Tuesday’s Tip – British Commonwealth Cemeteries

Tyne Cot Cemetery WWI (10)

Tyne Cot Cemetery. Photo courtesy Jennifer Holik.

Are you interested in finding your British Force ancestor’s grave from World War I? If you had a relative who served with the British, Irish, Scottish, Australian, or New Zealand forces under the British crown in World War I, there are some great resources available to you. The primary one being the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

These cemeteries are scattered in Europe in countries like Belgium, France, and Germany. Many are located within a farmer’s field and may not be accessible. The larger ones usually have parking nearby.

The graves of those identified soldiers, have the name, service number, rank, and unit engraved on the stone. The unit crest is also engraved on the stone. Those who are unidentified have this indicated on their stone.

All of these cemeteries are recognizable as you drive through the countryside because they each have a tall cross monument with a sword pointing down.

While these cemeteries usually do not have anyone on staff or an office in which you can inquire about who is buried there, they do have a resource to help you locate individuals.

Tyne Cot Memorial Registry books (2)Within each cemetery you can find a Memorial Registry box. When you open the box, you will find inside, several books of names with grave locations, unit, and death date. There is also a cemetery visitor’s register you can sign. Tyne Cot Memorial Registry books (3)

Tyne Cot Memorial Registry books (1)  These cemeteries are beautiful, peaceful, and well-kept. I encourage you to visit if you have a chance when you are overseas.

© 2015, Jennifer Holik, Woodridge, IL

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Military Monday – Gold Star Families Research & Memorials

I do a lot of World War II research focusing on individual soldiers and their stories. Most of these soldiers died in service. Over the last few years I have met people around the world who share my passion for researching soldiers, returning medals, locating remains, and helping family members locate information. I am grateful to be connected to each of these people because we all have different skills and work well as a team to solve cases.

Quite often I will be asked to help someone find living relatives of a soldier from World War II to the present. This is not something I do. In those cases, I refer them to someone I know can help them. One of those individuals is Jana Churchwell of Gold Star Family Research & Memorials. I asked her a few questions about the work she does and am excited to share those questions and answers with you.

What prompted you to start doing WWII research and looking for MIAs?

Churchwell photo

Flight Officer George F. Churchwell, Jr.

My uncle, Flight Officer George F. Churchwell, Jr., was killed as the Co-Pilot and last person in control of a B-24 during a WWII combat training accident in California. Not a family reunion or gathering went by without mention of him. Although he was nine years older than my father, they had a striking resemblance to each other, and as a kid, I could not tell their photos apart. My father always told that my Granny tried desperately for months to find out what happened or the cause, and any details about the accident, but without any success. She was devastated at the loss, as any Gold Star Mother would be. As we all know, ‘Loose Lips Sink Ships’.

Growing up, I was influenced by my genealogist parents, who taught me virtually everything I know about the subject. One day a Google search produced a website containing an index of WWII aviation crashes. Once we found the tail number of the plane, a subsequent Google search provided the answers our family had been seeking all this time regarding my uncle’s military plane crash. About a month later, we were all on a flight to California, and found ourselves standing at the very location of the crash, finding and holding chunks of melted aluminum with rivets and other various artifacts where my uncle and five other crew mates lost their lives in June 1943.

This was a life-changing and compelling experience for me, as I pursued finding every piece of information about the other crew mates. Originally this was done to put together a display of military biographies and photos, along with a few select crash artifacts, in the local museum there to honor the men. In doing this, I was so hooked and became increasingly obsessed with locating the military families of WWII. I loved it so much, I just kept going. I thought if I put the information out there, then whatever family member was seeking it, would find it, just as our family had.

What kind of cases do you work on?

I work mainly on WWII military men lost in aviation accidents, but I also research men lost in the various service branches. Due to the loss of a Bombardier and Navigator off the coast of California several weeks after my uncle’s crash, I developed a sincere interest in those who had gone missing stateside. In doing this research within this group of men, I came into contact with a fellow who was already preparing a manuscript about the series of accidents in June and July 1943. I was able to contribute much of the history I had collected, to his book, The Santa Barbara B-24 Disasters: A Chain of Tragedies Across Air, Land, and Sea by Robert A. Burtness.

My work for those missing in action continued further as I had found my true passion in life. I document the details, not only of military accidents, but also note basic facts about who these men were, and who had such promising futures ahead of them that never to come to fruition, and to which Gold Star Parents, sisters, brothers, sons and daughters, they each belonged. If there is anything these men would have wanted is to be remembered and their lives not forgotten. As a pastor friend of mine always says, “a person’s life is more than a dash between two dates.”

What is the most rewarding part of this job?

The most rewarding part is knowing that you are helping someone else by providing some or all of the military and genealogical information. I have been blessed to locate numerous family members whose remains from WWII have only been recently discovered. To me, this work gives back to me a satisfaction and joy in a manner that is hundred-fold in comparison to the time and effort that goes into it. Literally, the reward is priceless.

