Commemorating V-J Day: 14 August 1945

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this blog post, Scott searches old newspapers to find stories about the day Japan announced its surrender, ending World War II.

A few days ago I happened to notice an obituary in my local newspaper for Theodore “Dutch” Van Kirk. I read that this gentleman passed away in Stone Mountain, Georgia, at the age of 93. I was curious to learn why this obituary would be in my local paper when Stone Mountain, Georgia, is well over 700 miles away.

photo of the World War II bomber Enola Gay after the Hiroshima mission

Photo: the Enola Gay bomber after the Hiroshima mission. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

I soon discovered that his death was news across the entire United States—his obituary was published coast to coast. For example, this obituary was published in a California newspaper.

obituary for Theodore Van Kirk, Tri-Valley Herald newspaper article 31 July 2014

Tri-Valley Herald (Pleasanton, California), 31 July 2014

As this obituary explains:

Theodore ‘Dutch’ Van Kirk [was] a navigator who guided the Enola Gay bomber over Hiroshima during World War II to drop the first nuclear bomb in the history of warfare… Van Kirk was the last surviving member of the Enola Gay’s 12-member crew, which was responsible for dropping the atomic bomb on Aug. 6, 1945 that killed 80,000 people and hurried the war’s end eight days later.

The phrase “hurried the war’s end eight days later” refers to the fact that the announcement of Japan’s surrender was made on 14 August 1945 (which, due to time zone differences, was actually August 15 in Japan), in effect ending WWII.

This article from an Illinois newspaper presents Van Kirk’s own words describing the world-altering event he and his fellow Enola Gay crew members participated in that day.

article about the WWII bomber Enola Gay and the atomic bombig of Hiroshima, Register Star newspaper article 7 August 2005

Register Star (Rockford, Illinois), 7 August 2005, page 11

“Dutch” died just two weeks shy of the 69th anniversary of the declaration of “V-J Day” (Victory over Japan Day), commemorating the Japanese surrender which marked the end of World War II. Note: although Japan’s surrender was announced in the U.S. on 14 August 1945, the formal surrender ceremony took place aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on September 2—so both days can be called V-J Day.

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Intrigued by Van Kirk’s story, I began to look for more historical information on V-J Day in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives to see how the news was reported—and to learn what our ancestors might have been doing that day.

Here is what the front page of this Louisiana newspaper looked like on Victory over Japan Day.

Japs Surrender Unconditionally, Advocate newspaper article 15 August 1945

Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 15 August 1945, page 1

This photo spread from a California newspaper shows Americans celebrating the good news of Japan’s surrender and the ending of the war: streets jammed with huge, happy crowds, with celebrations of all types.

photos of people in San Diego celebrating V-J Day, San Diego Union newspaper article 15 August 1945

San Diego Union (San Diego, California), 15 August 1945, page 2

And speaking of end of war celebrations, on page three of that same newspaper was an article reporting that floodlights were lit at night after four years of darkness, almost every store in nearby towns was shuttered for the holiday—and from weeping telephone operators to an elevator attendant giving out free whisky to his riders, the whole of America seemed engaged in some type of revelry.

article about people in San Diego celebrating V-J Day, San Diego Union newspaper article 15 August 1945

San Diego Union (San Diego, California), 15 August 1945, page 3

And why shouldn’t America have been celebrating with wild abandon? As the headline of this Ohio newspaper declared: the soldiers would finally be coming home!

Japs Delay Reply to MacArthur's Orders on Surrender Procedure, Plain Dealer newspaper article 16 August 1945

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 16 August 1945, page 1

Seven and a half million men (and women) coming home at last! I know my father, a 1st lieutenant in the U.S. Army, was among those men. While Dad fought throughout Europe, he and his men all had a terrible feeling of foreboding should they have to fight on the shores of Japan. But now they all knew that they’d be coming home.

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While many Americans had been waiting out every second of time for V-J Day to finally arrive, this Texas newspaper article cleverly pointed out that a Mr. and Mrs. B. M. Day had enjoyed V. J. Day for 12 years already! It seems that their daughter was Vera Janice Day, and some smart reporter caught that cute tidbit amongst all the other excitement!

Vera Janice Has Been V-J Day Twelve Years, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 16 August 1945

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 16 August 1945, section II, page 7

This Oregon newspaper article reported that Portland was already planning how to celebrate V-J Day even before Japan announced its surrender: “City fathers have no objection to John Q. Citizen’s celebrating in any manner he chooses so long as the peace is kept. ‘I am not interested in stopping people from showing their exuberance,’ the mayor said, ‘as long as property is not destroyed and the laws are observed.’” Sounds to me like Portland was surely going to rock for V-J Day!

