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The 75th Anniversary of the Sinking of the USS Indianapolis

July 1, 2020 by | 101 Comments

On July 30, 1945, just days before the end of WWII, the USS Indianapolis was sailing from Guam to Leyte when she was struck by two torpedoes fired by a Japanese submarine. The ship sank in roughly 12 minutes. Survivors were thrown into the shark-infested Philippine Sea where many perished before rescuers arrived four days later. Of the 1,196 sailors aboard the ship, nearly 900 made it into the water but only 316 survived until rescue. The disaster resulted in the largest loss of life at sea in US Navy history.

The USS Indianapolis is captured in this photograph taken 20 days before she was sunk

The Indianapolis left San Francisco on July 16th headed for Tinian in the Mariana Islands. She was loaded with secret cargo that included key components to make the atomic bomb that would later be dropped on Japan. The ship was forced to sail without an escort and through waters where Japanese subs were likely. The Indianapolis made it to Tinian in record time, dropped off her cargo, headed for Guam and Leyte Gulf, once again without an escort.

Captain Charles B. McVay, III

The night of July 30th was hot, and 19-year-old Seaman 1st Class Clarence Hershberger decided to sleep on deck to escape the heat below. Shortly after midnight, two torpedoes slammed into the Indianapolis. The ship began to sink, and commander, Charles B. McVay, III, gave the order to abandon ship. About half the men had life jackets and 12 of the ship’s 35 life rafts (as well as some floater nets) were deployed. Hershberger found himself floating in the sea. He says men buddied up in pairs or gathered in groups for moral support. The first morning Hershberger saw dorsal fins, but the sharks kept their distance. The second day, he saw a large shark swim right below him. The men would scream, kick, and holler in an attempt to drive the sharks away. “We knew when a shark was attacking because he [a sailor] would let out a bloodcurdling scream, like nothing you’ve ever heard before,” Hershberger said. “Every time you’d hear that bloodcurdling scream you would think, ‘Uh-oh, the sharks hit another one.’”

Four days later, on August 2nd, Lt. Wilbur C. Gwinn was flying patrol over the Philippine Sea when he spotted an oil slick. He changed course to investigate and saw a group of men floating in the sea. A seaplane piloted by Lt. Commander Robert Adrian Marks was dispatched and disregarding standing orders, landed in the sea, and rendered assistance while they waited for rescue ships to arrive.

USS Indianapolis Survivors Arrive on Guam

The last man was pulled out of the water on August 3rd. Captain Charles B. McVay, III, was court-martialed for failure to give timely orders to evacuate the ship, and for failing to zig-zag, a common practice to avoid enemy torpedoes. He was acquitted of the first charge and found guilty of negligence on the second. McVay had the support of his men who organized and spent years trying to clear his name. McVay was the only captain in the history of the US Navy to be court-martialed for the loss of his ship in combat. McVay passed away in 1968, and in 2000, President Bill Clinton signed a resolution passed by Congress exonerating Captain McVay for the loss of the USS Indianapolis. On August 19, 2017, a civilian research expedition led by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen discovered the wreckage of Indianapolis 18,000 feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean. To learn more about the USS Indianapolis, search Fold3 today.

The 456th Bombardment Group in WWII

June 24, 2020 by | 45 Comments

We are pleased to announce that we’ve added the unit history of the 456th Bombardment Group (Heavy) to our Fold3 archives. These records contain extensive information on the 456th Bombardment Group which included the 744th, 745th, 746th, and 747th Bomb Squadrons.

The 456th was activated on June 1, 1943, at Wendover Field, Utah. After being assigned to serve in the European Theater, they moved their B-24s to Italy from December 1943 – January 1944, where they were assigned to the Fifteenth Air Force. They flew their first combat mission on February 10, 1944, to Grottaferrata, Italy. Overcast skies caused them to abort the mission, but they returned to the same town on February 17th, where the first combat casualties occurred with the loss of two aircraft.

On May 10, 1944, the 456th Bombardment Group flew in a formation of B-24s on a mission to bomb an aircraft factory at Wiener Neustadt, Austria. While crossing the Adriatic Sea, they encountered intense rough weather and decreased visibility. Heavy cloud cover caused some planes in the formation to turn back, but the 456th continued towards the target. As they neared Wiener Neustadt, a break in the clouds opened up and the formation endured wave after wave of enemy attacks. Intense aerial flak, heavy-caliber machine-gun fire, rocket guns, and cannons led to the loss of six aircraft and left the surviving planes riddled with flak. Despite this, the 456th managed to obliterate the target in a highly successful bombing run. Their “outstanding performance of duty” earned them the first of two Distinguished Unit Citations received during WWII. The 456th earned a second Distinguished Unit Citation after a bombing mission to Hungary on July 2, 1944.

