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Stories from the Pacific Theatre: Documenting a Hero on Fold3’s Honor Wall

September 20, 2019 by | 1 Comment

Have you ever visited the Fold3 Honor Wall? The Honor Wall is comprised of thousands of Memorials created by our users to pay tribute to America’s veterans. Memorials can contain memories, diaries, stories, photos, and more! They are a wonderful way to share, collaborate, and even learn things about your loved one’s service based upon the histories contributed by others. These pages are a great way to keep our veterans’ stories alive.

For example, the children of Willis H. Bell created this Memorial in his honor. Bell enlisted in the Marine Corps the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed when he was just 17-years-old. He was stationed aboard the USS Chicago when the ship was hit with torpedoes during the Battle of Rennell Island. Bell remembered, “When the first torpedo hit the ship, I was blown through an open hatch down to the next deck, which really did a number on my back. In a later explosion that same night I sustained flash burns about the ankles.” The USS Chicago sank, and Bell ended up in the water for two hours before being rescued. The Navy dropped depth charges to keep the sharks away. Bell received treatment for his injuries though it took about a month before he could stand up straight.

Willis H. Bell

After being released, Bell volunteered for the Raider Battalion 6th Marine Division where he landed at Bougainville in the Solomon Islands. While on Bougainville, Bell was plagued by jungle rot. Jungle rot was a tropical disease that occurred when skin lesions caused by microbes became infected and ulcerated. The painful disease eroded muscles and tendons, and sometimes even bone. Bell’s treatment consisted of putting his legs in a metal basin of water with an electrical current flowing through to clean out the ulcerated sores. Bell remembered that he and other soldiers would have contests to squeeze the sores and see who could hit the top of the tent first. He remembers being able to see right down to the bone in his wounds. Bell also contracted Dengue Fever on the islands.

Several months later, Bell’s regiment came ashore at Guam. One night while hunkered down after dark, Bell heard movement. The regiment followed a hard and fast rule that nobody was allowed above ground after dark without letting fellow soldiers know. Bell had not received word that anyone would be out, so when he sensed movement, he fired. Horrified, Bell learned that he shot and killed his squadron leader. Within 24 hours Bell also lost two more good friends and a third received serious wounds. Devastated both mentally and physically, Bell continued fighting until he came down with a severe case of cerebral malaria. He was so ill that he was found raving incomprehensibly and shipped to a hospital in San Diego. He eventually recovered, but his wartime maladies bothered him throughout his life.

Bell’s family recalls that later in life, Bell did not consider his life a success. Sometimes he displayed irrational anger but understanding his story helped Bell’s family to overlook his weaknesses and imperfections. To them, their father is a hero!

Do you or your loved ones have military stories, photos or diaries? Creating a Memorial is easy to do! Follow the instructions in this video tutorial. Be sure to include regiment, unit, or battalion and as many searchable details as you can. Don’t forget to search other existing Memorial pages and you may learn more about the service of your veteran! Visit Fold3 and get started today!

Escape from Libby Prison: The Largest Successful Prison Break of the Civil War

September 9, 2019 by | 86 Comments

On February 9, 1864, more than 100 Union prisoners tunneled their way to freedom in an audacious escape from Libby Prison in the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. More than half of the prisoners made their way to Union lines while others were recaptured and returned to the confines of Libby.

Libby Prison

Libby Prison started as an old food warehouse on Tobacco Row along the James River. Captain Luther Libby, along with his son George W. Libby, leased the three-story brick building where they operated a ship chandlery and grocery business. In 1862, the Confederacy took over the building and turned it into a prison for Union officers. Colonel Thomas E. Rose, a Union officer from the 77th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, was captured during the Battle of Chickamauga and taken to Libby Prison. He found conditions appalling and immediately started plotting his escape. He devised an ambitious plan to dig a tunnel from the cellar of the prison to a tobacco shed that stood just outside the prison walls.