Citywide Plans Underway--V-J Day Pattern like V-E, Oregonian newspaper article 11 August 1945

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 11 August 1945, page 4

Also on the home front, the impending end of the war was going to mean the end to rationing. Two days before V-J Day, a Massachusetts newspaper published this article listing many of the everyday items that were being rationed for the duration of the war, such as gasoline, tires, shoes, food and fuel oil. The old newspaper article speculated when that rationing might end after the formal surrender of Japan. Another family story I recall is that after my Dad returned home from the war, my Mom explained to him how challenging it was to live with rationing—and my Dad responded, with a chuckle: “I’d have traded anyone on the home front anything for the bullets and K-Rations!”

Life Will Begin Again for Civilians Not Long after Japs Fold for Good, Springfield Republican newspaper article 12 August 1945

Springfield Republican (Springfield, Massachusetts), 12 August 1945, page 1

As we commemorate V-J Day today, I hope you will take a moment to reflect on what your ancestors might have been doing 69 years ago. I’d love to read your comments here!

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70th Anniversary of WWII’s D-Day (6 June 1944)

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott searches old newspapers to find out more about the Allied attacks on German-held beaches in France on D-Day.

Today marks the 70th anniversary of World War II’s D-Day, which happened on 6 June 1944. D-Day was the long-awaited invasion by the Allies of Nazi Germany’s “Fortress Europe.” The massive assault was also known by the codename “Operation Overlord.”

It is estimated that America is losing some 550 World War II veterans each and every day now. Of the approximately 16 million U.S. men and women who served in World War II, only about 1.2 million are still alive today. Personally, I know that my father landed on Omaha Beach, and he has passed away. Now his WWII experiences are only stories others remember, not first-hand experiences he’s around to share with us. It was with this in mind that I decided to search GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives to review this historic day.

It did not take me long to find this front-page news coverage of D-Day. General Dwight Eisenhower and the Allies had amassed the greatest amphibious invasion force in history. The old news article reports a one-sentence communiqué issued at 3:32 A.M. Eastern War Time:

Under the command of Gen. Eisenhower, Allied naval forces supported by strong air forces began landing Allied armies this morning on the northern coast of France.

By the time this “Extra” edition of the newspaper hit the streets, Operation Overlord had become an immense battle across five Normandy beaches whose code names now are seared into our memory: Gold, Juno, Omaha, Sword, and Utah.

front-page news about the Allied invasion of France on D-Day during WWII, Boston Herald newspaper article 6 June 1944

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 6 June 1944, page 1

During the months of D-Day preparations, the actual landings, and even continuing into the first weeks of battles, there was an equally important operation taking place by the name of “Operation Fortitude.” This two-part operation of “Fortitude North” and “Fortitude South” was one of the supreme acts of deception of all time.

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It took a while for all the details to be revealed, but this 1965 newspaper article presents a very good review of this “secret of D-Day.”

article about D-Day and the secret “Operation Fortitude” during WWII, Boston Herald newspaper article 10 December 1965

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 10 December 1965, page 15

Four years later, this 1969 newspaper article again focuses on the use of deception that paved the way for the Allies’ success at D-Day. This historical news article reports the reminiscences of General Omar Bradley, who commanded the American troops attacking the Normandy coast. Bradley related not only his firsthand memories regarding the D-Day invasion, but also the big deception that was created to convince the Axis powers that the actual invasion was still coming at Pas de Calais—and that the Normandy landings were actually just a distraction.

article about WWII's D-Day and General Omar Bradley, Seattle Daily Times newspaper article 1 June 1969

Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington), 1 June 1969, page 32

The incredible fighting, bravery, and staggering losses of D-Day have been frequently reported, but I found a 1979 article on this subject that was particularly interesting to me. It was written by Robert E. Cunningham, a U.S. Army Captain, and relates his experiences while landing at Omaha Beach that fateful day. His story is almost too intense to read.

At Omaha Beach, D Day, June 6, 1944, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 3 June 1979

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 3 June 1979, page 135

Several years ago, my family was on vacation in Europe. We were in France, my mother was driving and my father was dozing in the car. My mom saw a sign for “Omaha Beach” and decided it would be a nice surprise to go there for my dad. My father didn’t wake up until we parked the car. He was incredibly shocked to see where we were as he sat in the car looking out at the acres and rows of crosses. For quite some time he refused to leave the car. Finally he joined us as we walked the now silent beach, seeing the cliffs, concrete pillboxes, old rusting guns, and shipwrecks still in the surf.  It was later, while walking hand-in-hand with his family through those crosses that he said, in a voice that was only a whisper, that he had spent the first months after D-Day on graves registration detail and it was the worst duty he had ever pulled.

