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March 28, 1942: St Nazaire Raid

March 3, 2022 by | Comments Off on March 28, 1942: St Nazaire Raid

On March 28, 1942, British forces rammed an obsolete destroyer laden with explosives into heavily defended dry docks at St Nazaire in German-occupied France. The state-of-the-art dry docks were the base of operations for the German U-Boat fleet and the only docks big enough to service the largest German ships, including the battleship Tirpitz, which threatened Atlantic shipping lanes that supplied Britain and Russia. After ramming the dock, British Commandos and sailors launched an assault. During the melee, some 18 smaller vessels intended to transport the commandos back to England were destroyed. The St Nazaire Raid, also known as Operation Chariot, involved 612 British men. More than 200 were captured and taken POW, and nearly 170 died.

German battleship Tirpitz

By January 1942, German U-Boats were wreaking havoc in the Atlantic shipping lanes. In addition to the U-Boat threat, the mammoth German battleship Tirpitz could outgun or outrun any other warship. She was the sister ship to the recently sunk Bismarck and had sailed into a Trondheim fjord where she also threatened Atlantic convoys. Under the direction of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, British military officials began planning a strategy to neutralize Tirpitz’s threat. The dry docks at St Nazaire were the only docks capable of accommodating the Tirpitz for service and repairs. Officials formed an audacious plan to sail HMS Campbeltown, packed with delayed-action explosives, and ram it into the gates of the dock. Commandos would then disembark and attack other target buildings and facilities.

Workers convert HMS Campbeltown for the raid at St Nazaire

Plans for an amphibious attack were approved in early March. Work began immediately to disguise the Campbeltown to resemble a German torpedo boat. Workers added armor plating, guns, and time-delayed explosives while the amphibious force of 600 commandos and sailors endured extensive training. On March 26, 1942, the flotilla left England. Around midnight on March 27, British bombers targeted St Nazaire, preparing for the attack. As the Campbeltown approached St Nazaire in the early hours of March 28, they relayed through captured secret codes that they were a friendly vessel. When German soldiers realized the ruse, the counterattack began in earnest. The Campbeltown powered ahead, tearing through an anti-submarine net before crashing into the gates of the dock. Commandos and sailors quickly disembarked and engaged German forces. Meanwhile, smaller vessels moved into position. Many of these vessels were constructed of mahogany, and the incoming fire ignited their fuel tanks leading to horrific losses. British forces went to work targeting anti-aircraft gun installations, pumping stations, and other targets. The Germans responded with a tough defense, eventually pushing the British back to the docks. With so many landing vessels destroyed, 169 British sailors and Commandos died, and 265 were captured and taken POW.

British Commandos 1942

Shortly past 10:00 a.m. the following morning, German forces were inspecting the damage caused by the Campbeltown when more than four tons of delayed-action explosives ignited. The subsequent explosion killed more than 300 German soldiers and civilians. The dock at St Nazaire was destroyed and rendered inoperable for the remainder of the war. The raiders of St Nazaire were heralded as heroic, with nearly 90 members of the raiding party awarded decorations, including five Victoria Crosses.

If you would like to learn more about the raid at St Nazaire or other WWII battles, search Fold3® today.

The 1950 U.S. Census and Military Research

February 23, 2022 by | 121 Comments

On April 1, 2022, the National Archives and Records Administration will release the 1950 U.S. Census to the public. These records may provide new insights into the 16 million American men and women who fought during WWII. More than 400,000 Americans died during the war. As a result, many will find ancestors enumerated in the 1940 U.S. Census but no longer living in 1950.

A family takes part in the 1950 Census

Soldiers returning from WWII arrived home to sweeping new legislation known as the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, or G.I. Bill. The G.I. Bill provided benefits to returning veterans, including money for education, job training, and low-interest home loans. As a result, almost half of college admissions in 1947 were veterans. With so many veterans attending college, it’s important to note that in the 1950 U.S. Census, college students were enumerated where they attended school and not where their family was living.

Returning soldiers also started families, ushering in the “baby boom.” The 1950 U.S. Census will show veterans all over the country listed as homeowners. Many took advantage of the low-interest loans to purchase homes, and new neighborhoods of mass-produced subdivisions sprang up all over the country. By 1950, veterans had become the largest single group of homeowners and helped usher in an era of middle-class prosperity.

