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The Stories Behind the Stars: Uncovering Personal Stories of the WWII Fallen

January 19, 2021 by | 12 Comments

During the post-WWII era, many young boys entertained themselves playing army games. Ten-year-old Don Milne was more interested in learning about real soldiers. He devoured books about Patton, Churchill, McArthur, and Eisenhower. He particularly loved learning about ordinary Americans who served their country in extraordinary ways. Often called the Greatest Generation, Don was touched by heroic stories of the WWII fallen.

Don Milne

Don grew up and embarked on a 37-year career in the banking industry, but his love of military history continued. In 2016, he started a blog, and each day on his lunch break, he researched and wrote the story of a fallen WWII soldier. Before long, he had accumulated 1,300 stories and 1.5 million views on his blog! It seems that Don’s efforts struck a chord with others.

In 2019, Don lost his longtime job at the bank. He decided to take a leap of faith and focus full-time on research and writing. The Stories Behind the Stars (SBTS) was born. When a WWII soldier died, their family received a Gold Star Service Flag. More than 400,000 US service members died during the war, and Don wants each one remembered. To do that, he needs our help!

Today more than 700 volunteers from 49 states and 12 other countries are helping to document these stories. SBTS provides free training for anyone willing to participate. Their goal is to document every soldier lost in WWII before 2025 (the 80th anniversary of the end of the war). In about the time it takes to watch a movie, you can research and write the story of one of WWII’s fallen. Fold3 has teamed up with SBTS and will host these stories on our Fold3 Memorials, where they are preserved and available to view free of charge. Records from Fold3, Ancestry®, and Newspapers.com™ can all be attached to provide rich detail and add to the narrative. Here is an example of a completed Memorial.

One volunteer described his involvement in SBTS as “interesting and rewarding.” John Schlatter has written more than 100 stories and says that his respect for these soldiers and their families has grown immeasurably. Although John has a background in writing, he stressed that anyone can participate. “Anyone can tell a story,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be perfect. Even if you make a mistake, the families of these soldiers are just grateful that someone has remembered them.” John recalled connecting with a woman whose father died a week before she was born. Never having known her dad, she expressed gratitude for John’s efforts in remembering him.  “Thank you,” she said, “for this gift to our family.”

In addition to preserving each soldier’s story, SBTS has big plans for the future. Don envisions a day where visitors to war memorials or cemeteries can use a smartphone app SBTS is developing. The app would allow you to scan the name on a headstone and get an immediate link to that soldier’s story. He has several volunteers helping with open-source app development and database management but would welcome more help.

Would you like to get involved? Visit www.storiesbehindthestars.org to learn more. See more Memorials honoring WWII fallen soldiers on Fold3 today.

January 19, 1862: Battle of Mill Springs

January 4, 2021 by | 52 Comments

On January 19, 1862, Union troops experienced their first significant Civil War victory during the Battle of Mill Springs in Kentucky. The battle, also known as the Battle of Logan’s Cross-Roads (in Union terminology), and the Battle of Fishing Creek (in Confederate terminology), occurred in Pulaski and Wayne Counties near present-day Nancy, Kentucky. It resulted in Union troops breaking through the Confederate defensive line and opening access into Middle Tennessee.

At the beginning of the Civil War, Kentucky declared neutrality, refusing to align with either the North or the South. By late 1861, the Confederacy had established a long defensive line, running from Cumberland Gap across the southern part of Kentucky to the Mississippi River. After a failed attempt by the Confederacy to take control of the state, Kentucky threw out its neutral status and aligned with the Union. Abraham Lincoln, a Kentucky native, was reputed to have said, I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky.” 

Confederate Brig. Gen. Felix K. Zollicoffer

In November 1861, Confederate Brig. Gen. Felix Zollicoffer wanted to extend the Confederate strategic defensive line by moving north and establishing his winter headquarters near Mill Springs. He hoped to shore up defenses to prevent Union troops from advancing into Middle Tennessee.

At about the same time, Union Brig. Gen. George H. Thomas was advancing towards Somerset, Kentucky (about eight miles from Mill Springs) with roughly 4,400 Union soldiers. His goal was to rendezvous with reinforcements and push the Confederates out of Kentucky.

