By Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Lisa Elzey, Ancestry.com Family Historian
“My uncle, Walter Rybicki, was a US Marine during World War II who died on 6 Feb 1944. How do I find out the details of how and where he died? Where can I obtain the records?“ – Norm
Growing up in the late fifties and sixties, World War II seemed so long ago, the stuff of family legend at the dinner table (stories about relatives and neighbors who had served and returned, and relatives and neighbors who had served and did not return), or the subject of thrilling black and white feature films at the local cinema or drive-in. Our personal favorites included “From Here to Eternity” (1953), “The Bridge Over the River Kwai” (1957), “The Longest Day” (1962), and of course the JFK bio pic, “PT 109” (1963). But without a doubt the depiction that made the war the stuff of popular American culture was the weekly television series, “Combat,” which ran every week on primetime from 1962 to 1967, and starred the irrepressible Vic Morrow, whose image comes to mind whenever those of us in our sixties think of a prototypical World War II combat soldier.
Similarly, when we both encountered World War II Army enlistment photos of our own relatives—Henry Louis Gates, Sr. and Delbert Clair—we were surprised how much a military uniform can transform a person’s bearing. These photos transcended the nostalgia and legend of the World War II soldier and became a tangible reality of those spared and of those lost.
Over 400,000 men and women of the “Greatest Generation” sacrificed their lives in service to and protection of our country. Many of their children and grandchildren also recall their first encounter, in family scrapbooks or framed photos on the living room mantle, with a dapper young soldier in his new uniform or a group victory snapshot taken while serving in Europe or the South Pacific.
Some soldiers recounted their experiences in the War through vivid stories. But others never found the words to express to their friends or families (even their wives) the depth of the trauma and horrors they witnessed in combat. Sometimes even a person’s closest family members only learned about their father or grandfather’s war experiences second-hand, from letters or phone calls or stories recounted by fellow soldiers to next-of-kin, after their relative had passed. So if you don’t know a lot about the military experience of your father or grandfather, don’t feel bad: you are not alone.
So, where do you start piecing together your ancestor’s experiences in World War II? Military service records can be a remarkably rich source of information, full of intricate insights and surprising details about the life of your own veteran relative. As with any search for your ancestors, begin your research with what you already know, combined with any clues from letters, journals, photographs, newspaper clippings, and especially family stories. (Family stories can often be replete with details that don’t pan out, because of the nature of oral tradition. Remember the game of “Telephone?” Facts get distorted the more mouths there are repeating them, especially over a long period of time. Still, we think that, often, “where there is smoke, there is fire,” and often these stories—legends or myths by the time they get written down—do contain a kernel of truth, something for you to go on as you pursue the lost facts about an ancestor’s life.)
Because you already know the death date of your uncle, Walter Rybicki, a great place to start would be on Ancestry.com to find his Headstone Application for Military Veterans. From this record, we found some critical information about Walter’s service in the Marines, including his regiment, his enlistment date, and his serial number.
The information provided on this card was enough for us to make a further inquiry about his service to the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, Missouri, a division of the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
It might surprise you to know that millions of military personnel, health, and medical records of discharged and deceased veterans are housed at the NPRC from World War I to the present day. Records become archival and open to the public 62 years after the day of the service member’s separation from the military. Records before the 62-year mark are only accessible by the actual military veteran or to his or her next-of-kin.
After filing a request online at their website, we received Walter Rybicki’s compiled service record. Obtaining a record such as this can be difficult, because of the loss of millions of records destroyed in a 1973 fire at the NPRC. Fire and floods are the twin enemies of ancestry tracing. That fire left only about 20% of the Army and Air Force personnel files intact. Fortunately for you, Walter served in the Marines, so his complete archived record was still available.
In the compiled service record, we found a remarkable assortment of documents that reveal not only how Walter died in 1944, but also how Walter lived as a United States Marine during the War.
Some notable items include his Professional and Conduct record, confidential letters of recommendation from those who knew Walter well from his hometown in Michigan, and a Presidential Unit Citation for “outstanding gallantry and determination.”
One letter of recommendation described Walter as a “respected citizen, a man of many good qualities, honest and capable.” When the form asked the writer to supply any other pertinent data, he explained that Walter was the “sole supporter” of a mother and two sisters, a “natural hard worker, cooperative, sociable and of a family of good reputation.” Your Uncle Walter lived his life the same way he served his country—with dignity and integrity.
What did we learn about the circumstances under which your uncle died in the War? We found a number of documents pertaining to this tragic event in the NPRC file. In a letter addressed to Walter’s mother, Michalina, we found the answer to your question of how and where Walter died. It reads as follows:
“…While on a flight between the Russell Islands and Guadalcanal, British Solomon Islands, on February 6, 1944, the plane on which your son was serving accidentally crashed on Talina Island…approximately two and one-half miles from Renard Field, Banika Island.”
The plane had stalled on takeoff and then crashed. Walter died from multiple injuries; in fact, all of the other 21 men on that DC-3 aircraft died as well. Walter’s remains were initially buried on Banika Island, in the Solomon Islands, which, according to Pacificwrecks.com, was a quite dangerous and highly secret military site used for the storage of various sorts of munitions, including Mustard Gas. After the war, Walter’s remains were relocated to his final resting place at Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Detroit, Michigan
Walter’s mother was later given his military service medals including the Presidential Unit Citation with ribbon bar and one bronze star awarded to the First Marine Division for service in action in Guadalcanal. Walter was also awarded the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal and the Victory Medal for his service during World War II.
We thought you might like to see your uncle’s military ID photo, taken only one week after his enlistment in 1942.
Photographs such as these contain thousands and thousands of fascinating stories, reminding us that each image we preserve of an ancestor has a small but important piece of American history to tell. We are glad to have helped you discover more about your uncle’s life story and service.
Ancestry experts, along with Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. will be answering your questions in a new Huffington Post column which we will republished on our Ancestry blog. For a chance to have your family research question answered, submit your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.