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Solving a WWII Mystery Using Fold3 and Newspapers.com

February 19, 2020 by | 71 Comments

When Erik and Sonni Bornmeier purchased Sonni’s great-grandmother’s home several years ago, they had no idea that the military footlocker stored in the basement would take them on an incredible journey of discovery to find the remains of a WWII pilot shot down in France. The Bornmeiers’ used military records from Fold3, newspaper articles from Newspapers.com, numerous other sources, and some ingenious detective work to piece together the story of Sonni’s great uncle, 2nd Lt. George F. Wilson. He died in France in 1944 and to this day his remains have not been identified. Erik and Sonni are determined to bring him home. We share their journey in hopes that the tips and strategies they’ve learned along the way can help someone else in their research. 

2nd Lt. George F. Wilsom

The journey to learn more about Uncle George began on Memorial Day in 2018 when the Bornmeiers’ watched Band of Brothers. Touched by the heroics of so many young soldiers, Erik and Sonni went to the basement and dusted off George’s footlocker. Inside they found a stack of letters from George to his mother. By the time they finished the last letter, they had come to know George and wanted to know what happened to him. 

The first answers came when Erik found a Missing Air Crew Report (MACR) on Fold3. The MACR revealed that George served in the 8th Air Force, 398th Bomb Group, 601st Squadron. On July 8, 1944, George was piloting a B-17 when enemy flak hit the plane severely wounding George. The plane was losing altitude and George ordered his crew of eight to bail out.

2nd Lt. George F. Wilson and Crew

Seven crew members were captured and taken POW, and one escaped with the help of the French Resistance. All eight returned home after the war and all reported that George was gravely injured, never bailed out, and went down with the plane.

Using the witness statements from the MACR, Erik learned that the German Army created a similar report to track all planes shot down. Those reports, called Kampf Flugzeuge (KU) reports, were captured by the US military after the war. Erik also learned French priests kept detailed reports of what they witnessed during the war. Using the information in the MACR, the KU report, and a French repository, Erik triangulated potential crash sites.

Page From MACR Identifying Crew Members

One witness in the MACR described that George avoided a small town and a castle before crashing into a field. The next step for Erik was to head to France and try to find the crash site.

Erik’s quest led him to the small town of Monchy-Cayeux. The town matched the criteria in the witness statement (town, castle and nearby fields). Erik met a local journalist and with his help, they started questioning the town’s older residents. They found three eyewitnesses who were young children during the war but remembered seeing a plane crash. One said, “I remember it as if it were yesterday.” They guided Erik to a field and before long Erik started to find pieces of debris. Word traveled and the town united to help Erik. A young man showed up with a metal detector. Before long, they found parts of a fuselage, gauges, bullets, and plexiglass from a windshield. They found a crash site!

Debris From Crash Site

Erik’s time in France was short, but he has since returned several more times. Each time he pieces together more of the story. The residents of Monchy-Cayeux have rallied behind Erik and are anxious to help him find answers. Two brothers who still live close to the crash site gave a detailed account of locals gathering up weapons from the plane and throwing them in the river. A local diver explored the river but failed to find anything. Another report said George’s body was moved to a nearby family graveyard. A third witness remembered a priest coming to bless a grave on the edge of the field. The search to find George’s remains continues.

In the meantime, back home in the US, Erik and Sonni started searching Newspapers.com to find information on George’s crew. They found clippings for many of the crew members, and before long, they learned that two of George’s crew members were still alive! Erik hopped on a plane and had a wonderful meeting with them. They provided Erik with personal accounts of that day and filled in many of the gaps.

Erik and Sonni Bornmeier

The Bornmeiers’ are working with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), the government agency charged with bringing home the remains of Americans unaccounted for. They continue to research and are anxious to return to France. Residents of Monchy-Cayeux have taken ownership of this project and have begun holding town meetings to research the town’s history and the role it played in WWII. George is one of more than 72,000 Americans that remain unaccounted for from WWII. Each day, efforts are being made to bring those soldiers home. To learn the story of your WWII soldier, start your search today using Fold3 and Newspapers.com!

