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Some of the most enduring images of World War II come from the Holocaust, the blitzkrieg, the Battle of Iwo Jima and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Stories about the six-year global conflict that killed tens of millions of soldiers and civilians often surround these events, but they are hardly the only ones.
About 75 years ago, on Sept. 2, 1945, hostilities formally ended when Allied powers and Chinese and Japanese government officials signed the Japanese Instrument of Surrender. This weekend, The New York Times is marking the anniversary with a 24-page special section, “Unsung History.”
The section is a culmination of the series “Beyond the World War II We Know,” which since January has documented lesser-known stories about the war and its aftermath through original reporting and first-person accounts. Inside the section are stories about the all-female, all-Black mail battalion who ran the fastest and most reliable mail directory in the European Theater; about Black troops who returned from the war only to confront more racism at home; and about Japanese-Americans who moved from internment camps to a shabby trailer camp in Burbank, Calif.
Contributors to the section included Times journalists; Alexander Chee, a Korean-American author and essayist; Yoko Ogawa, a Japanese novelist and short-story writer; and the actor, writer and producer Tom Hanks.
Lauren Katzenberg, who heads The Times’s At War team, and Dan Saltzstein, deputy editor for Special Sections, led the entire project. The number of people who could still provide eyewitness accounts is diminishing all the time, Mr. Saltzstein said, adding, “This is probably the last chance we’re going to be able to hear from them.”
The team wanted to push beyond the “typical, expected World War II coverage,” he said. On Oct. 31, The Times invited readers who served in the war, or whose family members did, to share stories and photographs via a form on the Times website. About 500 responses poured in, Ms. Katzenberg said. “It was just really incredible to get such a response, and to read everyone’s stories,” she said.
On Jan. 7, The Times published another invitation, this one aimed at civilians from anywhere in the world who lived through the war. Over 140 responses rolled in. Jake Nevins, who was the editorial fellow at The New York Times Magazine, wrote several accounts based on responses from readers and interviews with them. Three of these accounts appear in the section.
For the special task of writing the section’s introduction, Mr. Saltzstein approached Mr. Hanks, who has worked extensively to chronicle the war through films and television series like “Saving Private Ryan,” “Band of Brothers,” “The Pacific” and, most recently, “Greyhound.”
Mr. Hanks agreed to write the introduction, in which he explores the legacy of the war. “World War II and its history is something that Tom Hanks is really invested in,” Ms. Katzenberg said, adding, “We were really thrilled to have him on board.”
In order to include “the creative perspective,” Mr. Saltzstein said, he asked Mr. Chee, the Korean-American author, to contribute. In his essay, he wrote that his grandfather had told him that he dreamed in Japanese, and that eventually Mr. Chee learned that this was because the Japanese tried to systematically erase Korea’s culture during its occupation of the country from 1910 to 1945.
Mr. Saltzstein said he also wanted to invite a writer who could offer a distinctly Japanese point of view. Ms. Ogawa, who has written many novels in Japanese — only a few of which have been translated into English — contributed an essay about how literature is essential to retaining memories of the atomic bombings. She writes only in Japanese, so a translator, Stephen Snyder, worked with The Times to translate her correspondence and her essay into English, Mr. Saltzstein said. Versions of her essay were published online in English and in Japanese — and the Japanese version has attracted more readers, he said.
Mixed in with the text in the special section are dozens of archival photographs that readers are unlikely to have seen. Anika Burgess, a Times photo editor, found these photographs by searching The Times’s archives. She also found photographs from Getty Images, The Associated Press, museums and universities, Ms. Katzenberg said.
“We really wanted to talk about the history through a different lens,” she said, “and that also meant finding photography to go with those stories, which was at times really challenging. But Anika was able to track down excellent photography for every single story that we did.”
Working on the project “was often moving,” Mr. Saltzstein said. Having what is probably one of the last chances to hear from eyewitnesses was “a terrific responsibility on our part, and it had a deep effect on me,” he added.
Ms. Katzenberg took satisfaction in including not only unknown acts of bravery but also darker narratives that have been overlooked. “In remembering war,” she said, “we have to recognize those moments, too; only then can we come to terms with a conflict’s true costs.”