So, you want to write a historical novel about World War II. Maybe it’s about a prisoner of war camp somewhere in the United States, like Iowa, perhaps. Before you start writing that novel, you might consider spending some time in the research room at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in College Park, Maryland (known informally as Archives II—Archives I is the original NARA building on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC). It’s where they keep all the World War II “textual” documents under lock and key.
In July 2016, I got to spend a day and a half in the research room at Archives II. (Sadly, the research rooms at all NARA facilities across the country are currently closed due to COVID. According to their website, their plans to reopen “. . . will be based on local conditions for each geographic area and OMB [Office of Management and Budget] and OPM [Office of Personnel Management] Memorandum M-20-23, Aligning Federal Agency Operations with the National Guidelines for Opening Up America Again.” Got all that?) A couple of months before my visit to Archives II, I sent them an email to ask specific questions about my research goals. Two weeks later I got a detailed reply—pretty much everything I needed to know before I arrived in July.
I’d never been to College Park, a northeast suburb of Washington, DC. DC metro area traffic is horrendous as you might expect, so on Wednesday, the day before my research began, Joe and I made a “dry run” from Arlington (where we were staying in Virginia) to Adelphi Road in College Park using public transportation (metro and buses) so I’d be confident using it on my own the next day. All researchers are required to show a research card for access, so I acquired that on Wednesday. The card is good for a year, but I didn’t get to use it again after those two days in July.
Some details about that experience are a little hazy, but I do remember leaving everything but my laptop, power cord, and digital camera in a locker before I was given access to the research room. I could bring in a pencil, but no ink pens or markers of any kind. (I wasn't required to wear gloves, in case you were wondering.) I arrived not long after they opened (9:00 a.m.) and there were already several people ensconced at their desks. The room is large and bright with lots of natural light. And it’s very quiet—a pleasant place to spend hours looking at old documents pulled from gray archive boxes.
Before I settled in, I had to fill out several “pull slips” to let the “pullers” know which boxes I wanted to see. Thankfully, I had most of the required information from the email I’d received in early June. After waiting for a bit, someone rolled out a truck with at least a dozen archive boxes on it. I was all set!
Except I needed to get a camera stand for my camera. I found out in June that making photocopies was possible, but it would be 25 cents per copy. Uh, no, that wouldn’t work. How about taking pictures? Sure—no flash, of course. So, I borrowed a stand and got everything set up. (You can see my camera attached to the stand in the photo.) Good thing I didn’t try to make photocopies of everything. I took over five hundred pictures of documents that day and the next morning!
One final requirement: I had to get “permission” from a staff person to take all those photos. I was given a piece of legal paper with a “DECLASSIFIED Authority” stamp at the top. Every photo I took had to include this stamp. It didn’t take me long to realize I was actually touching pieces of paper that had been created or touched by men and women who were stationed or worked at Camp Algona in 1944 and 1945. They were original documents, or maybe in some cases they were original copies made during those years. The Army documented everything back then—I’m sure they still do: visit to camp reports; field service camp surveys; transfer of POW memos; POW camp labor reports; paid labor reports; reports of visit to branch camps; special orders; reports of incoming and outgoing POW mail; and camp statistics. There were a few maps, and even a five-page report from March 1945 that was written in German. I’ll really should get that translated.
A few of the documents I came upon were from March and April 1944. These would have been typed just before and just after the first group of prisoners arrived at Camp Algona, and they involved changes to the “Guard Regulations” document. I was intrigued by some of these listed changes.
From “Changes No. 1” (31 March)
From “Changes No. 2” (5 April)
From “Changes No. 3” (12 April)
From time to time, I’ll write about other documents I touched during my visit to Archives II in July 2016. Stay tuned!
Blessings to all.
Sally Jameson Bond is retired and lives in Southwest Virginia with her husband and two dogs. My Mother’s Friend is her first novel. You can find her web site here: www.sallyjamesonbond.com.