Scenes from the Lab: Preservation of World War II Pacific Theater Relief Maps

This is a guest post authored by Jim Thurn. Jim is a book and paper conservator in the Collections Conservation Section of the Conservation Division at the Library of Congress. He studied conservation at the former Kilgarlin Center for Preservation of the Cultural Record at the University of Texas at Austin.

On December 7, 1941 the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service attacked Pearl Harbor, resulting in the United States entering World War II the following day.  For the next four years, the United States waged war along with its allies in both the Pacific and in Europe.  The United States took extreme measures to gain advantage during the war.  One such effort, located near Pearl Harbor, was the formation of a special team of personnel in the Department of the Navy whose task it was to create detailed, three-dimensional maps of strategic islands in the Pacific Ocean for use in planning military operations.

A diverse group of personnel possessing specialized backgrounds and talents partook in relief map creation, including cartographers, photograph interpreters, illustrators, painters, and sculptors.  The maps depict with great detail and accuracy an area’s topography, hedgerows, ravines, buildings, and tank traps.  Maps were initially made of plaster, but later made of foam rubber, which had the advantage of being much lighter than plaster, and could be rolled up for easy transport.

Through a Madison Council purchase, the Geography & Map Division recently acquired a significant collection of rubber relief maps, photographs, and literature relating to the map-making efforts during WWII in the Pacific.  The acquisition represents an important addition to the other WWII-era foam rubber and plaster relief maps already in the collection such as two Utah Beach rubber relief maps constructed just prior to the D-Day invasion at Normandy. The photographs and literature in the collection provide intriguing information on the personnel who created the maps and the map fabrication process.

Photographs showing personnel making and using foam rubber relief maps, in Navy-produced booklet, circa. 1942-1945

Photographs showing personnel making and using foam rubber relief maps, in Navy-produced booklet, circa. 1942-1945. Library of Congress, Geography & Map Division.

Photographs showing personnel making a foam rubber relief map, in Navy-produced booklet, circa. 1942-1945.

Photographs showing personnel making a foam rubber relief map, in Navy-produced booklet, circa. 1942-1945. Library of Congress, Geography & Map Division.

Foam rubber relief map of the island of Angaur

Foam rubber relief map of the island of Angaur measuring 19 inches x 25 inches, circa. 1942-1945. Library of Congress, Geography & Map Division.

CSS staff constructed protective housings for the maps using archival corrugated board with ventilation screening installed in the sides of the boxes.  The screening provides airflow, thereby preventing damaging gaseous compounds such as acetic and formic acids, which are emitted by the rubber maps, from accumulating to high concentrations within the boxes.  This housing strategy takes advantage of information gained through air sampling during the fabrication of boxes created previously to house the two Utah Beach maps mentioned above.  The boxes feature removable trays to provide full access without the need to handle the maps directly.

Each box was constructed using archival corrugated board, which results in a lightweight box fabricated from material that is tested to ensure it meets preservation requirements.  The corrugated board and box structure also facilitates modification of the walls to create vents.  Two sides of the box are formed by folding the board to create a double thickness for added strength.  Vents are created in these double-thick sides of the box by cutting openings in the board and adhering synthetic screening, much like window screening, between the folded layers of corrugated board as shown in the diagram and photographs below.

A simple tray to hold the map, also constructed of corrugated board was made by folding the two ends to create lifting tabs that allow the map to be removed from the box without flexing.

Photograph of a completed protective housing showing ventilation screening

Photograph of a completed protective housing showing ventilation screening for a rubber relief map. Library of Congress, Conservation Division.

Photograph of a completed protective housing

Photograph of a completed protective housing showing ventilation screening for a rubber relief map. Library of Congress, Conservation Division

In addition to fabricating boxes for the rubber relief maps, CSS housed 310 magazine and newspaper clippings, 59 photographs, including two panoramic prints, and performed mending and tape removal on several handwritten notes and printed booklets.

(To read a blog on the Utah Beach relief maps, see D-Day’s Top Secret Map | Library of Congress Blog (loc.gov). Watch an interview of retired Navy Lieutenant Commander, Mr. Charles Lee Burwell, describe the context and use of the two Utah Beach maps.)

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