Sunday, December 21, 2014

Sentimental Sunday: A Very Special Wedding

Not all family history is ancient history.  Once in a while an event takes place that makes me think, “This story should be told.  This story should be written down and remembered.”  One such story in our family is that of Frank and Nancy’s wedding.

Shortly after my mid-life wedding in 2007, my sister met a man named Frank.  Both had been previously married (and had their hearts broken).  It was true love, and they got engaged in 2008. 
Nancy had been living in California for decades by then and had deep roots there, as did Frank.  But as they planned their wedding, she was continually saddened by the thought that our bedridden mother would not be able to attend. 

Mom lived in Illinois, as I do.  She had missed my wedding the previous year, being too frail to attend (as well as being legally blind and nearly deaf).  When I got married in 2007, I went over to her house in my wedding dress, along with Nancy in her maid-of-honor dress.  “Mom, I’m getting married today!” I told her.  Her face lit up with a smile as she touched the fabric of my dress.  I wasn’t sure if she would remember that day, but I wanted to give her what I could.

As Nancy sadly planned her motherless wedding, it was Frank who came up with the idea.  He said to his beloved that if her mother couldn’t come to the wedding—they would move the wedding to her mother.  Mom lived in a large, bright room with our sister-in-law Susie by this time.  When presented with the idea of hosting the wedding, Susie said that she would be delighted.

 And so it was…  On December 26, 2008, we all gathered in Mom’s large room at Susie’s house.  The room had been festooned with lots of white netting, white lights, and white candles.  There were about 20 chairs set up at one end of the room.  At the other end, next to the fireplace, there was a ivy-covered arch.  And just a few steps away was my mother, tucked in under an afghan in her special chair, which was turned towards the arch for the ceremony.  She was wearing a wrist corsage of red roses that matched her daughter’s wedding bouquet.

Five of Frank and Nancy’s six children were able to attend.  Rather than a best man and maid of honor, the five children stood on each side of the couple as they were wed.  My friend Karen, an ordained minister, officiated the ceremony, and our niece Sarah and her husband Russ read the scripture.  It was beautiful and magical and just perfect.

This may not be an old story, but it’s a story that should be remembered and passed down in the family... my family.  Well done, Frank and Nancy—and happy sixth anniversary!


Monday, December 8, 2014

Military Monday: A Young Soldier's "Personal Affairs"

After my father’s death in 1993, my sister and I sat on the floor of the living room one evening, going through boxes and drawers of his military papers, deciding what to keep.  We found a booklet entitled “Personal Affairs of Military Personnel and Dependents”—this is the front cover.  There are some notes in my father’s handwriting, which read as follows:

“Note:  In [the] event of my untimely demise, Be sure to collect these 4:

1.  Insurance,

2.  6 months gratuity ($900) lump sum;

3.  My back accrued pay.  (2. and 3. Not automatic—action must be initiated by you.  See inside of book for details.)

4.  Grab my money out of the bank (using enclosed power of attorney) before they freeze it.  The enclosed Power of Attorney lasts no longer than I do, but if you get it out before they know I’m gone, it will save trouble.  Otherwise file my will and they will come across.

This book will answer a lot of questions.”

I guess this is consistent with the fact that Dad was a business major in college before the war!  

The booklet had three pages of information about his final wishes and was meant to be left with his next of kin—in his case, his mother.  In my imagination I am picturing a roomful of recruits, headed for overseas, sitting at tables and filling in this booklet, thinking about their own deaths possibly for the first time, as it sunk in that yes, they were headed for the front lines of what we now call World War Two and might never return.

Page 1 gives basic information, including that he is 21 years old.  He carries $10,000 of life insurance, payable to his mother Sara, with his father as Contingent Beneficiary.  (That’s the equivalent of about $133,000 today.)  This optional insurance cost him $6.50 a month out of his pay—but his parents were not well off financially, and that money would have meant a lot to them—a chance to buy their own farm instead of renting, for example.

From his army pay of $150 per month (about $2,000 today), he had $50 a month sent to his bank at home, and another $18.75 taken out to buy War Bonds.  The booklet said, “If I am reported missing, missing in action, interned in a neutral country, or captured or besieged by enemy forces, the allotments out of my pay for insurance and support of my relatives will be paid by the government for 12 months.”

