Finding Aids: Reference Information Paper 70 Introduction

Reference Information Paper 70

A Finding Aid to Audiovisual Records in the National Archives of the United States Relating to World War II

Table of Contents


I.1 Among the record holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) are extensive audiovisual archives consisting of still pictures, motion picture film, sound recordings, and posters. Since its establishment, NARA has recognized the record character and historical value of audiovisual materials and has taken steps to ensure their preservation for future generations. Accordingly, it has accessioned audiovisual records created by Government agencies in the course of their work, as well as materials from private sources that relate to the history of the United States. Today, the collection comprises more than 7 million still pictures, including copies of items dating from colonial times; 111,000 reels of motion pictures, including titled productions, series of newsreels, and unedited outtakes, dating from 1894; over 160,000 sound recordings dating from the turn of the century; and a rapidly growing collection of original video recordings.

I.2 The Federal records and donated materials are maintained and serviced by the Still Picture unit and the Motion Picture, Sound, and Video unit, and are available for study in their research rooms in the National Archives Building. Reproductions of items within their holdings are available for a fee, subject in some cases to copyright or other restrictions. Materials generally are not available for rent or loan, although 16mm prints of a few motion pictures may be rented from the National Audiovisual Center, Washington, DC 20409.

I.3 In this paper, the descriptions of Government records are arranged according to Government organization; holdings from other sources are described separately. Many of the audiovisual records included in this publication are identified by alphabetic designations rather than by series or collection titles. These designators are shown in parentheses following the entry. This paper is not intended as an exhaustive survey of all audiovisual records in NARA relating to World War II. Its purpose is to present representative selections to indicate the breadth and scope of materials available for study and to suggest areas for further research.

William H. Cunliffe
Director, Special Archives Division

Audiovisual Records as Research Material

Still Pictures: Federal Photography During World War II

I.4 To fully utilize and appreciate the uniqueness of the holdings of the Still Picture Branch as they relate to World War II, the researcher should have some understanding of Federal Government photography during that period. Many long-established civilian agencies that at the onset of the war maintained photographic facilities, soon directed their staff toward documenting the organization's expanded functions, while newly formed agencies quickly organized units to record their wartime responsibilities. War Relocation Authority, the Office of Price Administration, and the Office of Civilian Defense - three agencies established during the war - are examples of the latter.

I.5 Civilian wartime Federal agencies were primarily concerned with illustrating the war from the homefront perspective. War production, the women's war effort, and conservation and rationing projects are among the many domestic activities recorded. A few civilian agencies also acquired photographs from private sources, not only to supplement their coverage of the home front but also, particularly in the case of the Office of War Information (OWI), to obtain documentation of U.S. activities in combat areas. Many of the images were obtained from cameramen representing newspapers and magazines, the major wire services, newsphoto agencies, and newsreel companies. These photographers had fairly free access to the war zones and worked diligently with their military counterparts to fill the country's thirst for information.

I.6 The military, which had a long tradition of photographically documenting its wide-ranging activities, immediately geared up for war duties. The armed forces covered every theater of war and documented the services from training through combat to victory. As a result, American photography in World War II was closer to the action than in any previous war. In addition, some military offices, such as the Bureau of Ships and the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, ran photographic operations that focused on their areas of specialization. Joint and combined military agencies also staffed photographers. The Office of Strategic Services, for example, operated photographic units out of its field stations overseas. At the close of the war, the US Strategic Bombing Survey, occupation headquarters, war crimes tribunals, and other organizations created extensive photographic records to show damage inflicted and the aftermath of the conflict.

I.7 Whether military or civilian, many photographers were also soldiers, and their equipment included rifles and grenades as well as cameras and film. Not surprisingly, many were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. "On land, in the air, and on the sea, the combat cameramen, wearing the insignia of every service, have gone into the thick of battle with more concern for their equipment than their necks. Recognition of their deeds has been too slow and too infrequent, but no appraisal of the war can omit the men who brought back the visual record of fighting on every front."


I.8 "Combat photographers were among the first to leap ashore as invasion barges scraped the shell-scorched beaches of enemy-held territory from Africa to Borneo, from Sicily to Normandy, from Guadalcanal to Okinawa. Their nerve under fire, their technical skill and their picture sense combined have produced an outstanding pictorial record of this war--a record that is packed with dramatic action, for the combat photographer moved the grime and fury of battle right into the front pages of the nation's press." Yet it was not only the courage and skill of the combat cameramen, but also the technological advancements available to them, faster films, better lenses, and faster shutter speeds, that made it possible for them to get photographically into the thick of the action.

I.9 The camera most used by military photographers was the Speed Graphic, a press-type camera that used 4- by 5-inch negatives in separate cut film or film packs of 8 or 12 exposures each. Since roll film for this camera did not exist, film packs were almost always used in combat. The Speed Graphic could be focused easily and quickly and could be preset for distance action. The 35mm camera was not in general use in the military but was often furnished as a backup. Some military photographers preferred to use the Rolleiflex, a twin-lens reflex that took 2 1/4- by 2 1/4-inch negatives; some of Edward Steichen's men, for example, shot this format. Color film was used for the first time by combat photographers during World War II, predominantly for motion picture footage, but also for still photographs for the Army and Navy.

