I recently had the honor and privilege of talking about Grandpa’s Letters with Dr. Samantha Cutrara on her Imagining a New We video series. During the show we chatted about Veteran’s Day (or Remembrance Day in Canada), the advantages of using family letters in a history classroom, and the joys of writing.
In addition to discussing the letters, I also mentioned a few additional sources that I use to add context and detail to Grandpa’s Naval career. Unlike the letters, which are not only a treasure trove but a treasure in their own right, many people know that a parent, grandparent, or great-grandparent served in World War II, but they have few documents or heirlooms to reveal more. This is particularly true for servicemen who died or went missing in action, and for countless others whose letters, journals, or other artifacts were lost, destroyed, or discarded for one reason or another. Where would these people start their historical journey of learning more about a loved one in the service if that loved one left little evidence of their service behind?
Well, consider this a down payment on what I hope will become a separate chapter in my book. Here are explanations and links to (most) of the sources I mentioned in the video, along with some information on where to get them and how to use them. Note that while these are Navy sources, other branches of the service were similarly dedicated to ample and redundant record-keeping (my horse stealing book, in fact, relies heavily on Army sources).
Personnel records are the most fundamental source to acquire in your journey. Get these first. They contain essential documents for each service member, including enlistment paperwork and exams, orders, various commendations and citations, and discharge papers. Most if not all vital data points can be found here.
Right now these papers are hard to get. The National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis contains virtually all of these files, and under ordinary circumstances researchers have the option of either making arrangements with the NPRC directly and visiting the site in person to review requested documents, or they can order a digital scan of the file. However, due to COVID the facility shut down during the spring and summer, and is only now beginning a phased reopening process. There will likely be a substantial backlog of requests once it is fully reopen, so I would personally wait (and, incidentally, I will wait because I still have additional requests of my own) until the COVID crisis has passed to make an inquiry.
Here’s a screenshot of one of the pages from Grandpa’s file. Please note that while I have digitized the entire thing, I will not post it anywhere. This is because these files contain a lot of sensitive and personal data, up to and including physical examination reports. Also bear in mind that I am photo-scanning this manually. Since most of it is bound together I am holding it open with one hand (very gingerly, so as not to damage it), while photographing it with the other. It doesn’t produce publishable files, but it gets the job done (pro-tip: bring a tripod, plus extra batteries and a larger-than-you-need memory card).
One thing to note: the term of service for the requested person needs to have ended before 1957, or else federal privacy laws prohibit accessing the record without additional permissions and documentations.
For more information, check out their website: https://www.archives.gov/personnel-records-center
Personnel records are fantastic sources for filling out your loved one’s biography, but what about their ship (if they were in the Navy)? Ship records are fantastic for understanding the setting, as well as whatever actions in which your loved one was involved. When combined with personnel records, any existing oral or written reminiscences from the crew, and secondary sources, you can get an excellent idea of exactly what transpired on and around the ship.
Deck logs are probably the most data rich source of information about ships, their crews, and almost every other conceivable variable. You can track things like temperature and wind speed, the ship’s geographic location throughout the day, and even the amount of ice cream consumed aboard. For instance, check out this page from the Chew’s deck log on December 7th, 1941:
This page tells us a story: the Chew’s Sunday morning started out like any other, with the ship taking aboard ten gallons of milk and 4 1/2 gallons of ice cream. But then at 7:57am everything changed, and suddenly the crew found itself in the middle of a war. Deck logs contain narratives of all the major stuff happening on board, as well as much of the minutia. They also contain information about the weather, the location, and other details. If you want to picture what it felt like in Pearl Harbor immediately before the attack started, check out the following table in the Chew’s deck log:
For instance, the barometric pressure hovered just above 30 inches (Hg) for most of the morning . . . until 8am, that is, when it was broken by gunfire.
These records can be found at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. Learning how to request, access, use, and photograph takes a little bit of time, so if you go be ready to give yourself a few hours to learn the ropes and request the documents (and be careful not to schedule a plane trip immediately after working hours, like I did back in January), plus a few more hours to review and possibly photograph them for future use. If you cannot make the trip yourself, you can hire a freelance researcher to request and photograph the files for you. It will cost a little money, of course, but if you are only requesting a few things it is a lot cheaper to do this than to travel to Maryland for two or three nights. Also, because of COVID and the NARA closures these folks are hurting right now . . . they can use your business!
Here are NARA’s listings for researchers available for hire: https://www.archives.gov/research/hire-help
Like the deck logs, the war diaries can be found at the NARA facility in College Park, Maryland. Unlike the deck logs, war diaries are much shorter, more compact documents that communicate a brief day to day log of where a ship has been and what it did on any given day. They contain a lot less information overall, but they also contain just enough. If you just want information on where a ship was and what it was doing, ask for the war diaries. If you want as much information as possible, use the war diary for context and the deck log for everything else.