Here are a few things you might find in this archive:

Medical History: Personnel suffered from extreme cold during the winter and spring of 1943-44. When the group first arrived in Italy, there were inadequate supplies. The group slept on the ground under pup-tents and dug trenches for latrines. There was insufficient stoves, vehicles, and tools. Frostbite was a challenge, temperatures dropped to -22 Fahrenheit, and aviators did not have heated flying suits. Waist gunners were exposed to freezing winds and anyone without silk glove liners was at risk of frostbite. We also learn that personnel from the 456th took extra precautions to prevent malaria in the summer months. Soldiers were issued mosquito nets, required to keep their shirts buttoned, and to wear long trousers tucked into their boots between dusk and dawn.

Biographies: This unit history contains biographies and photographs of key personnel in each squadron.

Chronology: You’ll also find chronologies and timelines of daily activities and missions.

Personnel Photographs and Newspaper Clippings: While in Italy, the 456th published a service newspaper called 456 Bomb Run. You can find articles from this paper and additional personnel photographs within this archive.

To learn more about the 456th Bombardment Group, search their unit history today. 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 contact 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 for free of charge. See our growing list of unit histories in our User Contributed Collections on Fold3 today!

World War I Photograph Collections on Fold3!

June 11, 2020 by | 62 Comments

By the time the United States entered WWI in 1917, photography had become a growing hobby within the country. Many soldiers had their portraits taken before heading off to war and the government trained photographers at the Columbia School of Military Photography to record America’s involvement in the war using still and motion pictures. Here are some examples of WWI photography from our National WWI Museum Portrait Photographs and our WWI Panoramic Unit Photos collection that capture some of these images.

John L. Barkley served in the 4th Infantry, Company K and was awarded the Medal of Honor when he captured an enemy machinegun and launched a counterattack in France
Florence S. Battershill served in the American Red Cross
Paul W. Cloud attended America’s first school of military photography at Columbia University
Juliette Courtial was a “switchboard soldier” and served in the Signal Corps as a telephone operator
Brother and sister George North Emory and Ruth Emory served in WWI together. He served in the American Expeditionary Force and she served in the American Red Cross.
George Washington Davis was a physician and Captain of the 87th Division
Panoramic photo of the 1st Infantry Division, Company K. They fought in Soissons, St. Mihiel, and Meuse-Argonne
Some of our panoramic photos have names annotating those in the photo such as this one of the 4th Regiment, 2nd Battalion, Company I
Close-up of a panoramic photo containing six military observation balloons
Close-up of a panoramic photo of the 40th Division, Ambulance Company, containing nine ambulances and their crews

Search these collections to see additional WWI photographs and search Fold3 for more WWI records.

June 19-20, 1944: The Battle of the Philippine Sea

June 1, 2020 by | 114 Comments

The Battle of the Philippine Sea was a naval battle fought June 19-20, 1944, in the Philippine Sea several hundred miles west of Saipan near the Mariana Islands between the United States Navy and the Japanese Imperial Navy. It resulted in a decisive American victory that put American forces within bombing range of the Japanese mainland. It was the largest aircraft carrier action in WWII.

Guam, a U.S. territory and part of the Mariana Islands, was captured by Japan in 1941. Japan established airbases on Guam, Saipan, and Tinian. In an effort to capture the Marianas, U.S. Marines stormed the beaches of the northerly island of Saipan on June 15, 1944. They hoped to place the US within striking distance of Japan and block their supply lines.  

Grumman F6F-3 fighter lands aboard the USS Lexington during the Battle of the Philippine Sea

In response, Japan sent the Japanese Combined Fleet to the Marianas. The Japanese fleet was spotted by US subs, who alerted Task Force 58 comprised of 15 aircraft carriers to intercept. On the morning of June 19, 1944, Japan launched an attack, sending aircraft in four waves to attack the American fleet. In response, the U.S. scrambled 450 fighters and the ensuing Battle of the Philippine Sea became the largest aircraft carrier battle ever fought.

