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New Records from Hill Air Force Base

August 22, 2019 by | 19 Comments

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

Hell’s Angels

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

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

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

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

Hill AFB Newspaper

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

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

WWII POW Camps in the United States

August 8, 2019 by | 344 Comments

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

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

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

Barracks in a German POW camp

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

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

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

August 3, 1966: The Vietnam War Operation Prairie Begins

August 1, 2019 by | 175 Comments

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

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

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

A Helicopter lands on top of the Rockpile

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

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

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

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

Explore Fold3’s Growing Collection of Unit Histories

July 23, 2019 by | 87 Comments

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

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

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

881st Air Crew, 500th Bomb Group

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

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

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

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

July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme

July 1, 2019 by | 82 Comments

The Battle of the Somme, also known as the Somme Offensive, was the first great offensive of WWI and one of the bloodiest battles in history. It was fought July 1 – November 18, 1916, along a 25-mile front near the Somme River in France. The first two weeks of the Battle of the Somme are known as the Battle of Albert. On the first day of the Battle of Albert, British forces sustained 57,000 casualties with more than 19,000 deaths. It was the deadliest one-day loss in British military history. The losses of the first day were a precursor of what was to come in the following months.

Trench Warfare During the Battle of Somme

During 1914-1915, with Allied forces bogged down in a stalemate of trench warfare, plans were made for a big push on the Western Front. The British and French agreed to launch a joint offensive, but the Germans struck first with an attack on Verdun requiring all available French reserves for defenses. The British would need to lead the joint offensive and relieve pressure on French troops. The area along the Somme River was chosen because it was the meeting place of British and French troops.

The Battle of Albert was the first major battle of Britain’s new and inexperienced volunteer army. A wave of patriotism had spurred thousands to enlist in Pals battalions in 1914-1915. Pals battalions were made up of family, friends, and co-workers from the same community. After training, many of those battalions would see their first combat experience at Somme.

For a week leading up to the offensive, British forces carpeted Germany’s strong defensive lines with 1.6 million shells. They also planted explosive mines under enemy strongpoints. The bombardment was less than effective, and the depth of German trenches meant that German soldiers were more or less protected from the onslaught. That combined with inexperienced troops, faulty shells, and a shortage of guns left British troops vulnerable. German forces had constructed formidable trenches protected by machine gun positions and bands of barbed wire to protect the line from attack.

British 8-inch Howitzer Mk V used during the Battle of Albert

On the morning of July 1st, British forces began the attack north of the river. At the same time, the French attacked from the south. German defenses had not been sufficiently neutralized and as densely packed British troops entered no-man’s land many were mowed down by machine gun fire. French troops faced lighter opposition and made deeper advances, but overall the day was a failure. Allies gained just three square miles of territory and the intense offensive would go on another four months.

Mechanics dismantle an Albatros C.III 2-seat biplane brought down during the Battle of Somme

The Battle of the Somme relied on methods of modern warfare including aircraft, heavy artillery, machine guns, mortars, spray chemical weapons, and flamethrowers. The very first tanks were used in the Battle of the Somme on September 15, 1916.

When the Battle of the Somme finally ended on November 18, 1916, more than a million soldiers from the British, German, and French armies were wounded or killed. The casualty rate for Pals battalions meant that individual communities experienced significant losses. Would you like to learn more about the Battle of the Somme and other World War I battles? Search Fold3 today!

New Naval Records on Fold3!

June 24, 2019 by | 19 Comments

We have added a new collection of naval records to our archives! The Navy Officers’ Letters 1802-1884 is a collection of letters to the Secretary of the Navy from officers assigned to naval ships, stations, and Navy bureaus.

The letters contain routine personnel matters such as duty assignments, leave or furloughs, desertions, resignations, court-martials, and other administrative issues. The collection is organized by year and then alphabetically by sender. The letters offer a glimpse into military history and provide valuable genealogical records for ancestors that served in the Navy.