Colored Troops During the Civil War

January 31, 2020 by | 7 Comments

The United States Colored Troops (USCT) was a branch of the United States Army during the Civil War. The USCT was founded in 1863 and composed primarily of African-American soldiers. Before the war ended in 1865, approximately 185,000 black men served in the USCT. Nearly 40,000 lost their lives. They played a crucial role in helping the United States Army to ultimate victory.

When the Civil War started in 1861, African-Americans were initially turned away when they tried to enlist. As the war progressed, attitudes shifted. The first official authorization allowing African-Americans to employ in federal service came in July 1862. Following the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, President Lincoln authorized the use of African-Americans in combat. Before the war was over, African-Americans accounted for 10 percent of the Union army.

Jordan Wallace of Boyle County, Kentucky, was a 52-year-old farmer when he enlisted in the USCT, 123rd Infantry, Company D,  in 1864. Three of his six sons, Allen, Thomas, and Jordan Jr., also registered. The Wallaces were enslaved and owned by Magdalen Wallace. All four Wallace family members served in the Civil War and gained freedom from slavery in exchange for their service in the Union Army. After the war, Magdalen attempted to get the federal government to pay her $300 for Jordan, saying she maintained her allegiance to the government and was loyal to the Union, but she never got the money.

Sergeant-Major Christian A. Fleetwood

On Fold3, we have compiled service records for soldiers who fought in the USCT. These soldiers displayed courage and resiliency, earning awards for their mettle and heroism, often while still enduring prejudices. Christian A. Fleetwood served as a Sergeant in the 4th Regiment of the USCT, Company G. During the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm outside Richmond, Virginia. When two flag bearers received wounds, Fleetwood secured the American flag before it could touch the ground and continued to charge the enemy fortifications. When it became clear that the unit could not penetrate the enemy line, Fleetwood retreated and rallied a small group of men to continue the fight. He was awarded the Medal of Honor.

To learn more about soldiers like Christian Fleetwood, search our record collections and Memorials relating to African-Americans in the Civil War on Fold3 today!

The Liberation of Auschwitz: January 27, 1945

January 21, 2020 by | 339 Comments

On January 27, 1945, 75-years ago this month, the Soviet Army pried open the gates of Auschwitz concentration camp in German-occupied Poland and liberated some 7,000 emaciated prisoners. About 58,000 others had been hurriedly marched westward before the Soviet Army approached. Auschwitz, the German word for the Polish town of Oswiecim, was the site of the largest Nazi concentration camp during WWII. It consisted of a concentration camp, a labor camp, and large gas chambers and crematoria. More than 1.3 million people were sent to Auschwitz between 1940-1945. Some 1.1 million of them were killed. Nine in 10 were Jews.

During WWII, the Nazi regime imprisoned an estimated 15-20 million people who they perceived as a political threat or inferior, especially Jews. They were held in camps and ghettos across Europe and subjected to abominable conditions, brutality, and murder in what has become known as the Holocaust.

Auschwitz was the largest of these death camps and was divided into three main camps: Auschwitz I, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Auschwitz III. Auschwitz I housed prisoners in abandoned Polish army barracks. Some were subjected to inhumane medical experiments carried out by SS doctors. Auschwitz II, also known as Auschwitz-Birkenau, held the greatest number of prisoners and also housed large gas chambers and crematoria. Auschwitz III was a work camp that housed prisoners working at a synthetic rubber factory. Other smaller sub-camps also existed.

The Nazis experimented with Zyklon B gas to kill prisoners at Auschwitz I. These tests were deemed successful and the program greatly expanded at Auschwitz-Birkenau. When new deportees arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau, they immediately underwent selection. Some were saved to be used as forced labor, while others went directly to the gas chambers. This process tore families apart, and separated family members would typically never see one another again.

