Diaries allow us to witness history before it is past. We see what people think while it is taking place. History books have their place, of course–we can see how an event that seems — in retrospect — to be inevitable given the circumstances came to happen.
But while people are experiencing what later gets to be called “history,” they often don’t know what the result of actions and events will be. My mom, for instance, in writing about the war at Christmastime in 1940 at age 18 writes, “And all the sudden, in an emotional intensity, I thought, “This may be the last Christmas we shall have” . . . I should be wise and know the world will never end. . . .” But she didn’t know that at the time. It seemed, given all the grim war news after the fall of France and so many other countries in the spring of 1940, as though the world was to be utterly conquered by Hitler. She couldn’t have yet known that the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union would prove to be a fatal strategical move (thank goodness!).
A recent obituary tells of another WWII diarist: Chester Hansen. He was an aide to General Omar N. Bradley who commanded ground forces on D-Day. But Hansen had been with Bradley since the time he trained in Louisiana, to the North Africa campaign, and then the invasion of Sicily. Hansen’s diary came to number 300,000 words!
Chester Hansen, left, in Sicily in 1943 with Gen. Omar N. Bradley. From the New York Times obituary by Leslie Kaufman, Oct. 29, 2012.
As the Times article quotes from the entry concerning D-Day, June 6, 1944: “Like others in the Army party, Bradley was up at 3:30. He is on the bridge, a familiar figure in his ODs with Moberly infantry boots and OD shirt, combat jacket, steel helmet. He smiles lightly as though it is good to be nearer the coast of France and get the invasion under way.”
The archive of Hansen’s works is at US Army Heritage and Education Center. For lots of neat videos about Bradley, check this page out. Curators using the original documents in the Bradley archive have to wear protective gloves. I know have my mom’s diaries in protective plastic sheets since the paper is so crumbly. Original documents need to be protected so future readers can use them.