Cracking the Code: A Decode Strategy for the International Business Machines Punch Cards of Korean War Soldiers

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Abstract

ABSTRACT

During the Korean War, International Business Machines (IBM) punch cards were created for every individual involved in military combat. Each card contained all pertinent personal information about the individual and was utilized to keep track of all soldiers involved. However, at present, all of the information known about these punch cards reveals only their format and their significance; there is little to no information on how these cards were created or how to interpret the information contained without the aid of the computer system used during the war. Today, it is believed there is no one available to explain this computerized system, nor do the original computers exist. This decode strategy is the result of an attempt to decipher the information on these cards through the use of all available medical and dental records for each individual examined. By cross-referencing the relevant personal information with the known format of the cards, a basic guess-and-check method was utilized. After examining hundreds of IBM punch cards, however, it has become clear that the punch card method of recording information was not infallible. In some cases, there are gaps of information on cards where there are data recorded on personal records; in others, information is punched incorrectly onto the cards, perhaps as the result of a transcription error. Taken all together, it is clear that the information contained on each individual's card should be taken solely as another form of personal documentation.

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