World War II was one of the most momentous events in global history. What do photos from that time reveal about life for troops and civilians?
Here’s a unique collection of World War II images and the stories behind them, from historic collections and Ancestry® customers.
Ancestry customer and author Michelle Cahill never knew her two uncles, Army Air Corps Bombardier Lt. Tom Cahill and Radio Operator Tech. Sgt. Jack Cahill. They were shot down on bombing missions in Europe a few weeks apart during World War II.
But going through family keepsakes at her maternal grandmother’s house one day in 2012, she found over 500 pages of letters those uncles had sent their mother, Michelle’s grandmother, during the war.
After reading the letters, filled with stories including a first solo flight and taking the squadron pet dog Jocko on missions to Italy, Michelle was moved. She wrote, “I fell deeply and now I cherish the boys I never knew.”
The United Service Organizations inc. (USO), was founded during World War II as a “home away from home” for GIs, providing a place for service members to relax and socialize.
According to the organization, there were about 3,000 USO clubs around the world during World War II.
The USO gained fame relatively quickly for its morale-boosting live performances, including actors, comedians, and musicians, on military bases in the U.S and abroad.
This photo, from Ancestry customer Victor G. Solimine’s shows his father (center) playing violin at the Del Valle Army Air Base. It was new at the time, activated in September of 1942, when the U.S. Army leased 3,000 acres from the city of Austin.
So much has changed over the years. In March of 1943, just a year after Victor’s father enlisted, the name of the base was changed to Bergstrom Army Air Field, becoming Bergstrom Air Force Base in 1948. And in 1993, the base closed.
Today the area around where the troops in this photo were being entertained is the site of the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.
Harriet Ida Pickens and Frances Elizabeth Wills were commissioned naval officers in the U.S. Navy’s female reserve program. They were officially nicknamed WAVES, short for Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service.
Though the program was signed into law in 1942, it wasn’t until 1944 that Black women were able to join—a culmination of factors, including tireless advocacy from individuals, activists, and African American right organizations.
Frances Wills was a social worker with several years’ professional experience, including working in the employment department of the YMCA. Her role as a Naval Reserve officer was to be responsible for selection and job training for enlisted WAVES
Harriet Pickens was a public health worker and daughter of William Pickens, a prominent member of the NAACP. Her role as a Navy Reserve officer was to organize and administer physical training to enlisted WAVES.
Previously, Pickens had served for four years as the supervisor of a Works Progress Administration (WPA) recreation program for the Juvenile Aid Bureau of the New York City Police Department. And she’d also been executive secretary in the Harlem Tuberculosis and Health Committee.
Upon being sworn into the Navy on November 13, 1944, the women immediately joined other (white) officer candidates for training on the Smith College campus. After completing their five-week training, Wills and Pickens earned their commissions as the Navy’s first female African American officers, on December 26, 1944.
Many Europeans over the years expressed gratitude they felt to American GIs for their part in World War II in that theater. And it was not uncommon to hear first-person accounts of friendliness from American soldiers to local children, for instance sharing candy with them.
One Ancestry customer, Philippe Kodeck, shared photos of himself in Belgium, taken toward the end of the war, with an American soldier named Deran Edward Altoonian. He was a a sergeant in the 215th Signal Depot Co., and he was from Cambridge, Massachusetts.
They took a couple of photos together, including the one above, and Edward gave Philippe a signed photo in 1945, addressed “to my Buddy Philippe.”
Philippe expressed that sense of connection and gratitude beautifully, writing (in both English and French), “Always keep a thought for the many G.Is., landed in Europe, which had to drink the cup of the war to the dregs.”
In French, “Gardons toujours une pensée émue pour les nombreux G.I., débarqués en Europe, qui ont dû boire le calice de la guerre jusqu’à la lie.”
Pictured here is one Ancestry customer’s father, Lt George H. Kenney Jr., the navigator on a B-29 called the “Old Battler,” along with his crew.
“Old Battler” was a Boeing B-29 Superfortress—one of the largest aircraft used in combat during World War II. According to Lt Kenney’s son Mark, “‘Old Battler’ was the 50th B-29 built and one of the last with the olive drab green coloring.”
B-29 aircraft often had 11 crew members, including the following: Pilot, Co-pilot, Bombardier, Flight Engineer, Navigator, Radio Operator, Radar Observer, Right Gunner, Left Gunner, Central Fire Control, and Tail Gunner.
On its last mission, the B-29 was forced to land in China, due to damage from opposing military forces during its last combat mission. It was later recovered and returned to the United States, where it was used as a trainer.