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The War continued for almost a year after D-Day with fierce fighting all across Europe (and in the Pacific for even longer), as shown in this 1944 newspaper with a full page of articles covering battle after battle being waged from France and Italy to the Pacific.

articles about WWII battles, Oregonian newspaper articles 23 June 1944

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 23 June 1944, page 4

Now it is 70 years after D-Day and the successes of that fateful day continue to be recognized across Europe as communities everywhere celebrate their liberation. As a matter of fact, just a couple of months ago I was contacted by a woman who is coordinating the celebration of the liberation of the town of Dinan, France, which was accomplished by the forces of the 83rd Infantry. She was seeking photographs that might be a part of that town’s celebration. As any good family historian and genealogist would do, I was happy to share what I had for the display during their celebration this summer.

The small leather satchel in this photograph is the one my father carried across Europe during the fighting. He carefully noted each town he found himself in, one of which was Dinan.

photo of a leather satchel carried by Scott Phillips's father across Europe during the fighting of WWII

Photo: leather satchel carried by the author’s father across Europe during the fighting of WWII. Credit: from the author’s collection.

As my contact in Dinan said to me: “Oh my, Scott, this satchel tells a story all by itself.”

I can only add my thanks to all who served our country in WWII and especially those who fought on the beaches of Normandy 70 years ago on D-Day.

photo of Scott Phillips'sfather having lunch somewhere in Normandy with his squad during WWII

Photo: The author’s father (right rear) having lunch somewhere in Normandy with his squad during WWII. Credit: from the author’s collection.

Do you have any D-Day veterans in your family or your family tree? I’d like to hear about them if you do; please post something in the comments section below.

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Remembering a Huge Day in Our Family History: V-E Day

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott commemorates V-E Day—the day Nazi Germany surrendered in WWII—and  reminisces about his father’s involvement in the war.

It had been a long, arduous, and brutal six years of war in Europe. The United States had entered World War II on 7 December 1941 after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Finally in the spring of 1945, although the war against Japan would last a few more months, Nazi Germany surrendered to the Allies on 8 May 1945—“V-E Day,” which stands for “Victory in Europe.” WWII was finally over in Europe.

Some 16 million Americans served in the armed forces during WWII and more than 400,000 of these Americans died in the line of duty.

Today, which is the 69th anniversary of V-E Day, is a good time for all of us who love and enjoy genealogy and family history to reflect on this historic day.

Victory in Europe Sweeps the Headlines

This front page from a Massachusetts newspaper was typical of newspapers across the United States announcing the important news.

Today Official V-E Day, Boston Herald newspaper article 8 May 1945

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 8 May 1945, page 1

The news was welcome everywhere. Stories abounded in the nation’s newspapers about the impact of the unconditional surrender of the Nazi armies. A good example comes from this Texas newspaper. This old newspaper article explains how one family welcomed the news as the MacWilliams family learned that their daughter, a WAC, and their son, a lieutenant, met in Paris after four years of war. Later, the news story mentions that the MacWilliams’ family also had two more sons serving in the Army. The family impacts of WWII can hardly be underestimated as we do our family histories!

WAC, Brother Meet in Paris after 4 Years, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 8 May 1945

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 8 May 1945, page 3

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V-J Day Still Months Away

WWII would rage on three more months in the brutal Pacific Theatre until V-J Day (Victory over Japan). Japan announced its surrender on 15 August 1945, with the formal surrender ceremony taking place on 2 September 1945. The fact that the war in the Pacific was continuing may have been cause for many families in the United States to celebrate V-E Day with a bit of reserve. As you can see from this front page of a Louisiana newspaper, there was much concern about the continuing and staggering losses in the Battle of Okinawa

U.S. Casualties Rise on Okinawa; Bitter Fight Rages, Advocate newspaper article 10 May 1945

Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 10 May 1945, page 1

Similarly an entire page from this Illinois newspaper speaks to the ongoing war effort in the Pacific and “an invasion of Japan.”

articles about the war against Japan in WWII, Morning Star newspaper article 29 May 1945

Morning Star (Rockford, Illinois), 29 May 1945, page 6

Troops Celebrate V-E Day; Wary of Invasion of Japan

My father, a 1st lieutenant in the U.S. Army Infantry, told me years later that, while he and his buddies all toasted V-E Day, they felt that being reassigned to fight what they thought was the inevitable invasion of Japan might mean their deaths.

photo of U.S. troops in Europe during WWII

Photo: Scott Phillips’s father (in the back right corner) with some of the men from his unit, somewhere in Europe. Credit: from the author’s collection.

In my father’s words:

We all felt that if we had lived through the hell of the war in Europe it was only because we were just damn lucky, and our luck would surely run out in the Pacific and an invasion of Japan.

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Despite this apprehension due to the continuing war against Japan, there was good news on the home front all the same. Even though rationing continued until 1946, a return to normalcy seemed in sight after V-E Day was announced.

photo of WWII ration coupons

Photo: WWII ration coupons. Credit: from the author’s collection.

However, with the loss of over 400,000 servicemen and women, many families would never return to “normal.”

Did you have family members who served in World War II? My father only spoke of his service one time to my children and me. I hope you were able to document your family stories surrounding WWII and after V-E Day. They are certainly crucial stories to include in our family trees.

