Source: Stephen E. Everett, Oral History Techniques and Procedures (Center of Military History, United States Army, Washington, D.C., 1992)

The full text can be found online at the Center of Military History's website. The Center's site is at www. army.mil.

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Several hundred soldier­historians advanced the Army's historical effort [during WWII]. Their primary focus was the creation and preservation of written documentation, but interviews were used to complement those sources. Historians attached to higher headquarters, as well as members of the Information and Historical Service teams of field armies, moved freely about the battle lines to gather interviews....After interviewing an individual, part of a unit, or the entire unit, the historians would summarize their interview notes to create a narrative of the specific action.

— Stephen E. Everett

Stephen Everett authored a valuable overview of military oral history. Excerpts, relevant to other documents are given below. The full text is available online at the Army's website for the Center of Military History (in Washington, D.C. or find it online via the Army home page at www.army.mil. The full study contains insights into the value, and limitations, of oral history as well as accepted rules of the road for interviewers.

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from  ORAL HISTORY TECHNIQUES AND PROCEDURE

by Stephen E. Everett


Chapter II: Oral History in the Army
 

Over the years the Army has accumulated a wealth of oral history interviews that have helped preserve the record of its activities in peace and war. Without these materials it would be difficult to reconstruct many events in the Army's history....

During World War II the Army decided to play a more significant role in telling its own story. Under Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall, the Army established a program to preserve and collect documentary sources that could be used to prepare the Army's official history of the war. The Army's program, which enjoyed the support of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, brought together in each theater of operations many professionally trained historians to collect sources and write historical studies. Shortly after beginning their work, however, they realized they would need to conduct interviews to supplement official written records.

As a historian assigned to cover the Pacific theater, Lt. Col. (later Brig. Gen.) S.L.A. Marshall pioneered the Army's oral history effort. Marshall drew on his experience as a journalist to develop what he called the "interview after combat." Frustrated in his initial attempts to reconstruct a battle's sequence of events, Marshall brought participants together shortly after the fighting (often within a few hours) and conducted group interviews. Marshall asked questions that guided soldiers through the battle, step-by-step, and elicited personal experiences and detailed information about what occurred during the fighting. He first used his interview technique after a fierce night engagement on Makin Island in November 1943, with members of the 3d Battalion, 165th Infantry. A few months later Marshall used the same procedure on Kwajalein Island to gather material for Island Victory, the story of the 7th Infantry Division's invasion of the atoll. Furthermore, Island Victory relates Marshall's first detailed explanation of his new approach to gathering information through interviews.

Marshall went to Europe in 1944 to bring historians in that theater up to date on his interview techniques, and after D­Day he traveled to Normandy to interview combatants from the 82d and 101st Airborne Divisions. These interviews constitute the basic record of the airborne assault, because the widely scattered and hard­pressed airborne troops kept few written records. Six months later during the Battle of the Bulge Marshall and his assistants, Capt. John G. Westover and Lt. A. Joseph Webber, interviewed members of the 101st Airborne Division and its attached units in Bastogne, Belgium. The historians conducted their first interviews just four days after the German siege had ended. Their combined efforts, collecting not only oral histories but also official records, produced a wealth of data that was later published in Bastogne: The First Eight Days, Marshall's only attempt to produce a fully footnoted work.

Although Marshall was probably the Army's best­known wartime historian, several hundred soldier­historians advanced the Army's historical effort. Their primary focus was the creation and preservation of written documentation, but interviews were used to complement those sources. Historians attached to higher headquarters, as well as members of the Information and Historical Service teams of field armies, moved freely about the battle lines to gather interviews. The collection process occasionally began while units were still in action, but the majority of interviews were conducted about a week to ten days after the action or sometimes even later. After interviewing an individual, part of a unit, or the entire unit, the historians would summarize their interview notes to create a narrative of the specific action.

Historians conducted interviews as close to the actual battlefield as possible in order to stimulate a soldier's recall of events. Although not allowed to land in the first waves of the Normandy invasion, Forrest C. Pogue, a noncommissioned officer with the First Army's 2d Information and Historical Service and future biographer of George C. Marshall, spent D­Day aboard a landing ship interviewing wounded soldiers who participated in the assault. Combat historians assigned to cover the invasion had studied operational records from earlier campaigns to determine what subjects were usually ignored and then made a special effort to cover these subjects in their own interviews. Even under these less­than­ideal conditions Pogue collected valuable firsthand information about the assault because of his immediate access to battle participants. The historian's search for information was not always easy. Although not considered "combat" soldiers, three historians were killed in the line of duty and two others wounded by mines while interviewing front­line troops in the European Theater.

Oral histories gave many participants the opportunity to relate their experiences in battle. Historians used the expanding collection of interview notes, terrain studies, maps, photographs, and after­action reports as the basis for wartime historical monographs, many of which were later published as the American Forces in Action series. These popular pamphlets were produced at the request of Chief of Staff Marshall, who wanted histories available for explaining the war to wounded and convalescing soldiers and for training new soldiers. Each pamphlet was based on the best available records, which usually meant extensive use of interviews. For example, researchers for Small Unit Actions conducted group interviews with almost all surviving members of the units engaged in two of the four actions covered by the book. Some indication of the detail provided in these interviews is reflected by the fact that some of these group interviews lasted two or three days.

As an example of the size of the oral history effort, historians assigned to the European Theater alone collected over 2,000 interviews by the end of the war. The Army's interview collection was used extensively by authors of the U.S. Army in World War II series, and references to these and postwar interviews are found on many pages. The notes and transcripts from many of these interviews are now in the custody of the Suitland Reference Branch, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C. 20409. About 375 interviews are together in one collection, while other interviews are in the operational records of individual units. Some wartime and postwar interviews are also filed with other supporting documents for volumes in the U. S. Army in World War II.

The interviews vary in the quality of coverage. Historians found that they needed to use caution while utilizing the interviews, especially when looking for exact time and dates and when searching for information outside of the interviewees' own unit or combat area. "This corpus of Combat Interviews," wrote one author of an official World War II history, "is one of the most valuable sources of information available to the historian. It fleshes out the framework of events chronicled in the unit journals and provides additional testimony to help resolve disputed questions of fact."   *1*  Information garnered from interviews enabled S.L.A. Marshall and other authors to place their readers in the midst of battle and convey the "feel" of war. These impressions would be virtually impossible to recreate without the personal stories collected during interviews.

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Note

*1*   The author's footnote reads:

"Hugh M. Cole, The Lorraine Campaign, U.S. Army in World War II (Washington, D.C.: Historical Division, Department of the Army, 1950), p. 617. Cole conducted after­action interviews as a combat historian in the European Theater and subsequently used and evaluated many interviews in the preparation of his combat histories."   [Return]