World War 2 Interview Questions

Here is a page of tips on interviewing a World War 2 veteran, including suggested questions. An interview like this is a great way to preserve important family history. It's also a wonderful way for young people to connect with their grandparents. Teachers and educators may want to use this as a lesson plan. There are no restrictions on reprinting this if you want to hand it out to students or use it for any other non-commercial purpose.

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Contents:

Interviewing a WWII Veteran in Person

If it's an option, a personal interview with a World War 2 veteran is almost always better than a written or e-mailed interview.

Audio and video recording of interviews

With digital video recorders getting less expensive every day, making a high-quality recording of an interview for posterity is becoming practical for many people. If you don't have access to a camcorder or digital video recorder you might still wish to make an audio recording of the interview. Note that some schools, classrooms, or libraries may have equipment available to loan out.

Here are some tips for recording an interview.

First, it's best to prepare for the interview by familiarizing yourself with your equipment. You should always test it by recording a voice and then playing it back.

Plan to make the highest quality recording possible. You don't want to skimp by using the extended recording speeds that are an option on many devices.

If an external microphone is an option, that's recommended for higher quality audio recordings. A microphone should generally be placed between eight and ten inches from the person speaking. A microphone stand will make this easier. These days, you might also have access to a clip-on mic that can be attached to the person's shirt.

When using video equipment, avoid the temptation to get fancy. Don't plan to move around the room with the camcorder to get different angles and don't use the zoom feature. Preferably, the camcorder should be on a tripod set back a few feet from both of you so that you can forget it's even there. The person's face and upper body should be visible in the frame. Make sure their hands are visible; some people are very expressive with their hands.

A common mistake to avoid: Don't just record the answers, record the questions as well. Keep the recorder rolling the whole time unless you're asked to turn it off.

Written notes and transcribing

If you are not using A/V equipment, you still need to plan to record an interview. If the person is speaking you need to be writing. Unless you know shorthand, write out all the answers. When the interviewee is speaking too fast, ask them to slow down or repeat what they said. If you are uncertain whether you recorded their answer properly, read the answer back to them.

If you recorded an interview with audio or video you may still wish to transcribe it. This will make it easier for other people to access the research you've gathered. For example, you may wish to put the transcription on a web site.

Preparing for the interview

When arranging an interview, schedule time for it. You and the World War 2 veteran should plan to have a significant block of time, perhaps an hour, when you will be undisturbed and can focus on the interview.

Gather any photographs and heirlooms you might have from the interviewee's time during the war. Ask them to bring anything they have. Photos and objects can be very valuable during an interview in jogging memories. It will also make the heirlooms and photos more special to you and family members in the future to know the significance and stories behind them.

It is important that you also prepare the questions you want to ask. See the suggested WWII interview questions below. Read them over before the interview and think about what you want to ask.

It's also a good idea to do a little preliminary research on World War 2 and the veteran's service. You may wish to ask the preliminary questions below over the phone or via e-mail. You can then take this information and do a little background research. There are many good resources for World War 2 history online. Footnote.com's collection of World War 2 photos and documents will allow you to research the veteran's own service records. There is, however, a fee of about $12 for a month's full membership. This will give you instant online access. If you live close to Washington, DC, you can visit the Library of Congress and National Archives to see the actual documents. icon

Preparing the interview location

You also need to prepare the interview space. You want the area to be well-lit and quiet. Background noise from the street, clocks with chimes, loud air conditioners, telephones and televisions, etc. will distract you during the interview and detract from the quality and clarity of the recording.

Most importantly, find a space where you will not be disturbed by other people. Even family members and loved ones can distract your focus.

Interviewing a WWII Veteran by E-Mail

Some people from the World War II generation are comfortable with e-mail. If you're lucky enough to have an interviewee like this you may want to consider writing out the questions and conducting the interview by e-mail — especially if you're unlucky enough to live far away from the veteran.

A significant disadvantage of e-mail is that it may be hard to capture their attention. Some people may not enjoy writing out complete and thoughtful answers. On the other hand, if they do write out their answers you will have a ready-made transcription. This is very valuable if you plan to put the interview on a web page.

Preliminary Questions about World War 2 Service

It's important to start an interview by getting some basic data "on the record." This is true however you are conducting the interview, and whether or not you're recording it. If you know some of this information already you may wish to write it down in advance and then confirm it during the interview.

Always start by getting the full name of the World War 2 veteran and their birthdate. Also record your own name as the interviewer, and the names of anyone who is assisting you, e.g. a co-interviewer or camera operator. Note the date and location of the interview.

When interviewing a veteran you should also get some basic details about their service record, including:

  • branch of service (e.g., US Army, Air Corps, Navy, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, etc.)
  • unit, division, ship, etc.
  • highest rank
  • where they served

Asking the Interview Questions

Your role as the interviewer is to get the interviewee talking while keeping the subject focused. For the most part, you need to be listening instead of talking. Be sure to give the interviewee time to answer questions fully. You might wish to allow a pause between questions to make sure they've finished expressing their thoughts.

When the veteran begins to tell a story, encourage them. Ask follow-up questions to keep their stories flowing.