I’d be interested in knowing if you have been able to do this. Simply leave me a comment below if you would.

Peace.

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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.

Rationing Thanksgiving Dinner during World War I

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post—just in time for Thanksgiving—Gena searches old newspapers to learn about the Thanksgiving dinners our ancestors had during World War I.

For many Americans, the word Thanksgiving conjures up images of family, a bountiful feast, and spending the day eating. However, Americans weren’t always encouraged to eat everything and anything on Thanksgiving Day. During both World Wars, food was rationed and families on the home front were encouraged to make do with less. So what did that mean for the traditional Thanksgiving dinner?

photo of a poster for the U.S. home front during WWI urging households to conserve sugar

Poster: sugar conservation, from the U.S. Food Administration, 1917-1919. Credit: U.S. National Archives.

Food Rationing during Wartime

Food rationing is typically associated with World War II, when ration stamps were used—but World War I had its own version of rationing—and this was especially true at Thanksgiving time. In the First World War, families were encouraged to limit some foods so that the United States could feed its soldiers and allies. Overseas, our allies’ lands were devastated by the extensive fighting, and their ability to maintain crop production was limited.

Using propaganda posters, recipe booklets, and informational articles, American women were encouraged to alter the family’s diets by participating in such endeavors as “Meatless Monday,” growing a garden, and limiting the use of sugar. The government led the way in urging Americans to think about what they ate. Herbert Hoover and his U.S. Food Administration, established in August 1917, encouraged food conservation and helped to stabilize the price of wheat.

Newspapers provided families with recipe ideas to help them compile their holiday menus. Women turned to newspapers for recipes and ideas about the type of Thanksgiving they should serve, and newspapers helped women implement these new policies to conserve food.

No Oysters or Turkey for the Thanksgiving Dinner?

What do you typically serve for the Thanksgiving dinner? While portions of the Thanksgiving dinner menu have changed over time, some of the key dishes have always been served. In this 1917 California newspaper article, readers are cautioned that they should refrain from serving oysters on the half shell, Neufchatel cheese, and turkey for Thanksgiving.

Simple [Thanksgiving] Menu; Just as Much Enjoyment, San Jose Mercury News 28 November 1917

San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, California), 28 November 1917, page 9

Readers are told: “The family can substitute chicken, pale American cheese, and other becomingly simple dishes, and not only secure the same number of food calories as in the more expensive repast, but have just as much to eat and just as good a time eating it.” The author provides some alternative menus but first adds that “…the Thanksgiving dinner can materially aid the food supply by not turning the usual feast into a gastronomic contest.”

(Note: the term “Hooverize” in this article’s subtitle—a word your ancestor would have known all too well—referred to economizing food. Since Hoover was the head of the Food Administration, his name became synonymous with this effort.)

Cutting Back on Sugar

Sugar was one of the food items that Americans were encouraged to limit. Today, in a world where much of the food we eat is prepared or pre-packaged, we don’t realize how much sugar is in a Thanksgiving meal. Cranberry sauce, gelatin salads, desserts and even sugar for coffee and tea were foodstuffs that families had to reconsider during wartime. It’s no wonder that newspaper articles like this one discouraged that old standby, cranberry sauce. As pointed out in this old news article, cranberry sauce required large amounts of sugar that seemed, during this precarious time, to be wasteful.

Cranberries Unpopular on Thanksgiving Menu, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 10 November 1917

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 10 November 1917, page 1

Use It Up, Do Without

American citizens were encouraged to plant gardens to supply produce for their meals. For those unable to plant gardens, patronizing local merchants who produced and sold food was encouraged. This was a predecessor of today’s popular “Buy Local, Eat Local” trend.

The main theme of many of the newspaper articles promoting these ideas seems to be: a true American would gladly go without. Consider this 1918 newspaper article’s closing sentence: “Turkey may be lacking in some cases, and the four kinds of pie which once closed the feast may be the only tradition of the ante bellum days, but reminiscences of much to be thankful for will dominate the Thanksgiving day of every true American.”

Thanksgiving Dinner of Home Grown Food Advocated by Hoover, Wyoming State Tribune newspaper article 23 November 1918

Wyoming State Tribune (Cheyenne, Wyoming), 23 November 1918, page 2

What did Thanksgiving dinner look like for your family during World War I? Do you have any stories about your grandparents’ Thanksgiving menu? Please share them in the comments below.

Earlier Women of War: Nurses, Camp Followers & Red Cross Volunteers

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary searches old newspapers to find the stories of women who served during some of our nation’s earlier wars—as army nurses, camp followers, and Red Cross volunteers.

There are numerous groups that celebrate the lives of (mostly men) veterans from America’s past wars, but many of us wonder: what about the women? Certainly women on the home front were supportive of their husbands, fathers and brothers at war—with sewing, cooking and other tasks to contribute to the war effort and stability at home.

