Veterans Day isn’t just a day off from school. It commemorates the sacrifices that all soldiers and sailors have made in the nation’s service. A great deal can be learned about the changes that the armed forces have gone through by researching military records at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).
The National Archives and Records Administration is the nation’s record keeper. The federal government creates a huge number of documents and other materials in the normal course of business, but only a small fraction of these are so important for legal or historical reasons that they are preserved forever. These records include the nation’s founding documents, as well as documents from the various censuses, congressional records, federal court records, government employment and military records, as well as records pertaining to the Panama Canal’s construction, and can be used for purposes such as genealogical research.
Start by looking for digital copies from NARA’s National Personnel Records Center (Military Personnel Records), located here. This will bring up hundreds of results of letters, telegrams, citations, and special orders from the American Revolutionary War onward that can be viewed online. Examples of archival documents include the appeal for conscientious objector status by Alvin C. York, who would become the famous “Sergeant York,” one of the most decorated American soldiers from World War I (on left) or the citation for the Award of the De La Croix De Guerre to Audie Murphy, the most decorated American soldier from World War II (on right),
as well as records from other soldiers and sailors, and about celebrities such as Elvis Presley who served. Whether your students are reading the case study “The Battle of Saratoga” from American History I: Period of Exploration to Reconstruction, or “The Spanish-American War” from American History II: Post-Civil War America to the Present, you can find incredible historical records to illustrate the narrative.
There are also pages dedicated to photos of World War II, telling not just the big stories of politics and battlefields, but also the behind-the-headlines stories of industrial production on the home front. The caption on the haunting photo below is: “Back to a Coast Guard assault transport comes this Marine after two days and nights of Hell on the beach of Eniwetok in the Marshall Islands. His face is grimey with coral dust but the light of battle stays in his eyes.” February 1944. 26-G-3394.
There is also an interactive version of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, created with the use of NARA military data. Not only can students view the wall, but they can also easily access information about each of the men and women named, as well as contribute pictures and comments about them. No matter which era you research, you and your students can make history come alive by putting names and faces to the narratives of war, knowing the price for following particular policies is often paid in blood.
As a secondary lesson, consider how the materials being archived reflect the contexts in which they were created, and the challenges these different media present to archivists. How can a battle be documented? How do the changes in technology alter what is saved and how it is saved?
Use the answers to the “Questions for Thought” in the overview as a note-taking guided exercise.