I.10 To process their film, the services set up darkroom facilities behind the front lines. These darkrooms were used mostly for fast processing of tactical photographs. Other work was sent to central photo labs. The processed films were then sent to Washington, DC, for printing, and those images that were not restricted were released to the press. The work of hundreds of civilian photographers, in the meantime, was submitted for approval through the War Still Picture Pool.

I.11 The Speed Graphic camera did not provide the speed of operation that modern cameras do; and the other commercially obtained cameras were not designed for use under combat conditions. The Signal Corps' research lab was established to develop ways to improve both the equipment used for taking pictures and that used in the darkroom. The researchers were able to undertake many projects that resulted in short-term solutions. The other armed services had units that offered similar support.


I.12 Censorship during World War II was a necessity. Military security made it essential and prudent to restrict the release of a number of categories of photographs: pictures that showed aerial views of American military installations; pictures that showed any other secret military actions, such as those dealing with intelligence activities or preparations for an invasion; photos that showed advanced technology such as radar; and photos that identified the location or strength of military units.

I.13 For reasons of privacy and out of respect for families, photos of dead Americans were not released if faces were shown, or if death or injury was too graphically portrayed. (On the other hand, bloody corpses of the enemy warranted no such restrictions.) Photographs that were embarrassing to individuals or to the military, such as those relating to troublemakers or to criminal behavior among servicemen, were restricted. Medical photography was not generally released.

I.14 Often security or privacy requirements were met by covering up insignias or other revealing features in photographs. Another method frequently employed was to censor photo captions rather than restrict the release of photos. A phrase such as "somewhere in Europe" could very well satisfy American security needs.


I.15 While all of the wartime photographs taken or collected by Government agencies are important in giving a vast and varied picture of US involvement in World War II, the photographic programs of only the military services and the Office of War Information are described fully in Appendix II. The records of these organizations rank among the largest and most used collections in the Still Picture Branch.

Motion Pictures

I.16 The number of film productions undertaken by the US Government during World War II was unprecedented. Signal Corps cameramen had made extensive filmed records of World War I, and the Committee on Public Information used some of this footage for Government-sponsored propaganda. None of this activity, however, foreshadowed the scope and complexity of the use of the motion picture camera during World War II. The film medium, an important device in war mobilization plans, was used not only to record significant data, events, activities, and operations but also to inform and report, teach and train, educate, improve morale, explain Government policies, win cooperation, boost production, and persuade. The complexity and extent of these films are described in the foregoing guide. Most of the US Government films were made and released during the rather short period 1943-1945.

I.17 For purposes of understanding the total range of US wartime film productions, it may be useful to divide the productions between civilian and military agencies. On the military side, the Army was the largest producer, the center of activity being the Signal Corps. This military organization served not only as a central motion picture studio for documentaries, screen magazines, newsreels, and training films, but also as a repository for record copies of these films, together with combat footage and captured enemy film. The Navy had its counterpart in the Navy Photographic Science Laboratory, later renamed the Naval Photographic Center. Only the War Department, however, had responsibility for producing the main ideological films of the war. Most of these were produced under the general supervision of Col. Frank Capra, the well-known director of comedies. These films can be found in the Signal Corps' file of orientation films.

I.18 On the civilian side, the Office of War Information was the most important source of films about the war. The OWI had both a domestic branch and an overseas branch for motion pictures. The domestic branch encountered hostility from private industry and the Congress; its funding for operations was virtually eliminated at the height of the war. Nevertheless, the motion pictures intended for overseas distribution to Allied Nations and to the people of newly liberated countries illustrate several aspects of American life during the war years. Many of the documentary filmmakers who worked for the OWI had learned their craft during the decade of the Depression, and this prior experience tended to give their films as a whole an artistic integrity and appearance that is interesting in the history of documentary film as an art form.

Types of Film

I.19 References to films as outtakes, newsreels, training films, documentaries, or features are important distinctions not only for archivists but also for historian who plan to use film in historical research. These terms describe different kinds of motion picture sources.

I.20 Camera outtakes are the unused portions of footage shot for a production. When the outtakes show unstaged events and are edited only to the extent that all technically undesirable footage has been eliminated, they are camera records.

I.21 Newsreels consist of footage brought quickly from the shooting of the event, edited, and released as a projection print for theater use. The newsreel narration often describes the action depicted, but the primary emphasis is on the news value of the image. United News, Paramount News, and Combat Bulletins take this form.

I.22 Training films are concerned with specific methods of operation, usually combining voice and image, with the voice narration acting as the principal vehicle of instruction. Training films are relatively objective because of their limited scope and thus rarely reach the level of the documentary.

