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The Sullivan Brothers and the Sinking of the USS Juneau

October 15, 2019 by | 104 Comments

In September 1940, as Nazi bombs rained down on London during the Blitz, America began the first-ever peacetime conscription and enacted the Selective Training and Service Act. The country was moving closer to war and the Sullivan family of Waterloo, Iowa, answered the call. That fall, Joseph Sullivan, 22, registered for the draft. By the following summer, the other four Sullivan brothers – Albert, 19; Madison, 21; Francis, 25; and George, 26; also made the trip to the Federal Building in Waterloo and filled out their registration cards. The Sullivan brothers insisted they serve together. Weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, they enlisted in the US Navy.

The Sullivan Brothers

All five brothers were assigned to the USS Juneau. Juneau was part of Task Force 67 and sent to escort a resupply convoy to Guadalcanal. The Battle of Guadalcanal (codenamed Operation Watchtower) was an offensive aimed to protect critical supply and transportation links between the United States and Allies in Australia and New Zealand. It was the first major offensive against Japanese forces.

On the night of November 12, 1942, after hours of fighting off Japanese torpedo bombers, a Japanese destroyer launched a torpedo that struck Juneau on the port side. She began to list and retreated from the battle. Operating on one screw, the Juneau steamed towards Espiritu Santo for repairs. The following morning, a Japanese submarine fired another torpedo hitting Juneau in the same spot she was hit the night before. Following a loud explosion, the USS Juneau broke in two and sank in just 20 seconds. Concerned about the possibility of another submarine attack, the American task force left the scene. The USS Helena messaged a nearby B-17 search plane to report survivors in the water. Unfortunately, Helena’s message did not reach command headquarters, delaying rescue efforts for days. More than 100 men did survive the initial attack. Francis, Joseph and Madison Sullivan died instantly, but Albert may have survived until the second day before drowning. George lived for four or five days in a raft before succumbing, according to a letter from a shipmate to his parents. Eight days after sinking, ten survivors were plucked from the water. The tragedy claimed the lives of 687 men.

USS Juneau

Back in Iowa, the Sullivan family received word that all five sons were missing. As a result of their deaths, the US War Department adopted the Sole Survivor Policy. This policy protected family members from the draft or combat duty if they already lost family members in military service. The parents of the Sullivan boys, Thomas and Alleta Sullivan, toured the country promoting war bonds and visiting shipyards and manufacturing plants to motivate workers. The only surviving Sullivan child, daughter Genevieve, 24, joined the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) and served for 21 months before being granted an honorable discharge. The US Navy later named two destroyers after the Sullivan brothers, and the Iowa Veterans Museum is named in their honor.

For 76 years, the wreckage of the USS Juneau rested undiscovered on the ocean floor. On March 17, 2018, an expedition funded by billionaire Paul Allen discovered the Juneau lying on her side about 2.6 miles below the surface of the ocean in the Solomon Islands. There are no plans to raise the ship.

If you would like to read multiple survivor accounts from the Juneau, or learn more about the Battle of Guadalcanal, search Fold3 today!  

The Hesse Crown Jewels Case

October 1, 2019 by | 125 Comments

In November 1945, three American Army officers stationed in Germany pulled off a dramatic jewel heist when they stole the Hesse crown jewels that were concealed in a German castle occupied by US troops. When evidence of the crime came to light, the soldiers were court-martialed, found guilty, and sentenced to prison. Less than half of the jewels, valued at $2.5 million in 1945 were recovered.

Princess Margaret wearing some of the Hesse crown jewels

In 1944, with the Allies closing in, Prince Wolfgang of Germany’s House of Hesse abandoned the family’s castle in Kronberg, north of Frankfurt, Germany. Before leaving, he secretly placed the Hesse crown jewels, which included over 500 carats of loose diamonds, a 116-carat sapphire, tiaras, packets of rings, pendants, bracelets, and more into a large zinc-lined wooden box. He dug a hole in the cellar of the castle and lowered the box down, then covered it with concrete. To further ensure the safety of the jewels, he built a fake wall, creating a secret room that held the treasure.

In April 1945, US troops took over the castle to use as an officers’ club. They relegated the Hesse family to several guest cottages on the castle grounds. WAC Capt. Kathleen Nash was assigned to have “full charge of the castle and to operate it as a club and recreation center.”

On November 5, 1945, Roy C. Carlton, a member of Nash’s staff, heard from a German informant that something valuable was buried in the basement of the castle. Carlton reported this to Nash who ordered him to conduct a search. While exploring the basement, they noticed fresh concrete and started to attack the area with a sledgehammer. They ultimately unearthed the box filled with treasure. Nash ordered it taken to her room.

Nash was romantically involved with Col. Jack W. Durant (they later married). After seeing the treasure, she called him and soon Nash, Durant, and Maj. David J. Watson were snipping apart elaborate settings and pocketing gems.

In February 1946, Princess Sophie of Greece was preparing to marry Prince George Wilhelm of Hanover. Tradition stated that the royal bride would wear the crown jewels. When a servant went to retrieve the jewels, he discovered them missing. The Hesse family complained to military authorities who started an investigation.

The investigation revealed some of the jewels were already gone – having been sold in Switzerland and Ireland. Others were mailed or smuggled back to the US. Nash sent items to her sister in Wisconsin including a 36-piece solid gold cutlery set with handles of semi-precious stones. When army agents burst into the Wisconsin home, they observed the cutlery being used as everyday kitchenware. Col. Durant took some of his smuggled gems and buried them in fruit jars near Falls Church, VA. Police dug up three jars filled with diamonds and cash.

Jewels from the Hesse collection

Nash, Durant, and Watson were court-martialed, convicted and sentenced to prison. More than half of the gems removed from their settings were never recovered.

To see the original documents from the Hesse Crown Jewel Court Martial case, including Kathleen Nash’s statement to the court, photos, additional court testimony, numerous pleas for clemency like this one for Maj. Watson, a Hesse family pedigree chart, and more, see our Hesse Crown Jewels Court-Martial Collection on Fold3!

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

September 20, 2019 by | 28 Comments

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 | 102 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 | 147 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!