Page 1 of the form goes on to say that Dad had executed a will and Power of Attorney and mailed them to his father in Big Rock, Illinois.

Page 2 has blanks to fill in where he might have a Safe Deposit Box, where he left personal papers, and what debts he owed (none).  Then it says, “If I die in the line of duty, from wounds, or illness, or other causes, I have designated [here he filled in his mother’s name] as a dependent to receive  the six months’ gratuity pay awarded by the government.”  Dad hand-write off to the side, “$900.”  It then had a place for the soldier to list where they had bank accounts. 

Page 3 gets even more “real.”  It says, “I desire that my permanent place of burial be at ________.”  (Dad wrote in, “No Preference.”)  It goes on to say, “If I die abroad, my remains will be returned to the United States by the Government after the War, but not earlier.”  It goes on to give other instructions to the family as to how to retrieve the body and receive funds for burial expenses and a possible pension.  Copies of any marriage records and birth certificates of children are then asked for.

In the photo, taken at his parents’ new home in Big Rock, Illinois before he went overseas, Dad (far right) is posing with his father, little brother Richard, little sister Janet, and mother.   Perhaps his sister Helen is the one taking the picture.  He was just twenty years old when he was drafted—barely out of his teens—but forced to think about “the event of his untimely demise.”

Monday, December 1, 2014

Military Monday: Forgiveness and Friendship

I have written quite a bit about my father and his service in the U.S. Army in World War II.  This story took place a few years later.

After the war, my father was required to be in the U.S. Army Reserves for a number of years, and go to training camp for a few weeks in the summer.  In fact, he once told me that he very nearly ended up in the Korean War—but his card didn’t get chosen during the random drawing of one in three cards in the file. 

In the late 1940s he met my mother, Adra, and they were married in 1950.  They moved into an apartment at 620 Archer Avenue in Aurora—the downstairs of an old white frame house which has since been torn down.  (The first photo shows Robert and Adra on the front porch.)  Both had jobs within walking distance—Dad at a steel storage company called Equipto, and Mom at another steel storage company down the street called All-Steel.  

Into the upstairs apartment moved a young married couple very much like themselves—but yet so different.  Hartwig and Frieda were recent immigrants; they had arrived in the U.S. from Austria in 1952.  The 1930s had been a bad time to be a young man in Austria.  Hartwig, being five years younger than my father and therefore too young to be drafted into Hitler’s Army, ended up in an organization called the Hitler Youth.  He would have been 15 years old when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.

I wanted to find out more about being a young person in Nazi Germany and Austria.  I found this quote from Adolf Hitler on the History Learning Site.  He said this of German schoolchildren:  “The weak must be chiselled away.  I want young men and women who can suffer pain.  A young German must be as swift as a greyhound, as tough as leather, and as hard as Krupp's steel.”

The U.S. Holocaust Museum website had this quote: 

“These boys and girls enter our organizations at ten years of age, and often for the first time get a little fresh air; after four years of the Young Folk they go on to the Hitler Youth, where we have them for another four years… And even if they are still not complete National Socialists [Nazis], they go to Labor Service and are smoothed out there for another six, seven months…  And whatever class consciousness or social status might still be left…  the Wehrmacht [German armed forces] will take care of that.”—Adolf Hitler (1938)

But back to my story:  Hartwig and Frieda moved into the apartment above my parents.  This would have been in the early 1950s.  Even in my childhood in the 1960s, my father still referred to the Germans as “Krauts”—an old habit that died hard, after spending a year of his life on the front lines shooting Germans at every opportunity and in nearly continual fear for his life.  Dad continued to have nightmares about the war for twenty years after he came home.

But somehow, the two couples ended up friends.  I wonder if they ever talked about the war, or Hitler, or what it was like in Austria in the 1940s?  I don’t know.  I do know that Hartwig worked as a night watchman in a nearby factory, while he taught himself English and studied engineering books.  Eventually he got a better job there as a spot welder, then a maintenance electrician, then a mechanic, and then an engineer.  He and Frieda had four children and had a good life in America.