Arriving prisoners go through the sorting process

One such family was the Guttmann family. Irene Guttmann and her twin brother Rene were living in Prague with their parents when German soldiers arrested Irene’s father. He was sent to Auschwitz where he was killed in December 1941. The twins and their mother were deported to Theresienstadt ghetto and later to Auschwitz where their mother died. The 5-year-old twins were separated and subjected to horrific medical experiments under Dr. Josef Mengele. Their story is just one of many that occurred during the Holocaust.

On January 18, 1945, as the Soviet Army approached, the Nazis abandoned Auschwitz. The SS tried to hide evidence of the crimes committed at the camp by burning documents and blowing up several crematoria. The ‘healthy’ prisoners, numbering about 58,000, set off westward on a death march. Very few of them survived. The remaining prisoners, some 7,000, were too sick and starving to march and left to die in the camp.

Child survivors of Auschwitz wearing adult-size prisoner jackets

Rene Guttman was herded onto a truck to be sent to his death, but Dr. Mengele countermanded the order, saying that only he could kill his twins. With this order, both Rene and Irene remained in the camp.

On that bitterly cold morning of January 27th, prisoners huddled in their barracks. “We heard a grenade exploding near the entrance area,” recalled a former prisoner. “We looked out and saw some Soviet reconnaissance soldiers approaching, guns in their hands. The soldiers came up and said: ‘You are free at last.’”  

The Guttmann twins recalled liberation day. “I remember walking out of Auschwitz. I do remember trying to look back and around me to see if I could find Irene because I was leaving this place. I did see her, but we had to march on. There was shooting all around us…then we were surrounded by Russians dressed in white uniforms, that was the liberation,” said Rene. Irene, who was too weak to walk, was carried by a Polish peasant woman to her home.

One year later, a charity organization arranged for Irene to come to the United States along with other war orphans, where she was adopted. She wondered if she would ever see her brother Rene again. With the help of her adoptive family, they managed to locate Rene, who was living in Prague. The family adopted him as well, reuniting the twins in 1950.

When evidence of the atrocities committed at Auschwitz and other concentration camps came to light, the world was shocked. Decades later, the 2005 United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution naming January 27th, the day that Auschwitz was liberated, as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. To learn more about the Holocaust, including survivor stories, photographs, and other related documents, see our Holocaust Collection on Fold3.

Vietnam Combat Artists Program

December 31, 2019 by | 63 Comments

Have you ever heard of the Combat Artists Program? In June 1966, the Army created the Vietnam Combat Artists Program. Soldier-artists in this program often reached for paints and canvas instead of weapons. They documented the war using a variety of mediums and created works of art that inspired and provided a visual interpretation of life during wartime.

The idea of using art to invoke emotion during battle was not new. Artists and photographers have created images dating back to the Revolutionary War. Photographer Mathew Brady captured scenes during the Civil War that are still viewed regularly today. During WWI, eight artists were commissioned and sent to Europe to capture images involving the American Expeditionary Force. The Army established a War Art Unit during WWII and selected 42 artists to participate. By the end of the war, the Army had acquired more than 2,000 pieces of art. The Marine Corps Combat Art Program had more than 70 artists during WWII and the program remains today, although with fewer artists participating. The Navy’s Combat Art Program began in 1941 and included eight active-duty artists by 1944. The United States Air Force Art Program started in 1950 when the US Army Air Corps transferred some 800 pieces of art documenting the early days of military aviation.

Our 9th Infantry Division collection includes Combat Art created during the Vietnam War between the years 1966 – 1969. Here are a few examples of combat art from this collection. To see additional works, search the 9th Infantry Division Combat Art Collection today on Fold3!

New UK Military Records on Fold3!

December 30, 2019 by | 24 Comments

Our UK military records are expanding! We’ve recently added a new collection, “UK, Militia Attestation Papers, 1806-1915”. These records or attestation forms were filled out at the time of recruitment, and in most cases, annotated to the date of discharge. They form a record of military service for soldiers who fought in conflicts during that time period.

The collection is arranged alphabetically under regiments and in order of seniority.

Attestation Papers contain wonderful details for researching specific soldiers. They list parish, town, and county of birth, address at the time of enlistment, age, and trade or job. The papers also include a physical description including a place to list any distinctive characteristics or scars. The files list military service rendered and whether a soldier was wounded or received medals or decorations. They also list the name and address of next of kin.

