Guest post by Barbara Geisler.
Many years ago, my mother-in-law was reminiscing about her eldest brother, Fred, who went off to war in early January 1945, when she was twelve years old. In February, the family received word that Fred had been listed as missing in action in Germany. They held out hope that he had been a Prisoner of War, but the following year, the family received a notice stating that Fred had been officially declared dead.
The story was definitely interesting as she relayed that her uncle had spotted a photo on the front page of the newspaper featuring liberated soldiers in a POW camp. One of them had an uncanny resemblance to Fred. When Fred never returned home, the family had concluded that the POW camp had been liberated by the Russians and that he was one of many who had been taken to Russia rather than being let free. This woman firmly believed that her brother could be alive somewhere, and she actually hoped that he would someday make his way home. That little girl, who ran to the window every time she heard the front gate swing open, hoping to see her big brother return, had lived her whole life waiting for him to walk through the door.
She asked me if I could find the photo from the paper. She described the details imbedded in her memory: the photo featured a group of soldiers carrying a kettle of dandelion soup at the POW camp, Stalag IX B.
I was certainly intrigued, and began my search at the local library, scrolling through newspapers on microfilm, looking for anything that looked remotely like the photo that she had described to me. It soon became clear to me why the family made the connection to Stalag IXB, also known as Camp Bad Orb. The papers were full of names of local servicemen who were being held there at the same time that Fred had been listed missing. But, the photo was not to be found in any of the papers that I scanned at the library.
This was back in 2002 when there was not nearly as much information on the web as today regarding World War II records. I decided to write to the National Archives, describe the photo, and ask them if they could find it.
Much to my surprise, two photo-copies arrived in my mail one day, and there was the photo that my mother-in-law had described, along with a second photo from the same camp. On the back of each was an explanation stating that the Signal Corp who had liberated the camp had staged these photos. None of the men in the photo had been inmates at the POW camp. My mother-in-law’s theory had been easily disproved, but I certainly could not announce this without at least attempting to find out what had happened to her brother.
I began with absolutely nothing to work with. My mother-in-law only knew the date her brother went missing and nothing else. There was no service record file or personal information to help me. One day, as I was on the web searching his name, the American Battle Monument Commission site popped up. When I clicked on the link, I was shocked to see that Pvt. Frederick W. Goempel’s name was listed on the Tablets of the Missing in Luxembourg American Cemetery. The information included his rank, service number, and what unit he served with, along with a death date of Feb. 10, 1946. It also noted that he had earned a bronze star medal. The information was essential to finding his service record, but I certainly questioned the DOD. He had been declared MIA on Feb. 9, 1945, the war in Europe ended in May 1945, how could he have died in Feb. 1946?
I would soon learn that the date listed is called an FOD, finding of death. When MIA status was not resolved, the army designated the date one year and a day after the MIA date as the official date of death.
With this new information, I was able to request Fred’s IDPF, with his sister signing as next of kin. At the same time, I was able to request after action reports, and any medals that he would have earned, as the family had absolutely nothing in regards to his service.
When I searched online for his unit, the 5th Infantry Division, I was surprised to see that the annual reunion would be held just a few miles from our home. My husband and I were able to attend and meet some veterans from the 11th regt., 5th Inf. Div. As soon as I mentioned the date, I found myself listening to stories of a wicked river crossing where many men had been injured or died. The common theory among these veterans was that Fred must have drowned in the river while crossing. This was quite disheartening, and I could only wait for the IDPF to arrive to see what kind of information it would glean.
The reports arrived within a month, and I was able to mark the coordinates on a huge map of the area that represented the battlefield in 1945. One of the vets had been happy to copy it and mail it to me. It included the grid coordinates as well as any markings that showed German pillboxes and bunkers.
It took well over 6 months to receive the IDPF, and there wasn’t much information to be had. In reviewing the file, it soon became quite obvious that the American Graves Registration Service had made a blatant error regarding the search location for Fred. The file stated that Pvt. Frederick W. Goempel had been unknown to his platoon and had last been seen entering an assault boat 10 miles SE of Echternach.
All of the information that I had received from the 5th Infantry Division stated that the crossing took place 2 miles NW of Echternach. As I flipped through papers, it soon became quite obvious to me that each review was based on the original assessment. The original information has been copied verbatim, with a different year typed in the corner. No one had actually looked at the information in relation to the 11th regiment to be certain that the coordinates had been correct. Each review was based on the original error.
Had I not researched the movements of the regiment, I would never have realized the significance of that error.
One redeeming fact from the file was the listing of Fred’s company: F.
That small piece of information was the key to locating all sorts of valuable resources that would help to develop Fred’s story: Morning Reports, Staff Daily Journals, as well as the listing of the men who served in Co. F which was printed in the back of a book that I borrowed entitled, “The 11th Regt. in the ETO”. This listing not only gave a name, but also the hometown. I quickly spotted 3 men with the same hometown as Fred and went about finding them to see if I could get any information.
Fred’s story will continue next week.
Barbara graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a BS in Chemical Engineering. She began her career as a research engineer, working for Gulf Research. She married her Chem E lab partner from Pitt, and decided to change career paths to full time motherhood after giving birth to their first child. Since 2000, her research skills have been invaluable in the hunt for information pertaining to her husband’s uncle. Over the years, she developed a passion for genealogy, and has been volunteering since 2007 at the local Family History Center. In addition, she has been involved with finding several families of MIA’s in hopes of collecting DNA for the WWII database. She firmly believes that all families of WWII MIA’s deserve to have answers regarding the fate of their loved one.
© 2015, Jennifer Holik, Woodridge, IL