The USS Chesapeake is captured by the HMS Shannon

During the War of 1812, the USS Chesapeake was captured by British forces in a battle with hundreds of casualties including the death of Captain James Lawrence. Surviving soldiers were taken prisoner and sent to Halifax, Nova Scotia. George Budd penned this letter while imprisoned in Halifax, “The unfortunate death of Captain James Lawrence and Lieutenant Augustus C. Ludlow has rendered it my duty to inform you of the capture of the late United States Frigate Chesapeake.” Budd detailed the battle in his correspondence.

In this letter dated just two weeks after the Civil War began, US Navy Gunner James D. Borton from Gallipolis, Ohio, writes, “The excited state of the country, and my desire to be actively employed prompt me to write to you respectfully requesting that I may be ordered to some vessel as soon as possible.”

In 1862 during the Civil War, the USS Westfield participated in a blockade and assault on the city of Galveston. In early January 1863, a Confederate attack caused her to run aground on a sandbar. Rather than be captured, her crew destroyed the ship. In this letter, the Westfield’s paymaster struggled to organize payroll for the sailors who’d served on the ship because so many records were destroyed. “All their accounts can be made up, but all other matters are in a confused state, and it will take some time for me to ascertain whether I can do anything with them.”

Also contained in this collection are letters that document historical accomplishments of the era. This letter dated January 23, 1847, to President James K. Polk, announced the inaugural launch of the steamer mail ship Washington. It reads, “I have the honor to inform your Excellency that the Washington, the first mail steamer, will be launched on Saturday, the 30th of January at 9:00 A.M. It would afford the undersigned as well the builder of this noble ship much satisfaction if your Excellency will honor the occasion of putting afloat the first sea steamer with your presence.”  The Washington carried letters across the Atlantic to Europe.

Letter to President James K. Polk

Get started searching this new collection of naval records today!

World War II Nose Art

June 5, 2019 by | 59 Comments

During WWII, members of the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) flew countless missions in aircraft adorned with art on the fuselage. Although not specifically sanctioned by military officials, the practice of painting and personalizing aircraft was widely popular and seen as a way to boost morale. The images were painted both by hired professionals and enlisted soldiers who were amateur artists. The paintings were usually found near the nose of the aircraft and are known as nose art.

Bomber crews developed tight bonds with one another and with their aircraft. Everyone knew the dangers of bombing runs, and each mission brought the possibility that it could be the last. Nose art was a safe way to bring a bit of levity and comradery to the stresses of war. These paintings often featured good luck images, names of loved ones or towns back home, pin-up girls, and cartoon characters.

We’ve searched our photo archives to bring you just a few examples of nose art from WWII:

Crew members of Consolidated B-24 “Little Joe,” participated in the bombing mission over Balikpapan, Borneo
The coming monsoon season in the India-Burma Theater doesn’t worry the crew of “Calamity Jane”
The lead crew on a bombing mission to Hamburg, Germany pose beside their B-17 Flying Fortress, “The 8 Ball”
Crew of the “Rangoon Rambler” in India
Crew of the 323rd Bomb Squadron, 91st Bomb Group in front of their B-17 Flying Fortress “Stric Nine”
The combat crew of the 93rd Bomb Group “Exterminator,” a Consolidated B-24 Liberator
The “Meat Hound” B-17 Flying Fortress
Crew poses in front of “Celhalopdos,” a Consolidated B-24 Liberator
Lead Crew on a bombing mission to Beaumont, France pose beside “Knock-Out Dropper,” a B-17 Flying Fortress

Cpl. Ruby I. Newell was selected as the most beautiful WAC in England in a contest sponsored by the Stars and Stripes. She stands beside “Ruby’s Raiders,” a B-17 Flying Fortress named in her honor.
The crew of the 95th Bomb Group by their B-17, “Diana,” in England

In addition to nose art, many WWII aircraft were painted with icons that symbolized missions. We’ve created a US WWII Mission Symbols key to help you decipher their meanings.

Do you want to see more examples of nose art or learn more about the crews that flew those planes? Search our WWII Photo Collection today!