Recently, my aunt gave me a USB drive with more than 1,000 files on it. She had scanned the letters, postcards, V-mail and photos that my grandfather and his brother sent home to their parents during World War II. I expected to find some interesting things, especially since my grandfather never wanted to talk about his involvement in the war.
Being a photo organizer and a librarian, I immediately set to work on tagging these files and getting them in order. Fortunately, about half the items were dated, which was a great start. My grandfather also put his location on many of the letters and photos – though the censors blocked a few of them out!
Before he left for Europe, my grandfather was at a couple of Army camps in the United States. The wonders of Wikipedia allowed me to learn more about those camps and put notes on my files. It also helped me with approximate dates because one of the camps was the staging area for men getting on ships out of the New York Port.
By adding metadata (information about each item) to the letters and photos, I was able to understand the path my grandfather took. From his “Order to Report” in January 1943 to the “Separation Qualification” in May 1946, I watched a young man serve his country while pining for home. I now understand how much time he spent in France and Austria and what the ship that brought him home looked like.
I was fascinated by the notes on the postcards pointing out things he saw and places he lived. Seeing him use the nickname “Doc” (he was a medic in the war but not at all trained in medicine otherwise) was a complete surprise. He asked his family many questions about what was happening on the homefront and rarely ventured into anything ugly he was seeing. And, as expected of my artistic grandfather, there were many drawings making light of the situation he was in.
You can read all the textbooks and nonfiction tomes in the world, but reading about daily living handwritten by a soldier in the war makes it very real. When that soldier is a family member you are even more connected. I am so very fortunate to have a record as comprehensive as I do of my grandfather’s war years. Seeing him posed on skis on a mountain in Austria or to have him explaining which window of the house was his in the picture he took with his camera almost puts me there with him.
What documents do you have in your collection that should be digitized and protected to help tell your family history? Wouldn’t it be great if you could do it while you can still ask family members for more details? Get your family stories recorded and preserved before it’s too late.