Here are a few examples of what you might learn in this collection. John Hart from Wales served in the Royal Monmouthshire Engineers. His papers reveal that he didn’t show up for training in 1891 and was liable to serve for an additional year. In 1894, he was discharged by purchase, in other words, he obtained a discharge by payment.

The Attestation Papers for Robert Eastburn from Leeds record that his superiors deemed him unlikely to be an effective militiaman with defective intelligence and insubordination. He was discharged in 1906.

James Allison from Paisley, Scotland, was just 17-years-old when he joined the 26th Foot (Scottish Rifles) in 1875. His service record shows military service for 20 years before being discharged in 1895.

This collection of Attestation Papers provides a glimpse into the history of militias and multiple conflicts in the United Kingdom. If you are researching ancestors that served for the United Kingdom during this time, be sure to check out the collection on Fold3 today!

The WWI Christmas Truce

December 17, 2019 by | 41 Comments

On December 24-25, 1914, an impromptu cease-fire occurred along the Western Front during WWI. Amid the battle, soldiers from both sides set aside their weapons and came together peacefully in an event that has come to be known as the WWI Christmas Truce. Here are a few first-hand accounts of that historic event.

British and German Officers Meet in No-Man’s Land During WWI Christmas Truce
Courtesy of Imperial War Museums

The Canadian Expeditionary Forces 24th Battalion recorded their experience. “Early in the afternoon shelling and rifle fire ceased completely and soon German soldiers were seen lifting heads and shoulders cautiously over the parapet of their front line trench. Encouraged by the fact that no fire was opened by the men of the 24th, a number of Germans climbed over the top, advanced in No Man’s Land, and, making signs of friendship, invited the Canadians to join them and celebrate the occasion. Regulations frowned on such action, but curiosity proved strong, and a group of Canadians, including a number from the 24th Battalion, moved out to see what the enemy looked like at close range. Conversation proved difficult at first, but a number of the Germans spoke English fluently and others, having rehearsed for the occasion, one must judge, endeavored to establish their benevolence by constant repetition of the phrase, “Kaiser no damn good.” For nearly an hour the unofficial peace was prolonged, the Canadians presenting the Germans with cigarettes and foodstuffs and receiving in return buttons, badges, and several bottles of most excellent beer. By this time, news of the event had reached authority, and peremptory orders were issued to the Canadians in No Man’s Land to return to their own line forthwith. When all had reported back, a salvo of artillery fire, aimed carefully to burst at a spot where no harm to friend or foe would result, warned the Germans that the truce was over and that hostilities had been resumed…For some days after Christmas comparative quiet prevailed in the front line, but soon activity increased and the Battalion’s losses indicated that normal trench warfare conditions again existed.”

Captain Hugh Taylor from the 2nd Battalion Scots Guards led his company in an attack near Rouges Bancs on December 18-19, 1914. His troops succeeded in pushing back German soldiers and occupying their trenches. While returning alone to the British trenches to report, Taylor was caught in machine-gun fire and killed instantly. For nearly a week, his body lay near the German line. During the informal Christmas Truce, soldiers from both sides collected the dead and brought their bodies to the center space between their respective lines. They dug two trenches and buried British soldiers in one and German soldiers in the other. An English Chaplain conducted a service. Afterward, the soldiers spent several hours fraternizing with one another. Captain Taylor’s body was carried to a small military graveyard at La Cardoniere Farm and buried.

British and German troops bury soldiers during the WWI Christmas Truce – 1914
Courtesy of Imperial War Museum

Three Americans serving in the Foreign Legion took part in the Christmas Truce. Victor Chapman, Eugene Jacobs, and Phil Rader were in the trenches that day. Rader, a former United Press correspondent, wrote a stirring account of his experience. “For twenty days we had faced that strip of land, forty-five feet wide, between our trench and that of the Germans, that terrible No-Man’s Land, dotted with dead bodies, criss-crossed by tangled masses of barbed wire.” Rader recounted cautiously raising his head. “Other men did the same. We saw hundreds of German heads appearing. Shouts filled the air. What miracle had happened? Men laughed and cheered. There was Christmas light in our eyes and I know there were Christmas tears in mine. There were smiles, smiles, smiles, where in days before there had been only rifle barrels. The terror of No-Man’s Land fell away. The sounds of happy voices filled the air.”