Having lost many of its experienced pilots in the Solomon and Marshall Islands, Japan’s pilots lacked the experience of their American counterparts. Some had just three months of training. The Americans also had superior technology and equipment, including the highly classified new proximity fuses. The aerial battle became known as the “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot” when an American aviator compared it to Turkey hunting back home. More than 400 Japanese aircraft were destroyed.  

The USS Wasp under attack during the Battle of the Philippine Sea

As the day progressed, U.S. subs sank several Japanese aircraft carriers. Japanese fighters did manage a direct hit on the deck of the USS South Dakota, but the ship remained operational. On June 20th, the US Navy spent most of the day trying to locate the remaining ships in the Japanese fleet. They were finally spotted in the afternoon and a risky decision was made to proceed with another attack. It meant that pilots would fly in the dark and risk running out of fuel. During the attack, US forces managed to sink a third Japanese carrier. While returning to their home carriers and low on fuel, pilots struggled to find their ships in the darkness. Some had to ditch in the sea. Finally, despite the danger, the carrier’s lights were ordered illuminated to guide the pilots safely back. Despite the efforts, more than 80 American planes were lost.

A Japanese bomb barely misses the USS Bunker Hill during the Battle of the Philippine Sea

Japanese losses were far greater, with three carriers sunk and most of their aircraft destroyed. The battle allowed the US Navy to dominate the Pacific and open access to the Philippine and Japanese islands. The operation also allowed US forces to provide support to the ongoing Marine invasion of the Marianas Islands.

If you would like to learn more about the Battle of the Philippine Sea and see other WWII records, search Fold3 today.

May 8, 1945: V-E Day – Using Fold3 Records to Help Tell the Story of Your WWII Veteran

April 30, 2020 by | 66 Comments

Seventy-five years ago this month, Allied forces declared victory in Europe. V-E Day came at a steep price for American troops with more than 400,000 deaths during WWII. These WWII veterans, often called the Greatest Generation, were everyday men and women who put aside families, schooling, and jobs to answer the call and serve their country.

Canadian Women’s Army Corps celebrate V-E Day in London

It’s more important than ever to preserve their story. Of the 16 million Americans that served in WWII, only an estimated 250,000 veterans are still alive. That number declines with each passing day.

Telling their story is challenging for many because a large number of military personnel files were destroyed in a fire at the National Personnel Records Center in 1973 (including 80% of WWII Army files). The loss of those valuable records means that researchers need to look deep into military archives to reconstruct a service record. Fold3 is committed to honoring our veterans by providing 55 collections of WWII records containing more than 130 million individual records. You can see our entire WWII collection here, but here are a few of our favorite collections and some research tips:

Aviation Cadet James M. Kokales

US Air Force Photo Collection: This free collection contains thousands of WWII era photos from virtually every theater of war. There are personnel photos, crew photos, aircraft photos, aerial photos, and more. The collection is arranged regionally by war theater, but you can use search terms like name or flight squadron. In this photo, Hollywood actor Jimmy Stewart confers with members of the 453rd Bomb Group after returning from a mission over enemy territory. 

War Diaries: If your veteran served in the US Navy, the War Diaries collection covered day-to-day operations from 1942-1946. Most Navy units submitted these reports, along with some Marine Corps commands who submitted diaries for aviation units such as fighter squadrons. For example, the 132nd Mine Sweeping Flotilla filed a report of their involvement in the D-Day invasion. This division was tasked with the important job of clearing the waters of any mines before troops could come ashore. Read their narrative of D-Day here.

Missing Air Crew Reports: If you have an aviator that flew for the Army Air Forces in your family tree, this collection contains more than 16,000 reports for aircraft that were shot down, crashed, or went missing during WWII. The reports include the names of the crew and passengers, witness statements from both the ground and other aircraft, surviving crew member statements, details of bailouts, and notes when survivors were captured and taken POW. This report shares the amazing story of a lone survivor from an airplane shot down off the coast of New Guinea in 1943. 1st Lt. Jose L. Holguin described being severely wounded by flak in an attack that killed the pilot, co-pilot, and other crew members. When the plane began to spin out of control, Holguin was thrown out an open hatch but managed to deploy his chute. His plane crashed into the ground just below him, creating a fireball that burned his body and parachute. His parachute collapsed causing him to fall to earth where he broke his back. Holguin crawled through the jungle with several wounds, burns, and a broken back for three weeks before being captured and taken POW. After 27 months he was finally liberated.

