Fighting Illiteracy in Times of War
by Tom Sticht


1. Introduction to Fighting Illiteracy in Times of War
2. Former Slave Girl Fights Illiteracy in Civil War
3. Doughboys Learn to Read in World War I
4. Learning to Read with Private Pete & Sailor Sam in World War II
5. The Reading Formula Helping Win World War II
6. Join the Conga Line for Literacy in World War II
7. Learning to Read in the “Forgotten War” of Korea
8. The Functional Literacy (FLIT) Program of the Vietnam War Era
9. Songs in the Literacy Lessons of the World Wars
10. VESL for Victory and Independence
11. Associationism, Behaviorism, Constructivism: The ABCs of Adult Literacy Education
12. Paul Witty & Private Pete in World War II
13. A “Marshall Plan” for Adult Literacy in Industrialized Nations
14. Swinging the Sword of Literacy in Iraq
15. Waiting for the Watermelons: Remembering 9/11


Introduction to Fighting Illiteracy in Times of War

During the spring at Valley Forge, General George Washington saw to it that illiterate troops of the Continental Army were taught to read. Chaplains were recruited as teachers (Weinert, 1979) and an abandoned hospital was converted into a camp schoolhouse for lessons in reading, writing, and arithmetic. Though we don’t know how many soldiers were taught to read, nor how well, we do know that lessons continued throughout the encampment at Valley Forge (Wilds, 1938, p. 257).

Later, during the Civil War, the Union Army provided many educational opportunities for former slaves (Cornish, 1952). Blassingame ( 1965 ) provides numerous examples of educational activities engaged in by officers of the Union Army, including the work of one General Banks who “…sought to eradicate the widespread illiteracy among the 18,585 Negro troops serving in the Department of the Gulf by appointing several members of the American Missionary Association as lieutenants in some of the colored regiments.

Banks appointed these men for the sole purpose of teaching the Negro soldiers. Later, Banks realized that he could not procure enough teachers for the Negro soldiers. As a result, on November 30, 1864, Banks modified his system by ordering the chaplain in each regiment to teach the colored soldiers” (pp.156-157).

Teaching Soldiers to Read in the World Wars

Twentieth century wars with their battles are recorded in the timelines that construct our history, with images of the doughboys in the trenches of World War I, the Flag being raised over Iwo Jima in World War II, the battle for Heartbreak Ridge in the Korean War, and the sweltering, hell of jungle fighting in the Vietnam War. Historians have studied and recorded these wars, their heroes and the harm suffered by millions of men, women and children. Not only historians, with their academic credentials, have recorded these events. Millions of everyday soldiers have recorded their experiences in letters sent home. You may have read some of the collections of letters written to loved ones by soldiers fighting in a foreign land, or working at some camp distant from their home. Sometimes the letters are from generals who later became famous because of their leadership in battle, many are from lower ranking officers, and some are from enlisted men. But you have probably never read letters to the Editors of the July 1943 issue of Our War, a newspaper for soldiers learning to read and write in the Army’s Special Training Units in World War II:

To the Editors of Our War:

I go to school at Drew Field, Florida. I have learned to read and write letters. I am learning to be a good soldier so that I can help to protect my country.
Pvt. Hom W. Bow

To the Editors of Our War:

We are learning to read and write very well. I write letters home and read the letters that I get from home. I like to read
and write. Pvt. Edwin Williams

To the Editors of Our War:

This is my first letter in English. I have learned to read and write so that I can help protect our country. Pvt. Porfirio C. Gutierrez


You’ve probably never read these or other letters like them because for most of us, war is usually portrayed as the rough and tumble of boot camp, with tough drill sergeants transforming rainbow clothed young men, and now women, too, into uniformed squads of disciplined troops ready for fighting and dying, spilling blood and guts, dodging bombs, bullets, and grenades. But from the Revolutionary War to the present, the Army has fought wars not only with bullets, bombs, and armor, but also with the written word.