Rose revealed his plan to a few trusted accomplices and planning got underway. Life inside Libby Prison was miserable. Prisoners were held on the second and third floors of the building. Windows were barred but open, leaving inmates freezing in the winter and insufferably hot in summer. Overcrowding created constant stress and resulted in food shortages. The lack of sanitation led to disease and death. One father whose son was held at Libby prison desperately sought to have supplies delivered to the prison. He wrote, “He has been confined during the whole summer without a change of clothing…and is in a very destitute condition.” Desperate for relief, it was not difficult for Rose to find prisoners willing to help with his plot.

Outside of Libby was a canal, and during wet weather, the prison’s cellar flooded bringing hundreds of rats scurrying into the building. The putrid air in the cellar kept everyone away and helped it earn the nickname, Rat’s Hell. The area was largely avoided by Confederate guards and provided Rose and his associates the perfect place to dig undetected.

Rose accessed Rat’s Hell by removing bricks behind an old kitchen stove. He then shimmied down a chimney to the cellar. From there, Rose and his team scraped away at the hard dirt using crude makeshift tools. Much of the digging took place at night in the dark when the exterior was heavily guarded, but conditions inside the prison were somewhat relaxed.

Loads of earth were removed one bucket at a time, by packing an old spittoon with excavated dirt. The vermin-infested cellar, the rats, and the lack of oxygen made the work excruciating. At one point, after digging a tunnel nearly 60 feet long, the prisoners broke through the surface to find they were off by several feet. Hearing the voices of Confederate guards, the prisoners quickly hid the tunnel and readjusted the approach to the shed.

After weeks of digging, the prisoners managed to clear a tunnel that surfaced in the tobacco shed. One prisoner described the escape, “Everyone wanted to be first. In order to get down the chimney as well as long the tunnel, it was necessary to strip naked – wrap the clothes in a bundle, and push this on before them. As soon as it was seen that only a few could possibly get out before daylight, all rushed for the mouth of the tunnel who could – each man being determined to get out first. The room was now crowded to suffocation all struggling to get in the hole. The strongest men forced their way to the front while the weak ones were more roughly brushed aside and jammed up against the walls.”

The next morning at roll call, Confederate guards were shocked to find 109 prisoners missing, their escape route concealed by the remaining inmates. Of those 109 prisoners that escaped, 59 eventually reached Union lines, 48 were recaptured and two drowned in a river crossing.

Did you have an ancestor imprisoned at Libby? To learn more about Libby Prison and see other Civil War records, search Fold3 today!

September 18-20, 1863: The Battle of Chickamauga

August 30, 2019 by | 145 Comments

On September 18-20, 1863, Union and Confederate forces engaged in the Battle of Chickamauga, a bloody Civil War battle fought near the Chickamauga Creek in Georgia. The battle ended in a victory for Confederate forces and resulted in 34,000 casualties. It marked the end of a Union offensive in southeastern Tennessee and northwestern Georgia known as the Chickamauga Campaign. It is widely considered to be the second deadliest battle of the Civil War, following the Battle of Gettysburg.  

In the summer of 1863, Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans led his Union Army of the Cumberland from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, towards Chattanooga, 140 miles to the south. Chattanooga was an important rail junction for the South. The goal was to use the Federal army of about 60,000 to surround the city and cut off escape for Gen. Braxton Bragg and his Army of Tennessee numbering about 40,000.

As the Union Army approached Chattanooga in early September, Bragg and his army abandoned the city and retreated to Chickamauga Creek, just 12 miles away. There they awaited reinforcements. More than 30,000 Confederate troops poured in, boosting morale.  Now on the offensive, the Confederates set out on the morning of September 18, 1863, to cross two bridges on the Chickamauga Creek. They encountered Union infantry and cavalrymen armed with Spencer repeating rifles blocking the way. Skirmishes ensued but Bragg’s army eventually made it across the creek.

As evening approached, the Confederates encountered Union troops north of Lee and Gordon’s Mills. Rosecrans huddled with George Thomas, a Union general, to strategize and hold open a path of retreat back to Chattanooga for Union forces. Thomas gathered troops and marched through the night to extend Union lines northward and guarantee safe passage. After marching all night, the weary and thirsty soldiers stopped to prepare breakfast near a farm owned by Elijah Kelly. Thomas soon learned that an isolated enemy force was nearby in the woods. He sent a division of his men eastward to contend with them. Fighting broke out in earnest and intensified as it spread across an area covering four miles.