Union Brig. Gen. George H. Thomas

Hoping to attack before reinforcements arrived, General George B. Crittenden, area commander for the Confederate army, ordered Zollicoffer and roughly 5,900 Confederate troops to advance. They started marching towards Logan’s Cross-Roads just after midnight on January 19th. Heavy rain, deep mud, and cold temperatures made the six-hour journey difficult.

At 6:00 a.m. on January 19th, with driving rain, dense fog, and limited visibility, Confederate forces attacked. Fighting was fierce and the weather added to the chaos. The Confederates achieved early success but were repelled by Union forces who had far superior weapons. During a lull in the fighting, Zollicoffer approached a Union company. Assuming they were his men, he ordered them to cease their fire. Union troops recognized his Confederate officer’s uniform and shot and killed him.

After the loss of their leader, Confederate troops became disorganized and fell back from the center of their line. As Union troops surged forward, the Confederates were defeated and forced to retreat across the Cumberland River.

The Union victory at Mill Springs resulted in an estimated 262 Union casualties (including 55 killed) and 552 Confederate casualties (including 148 killed). The battle created the first break in the Confederate defensive line that would ultimately lead to Union operations in Tennessee and Mississippi. To learn more about the Battle of Mill Springs and other Civil War battles, search Fold3 today!

Loose Lips Sink Ships: A Look at WWII Propaganda Posters

December 11, 2020 by | 59 Comments

During WWII, the government commissioned propaganda posters to teach American citizens and soldiers that careless speech could endanger national security. Any American with knowledge of troop movements, military equipment, or any other information that might prove useful to the enemy was encouraged to keep quiet. To remind all Americans of their duty, the Office of War Information (OWI) commissioned artists to create propaganda posters. The posters were hung in public places and widely reprinted. They used imagery that tugged at heartstrings, invoked fear, and appealed to a sense of patriotism. Fold3 has an archive of WWII propaganda posters found in our Boston Public Library collection. Here are a few of those propaganda posters and a little about the artists that created them.

Anton Otto Fischer was a native of Germany and an illustrator for the Saturday Evening Post. His seascapes attracted the attention of Russell Waesche, the Commandant of the Coast Guard, who credited Fischer with helping WWII recruitment efforts and immediately enlisted him as a lieutenant commander. Fischer created this poster showing wounded soldiers rowing away from a sinking ship to emphasize the importance of maintaining secrecy.

In this poster, artist Joseph Harry Anderson depicts grieving parents who have just learned of their son’s death as a result of careless talk. He intended to remind Americans that enemy agents were listening to conversations both at home and abroad. Anderson was best known for his Christian art commissioned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Families who lost a soldier during the war received the Gold Star Flag. In this poster, artist Wesley Heyman depicts a cocker spaniel resting on a scarf that once belonged to his master in front of a Gold Star Flag. His master’s death occurred because somebody inadvertently shared sensitive information. This poster struck a chord with many. It was reproduced millions of times, shattering the record for poster requests.

Stevan Dohanos created several “Don’t Talk” posters for the OWI. He is best known for his Saturday Evening Post covers and created this sinking ship poster and this puzzle piece poster to warn against unguarded speech. He worked for the Section of Painting and Sculpture of the U.S. Treasury Department and painted murals in several post offices.

John Philip Falter created many cover paintings for the Saturday Evening Post. He enlisted in the Navy in 1943 and used his artistic skills to design more than 300 recruitment posters, including a series for the women’s Navy (WAVES). He created this Navy poster and the Sailor Beware poster to warn Americans that loose lips could result in lost lives.

Albert Dorne was a highly successful commercial artist. Along with Norman Rockwell and several other illustrators, he founded the Famous Artists School. He created this image of a fierce rattlesnake with blood dripping from its fangs to convey the dangers of inadvertently divulging military secrets during the war.

Can careless speech imprison American soldiers? Artist Adolph Treidler wanted to convey that message in this poster of an American POW. This image is one of several propaganda posters Treidler created for both WWI and WWII. Among his work was a series of posters depicting women in the workplace and Women Ordnance Workers. He is also widely known for his images promoting tourism in Bermuda.

To see more WWII propaganda posters, visit our Boston Public Library collection and see additional war posters on Fold3 today!

