Social Education 58(2), 1994, pp. 96-97
National Council for the Social Studies
To Emily Webb, her grandmother, Jean Rawlings Webb, has always been a very special person. But only last summer did Emily learn how special her grandmother was to many other people who were for the most part total strangers.
It all began as Emily talked with her parents about entering the National History Day Contest for 1993. Since the theme was "Communications in History: The Key to Understanding," Emily's mother suggested a project about prisoners of war, for whom communications with the outside world would be crucial. Her father said that his mother had done some work with American prisoners of war in the Pacific during World War II, but he didn't know any details. When Emily asked her grandmother about her experiences, what Emily learned encouraged her to ask many more people about how prisoners of war communicated with their families, how the families responded, and what the military was able to learn from the prisoners' short communications. She also learned much about the conditions and life in Japanese prison camps during World War II.
Emily gained important data-gathering skills while searching for information and interviewing people. In addition to interviewing her grandmother, she located and interviewed nine former POWs and gathered correspondence from prisoners' families stored in the War Department records at the National Archives. Selecting from her two volumes of data what to display and reducing her essay from its original 800 words to the required 500 were big challenges. Emily's mother said she observed increased con&Mac222;dence in communicating with adults and improved clarity in writing in Emily as her research progressed.
Emily's History Day essay explains how the research was conducted and the project constructed and tells how the project is related to the theme for the year. The project synthesizes what the student learned and displays the student's conclusions. Emily's essay follows, exactly as she wrote it.
"From Behind Barbed Wire"
During World War II, the Japanese kept an almost total blackout of communication about Allied prisoners of war held in the Far East. What little information the West was able to obtain came, in part, from monitoring broadcasts of POW messages sent over shortwave radio. These messages were key to understanding for two groups, the United States War Department and families of the POWs. The War Department used the messages to extract information about the POW identities, their treatment, and the location of prison camps. Even more significant was what these messages meant to the families. After months of uncertainty, the shortwave messages were often the first indication that their loved ones had survived.
My research into these messages consisted primarily of personal interviews. I spoke with nine former POWs who were held by the Japanese. Their communication home varied greatly. One man had absolutely no contact with home, while another sent eleven letters, postcards, and radio messages. The most common form of communication was preprinted 3x5 cards on which the prisoners could mark information about their health, and include a very short personal message. The Japanese often read directly from these cards for the shortwave radio broadcasts.
I spoke with Jean Rawlings Webb about her transcriptions of the radio messages which she sent to the POWs' families. She showed me thank you letters from the families in which they explained what it meant to have confirmation that the prisoner was still alive. I was even able to arrange an interview with one ex-POW whose family had received a letter from Jean.
At my request, the National Archives sent me War Department reports about the shortwave radio broadcasts. The records stressed how important the broadcasts were to the military in determining specific POW information. They also demonstrated how much information could be extracted from such brief messages.
To get a balanced point of view, I contacted the Japanese Embassy, but was refused a response. So I spoke to two professors of Asian History about the Japanese view of war and prisoners of war. I also read about the battles of Bataan and Corregidor, which had resulted in the capture of many of the men who had messages sent by shortwave. A ham radio operator even took the time to explain to me how the shortwave radio works.
My display features a balsa wood model of a radio tower. The tower stands in front of a collage of photographs of POWs once held by the Japanese. Barbed wire separates the tower and collage from the rest of the display. The backdrop is made of plywood painted black. On this I mounted items that relate to the radio communications. Most of these artifacts I received from the ex-POWs I interviewed.
Even in the best of circumstances, communication during wartime is dif&Mac222;cult; but being held prisoner by the Japanese made communication almost impossible. My project shows how key the shortwave messages were to understanding the fate of these men.
Emily won the local History Day contest and the Pennsylvania state contest and took her project to National History Day at the University of Maryland in June. A very proud grandmother flew in from the west coast to join Emily and get her first look at the project, which illustrated how her year of listening, recording, and transcribing short messages from prisoners to their families provided the inspiration for Emily's project. Later in the year, because Emily had personally interviewed several of the veterans of Bataan and Corregidor, she was also asked to display her project at their convention in Pittsburgh.
Emily's project showed not only the importance of communications for prisoners with their families but also the communications between generations within families. This process may include transmitting from generation to generation important historical facts that may not have been officially recorded. As Emily says, it is important to get these stories recorded or they will be lost entirely.
All Emily's efforts started by asking her grandmother what she had done during World War II and finding out that her grandmother had kept her records for nearly fifty years. Students should be encouraged to communicate with their relatives who lived during World War II. Who knows what other grandmothers have treasures for young historians hidden away in a box or album in the attic or on a closet shelf?
David Procter holds an Ed.D. from West Virginia University and is an educational consultant. Emily Webb is an eighth grade student in the Peters Township School District in McMurray, Pennsylvania.