But many women during wartime did much more—even making the decision to assist as military “camp followers” ready to tend to the needs of the soldiers. If you were a wife or mother who had sent a spouse or sons to war, what would you do?

Would you remain at home, or would you want to be close at hand, making sure the men were well fed and nursed in the event of battle injuries? Of course, most women did continue to raise their families, work the fields and keep the household running—but some went off to war to support the troops.

Most of these brave women’s war stories have never been told, as history books make scarce mention of them. Firsthand accounts of these women camp followers and soldiers’ wives are few—but with a little help from historical newspapers, we can get a glimpse into the lives of these forgotten women of war.

Elizabeth Dodd, Revolutionary War Camp Follower

In this 1849 obituary we can read the life story of Elizabeth Dodd, who led quite an eventful life in her 111 years. As the obituary comments: “In the death of this aged person, there is a volume of history lost. Living in great retirement, the relict of a forgotten age, few knew the stories she could tell of the brave old days.”

obituary for Elizabeth Dodd, Weekly Herald newspaper article 4 August 1849

Weekly Herald (New York, New York), 4 August 1849, page 248

Dodd was a camp follower during the American Revolutionary War: “During the first American war, she followed her husband through the principal campaigns; was at many of the hardest fought battles; at Monmouth, White Plains, Yorktown, &c.”

Susannah Clark, First Army Nurse Pensioned

Another fascinating account is that of Mrs. Susannah D. Clark who, according to this 1899 newspaper article, nursed American soldiers in two wars and has the distinction of being the first army nurse pensioned in U.S. history.

According to the old newspaper article: “As a bride of a few days, she cared for the suffering and dying during the Civil War, and as a gray-haired grandmother she looked after and nursed back to good health two of her grandsons during the late Spanish-American unpleasantness.”

Mrs. [Susannah] Clark Nursed Soldiers of Two Wars, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 4 September 1899

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 4 September 1899, page 4

Officers’ Entourages

Officers typically had an array of camp followers—some there to directly assist the officers with many varying roles, including baggage handling, while others came along to sell their wares.

This 1792 newspaper article discusses General Abercrombie and the Grand Army, reporting that he “sent off all his baggage that was on the out side of the fort, to Mysore, under an effort of cavalry, and accompanied by his camp followers.”

Grand Army [under General Abercrombie], Daily Advertiser newspaper article 3 September 1792

Daily Advertiser (New York, New York), 3 September 1792, page 2

British Camp Followers of the “Paper Army”

Military camp followers have participated in almost every war, here and abroad. This 1885 newspaper article gives an account of a British “Paper Army.” It reports that during a recent inspection, the actual number of men was much lower than official reports had indicated, so “cooks, servants, and camp followers were hastily crowded into the ranks to satisfy the inspectors.”

A [British] Paper Army, Wisconsin State Journal newspaper article 13 February 1885

Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wisconsin), 13 February 1885, page 5

Red Cross Camp Followers

This 1911 newspaper article gives a report from the Mexican War. After one battle, supply wagons that had been left on the battlefield were inspected by Americans protected by a Red Cross flag.

The historical newspaper article reports: “However, after the Americans demonstrated that it was safe to approach the wagons, the Mexican commander sent a detail under protection of machine guns to bring the wagons into camp. The supplies were evidently a welcome addition to the commissary department of the federals, and were received with handclapping on the part of the women camp followers.”

article about the Mexican War, Salt Lake Telegram newspaper article 10 April 1911

Salt Lake Telegram (Salt Lake City, Utah), 10 April 1911, page 6

Clara Barton, the “Angel of the Battlefield”

One female camp follower who did achieve fame was Clara Barton (1821-1912), founder of the American Red Cross Society.

pictures of Clara Barton, from the Trenton Evening Times 13 April 1912 & the Fort Worth Star-Telegram 12 April 1912

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 13 April 1912, page 3 (left);
Fort Worth Star-Telegram (Fort Worth, Texas), 12 April 1912, page 1 (right)

Because of her nursing work on the front lines during the Civil War, Barton was known as the “Angel of the Battlefield.” After the war, she traveled to the infamous Confederate prisoner-of-war camp Andersonville in Georgia, where she researched the graves of thousands of Union soldiers, identifying the dead and writing letters telling Northern families what had happened to their missing loved ones. (See National Park Service article at www.nps.gov/ande/historyculture/clara_barton.htm.) Later, she provided nursing services in Europe during the Franco-Prussian War, then came home to promote formation of the American Red Cross.  Barton’s long career of service began as a nurse camp follower.

As the following 1912 newspaper obituary mentions, Clara Barton “gave her life to humanity, and humanity mourns at her death…Not till she was 40 years old did Miss Barton start upon her notable life work. Then came the conflict between the American states, calling every patriot to duty. Miss Barton could not shoulder a musket, but she could and did [do] what was as essential; she went to the front as a nurse.”

