Tips for Interviewing Family Members About World War II

Family History
21 May 2020
by Ancestry® Team

What was life like during World War II? What memorable stories do the WWII veterans in your family have to tell?

Interviewing family members about their experiences during the war can help you find out, adding rich details to what you’ve found in records and even uncovering stories that may surprise you.

But most importantly, the information you capture can help you make their stories count. Here are a few tips from Ancestry® for conducting your interview.

1 Prepare a list of interview questions in advance

This will help ensure that you don't forget to ask your most important questions. It will also help you start off the interview feeling more confident and relaxed. 

And it can help you more comfortably guide the conversation as the interview continues.

Consider sharing the list beforehand with your subject. They might find it helpful to start thinking about your questions ahead of time.

2 Set a specific time to talk

Planning a specific time for the interview gives you both time to prepare.

The interviewee can look forward to their time to share stories, maybe even find props they might want to share.

And you as the interviewer can make sure you have everything properly set up to capture their stories.

3 Minimize Interruptions

One-on-one conversations tend to go better with fewer interruptions. And your subject will feel less need to censor the content.

So do what you can to ensure that your interview continues with as few interruptions as possible. If you’re in a home for instance, make sure everyone in it is aware that there is an interview taking place.

Especially if the interview is being recorded, make sure any mobile phones are turned to silent.

4 Consider the Interviewer

Sometimes a veteran would prefer to talk to another veteran in the family—someone who had similar experiences.

War time stories can sometimes be difficult to retell. And talking to someone who has a common reference point, having served their country, can instantly make veterans feel more at ease.

5 Agree to the Setup Ahead of Time

It's important to agree beforehand how you will capture the story: whether it is by an online meeting, video camera, your cell phone, or an audio recorder.

That way everyone will know exactly what to expect during the interview and can look forward to how it will be shared afterward.

6 Keep Everyone Comfortable

The best stories are shared when everyone is feeling relaxed and at ease. So interview your family member while they are in familiar surroundings.

If it’s an in-person interview, make sure everyone has easy access to water.

If it’s online interview, try doing a test run beforehand. And consider having someone available to help out with the technical side of things, in case any technical issues arise.

That way the interviewee can just focus on sharing their stories.

Ready, Set, Interview

You never know what you might discover.

One Ancestry® genealogist found out in a recently resurfaced video interview of her father from the 1980s that her grandparents, who were living in New Jersey at the time, were in Times Square as part of the VE-Day celebration.

A customer recently shared that her father landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day, when he was 17 years old. He never spoke about his experiences as she was growing up.

But his grandson had to interview someone from WWII, and asked him what he remembered from that time. It turned out he had saved several men from drowning.

Interviews are a special opportunity to connect with your family members—and to preserve those stories for the future, to make their stories count.

What could your family interviews reveal?


Ancestry tip: You can upload the stories you discover via interviews to the Gallery on your family member’s Ancestry profile page, either as a Word doc or just create the story within the tree app.