Some other veteran-related things to watch for in the 1950 U.S. Census records are:

  • The 1940 standard census forms had lines for 40 persons. In 1950, this number was reduced to 30 lines, allowing enumerators space to take notes on additional sample questions answered by every fifth person. Men on these “sample” lines were asked if they served in the military during WWI or WWII or any other service, including the present.
  • Military and civilian personnel living at Canton, Johnston, Midway, and Wake Islands were enumerated and will be included in the 1950 U.S. Census release records.
  • Enumerators were instructed not to enumerate Americans, including soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen who worked for the United States Government while living abroad in 1950. They only enumerated those living in their enumeration district.
  • The names and rank of a few U.S. military personnel overseas are included in correspondence in Binder 36-C, Members of Armed Forces and U.S. Citizens Abroad, available here from the National Archives.
  • Officers and crews of U.S. flagged vessels are likely found in an enumeration district in either the vessel’s home port or where the vessel was on April 1, 1950 (the official census day).
  • Those serving in the Coast Guard, including vessels, lighthouses, and other stations of various kinds, were enumerated. Often the lighthouse or vessel was its own enumeration district. Commanding officers of Coast Guard vessels received forms for each of their crew. If someone was away on leave or absent on temporary duty, their commanding officer filled out the form as much as possible. USCG uniformed and civilian personnel living in “barrack-type” quarters received a Form P2, Individual Census Report, which they filled out. A regular census enumerator visited USCG personnel who lived either on-base or off-base with their dependents.
A 1950 Census enumerator interviews Pres. Truman and family

Using new, proprietary Artificial Intelligence (AI) handwriting recognition technology, Ancestry® announced that it will deliver a searchable index of the 1950 Census faster than ever before. Volunteers will evaluate census extraction records to ensure accurate results. We anticipate the 1950 U.S. Census will be fully indexed and available to search online this summer.

Keep an eye out for the 1950 U.S. Census records coming to Ancestry®, and search Fold3® today to learn more about your veteran’s military history.

World War I Hello Girls

February 15, 2022 by | 67 Comments

During WWI, the United States War Department hired female switchboard operators to accompany the American Expeditionary Forces to Europe. These women had to be fluent in French and English and preferably have previous switchboard experience. Their job was to connect important calls, translate information, and communicate command orders. They were known as “Hello Girls” and often worked in dangerous conditions and on the front lines. The “Hello Girls” earned the respect of soldiers and military leaders, yet following the war, officials denied them veteran status, bonuses, and hospitalization for disabilities. More than 100 years later, an effort to right this wrong is underway. In 2021, legislation was introduced to award a single Congressional Gold Medal to the Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit.

Hello Girls operate a switchboard in Chaumont, France

In the years leading up to WWI, the fight for suffrage gained momentum. Those opposed to enfranchising women argued that giving women the right to vote would disrupt the moral fiber of society. They also argued that since women couldn’t fight as soldiers, the right to vote belonged to men who could.

Hello Girls

As military leaders geared up for war, telephone technology also gained momentum. The telephone played a critical part in military strategy. Wires ran through trenches allowing military officials to communicate with soldiers on the ground while keeping a bird’s eye view of the battle. It was women, however, that were masters of this technology. When information needed relaying quickly, a “Hello Girl” could connect a call in about 10 seconds, while men from the Signal Corps often took a full minute. At the direction of General John J. Pershing, a call went out for the Signal Corps to hire female telephone operators. More than 7,000 women expressed interest in the job. Ultimately, 223 went to Europe. They were issued military uniforms and took the Army oath. They were the first female soldiers deployed to a combat zone. However, some officials still considered them civilian employees.  

The first contingent of “Hello Girls” arrived in France in March 1918. They soon found themselves working on the front lines, where they endured the constant threat of shells, shrapnel, gassing, and sicknesses like the Spanish flu (which eventually claimed the lives of two “Hello Girls”). The women worked long and exhausting hours. Nevertheless, when their shifts ended, they could often be found visiting the sick and injured in field hospitals.

