The following is a guest blog post by Matt McCrady, Digital Conversion Specialist for the Library of Congress.
The voice from seven decades ago comes through clear and distinct, with only the slight crackle of dust on the phonograph record to suggest the age of the recording.
“Lloyd, this is Len. Remember? … Other day I played off that record you and Johnny sent me about two years ago–and luckily no one was home when I played the doggone thing” [Phonograph recorded message (side one) “To Lloyd, Don’t play in mixed company. Len,” 9/5/1945, 00:00 – 00:30].
In 1945, when Leonard “Len” Kovar recorded his message to his pal, Lloyd, recording one’s voice as a way of corresponding with others was a novelty. A phonograph record might hold two or three minutes of audio, and one might find a recording booth on the boardwalk at Coney Island, or at county fairs. One might also find facilities for recording a brief voice message to mail home in the many USO clubs on World War II-era military bases.
Some people, like Kovar, spoke extemporaneously. Others read from a prepared statement, as in this recording of Harry Tinkcom. “Hello Mother, Dad, and Nancy. This is a rather unique way of sending a message home. I hope the old phonograph is equal to the occasion and reproduces this faithfully” (USO phonograph recording made by Harry Tinkcom [Thursday June 10, 1943], 00:00 – 00:11).
Tinkcom says he is using the “Send a Letter Home” facility at the USO. The listener can even catch some of the background noise of the USO club, such as men playing billiards and conversing [USO phonograph recording made by Harry Tinkcom, 6/10/1943].
Twenty years later, the Vietnam War saw the introduction of tape recorders, reel-to-reel in the early 1960s, and then audio cassette in the 1970s, as a convenient way to record correspondence. In contrast to the short messages that could be inscribed on a vinyl record, a tape might hold as much as a half hour of audio. For better or worse, the increased storage capacity of the audiotape format allowed for informal, detailed, poignant, funny, and occasionally disturbing recordings, such as when Staff Sergeant Allan Levin describes the summary execution of North Vietnamese prisoners by U.S. trained ROK [Republic of Korea] troops. [‘3” audio reel with writing on its box “1st week in Vietnam” (11/1966), 12:47].
Often, the effect of these recordings is to inadvertently place the listener on site with the veteran and his compatriots. Carl Oeljen’s Vietnam-era recordings include the sounds of helicopters in the background, so loud “they shake the building,” Oeljen says [Carl Oeljen, 9/1970-1971, 07:23]. Similarly, Levin’s tapes capture much of the background noise of the life of a soldier, beginning in November 1966 while he is on ship on the day of his departure for Vietnam. While Levin talks, we can hear the sound of a military band in the background [00:30] followed a couple minutes later by the sound of the ship’s horn as it prepares to sail. “We’re moving now; we’re moving!” [02:28 – 02:31] Levin exclaims. [3” audio reel with writing on its box “Darby” and a postmark of 11/1/1966, referring to the USNS General William O. Darby (T-AP-127), which transported the veteran from the United States to Okinawa and Vietnam, (10/1966)].
If Levin’s more than six hours of audio recordings transport the listener into war, Marine Corporal Thomas O’Dell’s 11 minute recording, sent home from Vietnam to someone named “Kay,” offers a humorous counterpoint to the dangers of combat duty.
Anyone who has ever made the questionable decision to leave a friend a drunken voicemail late at night will appreciate the first few minutes of O’Dell’s recording. Featuring slurred and hard-on-the-ears singing, O’Dell demonstrates that the availability of a personal tape recorder provides later generations with a unique record of how soldiers in Vietnam entertained themselves in their free time.
Correspondence has always been a rich source of documentary evidence of what life was like for the ordinary United States military soldier. Ken Burns’ The Civil War was so effective at portraying the experience of war largely due to the letters from soldiers narrated by famous actors. In the collections of the Veterans History Project of the Library of Congress, veterans’ letters are presented wholly rather than in part, and veterans themselves narrate their own experiences in audio and video interviews and in audio correspondence such as those of Kovar, Levin, Oeljen, and O’Dell.
Explaining why the spoken word is such an important method of corresponding with family—and with future generations—Oeljen said, “You’re able to express yourself so much more completely on tape than you are through a letter…not only the total number of words, but I think your expression, your tone of voice, and your choice of words comes so much more freely if you are able to speak them” [Carl Oeljen, 9/1970-1971,11:10].