Here’s a page from the USS Mink’s war diary from October 1944. Notice how the ship relates a series of geographic coordinates for several days, and then finds itself in action on October 24th:
The Mink was part of a task force that set sail for the Philippines. Once it got there it would play a role in the largest naval battle in human history: the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
One good thing about the war diaries is that many, if not most of them are available online. In fact, the above-cited war diary for the Mink (10/1 – 10/31 1944) can be found here: https://catalog.archives.gov/id/78665385
By the way . . . you can search for anything else the National Archives might have by going to the NARA Advanced Search site: https://catalog.archives.gov/advancedsearch
It might take a while to figure out what you want and where it is located, but once you spend a little time noodling around with it you will find what you need. Just be patient: NARA has literally millions of records, so if it feels like you are looking for a needle in a haystack, it is because you are! But NARA also employs a lot of people whose jobs revolve around helping the public find what they need, so be sure to ask for help if you need it.
The last type of document I mentioned is the action report, which is an official report following any kind of naval engagement. Action reports flush out many of the details that are missing from war diaries, but are specific to the engagements themselves. They chronicle what guns were used, how much ammunition was expended, what they were targeting, etc. You could write action sequences based on these reports. Here is an excerpt from one from the Mink in January 1945, which related what occurred when a kamikaze attack targeted the Mink’s convoy while en route to Lingayen Gulf:
The action reports are physically long and thus difficult to present digitally, but this snapshot gives you a sense of how detailed they are. If you want to see the whole thing, you can see it online. Like the war diaries, many (though not all) action reports have been digitized by NARA and can be found on their website. Here’s the link to the one above: https://catalog.archives.gov/id/139885506
I was very lucky to inherit so many letters from my Grandpa. Not only did those letters survive intact and in great (i.e., readable) shape, but Grandpa was an intelligent commentator and a lucid writer. It’s rare to find a correspondence trove in which the letters appear with great frequency, regularity, over a long period of time, with readable writing, and with so many things to say. My Grandpa might not have realized it, but he had the soul of a historian.
That being said, World War II – and modern wars in general – are richly detailed affairs, with a lot of granular and unit-level reporting. Most veterans have detailed files, even if they are not yet publicly available, and for most of them you can get information on where and how they served, what they saw, and where they fit into the overall scheme of things. In other words, you don’t need a box full of letters to find a lot of this stuff out . . . just a bit of shoe leather and some resourceful online searching will get you there. Hopefully for those of you with WWII American Navy veterans in your family, the above resources will help you find more information.
And as I state in the interview, World War II is rapidly disappearing from living memory. Of the 16 million men and women who served in the war, only about 325,000 are still alive today. If you know one of them, please reach out to them and ask if they are willing to share their story with you. They might not, and that is OK, but if they do then all you need is a smart phone with a recording app. For more information on conducting oral history interviews, check out UCLA’s Center for Oral History page on the subject. I trained there while in grad school, and they know what they are doing.
A couple of other things: I’ve heard from family members of a few of Elmer’s shipmates on the Chew and the Mink. If someone you loved was on either of these ships during the war, please feel free to reach out to me on my Contact page! I would love to talk to you sometime and, if you’d like, interview you for my book project. Although my grandpa’s story is at the center of this narrative, I want to also use the opportunity to talk about the other men who served on these ships. Neither the Chew (a destroyer) nor the Mink (a Liberty Ship tanker) are frequently mentioned in the annals of World War II Naval history, yet the war would not have been won without their efforts and sacrifices, nor those of thousands of other ships that have not yet had movies made about them.
Also, thanks again to Dr. Samantha Cutrara for inviting me onto her show to talk about my project. Please check out her YouTube channel for more interviews with scholars, teachers, artists, and others across both Canada and the United States.
Finally, today is Veteran’s Day here in the United States and Remembrance Day in Canada. It is November 11th in both countries because 102 years ago, on November 11, 1918, the Allied and Central Powers agreed to an Armistice which ended World War I. In the United States, Woodrow Wilson proclaimed that November 11, 1919 would “be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations” every year on that date henceforth. So while it is entirely appropriate and highly encouraged to thank the millions of Americans today who have given their service to our country, do not forget that we share these burdens with Canada, the United Kingdom, France, and other allies over the past century and more whose own veterans have fought alongside Americans for the free peoples of the world.
And if you are in a giving mood and would like to more than just saying “thank you” to veterans on social media, consider giving some money to a charity that serves veterans and their families. There are many charities out there that do this, but my favorite is Give an Hour. It raises money for mental health counseling and therapy for veterans, as well as victims of disasters. Help make this vital care available to the people who need it while destigmatizing mental health care by making a gift today: https://giveanhour.org
OK . . . that’s all. Thanks for reading all the way to the end! I’m going to take a week or two off, then I will post a couple of stories about Grandpa’s time in the Philippines, including the story of how he met my great Uncle Danny . . . in Manila. I’m going to shoot for posting that one on Thanksgiving.
Stay safe and wear a mask!