But more importantly to this story—Hartwig and Frieda wanted to put their past behind them and become American citizens.  To do that, they needed American citizens to be their sponsors.  And who were the sponsors for Hartwig and Frieda?  My parents.

I remember, even after each couple purchased their own home in the later 1950s, my father and I dropping by their home or Hartwig dropping by ours.  I am so very glad that those two young couples, in their own small way, were a part of the healing, friendship, and forgiveness that needed to take place after one of the worst wars in modern history. 

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Remembering Norman

It was on the day before Thanksgiving in 2008 that something happened that, a few years later, inspired my very first blog post...  Read about it here -

"For the Love of Norman."

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Thankful Thursday: Year Two

I realized the other day that I’ve been writing down and posting my genealogy stories for two years now.  It prompted me to recall my favorites from year two…

Some stories caused me to learn new things…

» In Ezra Alger, I learned more about the Civil War’s infamous Andersonville Prison, while doing research for a friend of my husband’s.

» Writing Typhoid Fever and Tuberculosis caused me to learn more about two diseases that carried away many of your ancestors and mine, even into the 1900s.

Some stories were about the Amish research I’ve done for friends and clients in Indiana…

» Jonas Stutzman, Amish Eccentric was about a very “colorful” character who was also a significant figure in the history of the Amish in the United States—“White Jonas,” the first Amish settler in Holmes County, Ohio.

» An Amish Tragedy told the story of Jacob Lambright, an ancestor of many present-day Northern Indiana Amish, who met a tragic end.

Some stories were about my own family...

» Otto & Elsie told the story of one of my aunts and how she came to be raised by relatives.

» Josephine Carriveau was about my favorite branch of my husband’s family—the Carriveaus.  The stories just keep on coming from that branch of the family!  Josephine was my husband’s great-aunt—his grandmother’s older sister.

» A Civil War Widow Applies for a Pension was about my husband’s Alwood great-great-grandparents, what I learned about them from his Civil War Pension file, and how I came to love again.

» Hazel’s Quilt told the story of a quilt that I have the privilege to own, handed down to me from my mother-in-law, who told me its story when I visited her recently at her nursing home.

Some stories were especially close to my own heart…

» The Telegram was one of my numerous stories about my father’s World War II experiences—this one about the injury that almost killed him and how his mother first found out about it.

» West View Farm was about a place very dear to me in childhood—my Grandpa and Grandma Erickson’s Illinois farm, and the shocking change I encountered the last time I visited it.

"Remember me in the family tree
My name, my days, my strife;
Then I'll ride upon the wings of time
And live an endless life."
—Linda Goetsch

Monday, November 10, 2014

Military Monday: The Fire

This photograph shows one of the papers from my father’s WWII military file.  I include it here not because of its great importance in the story of his military career—but rather, for the burn marks around the edges.  Anyone who has done (or tried to do) research on a WWI or WWII military ancestor may know where those burn marks came from.

My father, Robert Wallin, told me many stories about his time in WWII, and I have his letters home to tell me more.  Like countless aging baby boomers with fathers who fought in the war, I wish I had asked him so much more—and written it all down or recorded it.  So a few years back, I decided to order his military records from the National Archives.

My father was in the Army, so his records are found at the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Navy records are stored elsewhere.)  Unfortunately, the NPRC had a catastrophic fire on July 12, 1973.  The National Archives website says that 80% of the records were destroyed for Army personnel discharged between 1912 and 1960.  That covers World War One, World War Two, and the Korean War—what an extensive and  devastating loss!  (Many Air Force records were also destroyed.)  No duplicates, microfilm, or other backups were kept.  And since there were no indexes, there isn’t even a good listing of what was lost.

 I found out more on the Stars and Stripes website.  The fire started on the sixth floor of the building in the middle of the night; no cause was ever determined.  It burned out of control for 22 hours as 43 fire departments battled it.  It took 4½ days and millions of gallons of water before the fire department declared the fire extinguished.  The sixth floor was destroyed, and the records on the floors below were soaked with water.  The records of 18 million veterans were lost.

