20% Off Generations Books

Spring break is here! I thought spring would never come this year. To celebrate, I’m offering a 20% discount on my paperback books. Just use the code GCLTGYTN at checkout when you shop through CreateSpace for the following titles. This offer is good today through Sunday, April 6, 2014. Be sure to sign up for my newsletter for details on upcoming books, military research, and future discounts!

To Soar with the Tigers

Branching Out: Genealogy for 1st – 3rd Grade

Branching Out: Genealogy for 4th-8th Grade

Branching Out: Genealogy for High School Students

Branching Out: Genealogy for Adults

Engaging the Next Generation: A Guide for Genealogy Societies and Libraries

© 2014, Jennifer Holik, Woodridge, IL

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Military Monday – Catch Up on WWII Research Posts!

Last week I ended the discussion on IDPFs and the Graves Registration Service in World War II. Before we move to the next topic, do you want to read this series from the beginning? Below are the links!

Like what you’ve seen and want to know more? Sign up for my newsletter on my author website. For military research and writing services, or to book a lecture on military records, please contact me through my website Generations.

© 2014, Generations, Woodridge, IL

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Military Monday – Understanding the Graves Registration Service

It’s Monday and that means a new installment in the world of military records! As you read through this series, please keep in mind I’m discussing World War II records only. While there is a lot of overlap between other wars and records, the focus here is only World War II. Today we will look at the work the men of the Graves Registration Service did during World War II to handle all the Soldier Dead.

Soldier Dead is a term used by the military to describe those valiant men and women who gave the ultimate sacrifice during military service. This term will be used throughout this chapter to refer to our honored war dead.

Note: The following is excerpted from my soon to be released book Stories of the Lost which has an entire chapter on the Graves Registration Service.

The American Battle Monuments Commission

Upon conclusion of both World Wars, the U.S. government began bringing home the soldiers who survived and handling the final disposition of those who did not. Due to high numbers of Soldier Dead buried overseas, the government had to make a decision about their remains. Ultimately, it was decided the government would establish permanent American Military Cemeteries overseas which would be run by the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC.) Families had the choice to leave their soldier buried overseas in a military cemetery or repatriated. The government paid the bill for both options.

After World War II, for the families who chose to leave their Soldier Dead overseas, and for the unknown soldiers, re-interment in permanent American Military Cemeteries took place after all the dead who needed to be repatriated were handled. The 209 temporary cemeteries across Europe, North Africa, and the Pacific were condensed to 14 cemeteries in foreign countries.

The American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) oversees the cemeteries which hold our American military dead around the world. ABMC was established in 1923 by Congress to honor our Great War dead. These cemeteries were granted in perpetuity to our government and remain tax free. Burial in these cemeteries was not just of our male G.I.’s but also Red Cross workers, USO entertainers, and others seen as military personnel during World War I and II.

The cemeteries were laid out to be green, expansive, beautiful, and full of peace. Each headstone is made of marble in the shape of a cross or Star of David, depending on the religion of the soldier. Visitor’s centers were erected which depict battles fought nearby. Memorials were built listing the names of the missing and to honor all who fought and died.

The cemeteries are groomed and cared for by AMBC staff and decorated with flags and flowers for ceremonies throughout the year. The ABMC offers photography services for families who wish to have a photograph of their Soldier Dead’s grave and the cemetery. They also offer floral services if you wish to have flowers placed on a soldier’s grave.

To fully appreciate how these cemeteries came into existence and honor those buried beneath the foreign soil, we must discuss the men who helped build the cemeteries. Who were they? What kind of job did they have during and after the wars? How did they care for our most honored dead? And how did they shape the cemeteries we visit today?

These men were from the Quartermaster Graves Registration Service. What follows is not an exhaustive history of this unit because many books have been written on the subject. The purpose is to provide an overview to help put each soldier’s life and death into greater context.

The Job

When we think of a cemetery in the U.S. or one of the ABMC cemeteries, we picture a beautiful, expansive, quiet, peaceful, rolling green, lush, and clean cemetery. Just as we are conditioned to think of our World War II veterans as older men and women, we are conditioned to see military cemeteries as beautiful. This was not always the case.

