Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Remembering Norman

It was on the day before Thanksgiving in 2008 that something happened that, a few years later, inspired my very first blog post...  Read about it here -

"For the Love of Norman."

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Thankful Thursday: Year Two

I realized the other day that I’ve been writing down and posting my genealogy stories for two years now.  It prompted me to recall my favorites from year two…

Some stories caused me to learn new things…

» In Ezra Alger, I learned more about the Civil War’s infamous Andersonville Prison, while doing research for a friend of my husband’s.

» Writing Typhoid Fever and Tuberculosis caused me to learn more about two diseases that carried away many of your ancestors and mine, even into the 1900s.

Some stories were about the Amish research I’ve done for friends and clients in Indiana…

» Jonas Stutzman, Amish Eccentric was about a very “colorful” character who was also a significant figure in the history of the Amish in the United States—“White Jonas,” the first Amish settler in Holmes County, Ohio.

» An Amish Tragedy told the story of Jacob Lambright, an ancestor of many present-day Northern Indiana Amish, who met a tragic end.

Some stories were about my own family...

» Otto & Elsie told the story of one of my aunts and how she came to be raised by relatives.

» Josephine Carriveau was about my favorite branch of my husband’s family—the Carriveaus.  The stories just keep on coming from that branch of the family!  Josephine was my husband’s great-aunt—his grandmother’s older sister.

» A Civil War Widow Applies for a Pension was about my husband’s Alwood great-great-grandparents, what I learned about them from his Civil War Pension file, and how I came to love again.

» Hazel’s Quilt told the story of a quilt that I have the privilege to own, handed down to me from my mother-in-law, who told me its story when I visited her recently at her nursing home.

Some stories were especially close to my own heart…

» The Telegram was one of my numerous stories about my father’s World War II experiences—this one about the injury that almost killed him and how his mother first found out about it.

» West View Farm was about a place very dear to me in childhood—my Grandpa and Grandma Erickson’s Illinois farm, and the shocking change I encountered the last time I visited it.

"Remember me in the family tree
My name, my days, my strife;
Then I'll ride upon the wings of time
And live an endless life."
—Linda Goetsch

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Fire

This photograph shows one of the papers from my father’s WWII military file.  I include it here not because of its great importance in the story of his military career—but rather, for the burn marks around the edges.  Anyone who has done (or tried to do) research on a WWI or WWII military ancestor may know where those burn marks came from.

My father, Robert Wallin, told me many stories about his time in WWII, and I have his letters home to tell me more.  Like countless aging baby boomers with fathers who fought in the war, I wish I had asked him so much more—and written it all down or recorded it.  So a few years back, I decided to order his military records from the National Archives.

My father was in the Army, so his records are found at the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Navy records are stored elsewhere.)  Unfortunately, the NPRC had a catastrophic fire on July 12, 1973.  The National Archives website says that 80% of the records were destroyed for Army personnel discharged between 1912 and 1960.  That covers World War One, World War Two, and the Korean War—what an extensive and  devastating loss!  (Many Air Force records were also destroyed.)  No duplicates, microfilm, or other backups were kept.  And since there were no indexes, there isn’t even a good listing of what was lost.

 I found out more on the Stars and Stripes website.  The fire started on the sixth floor of the building in the middle of the night; no cause was ever determined.  It burned out of control for 22 hours as 43 fire departments battled it.  It took 4½ days and millions of gallons of water before the fire department declared the fire extinguished.  The sixth floor was destroyed, and the records on the floors below were soaked with water.  The records of 18 million veterans were lost.

About 6.5 million partially burned, water-soaked personnel files were salvaged.  Over forty years later, preservation specialists are still working on restoring them.  It takes the equivalent of 30 full-time employees to respond to the requests of those, like me, who are looking for records from the damaged collection.  Of the 5,000 requests per day that the NPRC receives, they estimate that about 200-300 are for those damaged records.  Those requests go to the specialists at the Paper Treatment Lab, who call the burned records the “B-Files.” 

After the fire, the B-Files were taken to the vacuum-drying chamber at the nearby McDonnell-Douglas aircraft facilities.  The vacuum chamber, which was built to train Mercury and Gemini space program astronauts, was now put into service in taking 8 tons of water out of each 2,000 milk-crate-sized containers of wet documents which the chamber could handle per drying session.  The files were then indexed and stored, to be handled again only if a document request is received.

I was fortunate that my father’s military and medical records (which were extensive) survived the fire—although barely, as the photo shows.  Some had burn marks and some had water damage stains, but at least I received the file.  The records for my grandfather, Sture Wallin, who served in World War One, are entirely gone, so I was told in a letter from the NPRC.  To my knowledge, no one in the family recorded any details whatsoever of Grandpa Wallin’s service, and no papers have survived.  Gone forever.

The MissouriNet website says that, incredibly, the NPRC continued to use the old building until 2012!  The NPRC “now has a new state-of-the-art building with some serious ways to prevent a fire from destroying national records.”  Thank goodness for that.

NPRC building photo:  National Archives

Monday, November 3, 2014

A Dad and a Hero

This paper from my father’s military file tells the story of something he did in March 1945.  (I will tell the story of the burn marks on his records in another post.)

The paper reads as follows:

“First Lieutenant Robert M. Wallin, 0538229, 120th Infantry Regiment, United States Army, is awarded the Bronze Star for heroic achievement in action on 26 March 1945, in Germany.  Although enemy fire was so intense that it killed one man and wounded eight others, Lieutenant Wallin and his comrades left their sheltered positions and exposed themselves to enemy fire to evacuate three of the men to the rear where they received medical attention.  By his heroic action, Lieutenant Wallin aided in saving the lives of his comrades.
[Entered military service from Illinois.]
L.S. Hobbs, Major General – U.S. Army Commanding”

The amazing thing is this:  Dad had just spent five months in a military hospital recovering from serious injuries sustained on the front lines the previous October.  So it’s certainly not like he thought he was invincible…  And how could he?  He had seen more horror and death by this time than anyone should have to see—stories he told me late at night when I was growing up…  Stories of comrades dying in ways I can only hope their families never knew.  Dad’s very first day in combat, his closest friend in the unit was blown up and dismembered, and Dad had to gather the pieces and lay them with the man’s dog tags.

According to my father, stories like what happened the day he got the Bronze Star weren’t that rare.  What was rare was having a superior officer see or find out what happened, and then take the time to write it up.  Just from the few stories Dad told me late at night, I know of at least two other times where he was in this much danger.

One of them was a situation similar to this one.  Dad (a platoon leader) told me that one of his men was badly wounded during a battle.  Dad crawled across a field to the man, and realized right away that if he had run across the field standing up, he probably wouldn’t have lived to tell the story.  He had a struggle of conscience as to what to do…  The man had both a broken arm and a broken leg, so he would have to be carried back across the field, through enemy fire—and it looked like the man outweighed Dad by fifty pounds.

Dad asked the man, “Do you have a family?” and the man answered, “Yeah, a wife and three kids.”  Dad told me he remembered saying to himself something like, “Oh, crap!”—knowing what it was he thought he should do, but not wanting to do it.  But he hoisted the man onto his shoulders and staggered back across the field.  Both of them made it back alive.

In the case of the Bronze Star story, it was Dad and several comrades who evacuated three men.  We’ve all heard the motto of “no man left behind,” but it’s still incredible that young soldiers can summon up such courage in the face of such danger. 

If my father and his comrades hadn’t made it back to their “sheltered positions” alive that day, I wouldn’t be here today.  But because they did, three other men went home to quite possibly have children of their own as well—perhaps even someone who is reading this story today.