A Soundtrack of World War II

A vintage illustration shows the recording project in the field. U.S. Marine Corps.

This story appears in the July/August copy of the Library of Congress Magazine.

On Okinawa, Marines chat about the weather as machine-gun rounds zip overhead. On Iwo Jima, tanks clank ashore under heavy fire. In Nagasaki, an American general instructs Japanese officers to honor the terms of surrender.

These are the sounds of the Marine Corps at war, preserved in thousands of hours of recordings made on battlefields of the Pacific Theater during World War II, then stored away for decades. In recent years, the Library has given them new, digital life and made them accessible in its Recorded Sound Research Center.

The Marines — using Library training and recording equipment — sent two-man teams into combat during the war to document the experiences of troops and provide real-time accounts of some of the toughest fights in Corps lore: Kwajalein, Saipan, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, Okinawa.

Correspondent Art King interviews two Marines. U.S. Marine Corps.

During lulls in the fighting, the correspondents would talk to Marines: What did you do in the fight? Anything you’d like to say to the folks back home? Many of the recordings were quickly transferred to vinyl, sent to the States and broadcast on radio to Americans anxious for news about loved ones serving on faraway shores.

All of the recordings — made at first on wire and later on film stock — were transferred to vinyl by the Marines after the war, then sent to the Library for safekeeping. During the 1960s and ’70s, Library technicians transferred the vinyl records to reel-to-reel tapes.

Then the tapes just sat, mostly unused.

Beginning in 2010, the Library and the Marines jointly undertook a project to give the recordings a digital format — and a new audience. Audio engineers at the Library’s Packard Campus digitized the tapes, and interns broke the digitized recordings into segments and created a descriptive record for each. The digital files were ingested into the Library’s archive and copies sent to the Marines.

Interns at Quantico then created detailed summaries of the contents and linked the recordings to photos, articles and records from the Corps archives — documents of the war as Marines heard it and lived it on far-flung battlefields across the vast expanses of the Pacific.

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