As the U.S. prepared for war, the Graves Registration Service was trained and prepared to go with the troops and handle the casualties. GRS workers were responsible for locating suitable cemetery sites overseas. Once selected after examining the terrain, soil quality, and distance to enemy lines, they began plotting the cemetery. Maps were drawn, processing tents were set up and the men assigned tasks. Local civilian workers were called in to help dig graves and bury the dead.

The job of a Graves Registration Serviceman was not glamorous. Nor was it discussed and publicized very often. As unsung heroes, these men worked tirelessly to care for the remains of not only our U.S. Soldier Dead but also enemy dead. Within practically every U.S. established cemetery, there was a section for German dead. Our GRS men worked to identify every casualty they buried. This was not always possible. When information was gathered about the unidentified soldiers, it was placed in a canister or bottle and buried in the grave.

Both U.S. and enemy dead were buried in these temporary cemeteries. Why? It was important to bury all the dead for several reasons. The primary reason was health concerns. Decomposing bodies out in the open would spread disease and lower troop morale. It was better the troops  did not encounter the remains of their comrades, lest the fear and panic they already felt increase, making them unable to do their job effectively.

There was also the respect for the families back home. Our men made the ultimate sacrifice for their country and deserved respect from those who cared for them after death since their families could not.

Also, soldiers were buried for forensic reasons. Information was gathered to not only identify them but also on how they were killed. Furthermore, GRS buried for political reasons which showed both allies and enemies we have a heart, are human and care for others with compassion.

The GRS in World War II were not only responsible for collecting, identifying, and burying the Soldier Dead, but also handling personal effects. The men had a system by which they worked on the stripping line to handle personal effects which would be returned to the owner’s family.

How the GRS Handled Soldier Dead

A Collection Point was established on a main road and was the location the Soldier Dead were brought by units in combat or by GRS men. Collection Points contained an administrative tent, examination tent, examination area, and a screen to shelter passing troops from the view of their dead comrades.

The GRS men at Collection Points identified when possible, collected personal effects, and transported the Soldier Dead to the nearest American cemetery for burial. When they arrived at a cemetery, GRS workers again checked identification, effects, and rechecked records before temporary burial occurred.

GRS claimed the remains of a soldier from a unit, along the road side or battle ground. Men worked in the mud, rain, deep snow, jungles and on beaches in their recovery efforts. During December and January 1945 when the Battle of the Bulge raged, the weather was bitter cold and snow packed the ground for weeks. This made the job of grave digging and handling the dead ever more difficult. These men also crossed back and forth over enemy lines putting their own lives in danger.

The recovery process meant to collect both complete bodies and scattered remains. Consider the soldier who received a gunshot wound to the head. That most likely constituted a complete body or set of remains. Now, think about the men hit by shells. These bodies would have been in all sorts of condition and may have been scattered around the area in which they were killed. GRS could not always attend to the dead immediately after they were killed so these men encountered all stages of decomposition.  

The following images are from the IDPF of Frank Aldrich. The first is a listing of the Soldier Dead collected by GRS and the second is a map showing where two remains were located.

Aldrich Frank Collecting GRS sheet

Source: United States Army, Individual Deceased Personnel File, U.S. Army Human Resources Command, 200 Stovall Street Alexandria, VA 22332-0400, Collecting List in the file of Frank Aldrich.

Aldrich Frank map GRS

Source: United States Army, Individual Deceased Personnel File, U.S. Army Human Resources Command, 200 Stovall Street Alexandria, VA 22332-0400, Collecting Map in the file of Frank Aldrich.

Identification Process

When a soldier’s remains, either U.S. or German, were recovered, every attempt at identification took place. The procedure for processing remains and identification began at the stripping line where troops initially removed explosives and equipment. Another soldier would take these items to a nearby ammo and equipment area so they could be inventoried and reissued.