You also need to be sensitive about what you ask and how you ask it. Many American servicemen did not go overseas in World War 2 and most saw little or no combat. The interview is about their service, whether or not it was dramatic by Hollywood standards. Also keep in mind that those veterans did see combat are often reticent to talk about it. Encourage them to talk about their experiences, but don't push too hard.

Suggested World War 2 Interview Questions

Here is a collection of possible interview questions for a World War II veteran. This is just a starting point. It's not recommended that you go down this list of questions and ask them one at a time. What you ask and when you ask it will depend on what your veteran did during World War 2 and the flow of the interview. Possible follow-up questions are listed under the more general questions. If the general question gets the veteran talking you don't necessarily need to ask the follow-ups, or different follow-up questions may be appropriate.

  • What were you doing before you joined the military?
    • Where were you living?
    • Were you attending school?
    • Did you have a sweetheart?

  • Do you remember how you felt about Japan or the war in Europe prior to Pearl Harbor?
    • Do you remember the day Pearl Harbor was attacked?

  • Did you enlist or were you drafted?
    • What motivated you to enlist?
    • Did any friends enlist with you?
    • Where did you go to join?
    • Why did you choose your branch of service?
    • What did you envision it would be like after you joined?

  • What do you remember about your first days in the military?
    • Do you remember anything from boot camp?
    • How did it feel? (Where you nervous, scared, excited?)
    • Was it hard?
    • Do you remember anything about your instructors?
    • Did you do any advanced training?

  • Where did you go during the war?
    • Where were you stationed first? (Do you remember the trip there? What was that like?)
    • Do you remember when you first arrived at the new location? (How did you feel?)
    • Did you travel to other places?

  • What were you doing during the war?
    • What jobs or assignments did you have?
    • Did you see combat?
    • Can you tell me about your most memorable experiences?

  • What do you remember about the other people in your unit?
    • Did you have any close friends? (Did you keep in touch after the war?)
    • What did you think of your officers?
    • Were there casualties in your unit?

  • Were you awarded any medals or citations?
    • How did you earn them?

  • What was your everyday life like?
    • Did you write many letters home? Did people write to you? What did you want to say?
    • What was the food like? Did you always have enough food?
    • How were your other supplies and equipment?
    • What were your living conditions like?
    • Were there times when you felt homesick or stressed?
    • Did you carry any reminders of home with you?
    • Did you believe in any "good luck charms" or superstitions?

  • What did you do to pass the time?
    • Did you ever go to a USO show?
    • Do you remember any pranks or special jokes?
    • Did you ever keep a journal or diary?

  • Did you come home on leave?
    • Where did you go?

  • Do you remember V-E Day and V-J Day when the war ended?
    • When did you come home?
    • What was the last thing you were doing?

  • What was it like after the war?
    • What are your first memories of going home?
    • Did you go to school? Did you take advantage of the GI Bill?
    • Where were you living?
    • What work did you do? How did your career develop after that?

  • Do you belong to any veterans organizations or associations?
    • Do you go to any reunions?

Discussing Objects and Photos

Any items or images that you or the veteran can bring to the interview may spark valuable conversational threads and information.

  • If you have photographs, talk about each photo individually.
    • Where and when was this taken?
    • Who is in this photo?
    • What was the context?
    • Do you see any items in the photo that bring back memories?

  • If you have objects, talk about each item individually.
    • What is this?
    • When did you acquire it and when did you use it?
    • What does it mean to you?
    • Does it bring back any memories?

Special Topics

Depending on the veteran's particular World War 2 experiences, you may want to ask some of the following questions:

  • For prisoners of war:
    • When and how were you taken prisoner?
    • Where were you taken?
    • How were you treated?
    • Do you remember the food and living conditions?
    • Do you recall any of the guards?
    • When were you freed? What do you remember about that experience?

  • For those in the Navy, Coast Guard, or Marines:
    • Did you have experience on boats before the war?
    • Did you get seasick?

  • For those in the Air Corps, Tank Corps, or Artillery:
    • What type of plane, tank, or cannon did you use?
    • Did you think of your equipment?

  • For officers:
    • What were your responsibilities as an officer?
    • Did anyone serve under you? (How many? What do you remember about them?)
    • Were you involved in planning for any battles?

  • For those who were wounded:
    • When and how were you injured?
    • What happened to you after the injury?
    • Did you go back into active duty after your recovery or did you go home?
    • What do you remember about when you came home?

At the end of the interview, be sure to also ask if there is anything you left out that the veteran would like to mention. Are there any memories or experiences they haven't talked about?

Finally, ask how they feel about privacy. Do they want you to keep their interview completely private? Or let any trusted family or friends see it? Or would they be comfortable with anyone seeing it?

They have a made a contribution to world history by being a part of World War 2. During your interview you have acted as an historian. You have helped document something significant that may be of interest to many people you don't expect. If you make the interview public on a WikiTree page it may be found by the families of other veterans who served alongside your relative and possibly by professional historians. However, the veteran may not feel comfortable about a transcription of the interview being online.

After the Interview

Don't let your World War 2 interview languish on a recording that never gets seen or heard. Consider transcribing the interview questions and answers onto a WikiTree page. You can link to it from a special World War 2 WikiMuseum.

If you've done a video interview you might want to upload some or all of it to YouTube. Then you can easily point your family and friends to it, and link to it from WikiTree or wherever else you keep the full interview and more background information for the veteran.