Remembering Pearl Harbor

December 1, 2020 by | 114 Comments

Throughout 2020 we have reflected on the 75th anniversary of the end of WWII. As the year comes to a close, we wanted to take a look back at the moment that brought the United States into WWII – the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The attack by Japanese forces occurred 79 years ago this month, and more than 2,400 U.S. personnel lost their lives. There are countless stories of heroism from that day. Here are just a few:

Don Stratton

Navy seaman first class Don Stratton, 19, had just finished breakfast aboard the USS Arizona on December 7, 1941. He put some oranges in his hat to go visit a buddy in sickbay and made his way up on deck. Suddenly a Japanese bomb exploded, destroying a part of the ship. A fireball set his shirt on fire and caused 1st and 2nd-degree burns on his face and ear and 3rd-degree burns on his extremities. Despite his injuries, Stratton took up his station and tried to shoot down enemy planes, but the shells could not reach the Japanese aircraft. As the Arizona started to sink, Stratton grabbed hold of a rope and began to climb hand over hand. His hands were raw and burned, but he was determined to survive as he inched across the rope hanging above flaming water. He finally reached safety. Within 25 minutes, the Arizona sank to the bottom of the harbor.

Frank Emond

Frank Emond was a French horn player in the band aboard the USS Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania was in dry dock at Pearl Harbor at the time. On December 6, 1941, musicians from the Pennsylvania performed with 21 members of the USS Arizona band. The following morning Frank was getting ready to play for the morning flag-raising when the Japanese attacked. Trained as a stretcher-bearer, Emond went to work removing the injured and dead. Later he learned that all 21 members of the USS Arizona band that he’d performed with the previous evening died in the attack.

Vernon M. Matney

Brothers Vernon M. Matney and Claudie A. Matney both served in the Navy and were assigned to two different ships in Pearl Harbor at the time of the attack. Vernon was aboard the USS Arizona and Claudie was nearby on the USS Worden. Vernon served as a fireman first class and died in the attack. Claudie survived. The boys’ parents were not officially notified of Vernon’s death until February 1942, but an earlier letter from Claudie confirmed their fears. Navy censors prevented Claudie from directly telling his parents directly about Vernon’s death, so he relayed the information in a type of code. He wrote, “Tell Mildred (their sister) that she can name her last boy Vernon after Buddy.” In 1944 Vernon was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart.

George W. Blake

George W. Blake was playing basketball with a local team on the morning of December 7th when he noticed an unusual sound, like a plane landing on a corrugated metal roof. He ran outside and realized the sound he was hearing was machine gunfire. “I came out and the air was full of planes,” he said. Pearl Harbor was under attack. Blake ran to the barracks where a sergeant ordered him to grab small arms and make his way to the gun park. He ran a half-mile across the base, taking cover under palm trees while firing his rifle at Japanese fighters. After arriving at the gun station, Blake was put in charge of a .30 caliber machine gun. He tilted it toward the sky and fired at attacking planes. “I didn’t hit anything,” he said. Across the harbor, he saw billowing clouds of black smoke. He later realized it was probably the Arizona. Blake said they expected the attack to be followed by a land invasion and he spent the next 24 hours manning a machine gun on the shores near the entrance to the harbor. Following that, he lived for several months in a sand cave dug out on the steep slopes of the beach, positioned with a machine gun facing the beach, waiting for another attack. Looking back at those that were lost, Blake says, “The first thing that comes to mind is they were kids.”

Lauren Bruner

Lauren Bruner was at his battle station in an anti-aircraft gun director, a metal box on the forward mast of the Arizona, when a Japanese bomb ignited the powder magazine. A fireball engulfed six men in the box and trapped them. A sailor threw them a line and the men crawled down the line. Their skin was charred and falling from their bodies. Bruner was the second to last man to leave the Arizona before she sunk. Burned over two-thirds of his body and shot in the back of his leg, he spent months recovering. After being released, Bruner went to work on another ship, the USS Coghlan. He served in the Aleutian Islands and the Battle of Komandorski before finishing out the war in the South Pacific.

To read more stories, see photographs, or leave a tribute, visit our Interactive USS Arizona Memorial and search Fold3 for additional Pearl Harbor records and Memorials.