The next step was when medical sergeants came in with a clerk. The sergeants cut pockets and other pieces of clothing in order to locate identification tags and remove personal effects. Typically these men worked without gloves in destroyed and decomposed remains. Identification tags were sought as part of this process even when the remains were in bad condition.

To identify a Soldier Dead, identification tags were sought first. If those could not be recovered then a soldier’s comrades were consulted if they were available, to help identify the soldier. Rings, insignia, pay records, letters and photographs that may have been carried were also used in the process. In some cases, dental records and laundry marks were used. Upon first issue of clothing in the Army, a soldier would put a mark in his clothing to show that it was his. However, when serving on the front lines, when a soldier entered a wash-up station, he may or may not have had his duffle bag with his clothing available. In those cases, the men stripped, left their clothing, went into the wash station on one end, came out the other and were given new clothes. It was the hope that the clothes were the size they needed but this was not always the case. Because clothes were reissued over and over, there may have been several different laundry marks which would have made it very difficult to positively identify the Soldier Dead.

Positive Identification

When a Soldier Dead was identified, a mattress cover which was used as a shroud was prepared for him by painting his name, rank, and serial number on it. Then his remains were arranged and closed in the shroud. One identification tag was inserted into deceased’s mouth before he was placed in a grave. The other identification tag was attached to the cross on the grave. Next paperwork would be sent to the War Department in order to notify the next of kin. The bags of personal effects were shipped to Kansas City, MO.

Unknown Identification

Not all Soldier Dead were identified because of the condition of the body when it was received by the GRS. Other factors included advanced decomposition and none of the soldier’s comrades being available to help identify him.

To assist in identification, a still photographer was brought in to photograph the face, torso and other identifying marks on the body. Photos were also taken of the fingers and hands in case prints could not be obtained. A fluoroscope was used to see if the identification tags were embedded in the body or if other foreign matter resided there.

When all available identification options were exhausted and remains could not be identified, they were assigned an X number since there was no serial number by which to identify them. This X number was placed on reports. Duplicate reports were created for the unknown soldiers and fingerprints of all 10 fingers were taken and put into the Report of Death. Unknown remains were placed into a mattress cover and X number was painted on the bag.  The personal effects were shipped to Kansas City, MO.

Two metallic tags with the X number were made and then one was inserted into deceased’s mouth and the other was attached to the cross on the grave. The duplicate copy of records was placed in a bottle and buried with Soldier Dead. This allowed for possible identification at a later time when the remains were disinterred.

In cases where bodies were mangled or adhered together due to a plane crash or other disaster, if the GRS men were unable to disentangle the remains, a group burial would have been done. In these cases most were unidentified because the remains were destroyed beyond recognition.

Disposition of Soldier Dead After the War

In mid-1947, the government gave families the option to have their Soldier Dead remains disinterred at government expense and returned to a U.S. cemetery for burial or reburial in a permanent American cemetery overseas. The disinterment and repatriation process took several years after the war ended, partly due to a shortage of materials for cases for the caskets and a shortage of metal for the caskets themselves. 

One of the first shipments to Europe took place in May 1947, when the Liberty Ship Joseph V. Connolly was sent to deliver steel coffins. The coffins were “made of steel with bronze finish” and “were seamless, a cover set on a rubber gasket is sealed with thirty-two lugs.” These coffins were placed into a wooden shipping case after the Soldier Dead was placed inside and the lid sealed. The shipping cases had the name, rank, and serial number of the soldier inscribed on the case. The shipping cases were stored in warehouses when possible, or stacked in fields and covered with tarps until they were ready for transport by rail or water to the ports.  Upon transport to the ports, each shipping case was covered with an American Flag. The flag remained on the case until it was delivered to a home or funeral home in the U.S. (You can read the New York Times article here. Grab your tissues!)

Photo of James' grave taken by Norbert Morbe January 11, 2012.

Luxembourg Cemetery (ABMC) James Privoznik’s grave. Photo taken by Norbert Morbe January 11, 2012.

Once the Soldier Dead were returned to the U.S., they were sent to one of fifty receiving stations set up in to receive the casketed remains. The caskets were transported to these receiving stations on converted Army and Navy train cars which held 66 shipping cases per car. Each funeral train held an honor guard which traveled with the Soldier Dead.

