The family of a World War II veteran from North Dakota made a special delivery to the State Historical Society of North Dakota on Tuesday.
Virn McElwain, a graduate of Minot Teachers College, hadn’t told his family much about his service at the US Army’s 25th Field Hospital after World War II. Fortuitously, his war diaries were safely stored in a box for decades, until they were discovered by his widow Lela and daughter Janice Schneider after his death in 1996.
These eight pocket diaries were found along with photographs and other items, giving the family their first glimpse into their wartime experiences as they illuminated their two-year journey from Los Angeles to the front lines in Burma.
Lela and Janice took it upon themselves to read and transcribe the diaries in one package, delivering the final product at a family reunion in 2021. McElwain’s nephew, Fargo’s Brady Vick, received his copy at that meeting and decided to contact the State Historical Society to have the original journals archived and preserved.
“I knew he had served in Burma. I remember him saying how much he liked the Chinese, but not much else. Vik said.
Archivist Emily Kubischta took possession of the journals on Tuesday and will rehouse them in acid-free containers in a controlled air environment to prevent degradation. This will ensure their availability to researchers and anyone in the public interested in learning more about the role and experiences of a North Dakota during the conflict.
His daily entries offer an intimate look at daily life in the Pacific theater, as his unit traveled by boat with nearly 10,000 soldiers in Tasmania to Mumbai, India, and their arduous trek through northern Burma.
While some entries focused on junk food and pinocle games, the lieutenant also included his first-hand encounters with the grim realities of war while his unit was attached to a Chinese Army division tasked with repelling the Empire of Japan.
“I was surprised how close he was to the front lines. I hadn’t realized he had witnessed so much trauma. Vik said.
McElwain was responsible for documenting admissions and discharges, and left stark descriptions of the wounded and dead who passed through his hospital. His entrees also included lighter fare, noting the movies shown to them and his interactions with the Tasmanians who smuggled fruit aboard his ship while in port, and with traders and restaurants he frequented in India and Burma.
His hospital also treated a number of well-known units like British Chindit troops and even General Frank Merrill and his famous Marauders, who are best remembered for their raids behind enemy lines.
McElwain began writing in his journals on September 6, 1943, and concluded on January 28, 1946, with him on a train eating an ice cream cone on his way home. These documents offer testimony that he could not have provided during his lifetime, priceless artifacts that will now be preserved for decades to come.