Hello Girls Arrive in France

The “Hello Girls” were among the first Americans to arrive in France and among the last to leave. After the Armistice, a contingent of “Hello Girls” moved to Paris to translate during peace proceedings. When the women finally returned to the United States, they were denied discharge papers and not recognized as veterans. Ironically, other women who served as nurses, secretaries, or clerks did receive veteran status. The work of the “Hello Girls” impressed President Woodrow Wilson and helped change his mind about the suffrage movement. On June 4, 1919, the 19th amendment passed that gave women the right to vote.  

In the decades following WWI, Congress introduced many bills to give the “Hello Girls” proper recognition. Finally, in 1977, a bill was passed recognizing them as veterans. Three of the surviving “Hello Girls” received honorable discharges in a special ceremony in 1979.

In 2021, the House and Senate introduced bipartisan legislation to award the “Hello Girls” a single Congressional Gold Medal in honor of their service, devotion, the 60-year struggle for veterans’ benefits, and recognition as soldiers. The bill’s sponsors are currently hoping to gain enough support to bring the bill up for a vote. If you would like to learn more about the “Hello Girls,” search Fold3® today!

January 27, 2022: International Holocaust Remembrance Day

January 24, 2022 by | 80 Comments

By the time WWII ended in 1945, the Holocaust claimed the lives of more than 6 million Jews across German-occupied Europe. In addition to Jews, Nazi Germany also engaged in the systematic killing of 11 million others, including POWs and those from different ethnic, social, political, or religious backgrounds.

In 2005, the United Nations General Assembly voted to designate January 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The date coincides with the liberation of Auschwitz concentration camp, which occurred on January 27, 1945.

Through our partnerships with the National Archives and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, we’ve digitized more than three million records to help tell the story of the Holocaust. Here are just a few of the personal experiences from some of its victims:

Doriane Kurz

Doriane Kurz was born in Austria to Jewish parents. Her father ran a thriving branch of the family’s multinational optical frames business. Following Kristallnacht, the Kurz family relocated to Holland, but soon Holland fell to the Nazis. Doriane’s father was captured and sent to Auschwitz concentration camp, where he later died. The Dutch underground helped smuggle 4-year-old Doriane and her 3-year-old brother Fred to Amsterdam. That city also fell under German occupation. Along with Doriane’s mother, the children ended up at Bergen-Belsen.

Each day at Bergen-Belsen, Doriane and her brother remained in the barracks while the adults were marched to work. She recalled watching out the window as carts, drawn by inmates, collected the dead bodies each morning. The rest of the day, they spoke about food, slicing their bread rations so they could last longer. She also recalled picking lice from their hair. In June 1945, Doriane was one of many inmates evacuated from the camps on a cattle train, then freed by Soviet troops. In 1946, having lost both their parents, 10-year-old Doriane and her 9-year-old brother Fred boarded a ship, unaccompanied, for their journey to the United States. They reunited with an uncle, and Doriane lived the rest of her life in New York. She was a successful businesswoman and operated a chain of stores before passing away in 2005.

Henoch Kornfeld

Henoch Kornfeld was born in 1938 in Kolbuszowa, Poland. He was just one year old when German tanks rolled into town. Polish soldiers on horseback put up a fight but were no match for the far superior German weapons. After a short battle, dead horses littered the streets, and German police took control of the town. They terrorized residents and killed many Jews. In 1942, Henoch and his family were deported to the Rzeszow ghetto, then on to the Belzec extermination camp.

Belzec death camp was the site of mass murder between March-December 1942, and some 500,000 Jews and other Nazi targets died there. Belzec was one of six extermination camps in occupied Poland and the first to use gas chambers. On July 7, 1942, the Kornfeld family was gassed at Belzec. Henoch was just three years old.

Dachau Entry Register for Bernhardt Goebel

Bernhardt Goebel was a 34-year-old Catholic priest living in Poland when the Gestapo arrested him in 1939 and sent him to Dachau concentration camp. While at Dachau, Goebel and a fellow priest, Bedrich Hoffman, stole records and secretly recorded Nazi atrocities against 1,700 imprisoned Catholic priests. Goebel himself endured beatings, torture, deprivation, and constant degradation. At great risk, the priests documented the suffering, determined to tell the world the truth of Dachau. On April 29, 1945, American troops liberated Dachau. Hoffman managed to smuggle the records to his native Czechoslovakia, and Goebel immigrated to America in 1951, settling in San Antonio, Texas.

