Interviewing Friends or Loved Ones at Home

Curator of Oral History Joey Balfour offers some suggestions for interviewing friends or loved ones at home.

Preserving the experiences of America’s World War II veterans has been the mission of The National WWII Museum for nearly two decades. Today, collecting and preserving these stories are more important than ever. Since travel is nearly at a standstill and many of us have found ourselves “confined to quarters,” this is a perfect opportunity for us to share some tips for interviewing family or friends at home.  

Preparation: Where to start? First, speak with the interviewee a day or so before the interview to give yourself time to prepare for the session and give the interviewee time to prepare as well. Obtain some basic information such as the individual’s dates of service, the unit they served with, his or her duties or responsibilities (MOS), dates of overseas service and the individual’s rank when he or she left the military. Also, ask if there are any specific battles or events that stand out because if there is limited time for the interview, it may be a good idea to make those the focus of the interview.

The next step is conducting research. This is done based on the information the interviewee provides and is not nearly as daunting a task as it may seem. Living in the information age allows us to access materials that just twenty years ago were impossible to find without trips to libraries or other institutions that housed the required materials. The historical commands for each service branch are now accessible online as are most of the military’s official histories of the war. Additionally, websites hosted by unit associations and reunion groups all provide a wealth of information, just make sure any websites selected for research are reputable and contain accurate data. Also, keep in mind when researching an individual’s unit history that some military units are much more difficult to research than others. There is almost limitless documentation available for some outfits while there is nothing available for others. In the latter case, all that can be done is to press the interview subject for as much information as possible during the interview.

Questions and Talking Points: What to ask and how to ask it? When drafting questions or talking points, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, questions should be simple but broad. Ask questions like: “How did you feel when you received your draft notice?” or “How did you react to the news that the war was over?” Broad questions like these allow the interviewee to give more detailed answers. 

Second, do not be afraid to ask your interviewee to elaborate on his or her answers. Military veterans of all time periods are fluent in the jargon of their day, which may not be known to the interviewer. If the interviewee says something unfamiliar, ask them to explain it. For example, if while replying to the question of “What happened to you after you were wounded?” the interviewee replies, “I was patched up by medics, sent to an aid station then evacuated to a hospital in England for surgery. After recovering for about a month I was ZI-ed.” What does “ZI-ed” mean? ZI stands for Zone of the Interior or the Continental United States. Military personnel who were “ZI-ed” were sent from where ever they were back to the United States. In this case many people would not know what the interviewee meant, so having them explain what they said is very important.

Next, do your best to keep the interview questions chronological. Jumping around from event to event or time to time can cause confusion. Select a natural starting point like the interviewee’s childhood and kick things off from there. Having the interviewee recall events from his or her childhood may bring back memories of other events. Keep the conversation moving with questions about major events in the interviewee’s life such as the attack on Pearl Harbor and when and how the interviewee entered the service. A typically successful timeline for an interview would be: the interviewee’s childhood and/or life during the Great Depression, learning of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the interviewee’s entry into the military (if the interviewee entered the service prior to 7 December 1941, this topic should be raised before discussing the attack on Pearl Harbor), military training, overseas deployment, experiences overseas (this may or may not include combat—not every serviceman or woman who went overseas was in combat), return to the United States, and the interviewee’s life after the war. 

Lastly, keep in mind that it is impossible to cover two or three years (or more) of military service in detail in a one or two hour interview. If it is unlikely that the interviewee will be available for multiple interview sessions, select a few battles or events from the interviewee’s time in the service and focus on these during the interview. If the interviewee is available for multiple sessions, simply break the conversation up into time periods or events, remembering to keep the conversation linear if possible. This is also a good time to have the interviewee sign a deed of gift form or appearance release agreement. Even if the plan is to keep the interview within the family, having clear ownership of the recording is a good idea, especially since one of the parties may decide to share the interview with others later on. Sample deeds of gift and appearance release agreements are available online.

Set-up: How is the interview being recorded? If the interview will be recorded in audio only, then background and lighting are not important. Simply sit next to the interviewee and place the recorder between you. These days, however, most people have smart phones which allow them to record video so why not do so with the interview (though only if a stand or other method is available for holding the device still.) If the interview is video recorded, have the interviewee sit in a well-lit location in a chair that does not move. No rocking chairs, swivel chairs, desk chairs with rollers, etc. Make sure the selected seat is comfortable as the interviewee may be in it for an extended period of time. Frame the interviewee from mid-chest to just above the top of the head and have the interviewee’s face slightly to the left or right of the center of the screen. Have some tissues and water nearby but out of camera view in case the interviewee needs them. Finally, if the interviewee has any photographs of his or her time in the service, this would be a good time to look at them. Seeing these images may jog memories that had long been forgotten. Discussing the images with the interviewee may also bring up stories that the interviewer may be interested in hearing more about during the interview.    

Interview: Now for the fun part—doing the interview! There are numerous styles for conducting interviews, but keeping the session more like a casual conversation than a prisoner interrogation will likely produce the best results, especially when dealing with friends or loved ones. Engaging the interviewee more personally will generally result in more open communication. Also, listen to the interviewee. When the interviewee is asked a question, give them plenty of time to answer. Keep in mind if the interviewee stops talking that he or she may simply be collecting their thoughts. Knowing when, as the interviewer, to interject during an interviewee’s silence is something that comes with experience. Interviews with World War II veterans cover events that occurred more than 75 years ago and may be difficult to remember. Sometimes, the interviewee just needs a moment to formulate their answer. Sometimes, however, the question has evoked a memory that makes the interviewee very emotional and they are unable to continue speaking for a time. Give them those moments. In an interview, sometimes the things that aren’t said are even more powerful than the things that are. 

Post: What to do with the interview? The National WWII Museum has a significant collection of donated interviews in the Hall of Democracy library, a collection that grows on a nearly daily basis. If you are looking for a place for the interview you conducted with your friend or loved to be preserved, please contact us at oral.histories@nationalww2museum.org for information on how to submit an interview to The National WWII Museum.

Good luck and have fun!

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