Members of the Women Airforce Service Pilots organization flew over 60 million miles during WWII, transporting every type of military aircraft, including the B-29.
It was a highly competitive program. Of the more than 25,000 women who applied, only 1,830 were accepted. Recruits had to complete the same training courses as male pilots in the Army Air Corps. Days on the airfield were 12 hours long, with half the day spent actually flying and the other half spent learning things like Morse code, physics, military law, navigation, aircraft mechanics, and more.
In all, just over 1,000 recruits of the around 1,800 women accepted completed the training. By the time they graduated, they’d logged 560 hours of ground school and 210 hours of flight training.
Once trained, they were stationed at 122 air bases across the country. They largely ferried planes from factories to airbases, but they also tested newly overhauled aircraft and towed targets for gunners in the air and on the ground to take part in practice exercises for shooting down planes.
The program ended in 1944, and the surviving members, including Kathleen Hilbrandt who is pictured above, were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President Obama in 2009.
During World War II, between 1940 and 1945, many women joined the U.S. workforce. By 1945, nearly one in four married women in America worked outside the home.
Among those women was Elizabeth Marie “Lillian” Frick, grandmother to Ancestry customer Diane Layhew. Lilly, as she was often called, worked as an “inspectress” of 240mm shell cases at the American Car and Foundry Company in Buffalo, NY.
Lilly was selected the company’s “Mother of the Year” for her role at the company and as the mother of two sons serving in the war. She participated in a CBS broadcast titled “Weapons for Victory” in New York City, in 1945.
Among other things, she talked about her sons, Harold and James, one in the Marines and another “a gunner on a Liberty ship, somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean.” She represented one of the many brave mothers who had more than one son off at war.
The U.S. was active in the European Theater of World War II from 1942 to 1945. That meant that there were troops who spent the holidays fighting in Europe.
One of these was 19-year-old Henry Manarski, of the 127th AAA Gun Battalion of the 9th Army. He spent Christmas Eve 1944 in Maastricht, Netherlands, during the Battle of the Bulge. Though the Allies ultimately claimed victory,the Americans suffered the highest number of casualties of any operation during the war (over 100,000 casualties).
According to Henry’s son, Ancestry customer Mark Manarski, Henry kept a small number of photographs from his service in World War II. One photo in particular stood out.
“It was taken inside a cave near Maastricht, Netherlands, on Christmas Eve 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge. It seems the local townspeople of Maastricht, which was recently liberated by Allied forces, wanted to arrange for a Christmas Eve Mass for all the soldiers camped near Maastricht.
“…they decided it was too dangerous to have the mass at a church, so they arranged for the mass to be held deep inside a cave (Schark Cave) near the town.
After the mass, many soldiers decided to sign their names on a cave wall, using some black chalk-type rock found in the cave. It so happened that someone snapped a photo just as Henry was knelt down signing his name.”
Years later, Henry’s son and grandson were able to visit the cave, which “was quietly cared for and memorialized over the decades by the townspeople of Maastricht, who to this day speak of the appreciation they have for the American and Allied forces who saved their ancestors from Nazi oppression.”
Amazingly, “to this day [it] still contains most of the signatures of those brave soldiers from that cold winter night in 1944. Henry’s signature is still visible.”
During World War II, the U.S. military recruited Native Americans to use their tribal languages to send secret messages over telephones and radios.
About 540 Navajos joined the U.S. Marine Corps, in particular, during World War II. And of those, up to 420 trained as “code talkers.” Most famous were perhaps the Navajos, who served in the Pacific Theater. `
Like the Navajo cousins in this photo, most code talkers were assigned to military units in pairs. In the midst of battle, one “code talker” would operate the portable radio, and the second “code talker” would send messages and translate received messages into English.
Because the Navajo language is unwritten, extremely complex, and is spoken on almost exclusively on Navajo lands in the American Southwest, it proved to be unbreakable by enemy forces.
As the code remained unbroken, it was deemed valuable for future wars by the U.S.military, who kept the program classified until 1968. Code talkers had to keep their work secret from even their own family members.
Recognition for their contributions, however, came slowly. It wasn’t until decades later that code talkers were awarded congressional medals.
In this photo, shared by Ancestry member Judy Smuda, Verne G. Cummings, of the 34th Infantry Division, Company I, 135th Infantry Regiment, sits proudly outside the bunker he made during his time serving in World War II.