The Death of Clara Barton, Plain Dealer newspaper obituary 13 April 1912

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 13 April 1912, page 6

Eleanor Guckes, My WWII Red Cross Ancestor

This photograph of my grandmother Eleanor (Scott) Guckes shows her wearing an American Red Cross uniform in 1942 during WWII. According to our family records, she assisted in the war effort by driving an ambulance while her husband was serving with the Navy in the Pacific Theatre.

photo of Eleanor Guckes

Credit: from the photographic collection of Mary Harrell-Sesniak

Do you have a female family member who served in the Red Cross or assisted as a camp follower during one of our nation’s wars? If so, please share your ancestor’s story with us in the comments section.

What Can I Find in GenealogyBank about My Cousin Maid Marion?

No, I don’t mean Robin Hood’s love interest from the 16th century.

I’m referring to my cousin Marion Morgan Kemp (1862-1963) who owned villas in France, New York and Rome.

Years ago I contacted the authorities in Osmoy, France, where she died and received a copy of her death certificate.

photo of the death certificate for Marion Morgan Kemp (1862-1963)

Credit: Thomas Jay Kemp

Since Marion lived most of her life overseas, I wondered if I could find more details of her life in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives.

I quickly found many old newspaper articles about her that gave me a better sense of Marion’s social and civic activities. She not only hosted many events, but also during World War II—after the Allies retook Rome in June of 1944—she lent her personal villa for the use of President Roosevelt’s representative in Rome.

If you read the news article about the villa takeover carefully, you’ll see that her 60-room villa was highly sought after, causing “a scramble among high Allied officers who wanted it.” President Roosevelt’s personal representative, Myron Taylor, won the right to occupy her prized villa when he showed up with a personal letter from Marion—turns out they had known each other for many years.

collage of news articles about Marion Kemp, from GenealogyBank

Credit: GenealogyBank

Notice where the above three articles about Marion appeared:

  • “Mrs. Coolidge Honored,” Springfield Union (Springfield, Massachusetts), 14 August 1949, page 16.
  • “Sporting Tea in Stable,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 9 April 1905, page 8.
  • “Myron Taylor Wins Row over Mansion in Rome,” Richmond Times Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia), 4 July 1944, page 3.

These are terrific articles, published in newspapers from Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Not locations where I had expected to find more information about my ancestor, but pleasant surprises nonetheless.

I had almost limited my record search to only New York newspapers, since that is one of the cities where she owned a home—but I went with a full search of GenealogyBank. It’s a good thing I did— I otherwise wouldn’t have discovered the interesting news articles I found that gave me a glimpse into her life.

Genealogy Search Tip: Cast a wide net when searching newspapers and gather in all of the articles about your family. You never know what you might find out about your ancestors.

Top Genealogy Websites, Pt. 6: Search Cemeteries Online

A few weeks ago I wrote about online cemetery records (See: Top Genealogy Websites, Pt. 3: Burial & Cemetery Records). In that article I wrote about the U.S. Veterans Administration’s Nationwide Gravesite Locator, Find-A-Grave, and BillionGraves.

Now I want to show how you can help your family history research by using information from these three websites: Find-A-Grave, GenealogyBank and Nationwide Gravesite Locator.

As shown in my earlier blog article, I gave Find-A-Grave a try by registering and adding the tombstone photo of my great-grandfather John Henry Kemp (1866-1944).

Registering with Find-A-Grave triggered a mini-avalanche of requests by family members and genealogists from around the country asking if I could take photos of their relatives’ tombstones at cemeteries in my local area. In the past week I’ve received almost 20 requests so far and they are still coming in: requests for me to take photos of gravestones in cemeteries all around my county.

Find-A-Grave has a “Request A Photo” feature that lets you ask nearby genealogists to take a photo of your target ancestor’s tombstone and post it to Find-A-Grave.

screenshot of the "Request A Photo" page from the website Find-A-Grave

Credit: Find-A-Grave

So I decided to give it a try and volunteered to be a gravesite photographer.

I received a request to photograph the tombstone of Daniel J. Clifford. They said that he was buried at the Connecticut State Veterans Cemetery in Middletown, Connecticut, in 1997.

First, I did a quick search on GenealogyBank and immediately pulled up Clifford’s obituary, giving me more details about him. He was 86 years old when he died and yes, he was buried in the Connecticut State Veterans Cemetery.

obituary for Daniel Clifford, Hartford Courant newspaper article 25 October 1997

Hartford Courant (Hartford, Connecticut), 25 October 1997, page B3

Next, I searched Nationwide Gravesite Locator to get a quick summary of Clifford’s military service and burial site.

screenshot of record for Daniel Clifford from website Nationwide Gravesite Locator

Credit: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

It shows that he was a Tec 5 in the U.S. Army and served in WWII. It also tells us that he was buried in Section 81-G, Site 02 in the State Veterans Cemetery.