Goebel spent more than forty years fighting to have the records he helped obtain translated to English. Finally, in 1995, 5,000 copies of And Who Will Kill You were published. Goebel continued to serve as a Catholic priest in Texas until his death in 2001 at age 96.

Our Holocaust Records Collections contain more than 600 individual stories from the Holocaust. They reveal heartbreaking loss, a resolve to live, and unimaginable suffering. The collection also contains entry registers to concentration camps, death records, captured German records, and more. See the Holocaust Collection on Fold3® today. You can also search additional Holocaust records for free on Ancestry®.

New Unit Histories and Military Yearbooks!

January 19, 2022 by | 33 Comments

Anyone who has tried to research the military history of an ancestor knows that it can be difficult. Millions of military records were destroyed in a fire, leaving researchers to seek alternative ways to put together the pieces. We have found unit histories and military yearbooks are a great way to fill in the blanks.

Pilots from the 55th Fighter Group remove their heated flight suits after a mission

Our archives of unit histories and military yearbooks keep expanding, thanks in part to you! Hundreds of you have allowed us to borrow and digitize your unit histories and yearbooks (we return them intact and undamaged). Your generous contributions have allowed thousands to find stories, histories, and first-hand accounts related to their ancestor’s service. All user-generated content is available free of charge on our site. If you have a unit history, military yearbook, military journal, or photographs and would like to share your records with others, contact us at [email protected]. We are honored to be entrusted with your valuable memories and promise to treat them as if they were our own. We’ll return your items to you undamaged after digitization.

Here are just a few of the items we added to the archives in December:

In addition, be sure to search our ever-expanding collection of Military Yearbooks here. Make 2022 the year of amazing military discoveries! Get started on your military research today on Fold3®.

January 16, 1945: Hitler Enters the Führerbunker

January 3, 2022 by | 158 Comments

Shortly after Adolf Hitler came to power, he ordered the construction of the New Reich Chancellery just south of the Brandenburg Gate in East Berlin. The Chancellery was a showpiece of the Third Reich and designed to project a sense of power and grandeur. The project also contained an extensive underground complex with a bunker and bomb shelter. On January 16, 1945, with Allied troops closing in, Hitler descended to the bunker where he would spend the last 105 days of his life before committing suicide in April 1945.

A giant chandelier from the ruins of Hitler’s Chancellery

In 1933, Hitler decided the current Reich Chancellery was too small for the needs of his government. He wanted to enlarge his headquarters. During construction, crews built a cellar that could serve as an air-raid bunker for Hitler. It was called the Vorbunker and featured a reinforced concrete roof over five feet thick. The concrete walls were sturdy enough to support the weight of a newly built reception hall above. The underground complex contained 12 rooms and was completed in 1936.

In 1943, Hitler ordered the Reich Chancellery to expand again. This time, an additional bunker was built one level below the Vorbunker and connected by a stairway. Called the Führerbunker, the complex was located 50 feet below the garden of the old Reich Chancellery and contained its own heating, water, and electricity. Although dimly lit and damp, fine furnishings and art from the Chancellery above adorned the bunker. It was accessible by a red-carpeted hallway and contained luxuries like a wine cellar.

In January 1945, with the Soviet Army approaching and Berlin under bombardment, Hitler moved his headquarters underground. His aides, bodyguards, servants, and his girlfriend Eva Braun joined him in the bunker. Later, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and his wife Magda moved into the bunker with their six children.

Fallen Nazi eagle and swastika from the Chancellery

Hitler ran his government from the bunker, strategizing with military leaders as Allies slowly chipped away at his empire. The 3,000 square-foot space was claustrophobic, and the constant airstrikes by British and American bombers brought a sense of doom. On April 19, Russian troops began to encircle the city. During his last Supreme Command conference held in the bunker on April 22, Hitler declared that if Germany fell, he must die in Berlin. On April 29, as Russian troops were fighting street by street and nearing the Chancellery, Hitler and Braun were married in the bunker. The following day, with Russians almost to the gates, both Hitler and Braun committed suicide. Their bodies were brought outside the bunker, placed in a shell hole, and burned. Others living in the bunker also committed suicide. Among them was Magda Goebbels, who poisoned her six children before she and her husband killed themselves. The deaths of Hitler and those in his inner circle signaled a final blow to the Third Reich. Days later, Germany signed an unconditional surrender, and Allied forces declared victory in Europe.

