Taking Oral History of Military Veterans

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, about 1,500 World War II veterans die every day in this country. With every day that passes, we lose the story of what they saw and experienced as they made great sacrifices for their country.

Getting Set Up for Interview

  • Use a video camera on a tripod or solid surface to film the interview.
  • Start the camera before the interview begins for a more natural, less self-conscious conversation. If the person being interviewed feels self-conscious, the camera doesn't have to be focused on the interviewee. Instead, you could focus on an old photograph of the person in military uniform or use camera as a tape recorder to record sound only.
  • Before interview, state name of person being interviewed, the date and location on tape.
  • Try to keep the questions going and be prepared to ad-lib questions to keep the train of thought going.
  • Begin with the old photographs, certificates, documents, and medals from his/her time in the military to be used as a memory jogger.
  • Pass one photograph at a time in front of camera lens and ask about each.
  • "Label" each photo by asking the who, what, where, when, and why of the photo.
  • When done with photographs, begin interview questions (see suggested interview questions below).
  • If the person being interviewed can't remember an answer, move on to the next question and come back to the unanswered question later. Try rephrasing the question to see if that helps better trigger memory.
  • If the person being interviewed chooses not to answer a question, move on.
  • Sometimes a telephone interview is the only option. Be sure to call in advance to set a convenient time. Take notes during the conversation, and transcribe immediately after the interview.
  • And sometimes, an interview by correspondence is the only option. It is usually best to just send a few questions at a time and leave space for the answers. Send a large self-addressed stamped envelope and always send a follow-up thank you note. If the person seems willing, it may be possible to set up a correspondence where you can ask additional interview questions.

Suggested Interview Questions

Joining Up

  • Did you enlist or were you drafted?
  • Where were you living at the time?
  • When did you join?
  • Did you join with friends or family?
  • Which service branch did you join? Why?
  • What was the name of your boot camp, where was it located, and what was it like?
  • What do you remember about your boot camp instructors?
  • What do you remember about others in your boot camp?
  • Did you have any additional training after boot camp?


  • Where were you shipped after boot camp? Do you remember the trip?
  • What it was like when you arrived?
  • What was your assignment?
  • Did you see combat? When? Where? Recollections? Were you scared?
  • Did you have any injuries?
  • Were there many casualties in your unit?
  • Tell me about your most memorable experiences.
  • Did you receive any medals or citations?
  • How did you get them? Do you still have them? (Take photo of each))
  • Did you receive any promotions? When? Why?
  • Did you continue to serve after the war ended?
  • Did you meet any people from other countries?

Daily Life

  • Tell me about a typical day while you were in the service.
  • Did you save any of letters from your family?
  • What was the food like?
  • Did you ever eat K-rations?
  • Did you carry something for "good luck" ?
  • What did you do for entertainment?
  • Were there movies? Music? Clubs?
  • Were there entertainers?
  • Did you see Bob Hope or any USO shows?
  • Did you read the Stars and Stripes?
  • What did you do and where did you go when on leave?
  • Did you ever visit a Red Cross Canteen?
  • Do you recall any funny or unusual events?
  • Do you take photographs? Who, what, where, and when?
  • (Scan or take photos)
  • What did you think of your officers and fellow soldiers?
  • Did you keep a diary?
  • Did you buy anything?
  • ?

After the War

  • Did you continue in the service after the war? What did you do? When did you come home? How long had you been gone?
  • Where and when were you discharged?
  • What did you do on the days immediately you were discharged?
  • Did you receive education supported by the G.I. Bill?
  • Did you make any friends while in the service? Did you continue to keep in contact after the war?
  • What was your first job after the war? Did your military experience help with your job? How?
  • How did your military experience influence your life?
  • Did you join a veterans organization? What kinds of activities does your post or association have?
  • Do you attend any reunions?
  • Did you ever go back and re-visit the places where you served? What were your thoughts?

After the Interview

When the interview is over, immediately back up the interview and store it in a safe place. Interview tapes are priceless and irreplaceable. While everything is fresh in your memory, transcribe the interview and be sure to mark the written transcription with the name of interviewee, date and location. As you are transcribing, make notes of what you would like to ask at a second interview. Keep your notes organized by using a genealogy program. See Genealogy Programs.

Send Away for Records

Veterans or next-of-kin of deceased veterans can use the online order form at Form 180 You may wish to request any and all awards and decorations to which you may be entitled. Here are the addresses for each branch of service:

U.S. Army Reserve Personnel Center
ATTN.: ARPC-VSE 9700 Page Blvd.
St. Louis, MO 63132-5100

Air Force:
Air Force Reference Branch NCPMF
National Personnel Records Center
9700 Page Blvd.
St. Louis, MO 63132-5100

Navy, U.S. Coast Guard, Marine Corps:
Navy Liaison Office
(N314) Room 3475, N-314
9700 Page Blvd.
St. Louis, MO 63132-5200

There have been some changes that have made available decorations and awards that were not available during the period of service.