William F. Cowart, USMC. Photo source: OMPF
This weekend as I was working on my World War II record books and reading a USMC personnel file for Pvt. William Franklin Cowart, something important occurred to me. Important and somewhat bothersome issues I feel needs to be addressed for anyone who does genealogy research. The issues are: Family trees, FindAGrave, and death and burial information for soldiers killed during World War II.
As is commonly discussed in genealogy research, each source should be analyzed and documented. It is not good enough to just attach it because it “looks” right. And in some cases, an explanation or additional documentation is necessary. This is the case with soldiers killed in the war.
Issue 1. Soldier death date. When we create a family tree we enter the date of death. For many individuals, this date is the actual date of death. For soldier’s Killed in Action (KIA), it may not be the actual date of death but a Finding of Death (FOD) date given after a soldier was MIA for at least one year plus one day. The FOD is the official date of death according to military records.
USMC Pvt. William F. Cowart was KIA 20 Nov 1943 on Tarawa, Gilbert Islands. According to sparse death records, he was buried on Tarawa and his family was notified of his death and burial. Apparently he had at one point been identified. The Graves Registration Service (GRS) was not present to complete official paperwork and document the location of all the graves though. Trench burial was done and markers put up. Later when additional contingents arrived, the cemeteries were still not documented and the markers became more of a memorial to whomever was buried there rather than an actual grave location.
In the online family tree for Cowart on Ancestry.com (there are a few), he is listed with a death date of 20 Nov 1943 in Tarawa. This is correct based on records.
Issue 2. Burial information. This is tricky for soldiers KIA. First, if you have the Individual Deceased Personnel File (IDPF), you will usually see, if the GRS completed paperwork, the temporary cemetery burial location of the soldier. That is the first burial.
Then when the war ended, the GRS began disinterring the unidentified soldiers to attempt identification. They also began disinterring all soldiers in temporary cemeteries as cemeteries were combined and some soldiers’ remains were repatriated to the U.S. for permanent burial.
When you are on Ancestry.com you may see shiny leaf hints for FindAGrave. While these may be great hints, I believe when you add them to your tree, you need to add the context with them. An explanation. This is especially important for soldiers, like Pvt. Cowart, who were never returned but have a Memorial Stone and those who were unidentified and their remains are Unrecoverable and they are listed on a Tablet of the Missing at an American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) cemetery. Notice the NONRECOVERABLE stamped on the top of his application. Cowart, on Ancestry.com’s family trees have him buried either in Alabama or Hawaii (Memorial for the Missing or Table of the Missing.) Both are incorrect but the information is pulled in through FindAGrave records. He is likely buried on Tarawa unless he is among the remains JPAC has and is trying to identify.
Cowart headstone application. Source: Ancestry.com
Issue 3. FindAGrave Entries Let’s go back to Pvt. Cowart. His remains were Unrecoverable due to the lack of records after the Battle of Tarawa. His family requested a Military Headstone and you can find the application on Ancestry.com. The ABMC created a FindAGrave entry for Cowart. The ABMC has his home state listed as Mississippi on their tablet, which is incorrect. Alabama was his home state. There are those errors to watch for also. Family members created a FindAGrave entry. Unfortunately they list him as a sibling of himself on FindAGrave. I have no idea how this could be corrected unless one entry was removed.
Improving the Information on Cowart’s Trees. We can improve the information on Cowart’s family trees in the following ways:
- Provide additional details to his Death Date, especially if it is a Finding of Death date. This FOD date is extremely important as you navigate other records because errors do occur. War was chaotic and hellish and the men and women recording the information were often under a lot of stress. Errors happened. Check, double check, and triple check your facts.
- Add an explanation to his Fact/Source of Military Headstone Application that it is a Memorial Stone. State where he is actually buried. Provide an additional source for that (ABMC database entry, IDPF, Personnel File, obituary.)
- Add explanations for the Burial entries regardless of which source they came from (FindAGrave, Alabama WWII deaths, ABMC listing, etc.) Explain he is listed on a Tablet of the Missing in Hawaii because that is where all the Pacific Theater missing are listed. Because he is listed there does not mean he is buried there. Explain on the FindAGrave facts this is a memorial stone. Provide proof as to where he is buried from sources listed above.
My suggestion for you. I strongly encourage you to provide additional explanations, sources, and images of records for cases like this. If a soldier has a Memorial Stone in a U.S. cemetery, state that and explain where he is actually buried. This helps prevent the transmission of incorrect data from online tree to online tree.
If you have questions regarding any of the topics presented here, please feel free to comment below.
© 2014, Jennifer Holik, Woodridge, IL