After the war, the Soviets attempted to level the Chancellery buildings and underground complex. Much of the bunker complex remained undisturbed until a reconstruction project in the late 1980s uncovered portions intact. At that time, authorities demolished most of the bunker. Some corridors still exist today but are sealed off from the public.

If you would like to learn more about the final days of WWII or Hitler’s last stand, search Fold3® today.

The Sinking of HMS Exeter

December 16, 2021 by | 64 Comments

During WWII, Allied navies suffered a devastating defeat at the hand of the Imperial Japanese Navy during the First and Second Battles of the Java Sea. The battles, which began on February 27, 1942, led to the Japanese occupation of the Dutch East Indies. During these two battles, the Japanese sank several Allied ships, including HMS Exeter. Most of her crew survived and were taken POW, where they endured horrific deprivation and abuse. About one-quarter died during captivity, and many were buried on Ambon Island and Sulawesi (present-day Indonesia).

HMS Exeter 1939

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the US joined Great Britain, Australia, and the Netherlands to form a multinational fleet. Between December 1941 and February 1942, the Japanese forces captured Hong Kong, the Philippines, Malaya, Singapore, and part of the Dutch East Indies. Allies wanted to check the Japanese aggression and prepared to engage the Imperial Japanese Navy.

On February 25, 1942, HMS Exeter sailed from Batavia (Jakarta) to Surabaya in eastern Java. The next evening, the Allied fleet conducted an overnight patrol but didn’t find any sign of Japanese ships. As the convoy returned to port on February 27, they received an urgent message that the enemy fleet was spotted 90 miles away. With little time to refuel, the Allied fleet of heavy cruisers, light cruisers, and nine destroyers, immediately reversed course and sailed for the island of Bawean, where they hoped to intercept and engage the enemy fleet.

About 4:00 p.m. on the 27th, the Allies spotted enemy ships, and the opponents engaged in a naval artillery battle. An 8-inch shell hit the Exeter and blew up an ammunition magazine. It had the effect of “lifting the whole ship in a remarkable manner,” said the captain. The Exeter was crippled and operating at half power. She turned out of the strategic column formation as other ships provided the disabled vessel with a smokescreen cover. Japanese planes overhead continued to relay the position of the Allied ships and called in firepower. The battle raged intermittently for nearly 10 hours, with the Allies desperately trying to repel the Japanese invasion fleet. The Japanese’s superior firepower dominated, resulting in heavy Allied losses.

HMS Exeter under air attack on February 15, 1942

Meanwhile, the crippled Exeter withdrew to Surabaya for repairs. Two days later, Exeter conducted a trial run to test the emergency repairs on her damaged boilers. Two Allied destroyers accompanied her out to sea. On March 1, the three vessels spotted ships from the Japanese fleet and attempted to escape undetected. With enemy ships closing in, the Allies soon found themselves under attack. Their engagement is known as the Second Battle of the Java Sea. During the fighting, a shell hit the boiler room on the Exeter, causing a large fire. Steam pressure dropped rapidly, and the power failed. With no possibility of saving the ship, the captain decided to scuttle it to prevent it from falling into enemy hands. He ordered the crew to abandon the vessel, and 1135 men jumped into rafts, floating nets, or held tight to floating debris. As the ship settled lower in the water, a Japanese torpedo hit the Exeter, and she rolled and sank.

About an hour later, some 400 survivors were plucked from the water by two Japanese destroyers. The remaining survivors spent nearly 24 hours in the water before being picked up by a Japanese ship. The prisoners were transferred to a Japanese POW camp at Macassar on Sulawesi, where they endured starvation, deprivation, and disease. Petty Officer George W. Castro was one of the men scooped from the Java Sea when the Exeter sank. The father of two survived the deadly POW camp for more than three years, until May 31, 1945, when he succumbed to disease from a lack of nutrients. His death came less than three months before the Japanese surrendered. About one-quarter of the prisoners saved from the waters of the Java Sea died while being held POW. The remaining POWs were freed after the war ended.  

If you would like to learn more about the Battles of the Java Sea or the sinking of HMS Exeter, search Fold3® today.