Jenkins’ handwriting trails off. The next entry is dated September 14, 1942, twelve days later, and is written in a shaky hand. Evacuated from Guadalcanal to a hospital ship, and recovering from injuries he incurred during combat, he writes “I am so nervous I can hardly write. Also have one awful headache. Doc said I insisted on bringing my trusty pad.” According to a letter written by the donor of the collection, Jenkins’ nephew Kerry Ames, following his stay in the hospital, Jenkins was discharged in November 1942 with a diagnosis of “psychoneurosis,” and battled Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) his entire life. Writes Mr. Ames, “Leon Jenkins was changed by the events he describes in this diary.”

Like Leon Jenkins, William Barner III was changed by the events he describes in his diary. Serving with the Army in Vietnam from 1968 to 1969 as part of an armored cavalry unit, Barner fought the war largely from within an armored vehicle, and thus was able to make entries in his diary during downtime, and to keep the diary clean and dry. In his oral history interview, he discusses how, despite writing daily letters to his wife, Sandra, his diary became his real outlet:

What I wrote Sandra every day was how beautiful of a country we were in and we — and I never talked to her about what we did. I always talked to her about loving her and about the guys that I worked with and about the country and how beautiful it was. But the diary, I told the truth to.

As he explains in his interview, many years after the war’s end, reading through his diary helped Barner to come to terms with PTSD. In this sense, for Barner, keeping a diary proved to be a therapeutic exercise both during and after the war. Like Barner, many veterans “told the truth to” the diaries they kept during their time in the military. Originally kept as tools for dealing with the stress and boredom of  military life, these diaries now stand as tools to be used by future generations, to gain a more complete picture of what their authors endured and witnessed.

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