I.23 The term documentary film is an unfortunate one because it may misrepresent the purpose and method of creating this film medium. For one thing, documentary film is much more complex than the other forms listed. The wartime documentary could be produced by one of three basic methods. The compilation method used extant footage from diverse sources such as archives and newsreel libraries. The footage was reedited for a new purpose and given new meaning. The Why We Fight series of orientation films used the compilation form. A second method was based on more or less controlled footage intentionally shot for inclusion in a specific documentary. An example is John Huston's "San Pietro." Finally, a documentary was made by reenacting or reconstructing events, usually using persons who may have had similar experiences rather than using professional actors. "Target for Tonight," a British documentary, is a good example of this approach. However complex the approach, documentary films have in common a single purpose or main thesis. To maintain that they document reality, as the name of this type of filming implies, is rarely accurate. Camera records and outtakes come closer to actual documentation. In documentary film, the highly subjective process of shooting or selecting footage, editing, musical scoring, and scriptwriting results in an extremely controlled and often one-sided interpretation, revealing at times more about the filmmakers than about the subject of the film. This may also be of significance to historians examining films.

I.24 The few feature films mentioned in this paper were not bound by the restrictions of documentary methods. They appear to be based on real situations but are actually fiction emphasizing the sensational and extraordinary over the commonplace and representative. They are designed primarily for entertainment.

I.25 It would appear that film as historical evidence assumes forms whose subjectivity increases progressively from outtake to newsreel, to documentary, to feature film. Contemporary biases and prejudices are found in each form. This does not mean that history researchers should ignore film, but rather that they should apply to it the same scrutiny they do to written or printed sources, such as diaries, correspondence, contemporary newspapers, and secondary studies. Finally, proper examination and use of motion picture sources requires an at least rudimentary acquaintance with the filmmaking process itself.

Sound Recordings

I.26 In many respects, World War II was as much a war of words as a war of bombs and bullets. During World War II, the use of audio and sound-recording technology, primarily through the medium of radio broadcasting, reached its apex and became a significant and major weapon in the arsenals of warring nations of the world as a means for disseminating news, information, and propaganda.

I.27 For most people, radio became the primary source of news and communication during the war. Because of remote-site broadcasting and the development of portable wire and disc recorders used on location, radio listeners became directly involved in the events as they happened. Broadcasts gave listeners a sense of being on the beaches of Dunkirk or Normandy or Iwo Jima, and helped them to understand what it was like to be in London during the Blitz, or at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, or in Hiroshima the day the bomb dropped. Throughout the war, as audio technology became more sophisticated, the ability to record and document radio broadcasts and other live events resulted in hundreds of thousands of hours of recorded sound being cut onto instantaneous 12-inch and 16-inch transcription discs, or placed onto fragile coatings of magnetic tape and wire spools. Many of these sound recordings still exist today, housed and preserved in audiovisual collections of major archival institutions and broadcast archives throughout the world.

I.28 Described within this paper are primarily spoken-word recordings that were created or acquired by US Government civilian and military agencies during World War II. These recorded sound documents range from domestic war-effort radio programs produced by the Treasury Department to foster the sale of war bonds, to actual recordings made by Marine and Navy war correspondents as the troops hit the beaches in the South Pacific, to recordings made by the US Strategic Bombing Survey of medical missionaries and Japanese civilians describing the effects of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I.29 Included also are descriptions of recordings acquired by the National Archives from private, commercial, and foreign sources. Such donations include recordings of radio broadcasts as heard over the airwaves during the bombing of Pearl Harbor; and on such historic occasions as D-Day, V-E Day, and especially V-J Day as radio listeners heard the sounds of celebration from Times Square in New York City and reactions by shortwave pickups from various capitals around the world. Of special interest are the collections of captured German and Italian recordings that include speeches by Adolf Hitler and members of the National Socialist German Workers' (Nazi) Party hierarchy, as well as the personal recording collection of Benito Mussolini.

I.30 In general, the paper describes recordings of speeches, press conferences, radio news programs, panel discussions, interviews, special events, actualities, combat reportage, eyewitness accounts, interrogations, trials, radio documentaries, and public affairs programming from over 75 Federal Government agencies. In addition, it details recordings of shortwave radio propaganda broadcasts in English and many other languages as recorded by the Foreign Broadcast Intelligence Service (FBIS); included among these are monitored recordings on disc of the voices of Axis Sally, Tokyo Rose, and Ezra Pound. Among the 5,000 recordings of the KIRO/CBS/Milo Ryan Gift Collection of daily World War II news reports and actuality broadcasts are American propaganda broadcasts in many languages as they originated from the New York studios of the Office of War Information and the Voice of America, and extensive news coverage of war campaigns and theaters of operation.

I.31 It is hoped that as more research is conducted into the National Archives collections of recorded sound materials, these primary source documents will be studied and reused. This will allow a new generation of listeners to experience vicariously, through the voices of the actual participants, the tension, fatigue, horror, fear, and elation of World War II.

Note: Compiled by Barbara Burger, William Cunliffe, Jonathan Heller, William T. Murphy, and Les Waffin. Published by the National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC. Revised 1992.

This web version, originally created in 1999 and periodically updated, may differ from the paper edition. Possible differences include: updated names of NARA organizational units, corrected errors of fact, and incorporation of new descriptive information. Whenever new descriptive information has been added, it has been coded to display between brackets [] and in italics. In addition, the main text has been artificially split into four parts, by record group, to improve efficiency of storage, retrieval, and use.