A few weeks back, I introduced the launch of a new collection, WWII U.S. Prisoners of the Japanese, 1941–1945, by sharing the story of Gene Jacobsen. Maybe it’s the dramatic circumstances behind the capture of many of these POWs that makes for the dramatic stories surrounding this database. Stories like Gene’s—or Ari Self’s.
“Ari Self was my uncle. He was my father’s younger brother,” Nancy Kolstad explained recently. “During the Depression Ari lived with my parents for a couple of years when he was fourteen years old or so. Later on he was a frequent visitor at our house and as a result, a favorite uncle among his nieces and nephews. He was already the favorite brother to all his siblings.” This would have been shortly after he appeared with his family in Soledad City in the 1930 census.
Which was about a year before this picture was taken:
Nancy knew, too, that Ari had been captured by the Japanese, made the Bataan Death March, and died at Camp O’Donnell. That’s how Ari found his way onto the list of WWII Prisoners of the Japanese:
Nancy says, “I’m not exactly sure when my parents learned of Ari’s imprisonment. They, of course, knew that the Americans had surrendered there in the Philippines, but at that time they didn’t know whether he was dead or alive. I have a Christmas card my mother mailed to him December 17, 1941, and it is marked Return to Sender, Service Suspended. I also have a letter from the Red Cross dated February 5, 1942. In this letter, the Red Cross is responding to my mother’s request for information regarding Ari. My parents knew the Japanese had taken prisoners but didn’t know if Ari was among them. I suspect they had no information until they received word from the War Department that he had died.”
Nancy has been able to fill in some of the blanks since with additional records on Ancestry.com, including Ari’s enlistment information:
None of the records alone tell the rest of the story, though.
After the war, a man who had been with Ari on the Death March and at Camp O’Donnell came to visit Nancy’s father. The War Department said Ari had died from dysentery at Camp O’Donnell, which was how many men in the camps died. But the visitor explained that Ari hadn’t died from dysentery at all. He had been killed when he was caught stealing food, another fact of life for the starving men at Camp O’Donnell.
“My aunt told me that Ari was the first Salinas Valley boy to give his life for his country in WWII,” Nancy says. “I don’t know if there is any way to determine if this is true or not. It certainly could be since he died within six months of the start of the war.”
But that’s the family historian’s job: Digging up the hard truth, filling in the gaps between the records, then telling the world the rest of the story. So if you haven’t already, check out the WWII U.S. Prisoners of the Japanese collection yourself and see if you can locate one of your military ancestors and a story that’s just waiting to be told.