I admit it, earlier in my life I had very little appreciation for history. But over time I realized that an understanding of history provides valuable insight into why things are the way they are, and can help provide suggestions for addressing issues today.
When I joined the National Archives, I used work that I had been doing to trace my family history to help me better understand the processes that were in place for archivists and researchers to find records. I used a few facts that I had about my dad’s military experience to launch into some amateur research at the Archives.
I had a picture from one of his albums that showed that he was in the Navy in WWII, and based on the annotations on the picture I assumed he was on the Memphis.
As it turns out, he wasn’t on the Memphis, which was a WWII ship. Instead he was in Memphis for training.
Without being terribly deterred by this misstep, my quest for information continued. I completed an SF-180 to gain access to his military records, and was fortunate enough to travel to the Archive’s St. Louis facility earlier this month to see the Archive’s National Personnel Records Center, which is where most of our military records are housed. I was able to catch up with my request for access to dad’s records and his Navy file was located for me to review.
The record was awesome. I had expected to see the typical record entries – his enrollment date, discharge date, etc. What I found were these things, plus some very surprising items that helped me resolve some of the mysteries in my dad’s past.
Dad joined the Navy in the height of WWII and was discharged at the end of 1945. One of the unexpected treasures in the record file was a film negative containing the image taken of dad the day he joined the Navy.
The big surprise came when I found a letter from my grandmother, written to the Navy, requesting an early discharge for my dad. The request accompanied other documents that supported her request which was based on her inability to maintain the household given my grandfather’s failing health. Dad was needed back home to support his family.
Through a number of letters supporting the request, dad was honorably discharged from the Navy on December 29th, 1945 and returned home to re-assume his position as head of the household. He was 24 years old.
I now understand more of the background of my dad’s life. His role as the head of his household was never discussed, nor was the situation leading to his departure from the Navy. The history did help me understand what drew him to an eventual career in the aircraft industry. After his dad passed away, he left the Virginia area and moved to Cincinnati, Ohio to be a part of the growing jet engine industry. His Navy training in aircraft maintenance certainly must have been the seed that inspired him to seek a job working on jet engines. He worked for the General Electric Aircraft Engine group for 32 years, retiring as a field quality engineer, after starting as a production worker.
Records provide invaluable insight into our past. Making these records permanently and easily accessible is incredibly important, not only to researchers, but everyone. Someday, everyone will want to explore the past to finds some clues that will undoubtedly reveals things that will be a surprise.