That is a great feature of the network of military cemeteries: service members are not buried randomly—they are buried in neat, orderly rows. With that section and site number it is easy to go directly to Daniel Clifford’s grave.

So—I headed out this morning to do just that. Armed with my iPad, I went to see if I could actually do this. As you drive into the cemetery you can see the small markers indicating the sections. There was Section 81-G.

Walking the rows I was able to quickly find tombstone 02 in Section 81-G. Notice that the stones have the location code engraved on the back of the tombstone.

photo of the rear of Daniel Clifford's tombstone

Credit: Thomas Jay Kemp

Simple.

Here is his gravestone.

photo of the front of Daniel Clifford's tombstone

Credit: Thomas Jay Kemp

Sharp, clear and easy to read.

Find-A-Grave, Nationwide Gravesite Locator and GenealogyBank are essential tools genealogists rely on to get details of the lives of every member of their family.

Now—another word. I took these tombstone photos for Find-A-Grave with my iPad.

Imagine that.

When I first looked at an iPad I could see no practical value in having one. I could do everything I needed with my laptop—why would I need this extra tool? I quickly found that its always-on Apple software lets me check e-mail anytime, without having to wait for the laptop to crank up.

Now I see that it can actually take photos. Good ones, too.

It was easy to work with. When using it at the cemetery I could easily see the tombstone in the full screen image. It was even easier to frame the photo and to take the picture.

Wow. That was simple.

I have been working on my family history for the past 50 years. There’s always something new to learn.

Last year I learned how to text, to keep in touch with the kids—and now I have an iPad.

Couple this technology with such core tools as Find-A-Grave, Nationwide Gravesite Locator and GenealogyBank, and it’s clearly “A Great Day for Genealogy!”

Read these other blog articles about top genealogy websites:

Top Genealogy Websites, Pt. 1: Google

Top Genealogy Websites, Pt. 2: Google Books & Internet Archive

Top Genealogy Websites, Pt. 3: Burial & Cemetery Records

Top Genealogy Websites, Pt. 4: BillionGraves Smartphone App for Finding Graves

Top Genealogy Websites, Pt. 5: State Vital Records in the U.S.

Help Solve a Genealogy Mystery: Who Is Uncle L in My Old Photo?

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott asks our readers for help in deciphering the writing on the back of an old photo identifying his “Uncle L.”

As I would imagine many of you do, I have some intriguing old photographs that unfortunately don’t have any identification on them. However, the one I have in my family history stash that makes me the craziest actually does have writing on it. The old black and white picture has a wonderfully clear full sentence on the back, which identifies my father around the age of 2 or 3 and—here is the kicker—a second, older fellow identified as Uncle L. Uncle L?

photo of Scott Phillips's father and uncle

From the author’s collection

Yep! The old family photo is as clear as a bell (as you can see here), except for the name of this mysterious uncle!

back of photo of Scott Phillips's father and uncle, showing inscription

From the author’s collection

Every so often I pull that old photo out and try again to identify this mysterious member of my family that I know nothing about. As my family tree continues to grow, becoming more refined and better documented, I keep hoping for a breakthrough. So far though, I have had no luck in identifying this Uncle L. I brought that old family photo out the other day and decided to try some lateral thinking via GenealogyBank.com and its newspaper archives.

To me the handwriting on the back of the photo might be read as Uncle “Lew” or “Len.” Unfortunately there is no Lew or Len in any of my Dad’s immediate family, nor his father’s family. So I branched out to look at some relations of my grandmother’s who lived nearby.

I began my genealogy research with the knowledge that the passenger list from Ellis Island shows my grandmother coming to America to live with her brother-in-law Thomas Martin. He happened to be living on the same street as she and my grandfather would later live on for decades. I still have many warm and wonderful memories of that home from my youth.

My new search began with this brother-in-law and fellow traveler, Thomas Martin. I learned many interesting facts about him from GenealogyBank’s newspapers, such as his job as a lamplighter—which conjured up many images of a great job, until I thought of winter and rainy evenings—and his later job as a street car motorman. However, nothing I found about Thomas helped me identify my mystery uncle.

So I broadened my search on the Martin surname and it wasn’t long before I discovered that a descendant had married a Starr family member related to Floyd Starr, the founder of the amazing Starr Commonwealth for Boys in Albion, Michigan.

Starr Commonwealth--the Miracle Home--Is Rebuilding Many Boys, Jackson Citizen Patriot newspaper article 16 November 1919

Jackson Citizen Patriot (Jackson, Michigan), 16 November 1919, page 14

While I truly enjoyed reading this old news article, which provides a great history of the charitable youth program, it still offered me no one with a given name that comes close to my mystery uncle’s name.

