New documentary zooms in on Purdue’s diverse World War II experiences

The distance between today and World War II-era Purdue depends on your measuring stick. In years, the distance is more than half a century. In steps, it’s a quick walk to the Purdue University Libraries Archives and Special Collections Research Center Purdue University Libraries Archives and Special Collections Research Center. And now, thanks to a new documentary by Michelle Martindale, a doctoral student in history, Purdue’s storied war-time past is as close as your local Internet connection.

In October of 2016, Martindale began combing through Purdue’s archive of oral histories and videotapes featuring staff, faculty and alumni who served in the war. She spent three months synthesizing the content into a 35-minute video, which she also narrates.

It was a bit outside the scope of her modern U.S. history academic focus, says Martindale, a self-described business historian studying gender, labor, and immigration. But after being hired as a graduate assistant for Purdue’s Veterans Success Center (VSC), Martindale grew eager to help resurrect and reveal Purdue’s role in World War II. More importantly, she and VSC director Jamie Richards wanted to highlight the various ways in which members of the Purdue community contributed to the effort.

And the contributions are more varied than one might expect.

PhD student Michelle Martindale Doctoral student Michelle Martindale

“Purdue and the military during World War II and the post-war era were pretty white and pretty male, but we were able to find several examples of significant contributions made by others who reflect a lot more diversity,” Martindale says. “The documentary features women, African-Americans, and even Felix Haas, a Jew who emigrated from Austria, was drafted into the Army, and became an American citizen during his military service. Then, after the war, Haas went on to become a Purdue professor, whose namesake is Haas Hall.”

Highlighting diverse World War II experiences was vital to the project, Richards adds. One reason is that those featured in the documentary, like many of the students Richards’ office serves today, may also have felt a bit out of place when they came to Purdue.

“The students we serve today are typically older and have unique experiences that set them apart from those who come to Purdue straight out of high school,” Richards says. “And yet, the experiences of today’s military-connected students are entwined with the fabric of Purdue’s history. Although our campus has numerous buildings, statues, plaques, and photo collections that memorialize Purdue’s military-related history, we wanted to give these post-war era stories a renewed platform, one by which today’s veterans might be able to relate.”

Neal Harmeyer, digital archivist for Purdue Archives and Special Collections, assisted Martindale in locating the materials she used for the documentary. He says the archives provide opportunities for researchers to access materials they can’t find anywhere else. From there, researchers can create a new access point to the information.

“Michelle and others like her do the legwork, using Archives and Special Collections resources, to synthesize the information, giving their audience another window to the collection through a scholarly process," Harmeyer says. "Archives and Special Collections provides means and support for people to learn about their own history and inspire development of more scholarship."

And that’s just what the Veterans Success Center aims to do. With Martindale’s documentary completed, Richards has launched a new project to collect the oral histories of veterans currently on campus, whether they be faculty, staff or students.

According to Martindale, recording individuals’ experiences becomes more and less difficult with time. While the technology used to record is becoming more sophisticated, people are less likely to pen their thoughts in diaries or maintain hard copies of photos in a single place. That’s why she says a concentrated effort by the VSC to document veterans’ oral histories is so important. Harmeyer says Purdue Archives will likely help with the effort.

“I think people today are just as excited as their ancestors about preserving their personal stories. Meanwhile, the workflows and processes on how to preserve those stories are evolving,” Harmeyer says. “Today, we may need to use different processes for material—such as preserving files created on a personal computer or photos and other content documented online—yet the goals remain the same. Archives and Special Collections exists to help people preserve our collective history and make it accessible.”

The Purdue Archives are located in Stewart Center, fourth floor of the Humanities, Social Sciences and Education (HSSE) Library. Check out the Archives’ website for hours of operation.

Veteran or military-related faculty, staff and students who may be interested in having their experiences recorded as part of the VSC’s oral histories project may contact Richards.

The VSC is one of nine departments in Student Success Programs. More information about other Student Success initiatives may be found on the Student Success Programs website.

Writer: Andrea Thomas, communications director for Student Success Programs, 765-496-3754,

Last updated: Aug. 31, 2017

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