As part of the infantry, Verne was among the ground troops who engaged with the opposing side at close range. It is a very physically and psyhologically demanding role. Verne’s infantry division, the 34th, was called the “Red Bull” division. Their motto was, “Attack! Attack! Attack!”
The division was part of the National Guard. It was the first American division sent over to Europe during World War II, where its members fought with great distinction in the Liberation of Italy (also known as the Italian campaign, which lasted from July of 1943 to May of 1945).
As shared by Judy, “Verne was wounded on Mt. Cairo, behind the City of Cassino. This was probably during the Naples-Foggia campaign, Verne thinks…Verne saw a guy behind a big bush starting to fire at him with a machine gun. He hit the ground but was hit in the back of his left knee and a bullet fragment also ricocheted off a rock and hit him in the cheek below his eye.
“Verne crawled back a ways and saw someone. Verne told him he needed an “aid man.” The aid man bandaged his knee and… said that the wound behind his knee was pretty bad and that he should go to the hospital. Verne could see the aid station at the bottom of the mountain they just climbed. He told the aid man that he’d walk back down the mountain to save a stretcher for someone who needed it more than him.”
After spending about six weeks in a hospital, from which Verne saw Mt. Vesuvius erupt in March of 1944, Verne rejoined his division at Anzio Beachhead. There, he saw more intense action, shooting mortars, hiding in trenches and foxholes, once riding on the back of a tank.
Over the course of his service, “Verne got sent back to the hospital at least 3 other times. Once was for trench foot, once for malaria and another time for yellow jaundice when Verne’s skin and eyes turned yellow. He had to eat steak every meal.”
His story continued, “After Anzio, the Germans pulled back above Bologna. This was the first time of the war Verne wasn’t walking. For about a ½ day, they were in transport trucks about a mile long and went through the town of Bologna. Verne said they liberated the town and people were all out in the streets, throwing them wine bottles, flowers, cookies, and crackers, and saying ‘Americano, Bravo.’ They were happy the Americans liberated them and happy about Americans being there and having so much equipment and men. Verne said ‘I’ll never forget it.'”
Verne returned to the U.S., on the Italian ship Monticello, in 1945. He “received a Purple Heart for his injury.”
The 442nd Regimental Combat Team (RCT) was organized in March of 1943, as a segregated Japanese American army combat unit during World War II. They fought primarily in the European Theater, in Italy, France, and Germany.
Despite being subjected to prejudice and confinement, as noted by Ancestry, “From the beginning of the war, some Japanese Americans on the mainland had pushed to prove their loyalty on the battlefield, and the impressive exploits of the 100th Battalion [the first segregated Japanese American unit] inspired the military to form a larger segregated Japanese American combat team in March of 1943.
“More than 2,500 enthusiastic Japanese Hawaiians and 1,500 volunteers from the mainland internment camps came together to form the 442nd Regimental Combat Group.”
The motto of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team was the pidgin phrase, “Go for Broke.” And they became renowned for their bravery.
The 100th Battalion in particular earned the nickname of “Purple Heart Battalion,” after sustaining high casualty rates in Monte Cassino and Anzio, in Italy. But the entire 442nd RCT has been widely acknowledged as the most decorated combat team of its size during World War II.
They famously rescued the lost Texas Battalion, when they became separated from their fellow American troops in the forested Vosges Mountains of France.
Ancestry customer Shannon Callahan shared a photo and story of her grandparents, Robert Collins Brown and Barbara Hewison.
Robert “was born on Valentine’s Day in 1920, on a humble farm in Royal Oak, Michigan. When he was 22, he proposed to a sweet local girl named Barbara Hewison. For the next four months, he worked at a car factory in Detroit to prepare for their lives together, and to wait for her to finish high school before they could get married. Plans changed when he was drafted by the Army for World War II in March of 1942. It would be almost 4 years until he saw his fiancé again.”
The years did not dim their love. “While she waited those 4 years, she taught in a one-room schoolhouse. She worked at factories that helped the war effort, and she wrote letters to him. He carried those letters for all of those years…He told me once, that every time he would get a letter from her, he would feel the envelope carefully before he opened it. He hoped that she hadn’t sent the ring back to him.”
Robert and Barbara were married on May 17, 1946 and had four children, and 13 grandchildren, including Shannon.
“He was my first best buddy, and one of my favorite humans ever. I have my own letters from him, and I cherish them. I asked him to tell me WWII stories all the time, but I wish I had asked for more.”
What Are the Stories in Your Family?
What are your family’s stories from the World War II era? What details can you uncover about ancestors who may have fought or those back home they sought to protect?