I branched my researching out some more and soon found another family member farther down the street, the Newell family. The Newell family matriarch, Marjorie, was another sister of my grandmother’s, so the search was back on. I discovered lots of interesting information about Marjorie in the newspaper archives, such as her old marriage announcement.

Marjorie Cottle Becomes Wife of T. J. Newell, jr., Plain Dealer newspaper article 14 May 1944

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 14 May 1944, page 47

While offering good genealogical information on Marjorie, this historical marriage announcement also led me to another interesting story about her soon-to-be brother-in-law being awarded the Purple Heart after an air raid in WWII.

Hero, Minus Foot, Is Glad He Did Bit, Plain Dealer newspaper article 28 July 1943

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 28 July 1943, page 1

However, once again I had nothing that solved my mystery about Uncle L.

I moved on to the last family member who lived in the States. This was my grandmother’s brother Thomas Cottle who lived just a couple of blocks away. I searched his family, his wife’s family the Morrells, his wife’s brother Wilbert, and his brother-in-law’s wife’s family the Ricks. Again I gained much useful information for my family tree, but my mystery uncle remains just that.

While I refuse to call this treasured family photograph a brick wall, I am back to staring closely at the photo and analyzing the name. Does it begin with an L, a T, or possibly even a script Q?

What do YOU think? Take a good look yourself, post a comment and let me know…PLEASE!

Women during World War II: Knitting & Sewing on the Home Front

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena writes about the knitting, sewing and quilting efforts of women on the home front during World War II to support the Red Cross and the war effort—and how local newspaper articles about these women provide good information for your family history searches.

Have you documented your family’s lives during World War II? With the upcoming 71st anniversary of Pearl Harbor Day this Friday, it’s an important reminder to document those stories now before it’s too late. The Greatest Generation’s numbers are decreasing daily, memories are fading and family stories will soon be lost.

No doubt it’s important to research your military ancestors and what they were doing in the war to record your family history. Equally important is finding out about those that were left behind on the home front during wartime. Women, children and non-military men played important roles in the war by sacrificing through rationing of food and other material goods, working in industries that supported the war effort, taking over jobs for those who were fighting, and lending their time and talent to help those in need here and abroad.

Women filled many roles during World War II: they served in the military, they worked in industries like aircraft manufacturing and farming, and they also lent their skills to volunteer efforts. One such example is the sewing that was done for the Red Cross.

The American Red Cross, founded in 1881 by Clara Barton, coordinated various efforts during the World War II years that assisted service men and women, civilians, and war victims. They shipped supply packages and helped to ensure a blood supply for soldiers. (You can read more about the history of the American Red Cross on their website.) One way American women helped Red Cross efforts was through sewing and the raffling of finished projects to raise much-needed funds.

This knitting and sewing effort during World War II wasn’t a new idea. World War I saw women sewing and organizing groups that crafted materials to benefit soldiers and those who were victims of the war. Socks were knitted; pajamas, sheets and shirts were sewn; and quilts were pieced and quilted.

American women weren’t the only ones who sewed for the Red Cross. According to the book World War II Quilts by Sue Reich, Canadian women “began quiltmaking in support of the war in the late 1930s…Canada sent 25,000 quilts to Britain and Europe for the relief effort via the Red Cross.” She goes on to write that women attending Red Cross meetings presented a quilt block and a penny at each meeting, thus raising funds and creating quilts and blankets.*

Women’s benevolent sewing, knitting and quilting work was featured in their local newspapers. Meeting notices, project photos, and participants’ names were all documented for the community.

This newspaper article is about a Mexican woman in the United States who used her sewing skills to support her sons fighting in the U.S. Army.

Mexican Woman Makes, Sells Quilt to Aid Red Cross, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 12 February 1942

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 12 February 1942, page 9

The quilt Mrs. Maria Salazar made was originally going to be sold to finance her trip to Mexico to visit relatives, but she reconsidered and donated the money to support the efforts of the Red Cross and ultimately of her three sons fighting in the war. Her name, address and the names and ages of her sons are listed in the old newspaper article.

This historical newspaper article, also from Texas, details the amount of volunteer hours spent in the Red Cross Sewing Room. Products created included 446 woolen garments, 28 knitted garments and 2 quilts made by 616 women.

Red Cross Sewing Room Makes Fine Record, Richardson Echo newspaper article, 3 April 1942

Richardson Echo (Richardson, Texas), 3 April 1942, page 1

This Louisiana article makes note that a quilt was sent to the Red Cross by Mrs. Ada B. Brown and also lists the names of every woman in her sewing group.

A Lovely Quilt, State Times Advocate newspaper article 27 March 1942

State Times Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 27 March 1942, page 9

Military records are an important resource in researching your World War II military ancestors. To get a fuller picture of everyone’s involvement in the war effort, however, turn to newspapers—they are important in learning more about the local history of an area including the activities on the home front.

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* Reich, Sue. World War II Quilts. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Pub, 2010. Page 138.