European Theater Army Records: This collection records the logistics and challenges of organizing, supplying, and transporting an army across Europe. Search your veteran’s unit, battalion, company, etc. for insight. You’ll also find a series of monographs, or detailed studies, in this collection that cover multiple subjects. For example, read about the challenges of supplying food to the starving people of Belgium just before the Battle of the Bulge. Do you have someone in your family tree that served in the American Red Cross? Read a report on the Red Cross in Europe here. In this report, the military recorded the challenges faced and the procedures set in place when soldiers requested to get married. Ultimately, soldiers were required to file an application and wait two months before permission was granted.

Our WWII records are not limited to the United States. Some of our favorite UK and Commonwealth record collections include British WWII Commando Gallantry Awards, UK, Allied Prisoners of War collection, UK, Navy Lists, and Australia WWII Service Records.

Dive into these archives and start piecing together the story of your WWII veteran. Search today!

Spotlight Your WWII Veteran on Our Social Media Channels!

April 22, 2020 by | 96 Comments

Do you have a veteran that fought in WWII in your family tree? As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the end of WWII, we want to honor the brave men and women who sacrificed so much. Beginning on Memorial Day and throughout this summer, we are featuring WWII veterans on our social media channels, and we’d love to include your soldier!

How can you participate?

  1. Create a Memorial on our Honor Wall. Search your veteran’s name on our Honor Wall here. If they already have a Memorial, you can add additional details, photos, and stories to it. If they don’t have a Memorial, you can create one. This video tutorial walks you through the process. Creating a Memorial is free and helps preserve your veteran’s military history for future generations. Be sure to include regiment, unit, or battalion, and as many searchable details as you can. You can also attach records, stories, photos, journals, and more. Visit our Honor Wall to see examples of other Memorials.
  2. Next, send us a URL link to your Memorial with a short summary of your veteran’s service. Remember, a social media post has to be BRIEF. Send it to [email protected]. You can write a longer version of your story and attach it to your Memorial. We’ll include your veteran’s photo in our social media post along with a link to your Memorial page.

That’s it! We’ll honor as many of these WWII heroes that we possibly can in the upcoming months. Follow Fold3’s social media channels on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter and watch for your veteran!

Introducing Civil War Stories!

April 8, 2020 by | 469 Comments

Do you have an ancestor that fought in the Civil War? We are beyond excited to launch the first phase of our new Civil War Stories, an ambitious project that ultimately hopes to create a comprehensive list of every soldier that fought in the Civil War, the company and regiment he belonged to, the battles he fought in, and finally what happened to each soldier following the war.

How can we possibly do this? We have created new technology allowing us to gather data from Ancestry®, Fold3®,™, Find a Grave®, and other sources. Next, we are teaming up with the American Battlefield Trust and their Civil War experts to integrate their amazing collections of stories, videos, and photographs into our new experience. Stitching all of these collections together, we have created the first of its kind searchable database of Civil War soldiers, regiments and battles. The human cost of the Civil War was astounding. The proportion of deaths to the population was greater than any other conflict in American history. Nearly 3% of the population died – roughly comparable to 6-10 million Americans today.

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This was the last war where companies enlisted from home communities. Soldiers were often related to others in the company, and all shared a sense of connection. If a company endured losses in a battle, there was a dramatic impact back in their hometown. This will also help tell the story of the families left behind. We want to help you paint a picture of how the Civil War impacted your family tree!

How will this rollout? We will begin with the major Civil War battles. Starting today, you can head to our Civil War Stories page and learn details about some of the major Civil War battles, including what regiments fought in each battle.

And then starting with North Carolina Regiments, you will be able to see regiment timelines. When did they muster in? Where did they fight? Who were the officers? Eventually, we will add the ability to refine down to company. By the time this project is complete, you’ll be able to map out your soldier’s movements throughout the war.

Finally, we’ll add individual soldiers state by state beginning with North Carolina, followed by New York. We realize that you may know details about your Civil War soldier that nobody else does. Do you have family records, photographs or journals that have been passed down? We’re going to provide a way for you to contribute to this Civil War Stories collection. Maybe your journal mentions other soldiers in the same company. Now their ancestors will be able to share your data. 

You can see why we’re so excited about Civil War Stories. Watch for updates throughout the year. If you would like to contribute any research/photographs/letters to be included in this project, visit Together, we will make this a powerful research tool! To learn more about this, head to our Civil War Stories page today!