Military Records in Newspapers: How They Help Make Your Genealogy Complete

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott shows how he used military records that he found in old newspapers to fill in some of the gaps in his family history.

Certainly none of us likes war. It tears families apart, causes untold destruction, and all too often results in the loss of life or severe injury. However, there is one benefit to us as genealogy fans—and that is the fact that military service, notes, casualty lists, etc., were often reported in historical newspapers. As a result those military records are available to help us fill gaps in our family history, providing many excellent details about our ancestors.

Here are just a few examples of the dozens of military details I have been able to find in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives.

Often during wartimes, things that may seem mundane during times of peace become newsworthy—such as an enlisted man getting a furlough. That was the case with this article I discovered in a 1942 Ohio newspaper. This news article contains some terrific detail on one of my mom’s favorite uncles, Charles G. Evenden. In just a few short sentences, I learned his rank (First Sergeant.), his years of service (24), his brother’s name and address, plus the fact that he was seeing his mother in nearby Lorain.

Then there was the icing on the cake! In the upper corner of the page is his photograph, which happens to be the only one we have of him in our family tree. What a family history treasure to discover in an old newspaper!

Greater Clevelanders at Home on Furloughs from WWII, Plain Dealer newspaper article 16 August 1942

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 16 August 1942, page 16

Recently, I have been working to gain a more detailed look into the actions of my dear father’s unit during World War II. He was in the 83rd Infantry Division of the U.S. Army, which is often called “the Ohio Division.” Unfortunately, his record file at the National Archives was lost during the 1973 fire. However, I have been very pleased at the amount of information I have discovered in local newspapers that reported on the activities of the 83rd. This article, from a 1945 Canton newspaper, provided me with quite a detailed description of many of the movements of the 83rd after their landing in Normandy, France.

WWII Fighting Divisions: 83rd Infantry, Repository newspaper article 19 November 1945

Repository (Canton, Ohio), 19 November 1945, page 18

I was very proud to read of the hard fighting and success achieved by my father’s division, especially the conclusion of this news article:

Crossing the Rhine [River], the Ohioans cleaned up several enemy pockets, then drove for the transportation center of Hamm. Taking that vital place, the 83rd slipped into high gear and began to speed through the Reich.

In 14 days of its push from the Rhine to the Elbe [River], the Ohioans captured 24,000 Germans and liberated 75,000 Allied prisoners of war.

Then an article from a 1945 Cleveland newspaper gave me some remarkably fine detail about the movements of the 83rd as they approached the Elbe River, a destination that my father had mentioned to me.

article about the movements of the 83rd Infantry Division in WWII, Plain Dealer newspaper article 10 April 1945

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 10 April 1945, page 1

I am still reading more of the dozens of articles that resulted from my search on the 83rd Infantry Division, amazed at how much I am learning about the performance of my father’s division during WWII.

In addition to my searches on the 83rd, I learned more about a troubling aspect of my father’s wartime experience by trying a different approach. This time, I searched the old newspapers for a place name: Langenstein Concentration Camp. This newspaper article from a 1994 Illinois newspaper gives as stark a description of this concentration camp as did my father the one and only time he ever spoke of the fact that he was one of this camp’s liberators. Among other things, it states: “The smell of death was there.” The smell was the first thing my father had mentioned.

article about the liberation of the Langenstein Concentration Camp during WWII, Register Star newspaper article 29 May 1994

Register Star (Rockford, Illinois), 29 May 1994, page 4

Unfortunately, death is also a part of war, and I was saddened when I discovered this obituary in a 1945 Ohio newspaper. It informed me that an ancestor, Pfc. Norman Sloan, had been killed in action in Germany, leaving a wife and 6-week-old daughter.

obituary for Norman Sloan, Plain Dealer newspaper article 25 February 1945

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 25 February 1945, page 83

Looking further I found an additional article from the same Cleveland newspaper, a longer casualty list article giving details about Pfc. Sloan’s death and his family, and providing a photograph as well.

obituary for Norman Sloan, Plain Dealer newspaper article 22 February 1945

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 22 February 1945, page 11

Using the information from this newspaper article, I was able to trace his burial as listed by the American Battle Monuments Commission, which in turn helped me find a photo of his grave marker in the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery in Henri-Chapelle, Belgium. While a bittersweet find, it was wonderful to be able to add so much information to my family history.

photo of the gravestone of Pfc. Norman James Sloan, Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery, Belgium

Photo: gravestone of Pfc. Norman James Sloan, Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery, Belgium. Credit: Mr. Desire Philippet.

Newspaper articles can provide immense help when you’re researching your veteran ancestor. I hope you have, or will, search old newspapers for battle reports, casualty lists, service records, pension lists, etc.—and let me know what you have found as a result.

Arlington National Cemetery Removing Mementos Left at Graves

Military cemeteries traditionally have a uniform look: clean, unadorned, orderly.

photo of Flanders Fields American Cemetery and Memorial

Credit: Flanders Fields American Cemetery and Memorial

The appearance of the military crosses was immortalized in the lines of the poem “In Flanders Fields,” written by Canadian John McCrae during WWI on 3 May 1915:

In Flanders fields the poppies grow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

Now, a century later, there has been a growing trend by families and friends to decorate military gravestones of their loved ones in Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia. Military authorities are reminding families that this decorating is not allowed. Photographs and mementos left at the gravesites have been removed, and the historical landmark cemetery has returned to its traditional appearance—with silent rows of gleaming white crosses.

A London newspaper ran a story on this clean-up project at Arlington National Cemetery last month.

article about Arlington National Cemetery removing mementos left at gravesites,  Daily Mail newspaper article 10 October 2013

Credit: Daily Mail (London, United Kingdom), 10 October 2013

Read the entire news story from the Daily Mail (London, United Kingdom), 10 October 2013, here: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2451626/Arlington-graves-stripped-personal-momentoes-controversial-clean-up.html

Here is a copy of McCrae’s handwritten poem.

photo of the handwritten original copy of John McCrae's poem “In Flanders Fields”

Credit: Wikipedia

Lt. Colonel McCrae died 28 January 1918 while serving in France during WWI. He is buried in Wimereux Military Cemetery in northern France.

photo of the tombstone of Lt. Colonel John McCrae

Credit: Wikipedia

Here is the complete text of the poem “In Flanders Fields.”

In Flanders fields the poppies grow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

 

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved, and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.

 

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.