The battle raged throughout September 19th. Confederate forces pounded away at the Union line but were not able to break it, leaving both sides exhausted. As night fell, temperatures dropped, and soldiers endured a night of freezing temperatures. The dead and wounded littered the fields including Merritt J. Simonds of the 42nd Illinois, Company K. He lay wounded on the battlefield for nearly a week before being attended to. On October 8th, he wrote his father a letter saying he had been severely wounded but was optimistic for recovery. He wrote a second letter on October 27th saying, “My leg is now mortifying above the knee and doctors say I cannot live more than two days at the longest. You must not take this to heart but look to a higher source for God’s comfort, for it is God’s will and I feel resigned to my fate…I would like to have my body taken home and buried beside my mother.” Simonds died shortly after and his remains lie in Chattanooga National Cemetery.

The morning of September 20th, Bragg planned a dawn attack against Union forces but a breakdown in communication delayed the first engagement until 9:30 a.m. This allowed Federal soldiers time to organize and set up a defense. In the late morning, incorrect information was transmitted to Rosecrans stating that a gap had developed in the Union line. While attempting to shore up the gap, he inadvertently moved units and created an actual gap. Confederates quickly exploited the weakness and surged through and pushed 1/3 of the Union army, including Rosecrans, off the field. Union soldiers began to retreat. Some of them, however, created a defensive line on Horseshoe Ridge near the farm of George Snodgrass. They held the ridge until evening allowing more Union soldiers to retreat, but the Confederates earned the victory. If you would like to learn more about the Battle of Chickamauga or other Civil War battles, search our Fold3 Civil War collection today!

New Records from Hill Air Force Base

August 22, 2019 by | 19 Comments

Hill Air Force Base in Utah can trace its history back to 1934 when the US Army experimented with the idea of using Air Corps pilots to deliver airmail. Military officials identified a site just south of the inactive Ogden Ordnance Depot in Utah, as a good place to locate a base and appropriated funds for the construction of the Ogden Air Depot. A short time later the name was changed to Hill Field in honor of Maj. Ployer P. Hill, who died while test-flying a prototype for the B-17 Flying Fortress. In 1948, Hill Field was renamed Hill Air Force Base.

Hell’s Angels

Our new Hill AFB collection contains a variety of records including Unit Histories for several units including the 359th Bomb Squad from the 303rd Bomb Group. They were also known as Hell’s Angels, after their B-17 of the same name. Hell’s Angels was the first B-17 in the Eighth Air Force to complete 25 missions. In this photograph, her crew autographs the plane. The Knock-Out Dropper was the first to complete 50 and 75 missions, and Thunderbird was one of just of few B-17s to fly more than 100 missions. Hollywood actor Clark Gable even flew on a mission with the 359th. He is pictured here at RAF Molesworth in England.

You can also find historical reports for the 466th, 467th, and 468th Fighter Squadrons from the 508th Fighter Group. They were activated towards the end of WWII to provide long-range escorts for B-29s in the Pacific Theater. After Japan’s fighter defense weakened, the group was reassigned to air defense for the Hawaiian Islands.

There are additional histories in the Hill AFB collection, such as the Historical Report for the 537th Service Squadron based in Alliance, Nebraska. They repaired and reclaimed glider planes.  

The 216th Army Air Force Base Unit supported the 72nd Fighter Wing at Wendover Army Airfield and the Hill AFB collection contains records and photographs from that facility. The largest bombing and gunnery range in the world was located in Wendover and during WWII, it was the training site for the 509th Composite Group that carried out the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Hill AFB Newspaper

The Hill AFB collection also includes an archive of the base newspaper, the Hill Fielder and other histories like the History of the Army Air Forces Western Technical Training Command, historical data for the Second Air Force and the Army Air Base in Salt Lake City, and the History of the Waycross Replacement Training Unit.

To date, the Hill AFB collection contains almost 63,000 records and is 50% completed. We are adding more images each day! Search the Hill Air Force Base collection on Fold3 today. 

