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The Liberation of Auschwitz: January 27, 1945

January 21, 2020 by | 47 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!

Four New States Added to the WWII Draft Registration Card Collection

November 20, 2019 by | 37 Comments

Fold3 has added four more states to our collection of U.S. WWII Draft Registration Cards! The collection now includes cards from New York, New Jersey, North Dakota, and Vermont. We now have Draft Registration Cards from 45 states or regions! The cards in this collection are registration cards and do not necessarily indicate that the individual served in the military.

There were seven draft registration periods in the United States for World War II service. The first draft registration was held on October 16, 1940—before the United States had entered the war. Men ages 21–36 were required to register at their local draft board. The second draft registration was also held prior to the American entrance into the war, on July 1, 1941. This registration was for men who had turned 21 since the previous registration date nine months earlier.

The third (February 16, 1942) and fifth (June 30, 1942) registration periods expanded the ages required to register; the age ranges for the third were extended to 20–21 and 35–44, while the fifth extended them to ages 18–20. The sixth registration (December 10–31, 1942) was for men who had turned 18 since the fifth registration six months prior. There was also a seventh registration, known as the “Extra Registration,” from November 16 to December 31, 1943, which was for American men ages 18–44 who were living abroad.

The cards from the fourth registration (April 27, 1942; for men ages 45–64) are not included in the WWII Draft Registration Cards but in Fold3’s WWII “Old Man’s Draft” Registration Cards collection.

Pictured below is the draft card for Jacob John Dukart of North Dakota. He registered for the draft during the first registration period in October 1940. He enlisted in 1942, and in 1943, Pvt. Dukart was captured by German soldiers and sent to a POW camp. That Christmas, POWs in the camp sent a short wave broadcast greeting home to their families. It is not clear if the broadcast reached anyone at home during Christmas, but in February 1944 the messages were re-broadcast and listeners in Montana and Florida picked up the voice of Pvt. Dukart. He sent greetings to his wife and parents back in Dickinson, North Dakota, and asked for a photo of his daughter Jacqueline whom he had never seen. Pvt. Dukart was eventually freed and returned home to the United States. He passed away in 2004.

What stories will you uncover using this collection? Get started searching our WWII Draft Registration Cards today on Fold3!

November 12, 1864: The Destruction of Atlanta and Sherman’s March to the Sea

October 31, 2019 by | 192 Comments

On November 12, 1864, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman ordered the destruction of the business district in Atlanta and the Union Army started their March to the Sea which ended just before Christmas in Savannah, Georgia. The march, also known as the Savannah Campaign, bolstered the Union Army and helped lead to the surrender of the Confederacy and the end of the Civil War five months later.

Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman

During the Civil War, Atlanta served as a hub for the Confederacy and a major transportation link for supplies and troops between the eastern seaboard and the west. After a five-month successful campaign from Tennessee through northwest Georgia, Union troops made their way to the doorstep of Atlanta in mid-July. Gen. John B. Hood decided to surrender the city and evacuate his Confederate troops on September 1, 1864. Before leaving, Hood ordered the depots destroyed to prevent them from falling into Union hands.

On September 2nd, Sherman captured the city, but with a tenuous supply line, he knew he couldn’t hold it for long. Sherman divided his army into two, sending half towards Nashville while some 60,000 remaining troops would join him on a march across Georgia.

Ruins of the depot, blown up on Sherman’s departure

Relying on a scorched-earth policy, Sherman ordered that all railroads, factories, and commercial buildings be destroyed before leaving the city. He wanted to obliterate anything that might be of use to the Confederate Army. Sherman also ordered civilians out of their homes and businesses and destroyed them if they contained anything that might aid the Confederates. Before it was over, 40% of the city (an estimated 3,000 buildings) lie in ruins. Much of the destruction was in the business district around Peachtree Street. Pvt. James H. Peterson from the 13th New Jersey Infantry recorded his observations in a pocket diary. “On Sunday November 15 we left Atlanta in going through the city we passed large buildings on fire…”

Sherman and his army, now cut off from any supply lines, headed towards the coast. They lived off the land, taking supplies from fields and farms as they beat a pathway of destruction towards Savannah. Along the way, they encountered pockets of Confederate resistance and destroyed railroad tracks and cut telegraph lines. Pvt. Peterson recorded that on November 26, “while we was skirmishing with the Rebels at Sandersville I was wounded in the leg by a ball.” Peterson ended up in a hospital outside of Savannah where on December 10th he wrote about the approaching Union Army, “The troops burnt the Charleston and Savanna Railroad we lay about 6 miles from Savannah in the Field Hospital we can hear the cannon the savanna River and the broadsides from the big guns very plain.”

Telegram to President Lincoln presenting the city of Savannah as a Christmas gift

On December 21st, after a march of 37 days and some 250 miles, Union troops entered Savannah. Just days before Christmas, Sherman sent a telegram to President Abraham Lincoln, “I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the City of Savannah, with one hundred fifty guns and plenty of ammunition. Also about twenty-five thousand bales of cotton.”

The destruction of Atlanta and Sherman’s March to the Sea demoralized the Confederacy and contributed to the end of the Civil War in April 1865. To learn more about the destruction of Atlanta and the March to the Sea, search our Civil War records collection on Fold3 today!