The soldiers who remained behind at the request of their families, or who were unknowns, were interred permanently in a permanent American Military Cemetery which became part of the American Battle Monuments Commission.

There is much more to the Graves Registration Story. To learn more, watch for my book, Stories of the Lost to be released this spring. You can also attend one of the lectures I give in the Chicago area of the same name.

Next week we will explore another facet of World War II military research so be sure to check back!

Like what you’ve seen and want to know more? Sign up for my newsletter on my author website. For military research and writing services, or to book a lecture on military records, please contact me through my website Generations.

Want to read this series from the beginning?

© 2014, Generations, Woodridge, IL

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Book Review – Graveyards of Chicago

Do you enjoy wandering Chicago’s cemeteries? There are so many in our large city and suburbs that are unknown to most of us. Coming from the field of family history, I tend to focus and visit only the cemeteries where my ancestors or my clients’ ancestors sleep. However, this year if winter ever ends, I plan to start exploring some of the other cemeteries that surround us.

Have you seen the book Graveyards of Chicago? I received a copy of the book Graveyards of Chicago by Matt Hucke and Ursula Bielski recently to review on my blog from Lake Claremont Press.

I own a copy of the original book and loved it. This new version however is filled with so much more. Hucke and Bielski take readers through many more cemeteries and provide more in-depth context about the cemeteries and their residents. More photographs are included to showcase the art and architecture of these cemeteries to expose readers to all the beauty that surrounds us. I had no idea such art was available in these cemeteries.

The book is broken into sections of the city so you can focus on one area if you choose. Why not take a day and go exploring? Don’t forget the book and your camera! There are QR codes within each cemetery listing so you can learn more and a few sections in the book that provide contextual information like “50 (Thousand) Ways To Leave Your Loved Ones: Burial Customs To Die For.” Excellent information for genealogists who want to know more about the customs of their ancestors.

The back of the book contains information on cemetery preservation and contains a bibliography of selected sources so researchers can wander down new research paths to learn more! I really love bibliographies personally because they introduce me to works I usually have no idea exist.

I encourage you to pick up a copy of this book and make plans to explore these amazing cities of the dead this year. Have you explored some already? What are your favorites? Please share in the comments below. Then check out Lake Claremont Press’ website for additional books on Chicago history, art, architecture, food, and reference guides. They have a wide selection of incredible books.

Connect with them on FaceBook and Twitter.

© 2014, Jennifer Holik, Generations

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Follow Friday – Pritzker Military Museum and Library

Last night I attended another program, The Big Red One on D-Day, at Pritzker Military Museum and Library. The program ran longer than most which was fantastic. There was so much incredible information shared by Joseph Balkoski, John McManus, Steven Zaloga, and Paul Herbert that to cut the program to one hour would not have done it justice.

Steven Zaloga, John McManus, Joe Balkoski, and Paul Herbert preparing for the program.

Kenneth Clarke, Steven Zaloga, John McManus, Joe Balkoski, and Paul Herbert preparing for the program.

These men described the training that took place for the 1st Division and 29th Division during the early part of 1944 in England. John focused on the 1st Division and Joe focused on the 29th. Steven spoke on the side of the German preparation and response to the D-Day attack. The weather for June 5 and 6th was a large part of the discussion as the men described the foggy, rainy conditions, high seas, and low clouds that created many obstacles for the men to overcome. The D-Day invasion was laid out for Omaha Beach by the three panelists from both the American and German perspectives. Steven Zaloga said we cannot fully understand the Omaha Beach component of the invasion unless we understood it from both sides, something histories tend to leave out.

