An issue I have run into several times while researching World War II service, is the difference between oral or written history by a veteran, versus what is contained in the official military records and histories. This issue was brought up again this weekend in one of the Facebook groups I’m in. One member insisted his father fought in the Battle of the Bulge because he told his son he did. Another member insisted this unit did not fight in the Bulge. This member then showed proof this unit did not receive the Ardennes-Alsace campaign credit.
A lengthy discussion ensued, including a question of whether or not the veteran had lied about his service. Now, there are cases of stolen valor and veterans claiming they participated in battles they did not or did something they did not. These issues are not what this post is about. This post is discussing the memories versus the official records.
War is a messy, horrific thing. Information circulates through the lines and things are remembered different based on the perspective of the soldier. Letters sent home did not contain battle details because of censorship. Sometimes families used code which could have been misinterpreted especially if the letters were read years later without the code. The way we interpret histories, letters, or records today may not be correct when the information is put into historical context. Historical context means looking at an issue or individual as part of the whole of what was happening to that individual at that time.
Over time all our memories fade. Things are remembered differently or not at all. This is what it is to be human. Rather than arguing over what our World War II soldier did, or did not do, why not investigate the records to see what they say? Now, errors did occur in the records, so there will be times you cannot prove one way or the other, if a memory is correct.
When you explore the records, you must also have to read the entire record. You cannot just stop on the day you find one piece of information. An example of this is found in Army Morning Reports. If you had a soldier who was in I Company 504th PIR (Parachute Infantry Regiment) 82nd Airborne, it may look like he was in England most of September because that is what the station states. However, if you continue reading the Morning Reports until 30 September, you will find, at least for I Company, a note which states the Company dropped into Holland on 17 September and by 30 September was in a defense position 1500 yds N of Grave.
In fact, the station remains England into October. Officially, the Company was stationed in England, yet their were engaged in combat in Holland. To learn more about what they were doing in Holland, you would need to read other documents including After Action Reports and Unit Histories. If your I Company 504th PIR relative told you he was in Holland at the end of September and you were only looking at Morning Reports prior to 30 September, you might say he was wrong. This is why we continue to research.
The next time an issue like this arises, rather than debate or watch the conversation take a bad turn, consider all sides. Let go of the ego part of us that has to be right because our soldier told us something was so. It could be, but look into the records so you have a fuller story.
Coming in October, the World War II Research and Writing Center! The World War II Research and Writing Center brings together a collection of resources to help people research and write the stories of U.S. soldiers during World War II. We accomplish this through toolboxes, forms and checklists, articles, newsletters, webinars, courses, and books. Sign-up for my WWII newsletter here.
© 2015, Jennifer Holik