The Christmas Truce of 1914 eventually ended, and the goodwill shared between enemies for a brief moment during WWI evaporated as fighting resumed. To learn more about WWI and the soldiers who fought in it, search Fold3 today!

Christmas During the Battle of the Bulge

December 1, 2019 by | 270 Comments

On December 16, 1944, German forces surprised American soldiers in the densely forested Ardennes region of Belgium, Luxembourg, and France, with a massive offensive also known as the Battle of the Bulge, or the Ardennes Counteroffensive. Germany pushed through an Allied line, creating a bulge in the Allied defensive lines. The deadly battle, which lasted until January 25, 1945, was the largest on the European western front during WWII and resulted in an estimated 1 in 10 American combat casualties during the entire war. It also meant that thousands of soldiers spent Christmas 1944 in temperatures that hovered around zero, in knee-deep snow, and with limited rations for Christmas dinner. On the home front, their families spent a nervous holiday season, waiting for word of their loved ones.

Cpl. Frank D. Vari spent Christmas Eve huddled in a foxhole as shells exploded around him all night long. “We could hear their guns going off and the shells landing at the same time. They were close. They almost surrounded the whole place. I remember Christmas Day. I got up, and we had a real bad night, with artillery and everything. The first thing I saw was the steeple of a church down in the valley. It was a beautiful day, the sun was just coming up over a little village at the bottom.” The clear skies allowed US planes to reinforce soldiers along the front. The break in the weather saved Vari’s unit.

Sgt. Metro Sikorsky woke up Christmas Day 1944 in a bombed-out building. He was 25-years-old and serving in Company B, 17th Tank Battalion of the 7th Armored Division. It was his first time away from home in Pennsylvania. All around were the bodies of the frozen and his job included picking up the dead. He said it was so cold that when a soldier died, in a short time the body froze where it lay. There were no presents and no Christmas dinner, but Sikorsky felt lucky to be alive. It was so cold that soldiers cut blankets into strips and wound them around their frozen feet.

Tech Sgt. Maurice Glenn Hughs remembered the terrible winter conditions during the battle. “Hundreds of people lost their feet because they were frozen,” he said. Hughs was hospitalized after the battle and doctors in Paris told him that his feet would need to be amputated. “My legs were painted up to my knees to be amputated. And then the doctors checked and said they wouldn’t have to be,” said Hughs.

Mattie Dickenson of Georgetown, Louisiana, remembered Christmas 1944 as a difficult one. She anxiously waited for news from her husband Benjamin F. Dickenson. Benjamin was drafted when he was 38-years-old and found himself fighting in the Battle of the Bulge. “I do remember that was the saddest Christmas I ever spent. For 21 days I didn’t know if he was dead or alive,” said Mattie. Though Benjamin was wounded, he made it home alive. Mattie kept a piece of the parachute that dropped supplies to her husband at Bastogne.

Soldiers from the Third United States Army carried a printed copy of Gen. George Patton’s Christmas Prayer of 1944. Patton had a copy distributed to each soldier before the battle. It petitioned the heavens for good weather and concluded with a Christmas greeting from the General. It read, “To each officer and soldier in the Third United States Army, I wish a Merry Christmas. I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty, and skill in battle. We march in our might to complete the victory. May God’s blessings rest upon each of you on this Christmas Day.”  

The Battle of the Bulge was Hitler’s last major offensive along the Western Front. Within a month Allied forces pushed the Germans back and closed the bulge. The battle was called “the greatest American battle of the war” by Winston Churchill and it crushed Germany’s hopes for ultimate success in the war. To learn more about the Battle of the Bulge and soldiers who fought in it, search Fold3 today!