WWII POW Camps in the United States

August 8, 2019 by | 344 Comments

When the United States entered WWII in 1941, the United Kingdom was running short on prison space and asked the US for help in housing German POWs. The US agreed and when Liberty Ships transported US soldiers overseas, the relatively empty ships brought back as many as 30,000 Axis POWs per month to America. From 1942-1945, more than 400,000 POWs, mostly German, were housed in some 500 POW camps located in this country. When the war ended in 1945, the US began transporting the prisoners back to their home countries and by 1946 they had all been repatriated.

German POWs found conditions in the United States somewhat surprising. Other POWs, such as Americans captured by Japanese or German forces; or Germans captured by Russian forces, fared much worse and endured horrific conditions. The United States, however, tried to adhere to the terms of the Geneva Convention, which meant that POWs were treated with compassion and allowed to live in safe conditions. When required to work, prisoners were compensated for their labor. With that compensation, they could buy items from the canteen such as cigarettes, soda, or ice-cream. Prisoners were shocked to see many items available for purchase that were unavailable back home because of shortages and rationing.

While imprisoned in America, German prisoners filled a critical labor shortage created by the war. They worked on farms, in the fields, at factories, and even worked constructing roads and barracks in the POW camps where they resided.

Barracks in a German POW camp

Fritz Ensslin served as a tank gunner in an armored regiment of the German Army. After being captured, he was sent to Fort Leonard Wood, a POW camp in Missouri, in 1943. He described the 30-day voyage to America, “On a daily basis during the trip we were followed and attacked by German submarines. We arrived at Fort Leonard Wood at midnight after a two-day trip in well-secured rail cars.” Like many, Ensslin was afraid of the treatment he might receive as a POW. He was pleasantly surprised to find barracks that contained a bed, mattress, blankets and a pillow for each prisoner. “We had the feeling of being in a Hilton Hotel. For years we had been sleeping either inside or on top of our tanks,” he said. The men were given food described as a “dream meal” and joked with one another that if they had known they would be treated this way, “we would have sneaked across earlier instead of fighting until we ran out of ammunition.” Prisoners also received medical care when needed, and in the event of death, were given respectful funerals and burials.

In some instances, German POWs attempted to escape, but most were apprehended. One exception was Georg Gaertner. Gaertner escaped from a prison camp at Camp Deming, New Mexico in 1945. While imprisoned, he learned the war had ended, and he would be sent back to a hometown that was then under Russian occupation. He came up with a plan to escape by hopping a freight train. He changed his name, worked odd jobs in several states, and eventually married a woman who was unaware of his past. In 1985, he revealed the secret to his wife and with her encouragement surrendered to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. In 2009, Gaertner was granted US citizenship. He passed away in 2013.

If you would like to learn more about POWs on American soil, Allied POWs held in Europe and Asia, or search additional WWII records, visit Fold3 today!

August 3, 1966: The Vietnam War Operation Prairie Begins

August 1, 2019 by | 175 Comments

On August 3, 1966, the US launched a six-month offensive known as Operation Prairie in Vietnam. The operation consisted of a series of battles primarily in the Con Thien and Gio Linh regions along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separated North and South Vietnam. The objective of the US was to prevent the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) from crossing the DMZ and invading the Quang Tri Province. The operation came on the heels of Operation Hastings, a previous operation that lasted from mid-July to early August along the DMZ and was deemed a strategic success.

During 1965 and early 1966, the Viet Cong and the NVA infiltrated areas near the DMZ with the tactical goal of drawing US troops away from cities and towns. US forces responded to the threat by constructing a string of bases south of the DMZ. The Marines provided the ground forces and received air support from two helicopter detachments; one from MAG-16 and the other from the Army 220th Aviation Company.

On August 6, 1966, the Marines inserted a five-man reconnaissance team in an area 4 km north of a craggy mountain of solid rock with 700-foot cliffs known as the Rockpile. The Rockpile was south of the DMZ and used by the US as an observation post and military base. The reconnaissance team smelled smoke from an enemy camp and called in artillery bombardments. On the morning of the 8th, the Marines saw NVA troops and radioed in the situation. Hoping to take NVA prisoners, a 40-man reaction force arrived to help. The enemy couldn’t be located, and plans were made for a helicopter extraction of the Marines. During extraction, troops came under heavy fire and half of the Marines weren’t evacuated. Those that remained held a defensive perimeter while under heavy attack. A Huey gunship flew under heavy fire to resupply the group. On August 9th, following a napalm attack against the NVA, the remaining Marines were finally evacuated. Five Marines died, but there were at least 37 casualties from the NVA.