One thing I really appreciated is the individual soldier was discussed. So many historians talk about statistics and the high-level view of battles and the war, but it is the individual soldier stories that I particularly appreciate. What did these men experience and feel and have to deal with the day of battle? They experienced superb training, were in excellent physical condition and ready to go until they climbed aboard the ships and LSTs loaded down with 70-80 pounds of gear, to make the 11 mile trek across the English Channel. They spent over three hours in the dark on these crafts as the waves tossed them about causing seasickness and fatigue. When they landed on the beach they had obstacles to navigate in the form of mines, barbed wire, sunken debris and then a large stretch of beach to run across while being fired upon by the Germans. They were exhausted, wet, loaded down, scared, and motivated to win the fight as they left the crafts to descend upon that beach.

Technician Fifth Class John Pinder of the 16th Infantry Regiment, was discussed, a radio man who made it to the beach without his radio. Three times he ran from relative safety to the surf to locate radio pieces so he could do his job. He was wounded three times and for some unknown reason, ran back one more time to find one last piece and was killed. He received the Medal of Honor.

Joe Balkoski and Jennifer Holik at Pritzker Military Museum and Library, March 13, 2014.

Joe Balkoski and Jennifer Holik at Pritzker Military Museum and Library, March 13, 2014.

This was one of the BEST programs I have ever attended at Pritzker Military Museum and Library. And to make the day even better, I had a chance to finally shake Joe Balkoski’s hand. We have been corresponding for almost four years after I asked him about my 29th Infantry Division soldier, Frank Winkler. Joe was able to assist in the research for Frank’s story which appears in my upcoming book, Stories of the Lost which will be released May 8.

If you have not visited Pritzker Library, take some time to do so. The staff is fantastic and incredibly helpful. The programs are top-notch and take place once or twice a month. You can learn more on their website.

© 2014, Jennifer Holik, Generations

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Military Monday -Examining WWII Death Records Other Components

Welcome to the newest installment in the world of military records! As you read through this series, please keep in mind I’m discussing World War II records only. While there is a lot of overlap between other wars and records, the focus here is only World War II. Today we will wrap up our discussion of the components of WWII death records. If you missed the original post about common elements of an IDPF, you can view that now.

Today let’s answer a few questions about records or pieces of information that may be contained within IDPFs or other records.

 Are there death certificates available for soldiers?

If a soldier died state-side there will be a death certificate. Many pilots were killed during training and you may find their death certificates within service papers, although usually with the county or state vital records departments. The State of Utah did require a death certificate issues on soldiers who were killed overseas before the bodies could be repatriated and buried in the state.

How might soldiers have been identified besides identification tags?

Soldiers may have been identified by papers they carried, pay books, by other soldiers in their unit, and often, tattoos or other distinguishing marks on the body. Take a look at two pages from Vernon Bigness’ IDPF that discuss how his tattoos were used to identify him. The records always provided an explanation of why the Graves Registration Service determined an individual to be a specific soldier. There will always be an evidence trail.

Full page photo

Source: United States Army, Individual Deceased Personnel File, U.S. Army Human Resources Command, “X-91 Identification Check List” in the file of Vernon Bigness, SN 12081523.

Full page photo

Might I find some lists of soldiers from the unit in which my soldier served in IDPFs?

Yes. In some cases there will be lists of those who went missing or were recovered and whose remains have to be compared because identification tags were not located. The following image is from Tom Tompkins IDPF.

Full page photo

 Are names of family members mentioned?

Yes. Usually the name and address of the widow or parents are list. Yet, in the IDPF of Elias Santillanes, shown below, we see information on his siblings also.

Full page photo

Source: United States Army, Individual Deceased Personnel File, U.S. Army Human Resources Command, “Address of Legal Next of Kin,” file of Elias Santillanes, SN 38353308.”

Full page photo

Source: United States Army, Individual Deceased Personnel File, U.S. Army Human Resources Command, “Address of Legal Next of Kin,” file of Elias Santillanes, SN 38353308.”

There are many other facets to discover and learn about regarding IDPFs and other Graves Registration Service records. These will be investigated in-depth in an upcoming book fall 2014.

Like what you’ve seen and want to know more? Sign up for my newsletter on my author website. For military research and writing services, or to book a lecture on military records, please contact me through my website Generations.

Want to read this series from the beginning?

© 2014, Generations, Woodridge, IL

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