What is your most interesting or rewarding case?

The most rewarding cases were two extremely difficult ones in particular. Each took me about four months to locate a living family member. One of these was very challenging, in that the family was of Polish descent, and every time the names were transcribed in the genealogy records, it was spelled a different way. Complicating matters, the same first names were repeated within the family tree, causing the potential for much confusion with the family relationships. Also, the fellow who was lost had only one sister, who died very young and with no children.

You also offer specialty services like photo and document restoration and repair. Why do you offer this? What drew you to this service?

I inherited my passion for photography, as well as genealogy, from my parents. My father spent a lot of time when I was younger collecting as many old family photographs as possible to include in our family tree and database for the purpose of future publication. Many photographs within the collection had been torn or damaged over time. Prior to the days of the personal computer, scanner, or digital imaging, my dad invested many resources in hand-repairing, re-photographing these photos at home using an enlarger, and developing his own film in a dark room. Because he did so much of it, and photographic paper and supplies were very expensive, he used resources wisely to save on costs. Further, my mother’s parents had owned a local jewelry repair and photographic store.

My grandmother knew the art of colorizing black and white photos by hand. She taught this to my mother, and my mother taught this to my father, and both of them taught it to me about the time I entered high school. I also inherited this love of family history and photography from both my folks. I took four years, and ended up winning a scholarship to Savannah College of Art and Design for my photography portfolio.

Nowadays, in the digital age, my father learned to do everything on the computer using photo editing software that he had done before all by painstaking and time-consuming work by hand. He subsequently taught me also how to use the software and to do the same things. I am truly blessed to have inherited the interest, background, and love of family history and photographic preservation and restoration from such intelligent and resourceful parents!

Anything else you might want to share.

I continue to do all work for the Missing pro-bono. I don’t do this for any monetary purpose per se, but my dream would be to spend all of my time doing the very thing I am so passionate about and what it is I feel that I am the best at doing. As stated previously, the reward is not monetary. My heart is truly in this work, with the lost men and their families, and that is the ultimate purpose. But, practically speaking, I gotta eat. Ha!

© 2015 Jennifer Holik, Woodridge, IL

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Writing Wednesday – Resilience Book Review

My blog has been kind of quiet the last few weeks. I needed a little break after I released the first two volumes of my new book series. I’m happy to be blogging again.

Resilience coverA couple of weeks ago I finished reading a book, Resilience, by Navy Seal Eric Greitens. Eric spoke at the Pritzker Military Museum and Library in Chicago at the end of March, but I was unable to attend his program due to a lecture I was giving. I did order his book as soon as I read the program description. This book isn’t the typical military book I usually read. My readings lists are primarily World War II related. But something about this book called out to me and I had to buy it and read it.

The book is basically the edited correspondence from Eric to his friend and former Navy SEAL team member, “Zach,” who is struggling with PTSD, and finding a purpose in life after the military. There are pieces of letters or quotes from “Zach” which help put the entire book into perspective. There were many times throughout the book, where I felt a passage was speaking about a friend in my life, or a past situation, and therefore brought even more meaning and understanding to me as I read. I even recommended one friend in particular read the book as it seemed to call out his name at certain times. He started and we have been discussing pieces of it.

In my opinion, this book isn’t one to read in one weekend. I picked it up and put it down many times over the course of a few weeks. Each time I read chapters of it, I learned something new about myself, my past struggles, and current life situation. While the book was written after many letters were exchanged by Navy SEAL friends, the strategies in this book speak to the struggles we all face in our lives. Eric offers his friend and the readers, sound advice for looking at our lives, our purposes, discovering and remembering what is most important, and helping us remember why we get out of bed every day.

I think the most important part of this book, for me at this moment in my life, was the chapter on FREEDOM. So many people tell me I need to stop working so hard all the time and find balance. Of course, we all see balance as a seesaw going up and down and never level. Eric doesn’t see life-work balance that way. We are never in perfect alignment because something is always calling us or needing our assistance – work, family, friends, community, or ourselves. He said, “Give yourself the freedom to live a life that’s balanced – not like a seesaw but like a beautiful work of art.” I love that quote. The more I thought about the idea of balance, the more I see it as a circle balanced on a pole – all the pieces of our life connect and sometimes we can’t separate work from family or community from ourselves. They all work together in harmony. The chapter ends with this quote:

A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play; his labor and his leisure; his mind and his body; his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing, and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself, he always appears to be doing both.

I love that quote and feel my life is this way.

If you like to think on the bigger questions in life, where you have come from, where you are now, and where you see yourself going, I encourage you to pick up this book. I believe if I read it again in a month or six months or a year, I will learn new things about myself as I look at my past and experiences. The book is timeless.

Finally, I suggest you find a friend to read the book with and have your own book club discussions about it. By talking about the things you read and thinking about your own life, it can open up a new world of conversation. It is another way to bond with those you care about. I hope you enjoy it.

© 2015, Jennifer Holik, Woodridge, IL

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