Yesterday, we welcomed Jennifer Holik to The Family History Writing Challenge. She offered us some great advice on writing about our military ancestors and we're sharing that advice here today with the rest of the Armchair Genealogist community. Please welcome Jennifer Holik.
Writing the stories of our World War II relatives may be a concept many have not considered. After all, “All the military records burned.” And, “I can’t find anything about my soldier online.” Right?
Anyone who has ever considered World War II research has been conditioned to think all the records burned and you will find everything you need online. This is due to a lack of education and materials explaining current records access, available records, and how to navigate and analyze the records. If we do not understand how to locate and use the records, how could we possibly write a story?
To help remedy these problems, I will soon release two volumes of a new book series called Stories from the World War II Battlefield in which you will learn how to begin researching, analyzing records, and start writing the stories of your soldiers. Volume 1 will cover the Army, Air Corps, and National Guard. Volume 2 will cover the Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, and Merchant Marines. With this foundation you can research and write your stories.
Instead of waiting for the books before you start writing, here are several tips to get you started.
Tips for Writing World War II Stories
1. Is there a family story you heard about the soldier? Is the veteran still alive so you could interview them? Have you heard conflicting stories? Write them all down. Every family story is a starting point and has grains of truth within. It is important to remember that over time, memories fade and people, places, and events can become merged into one. Veteran stories told 40-50-60 -70 years after the fact may have to be sorted out using the records even if your favorite grandpa told you the story. Write them down anyway.
Case in point. I recently conducted research for a client on the 92nd Chemical Battalion. A veteran had written a letter to a friend in the mid-1980s and stated he entered with the 92nd on D-Day (6 June) attached to the First Division. According to the WWII Order of Battle, the 92nd did not enter France until 27 June. I had the 92nd Morning Reports which showed 27 June. I discovered from my NPRC researcher, this veteran wasn’t placed into the 92nd until 1 Jan 1945. It is likely he was with another Chemical Battalion attached to the First Division, wounded, and put into a Replacement Depot before entering the 92nd from a Replacement Depot months later. Moral of the story: We must use the records to sort out the facts even when our favorite grandpa is telling the story.
2. Organize your research materials and any memorabilia, letters, and photographs you have for your soldier. Use those to create a timeline of service. Be sure to source each fact you list so you can reference it later. Once you have a sourced timeline created, you are well on your way to a completed story.
3. Obtain the OMPF or Official Military Personnel File from the National Personnel Records Center. If your soldier was in the Army, Air Corps, or National Guard, hire a researcher to pull Morning Reports to trace service. These are an excellent resource especially if the file did burn. If your soldier was any other branch, search Ancestry.com and Fold3.com for Muster Rolls, Crew Lists, and associated records to trace service. Add those to your timeline. Read the entries carefully because they almost always have a record of the day’s events so you know what was happening with your soldier.
Review these files with a fine tooth comb and do it again when you receive new records. You will discover new connections between the records each time.
4. Go beyond the individual and research the unit level histories. Search online for a website for the Division in which your soldier served. Often the historians have scanned and placed some higher level materials online. All of these materials provide historical context in which you can place your soldier.
5. Use your timeline and notes from the records you currently have plus the overall histories to start writing the story. There will be gaps and errors, but as you locate additional records, and learn more about the Theater of War in which your soldier fought, the specific battles, and locations he or she served, you will more quickly sort out the errors and flesh out the story.
Unsure you are ready to start with a timeline because of lack of information? Need some help getting started? You can use my Military Memories: 31 Prompts to Celebrate Your Military Stories to get the creative writing juices flowing. Choose any prompt and start writing. See where it takes you. These can also be foundations for stories within the overall soldier story and lead you down new research paths.
My final piece of advice…..no matter where you start in the writing process, know the research can take months and years to complete. Patience and persistence are important. With each step along the way, the story grows, and in the end, the soldier is not forgotten. Their legacy and life lives on through your words.
Jennifer Holik is a Chicago-based military and genealogical researcher, speaker, and author. She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in History in 1999 from the Missouri University of Science and Technology. Jennifer has published articles in the National Genealogical Society Magazine, the Czech and Slovak Genealogical Society of Illinois Journal, the Utah Genealogical Society’s Quarterly Crossroads, and writes a monthly column for The In-Depth Genealogist magazine. She focuses her research and writing on the records of World War II across all branches: Army, Air Corps, National Guard, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, and Merchant Marines and is a member of the staff of the World War II History Network (http://wwiihistorynetwork.com.) She lectures on researching and writing the stories of World War II soldiers. Her blog http://blog.generationsbiz.com provides weekly insights into World War II records and issues not discussed related to the war, the missing, and the dead. She is the author of several books including Stories of the Lost, The Tiger’s Widow, Stories from the Battlefield: A Beginning Guide to World War II Research, and a series of genealogy teaching books entitled, Branching Out. In 2015 she will release a new series called Stories from the World War II Battlefield which will provide an in-depth look at how to begin World War II research across all branches, where to find records, and explore the most commonly used records. She will explain how to reconstruct a service file and explore issues related to the records and war. On her website you can visit her World War II Toolbox (http://www.jenniferholik.com/world-war-ii-toolbox.html), learn more about her services, purchase her books, schedule an author presentation, and sign up for her newsletter. Her website is http://jenniferholik.com