If you enter the name of a grandparent here, Ancestry® can search for your World War II ancestors and give you personal insights into their experience.
Customer stories were voluntarily submitted by actual Ancestry® customers. Customers were not compensated for their stories. Ancestry does not endorse these stories and has not verified them for historical or factual accuracy.
References for Historical Facts
“13 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About the USO During World War II.” United Service Organizations (USO), January 30, 2016. https://www.uso.org/stories/111-13-things-you-probably-did-not-know-about-the-uso-during-world-war-ii.
“34th Infantry Division (United States).” Wikipedia, April 18, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/34th_Infantry_Division_(United_States)#World_War_II.
“442nd Infantry Regiment (United States).” Wikipedia, May 12, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/442nd_Infantry_Regiment_(United_States).
“American Indian Code Talkers.” The National WWII Museum. Accessed May 25, 2021. https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/american-indian-code-talkers.
“Austin–Bergstrom International Airport.” Wikipedia, May 25, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Austin%E2%80%93Bergstrom_International_Airport.
“Battle of the Bulge.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Accessed May 25, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/event/Battle-of-the-Bulge.
“Battle of the Bulge.” Wikipedia, May 17, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_the_Bulge.
“Bergstrom Air Force Base.” Wikipedia, May 14, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bergstrom_Air_Force_Base.
“Boeing B-29 Superfortress.” Wikipedia, May 21, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boeing_B-29_Superfortress.
“Boeing B-29A Old Battler.” Aviation Models. Accessed May 25, 2021. https://www.aviation-models.com/boeing-b-29a-old-battler.html.
Brown, Millicent Allison. “Pickens, William.” South Carolina Encyclopedia, October 24, 2016. https://www.scencyclopedia.org/sce/entries/pickens-william/.
“Code Talker.” Wikipedia, May 24, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Code_talker.
“European Theater of Operations, United States Army.” Wikipedia, May 24, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_Theater_of_Operations,_United_States_Army.
Gohn, Sandi. “USO Camp Shows, D-Day and Entertaining Troops on the European Front Lines in WWII.” United Service Organizations (USO), June 5, 2019. https://www.uso.org/stories/2368-uso-camp-shows-d-day-and-entertaining-troops-on-the-european-front-lines-in-wwii.
“Going For Broke Part Two: The 442nd Regimental Combat Team.” The National WWII Museum, September 24, 2020. https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/442nd-regimental-combat-team.
History.com Editors. “American Women in World War II.” History.com, March 5, 2010. https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/american-women-in-world-war-ii-1.
“Infantry.” Today’s Military. Accessed May 25, 2021. https://www.todaysmilitary.com/careers-benefits/careers/infantry.
“The Integration of the WAVES and the Navy’s First Female African-American Officers.” Naval History and Heritage Command, December 17, 2020. https://www.history.navy.mil/browse-by-topic/diversity/women-in-the-navy/first-african-american-female-officers.html#18.
“Italian Campaign (World War II).” Wikipedia, May 15, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italian_campaign_(World_War_II).
Miyasaki, Joel. “The 100th Infantry Battalion: A Proud Fighting Force.” Ancestry®, June 24, 2020. https://www.ancestry.com/cs/military/100th-infantry-battalion.
“Navajo Code Talkers: World War II Fact Sheet.” Naval History and Heritage Command, April 16, 2020. https://www.history.navy.mil/content/history/nhhc/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/n/code-talkers.html.
“Nisei at War in Europe with the 100th and 442nd.” Nisei Veterans Legacy. Accessed May 25, 2021. https://www.nvlchawaii.org/nisei-war-europe-100th-and-442nd.
Pratt, Sarah E. “Benchmarks: March 17, 1944: The Most Recent Eruption of Mount Vesuvius.” EARTH, March 15, 2016. https://www.earthmagazine.org/article/benchmarks-march-17-1944-most-recent-eruption-mount-vesuvius/.
“Remembering the First Black Women Naval Officers.” The Sextant |, October 17, 2014. https://usnhistory.navylive.dodlive.mil/2014/10/17/remembering-the-first-black-woman-naval-officers/.
Stamberg, Susan. “Female WWII Pilots: The Original Fly Girls.” NPR, March 9, 2010. https://www.npr.org/2010/03/09/123773525/female-wwii-pilots-the-original-fly-girls.
“United Service Organizations.” Wikipedia, April 22, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Service_Organizations.
“Women Airforce Service Pilots.” Wikipedia, May 19, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_Airforce_Service_Pilots.