Military Heroes: Getting the Big Picture, by Juliana Smith

Uncle Jack, U.S. Navy, 1944As you receive this newsletter, people across America will be observing Memorial Day. There will be barbeques, camping trips, family get-togethers, or perhaps home improvement chores over a long holiday weekend. Sometimes, between the hot dogs and potato salad, it’s easy to lose sight of the meaning of the holiday.

This past week, Ancestry.com launched a new collection of more than 90 million military records, which are available free through the anniversary of D-Day, 6 June 2007. Among the new collections there are powerful reminders of what Memorial Day is really about.

World War II United News Newsreels, 1942-1946
My first stop in exploring the collections was the World War II United News Newsreels, 1942-1946. There were 267 newsreels produced by the U.S. Office of War Information (OWI) to promote patriotism and all of these films are now available on Ancestry.com. I spent the better part of the day on Wednesday watching some of them and was fascinated by the content.

Clearly aimed at bolstering the war effort, one film showed celebrities like James Cagney, Ronald Colman, Bing Crosby, Irene Dunne, Greer Garson, and Heddy Lamar promoting the sale of war bonds. A later clip in the same film saw other stars like Jimmy Stewart, Joe Louis, Jackie Coogan, and Tyrone Power enlisting for duty.  

Another film boosted morale by highlighting American planes that had been hit but were still flying, showing smiling servicemen proudly pointing to the gaps left by enemy fire. One bomber is shown landing safely without landing gear, and the test flight of the Mars, a 2 1/2 million dollar “flying boat” promises the ability to quickly transport troops to where they are needed.  

The efforts of women were praised, as Army nurses were shown receiving medals in the company of Eleanor Roosevelt in that same film. On the home front, other women were working in lumber mills and on Army proving grounds testing tanks and anti-aircraft guns.

One of the most moving films I saw was titled Germany is Beaten. From 1945, it was a review of the war, with scenes of French and British troops saying goodbye to loved ones. Through the years it showed various countries being overrun by the Nazis and the devastation they left. This collection comes with the warning that, “Some images in these newsreels contain sensitive material, including actual footage of war. Viewer discretion advised.” This film contained quite a few scenes of casualties.

The devastation of war was brought home with scenes of bombings in London and in other countries and ended with scenes of German devastation. Throughout the film, many of the faces are haunting—-the faces of loss, heartbreak, and hopelessness.

The films are browseable by year and keyword searchable with the option to specify a particular year. 

Well-known films in the collection include the following clips:

Stars and Stripes Newspaper, WWII Europe and North Africa Editions, 1942-1958
The next collection I explored was the Stars and Stripes Newspaper images. With roots in the Civil War, Stars and Stripes is a newspaper published for U.S. troops. Beginning as a one-page paper for Union troops, it reappeared in World War I and again at the start of World War II. The newspaper has remained in publication since then, with reporters close to the action covering the news for servicemen and women.

Like other newspapers that are part of the Ancestry Historical Newspaper Collection, Stars and Stripes has been OCRed and is searchable and browseable by date. News reports frequently mention servicemen and some contain interesting background information, such as the following excerpt from 17 May 1944:

AN EIGHTH FIGHTER BASE, May 16–Capt. Mike Gladych, Polish Air Force ace who three months ago joined this Thunderbolt group on detached service after 103 offensive sorties with an RAF Spitfire squadron, has added the Silver Star to decorations already received from the U.S., Poland, France, and England….

The modest Polish ace became a “ringer” in Eighth Fighter Command when he decided he “wasn’t getting much action lately” with his RAF squadron. A fugitive from a German prison camp who came to England from France in a Greek boat, Gladych learned that a spare P47 could be found for him at this base commanded by Col. Hubert Zemke.

Date searches can be especially insightful, particularly if you know a family member was involved in a major military engagement. For example, a search of the papers following D-Day found this eyewitness account of the landing: 

[Bert] Brandt, who was with the U.S. units, told me how some of the first assault troops which stormed the beaches went down under a withering German cross-fire, but more and more men climbed ashore over their bodies until a foothold was established. . . .

American assault boats went in at high tide over huge iron obstacles, some of which were mined. When the tide receded, many boats were stuck on top of the obstacles. A fair number of mines went off in the water and on the beaches. The whole thing was an unbelievable sight. Planes criss-crossed overhead constantly. You never could look up without seeing formation planes somewhere. Lightnings and Thunderbolts zoomed right over our heads all the time, blasting German defenses.

First-hand accounts like this one, and detailed reports of the fighting, are abundant. If you’re like me, you’ll end up spending a lot of time browsing through the pages of this historic journal. The heroic stories abound and it was neat to read the “GI-speak” of the day.

This collection was also a reminder of just how much we owe the brave men and women in the Armed Forces. Thanks to all of you out there who have served or lost loved ones, and the families who have sacrificed so much. To those who are or have loved ones overseas serving our country today, our thoughts and prayers are with you always.

Juliana

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Juliana Smith has been an editor of Ancestry.com newsletters for more than eight years and is author of The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book. She has written for “Ancestry” Magazine and wrote the Computers and Technology chapter in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy, rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e- mail at Juliana@Ancestry.com, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.

3 thoughts on “Military Heroes: Getting the Big Picture, by Juliana Smith

  1. To Ancestry:
    A wonderful collection to make available during this time!
    I salute the way you keep adding materials. Thank you-

  2. What part of the new information is free until June 6, 2007? Everytime, I try to access a new entry by Ancestry, I get the page that says I need to update. I am a member now. Ann Bowler

  3. Did you know Memorial Day began during the Civil War when both the North and the South set aside Memorial days. After the war was over, various communties began having Memorial Services for the war fallen.

    To read more about the Civil War, why not visit http://www.bitsofblueandgray.com It is a FREE site.

    Jayne

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