About 6.5 million partially burned, water-soaked personnel files were salvaged.  Over forty years later, preservation specialists are still working on restoring them.  It takes the equivalent of 30 full-time employees to respond to the requests of those, like me, who are looking for records from the damaged collection.  Of the 5,000 requests per day that the NPRC receives, they estimate that about 200-300 are for those damaged records.  Those requests go to the specialists at the Paper Treatment Lab, who call the burned records the “B-Files.” 

After the fire, the B-Files were taken to the vacuum-drying chamber at the nearby McDonnell-Douglas aircraft facilities.  The vacuum chamber, which was built to train Mercury and Gemini space program astronauts, was now put into service in taking 8 tons of water out of each 2,000 milk-crate-sized containers of wet documents which the chamber could handle per drying session.  The files were then indexed and stored, to be handled again only if a document request is received.

I was fortunate that my father’s military and medical records (which were extensive) survived the fire—although barely, as the photo shows.  Some had burn marks and some had water damage stains, but at least I received the file.  The records for my grandfather, Sture Wallin, who served in World War One, are entirely gone, so I was told in a letter from the NPRC.  To my knowledge, no one in the family recorded any details whatsoever of Grandpa Wallin’s service, and no papers have survived.  Gone forever.

The MissouriNet website says that, incredibly, the NPRC continued to use the old building until 2012!  The NPRC “now has a new state-of-the-art building with some serious ways to prevent a fire from destroying national records.”  Thank goodness for that.

NPRC building photo:  National Archives

Monday, November 3, 2014

Military Monday: A Dad and a Hero

This paper from my father’s military file tells the story of something he did in March 1945.  (I will tell the story of the burn marks on his records in another post.)

The paper reads as follows:

“First Lieutenant Robert M. Wallin, 0538229, 120th Infantry Regiment, United States Army, is awarded the Bronze Star for heroic achievement in action on 26 March 1945, in Germany.  Although enemy fire was so intense that it killed one man and wounded eight others, Lieutenant Wallin and his comrades left their sheltered positions and exposed themselves to enemy fire to evacuate three of the men to the rear where they received medical attention.  By his heroic action, Lieutenant Wallin aided in saving the lives of his comrades.
[Entered military service from Illinois.]
L.S. Hobbs, Major General – U.S. Army Commanding”

The amazing thing is this:  Dad had just spent five months in a military hospital recovering from serious injuries sustained on the front lines the previous October.  So it’s certainly not like he thought he was invincible…  And how could he?  He had seen more horror and death by this time than anyone should have to see—stories he told me late at night when I was growing up…  Stories of comrades dying in ways I can only hope their families never knew.  Dad’s very first day in combat, his closest friend in the unit was blown up and dismembered, and Dad had to gather the pieces and lay them with the man’s dog tags.

According to my father, stories like what happened the day he got the Bronze Star weren’t that rare.  What was rare was having a superior officer see or find out what happened, and then take the time to write it up.  Just from the few stories Dad told me late at night, I know of at least two other times where he was in this much danger.

One of them was a situation similar to this one.  Dad (a platoon leader) told me that one of his men was badly wounded during a battle.  Dad crawled across a field to the man, and realized right away that if he had run across the field standing up, he probably wouldn’t have lived to tell the story.  He had a struggle of conscience as to what to do…  The man had both a broken arm and a broken leg, so he would have to be carried back across the field, through enemy fire—and it looked like the man outweighed Dad by fifty pounds.

Dad asked the man, “Do you have a family?” and the man answered, “Yeah, a wife and three kids.”  Dad told me he remembered saying to himself something like, “Oh, crap!”—knowing what it was he thought he should do, but not wanting to do it.  But he hoisted the man onto his shoulders and staggered back across the field.  Both of them made it back alive.

In the case of the Bronze Star story, it was Dad and several comrades who evacuated three men.  We’ve all heard the motto of “no man left behind,” but it’s still incredible that young soldiers can summon up such courage in the face of such danger. 

If my father and his comrades hadn’t made it back to their “sheltered positions” alive that day, I wouldn’t be here today.  But because they did, three other men went home to quite possibly have children of their own as well—perhaps even someone who is reading this story today.