They Fought for the Country that Detained Their Families: Japanese American Soldiers in WWII

November 19, 2020 by | 32 Comments

The 442nd Regimental Combat Team is a WWII U.S. Army regiment composed almost entirely of second-generation Japanese Americans, known as Nisei, who answered the call to serve. They fought in Italy and France and were described by more than one commander as, “The finest assault troops he’d ever led.” They volunteered at a time when many Japanese American families lived in internment camps. Some members of the 442nd were serving in the Hawaii National Guard when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The government made them turn their weapons in, but as the war progressed, the War Department permitted them to bear arms in defense of their country. We’ve recently added the Unit History for the 442nd, which consists of the 442nd Infantry Regiment, the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion, and the 232nd Combat Engineer Company. Later the 100th Infantry Battalion joined with the 442nd.

This Unit History is part of Fold3’s growing collection of Unit Histories, many of which are donated by our users. We can digitize any Unit History or military yearbook and return the original undamaged book to the donor. Fold3 is dedicated to preserving and sharing Unit Histories and make them available for anyone to view free of charge.

After the 442nd was organized, they reported to Camp Shelby in Mississippi for training. Later they headed to the European Theater. In June 1944, the 100th Infantry Battalion met up with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, both having fought through Italy.

Sadao S. Munemori

Among the heroic soldiers in this unit was Sadao S. Munemori. He was born to Japanese immigrants. Just a month before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Sadao joined the U.S. Army and was in an Army training center when his family was forced out of their home and to an inland internment camp. Sadao was assigned to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and sent to Anzio as one of the first group of replacements for the 100th Infantry Battalion, who had already been in combat for nine months.

After Rome fell to Allied hands in June 1944, the 100th and 442nd shifted to France, where they played a heroic role in the forests above Bruyeres. Later, they returned to Italy with a new objective, to break through the Gothic Line. The Gothic Line was a defensive barrier in the northern Apennines mountain range. The 100/442 scaled the mountains and sent a massive artillery barrage down on German forces. The enemy returned fire relentlessly. At one point, Sadao and several other soldiers dove into a shell crater for protection and to avoid heavy fire. Noticing two machine-gun nests, Sadao decided to try and eliminate them. He crawled from the hole and attacked the machine-gun nests with hand grenades, knocking them both out. While crawling back to safety, a live grenade bounced off his helmet and fell into the hole. Knowing there wasn’t time to throw the grenade out, Sadao threw his body over it and absorbed the impact as it exploded. Sadao died instantly, but his comrades survived. Sadao Munemori became the only Japanese American to be awarded the Medal of Honor during the war (other Japanese Americans received the medal long after the war ended.)

To learn more about these heroic Nisei soldiers, search the Unit History of the 442nd Infantry Regiment. If you have a Unit History or a military yearbook that you are willing to share, please contact us at [email protected]. We’ll make arrangements to digitize your book and return it safely and undamaged to you. Others will then be able to view that Unit History or yearbook for free. See more Unit Histories at Fold3 today.

Native American Contributions in the U.S. Military

November 11, 2020 by | 55 Comments

Throughout American History, Native Americans have distinguished themselves with bravery and courage in military service to their country, often without enjoying the same rights and privileges afforded other soldiers. In honor of Native American Heritage Month, we’d like to highlight the contributions of just a few of the many Native American soldiers who have served with honor.

Pvt. John Elk, WWI Soldier

During WWI, more than 10,000 Native Americans served in the American Expeditionary Force. The majority were volunteers, and most were not considered U.S. citizens. Only U.S. citizens were eligible for the draft. Despite this, the government required Native American men to register for the draft, causing frustration and sometimes rebellion. Many hoped their service would lead to the government granting them full U.S. citizenship. At the time, only Native Americans who accepted an allotment of land under the Dawes Act of 1887 received citizenship. As a result, thousands of Native Americans served before they even won the right to vote. It was during WWI that military officials realized the value of Native languages to transmit sensitive information. German officials were not able to decipher coded instructions passed by telephone, radio, or telegraph using these Native languages. Code Talkers, as they came to be known, played a critical role in both WWI and WWII.