A Helicopter lands on top of the Rockpile

In the following weeks and months, additional fighting took place in several different areas. One of them was a ridge known as Razorback. While trying to silence a machine gun position that was firing on the Rockpile, Marines encountered an area dotted with caves where the NVA were hiding. The North Vietnamese soldiers emerged from multiple caves at once and opened fire on the surprised Marines resulting in multiple casualties.

Marines also engaged at another place known as Mutters Ridge where the Marines encountered an NVA ambush. In September, intelligence suggested that NVA troops had built an infiltration route along Mutters Ridge. While patrolling in the area, the Marines walked into an ambush. The trapped soldiers fought their way out at close quarters. Sometimes the Marines and North Vietnamese were only 30-feet apart and lobbing hand grenades at each other. It took two days for ground help to reach the surrounded Marines. With the help of air and artillery strikes, 170 of the enemy were eliminated. Nine Marines also lost their lives.

By the time Operation Prairie came to an end in January 1967, US troops were able to prevent the NVA from establishing a major base in the region, but it came at a steep cost. The Marines sustained 200 deaths and 1,000 wounded, while more than 1,000 North Vietnamese soldiers lost their lives.

Did you or someone you know participate in Operation Prairie? To see more of our Vietnam War records, search Fold3 today!

Explore Fold3’s Growing Collection of Unit Histories

July 23, 2019 by | 87 Comments

During times of conflict, the military collects different types of records. One important resource for learning about the military history of your ancestor is the Unit History. Unit Histories usually contain a history of the regiment and may also include maps, daily movements, battles, injuries, and awards. Some histories contain detailed information and photographs of individual soldiers.

A 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center destroyed 16-18 million military files and no duplicates were kept. For many of us trying to research our ancestor’s military history, Unit Histories can provide background information about where your ancestor served, what battles they fought in, and even about their day-to-day life while serving in the Armed Forces.  

We have a growing collection of Unit Histories like one from the 380th Bombardment Group. The 380th (also known as the Flying Circus), was attached to the RAAF and based out of Darwin in Australia for most of its operational career. Their objective was to engage and destroy Japanese strongholds in the Pacific. They fought over New Guinea, the Dutch East Indies, Borneo, the Philippines, Formosa, and Japan. Their attacks on the oil refineries in Balikpapan on Borneo earned them a Distinguished Unit Citation. This record-breaking bombing run required a 17-hour non-stop flight out of Darwin.

881st Air Crew, 500th Bomb Group

The 500th Bomb Group flew combat missions over Japan during WWII. They entered combat with an attack on the submarine pens at Truk in November 1944, followed by the first attacks on Japan several weeks later. The 500th released propaganda leaflets over Japan, copies of which are found in the Unit History. They also participated in food drops to POWs in Japan, China, and Formosa.

On D-Day, the 458th Bomb Group attacked coastal defenses to support the amphibious landings in Normandy. The Unit History of the 458th contains daily diaries of the squadrons with daily remarks of troop movements listing many soldiers individually by name.

Some referred to the 137th Infantry Regiment as “Hollywood Soldiers” because, in April 1942, they were ordered to California for beach defense along the West Coast. While there, they made training films and served as background soldiers for several war movies. This glamorous assignment didn’t last long and before long the 137th began intense training before heading to Europe. They arrived in Normandy about a month after D-Day and fought in the Battle of Saint-Lo, across France, participated in the Battle of the Bulge and endured heavy fighting in Luxembourg and Belgium before advancing east through Germany.

Do you have a Unit History or a military yearbook that belonged to a family member? If so, you can participate in helping us to preserve this important history. Please reach out to us at [email protected] and we’ll arrange to digitize your book and return it to you intact. These records will then be available for anyone to view free of charge. Search our collection of Unit Histories and other military records on Fold3 today!