Native American soldiers participated in the WWI Meuse-Argonne offensive. William S. Harjo, a Creek Indian, was killed in France and awarded the Croix de Guerre military medal for his actions during that offensive. He served in the 142nd Infantry, 36th Division. An Oklahoma reporter accompanying the regiment spoke of the contributions of Harjo and other Native Americans who “gave their all” as German shells exploded all around them. “Among these men who gave their lives for the sake of all we hold sacred in the name of democracy are to be found numerous men of the original Americans. These Indians have borne their part all the way through,” he said.  

Samuel Holiday, WWII Code Talker

Native Americans also made remarkable contributions during WWII. In 1942, the first 29 Navajo Code Talkers were sworn in. Before the war ended, more than 400 Code Talkers participated, creating an unbreakable code that helped win the war. Samuel Holiday served in an elite Marine unit of Code Talkers. He went behind enemy lines on Iwo Jima to locate a Japanese artillery unit advancing on American forces. After locating the artillery unit, Holiday sent a coded message directing Marine artillery fire. With his help, U.S. forces eliminated the threat, and Holiday replied with a coded message saying, “Right on Target!” Code Talkers were a key factor in military victories at Iwo Jima, Saipan, and several other major battles in the Pacific Theater.

Lori Piestewa

During the Iraq War, Pfc. Lori Piestewa became the first Native American woman in the military to die as a result of combat. She was killed in 2003 after her convoy was hit by a bomb in Nasiriyah. Piestewa, a single mother of two small children, was first reported missing. She became a household name and the adopted daughter of many Native American tribes as a worried nation awaited word of her fate. When military officials confirmed Piestewa’s death, the nation mourned with her family. She was 23-years-old, the daughter of a Vietnam veteran, and the granddaughter of a WWII veteran.

To learn more about the contributions of many more Native Americans in the U.S. military, search military records, Memorials, and our Native American collection on Fold3 today.

The 100th Anniversary of the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior

November 2, 2020 by | 30 Comments

During the Great War, the Reverend David Railton witnessed first-hand the brutality of combat. As a British Military Chaplain along the Western Front, he officiated at the burials of countless unidentified soldiers. It was a chance encounter passing a soldier’s grave in France, however, that sparked an idea that would eventually lead to the creation of the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey in London.

Rev. David Railton

In 1916, Railton was walking through a back garden at Erkingham, near Armentières in France, when he saw a rough cross on which were penciled the words, “An Unknown British Soldier.” Knowing that many other graves held the remains of young soldiers whose final resting place would never be known, Railton had an idea. After the war, he returned home and wrote to Herbert Ryle, the Dean of Westminster Abbey. He suggested a permanent memorial to those who had fallen in the Great War. Through his determination and persistence, Railton’s idea started to take root.

In November 1920, as the second anniversary of the signing of the Armistice approached, plans got underway to honor the unknown war dead by burying one unidentified soldier at a special memorial in Westminster Abbey. He would represent all those who died for their country, but whose burial place was not known, or whose body remained unidentified. Although accounts vary, it is generally believed that on November 7, 1920, between four and six bodies were exhumed from battlefields along the Western Front and transported to a church in northern France. The commander of British troops in France chose one soldier, and his body was placed in a coffin and covered with a flag that Railton had used as an altar cloth during the war. That same flag, known as the Ypres or Padre’s flag, now hangs in St. George’s Chapel in Westminster Abbey. The other bodies were reburied.

In a show of respect, Ferdinand Foch, Supreme Allied Commander during the war, offered a long and solemn salute as the coffin left the shores of France. The HMS Verdun transported the casket to Dover. From Dover, the casket was placed in a railcar and ceremoniously transported to London. Large and solemn crowds greeted the train as it arrived at Victoria Station.

The coffin of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey, November 1920

On November 11, 1920, a procession followed the coffin of the Unknown Warrior. They first went to the Cenotaph, where King George V unveiled the new war memorial on Whitehall in London. Then, with the King joining the procession, they followed the coffin to Westminster Abbey, where the unknown soldier was ceremoniously laid to rest. Within a week, more than a million people visited the site to pay their respects. The Guardian, a London newspaper, noted that every mourner envisioned the unknown soldier as his or her family member. The tomb is inscribed with the following text, “They buried him among the kings, because he had done good toward God and toward his house.”

Remembrance Day 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. If you would like to search our international WWI military records, see collections from the United Kingdom; United States; Canada; Australia; and New Zealand on Fold3.