Monday, November 28, 2016

Military Monday: Finding Military Records at NARA

Editor's Note  this is the first of multiple posts about  re-creating my father's WWII military history beginning with my visit to the National Archives in College Park, Maryland in May 2016

Researching has been a lot more fun the last couple of years because I joined forces (pun intended) with my brother Dean, an Air Force guy.  We have some Army records related to our father’s World War II (WWII) service.  Dean knew the purpose of the records and deciphered the military lingo on them faster than me such as unit name and alpha/numeric abbreviations.  He was particularly interested our father’s unit history – the 417th Military Police Escort Guard Company stationed mostly in the European Theater. Dean’s internet search yielded scant results which meant that we needed to tap into repositories that held military records.

I knew that the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) was one key resource for WWII records.  Luckily, my husband and I were going to Washington, D.C. in May 2016 for a vacation so naturally we made time to go to NARA.

Pre-Visit Planning
I cannot over-emphasize the importance of reading the NARA D.C. website thoroughly.  Read it to learn whether the records you seek are at NARA D.C. or one of its regional offices, to find your Record Group(s) for your topic and read it to learn what to expect as a visitor.

I must admit I got lost in the sea of links on the NARA website in my search for WWII unit history records.  I did learn however, that military records were housed at Archives II in College Park, Maryland, about a 45-minute ride from Archives I (D.C.) via the free shuttle.  The records could only be viewed at Archives II, not loaned elsewhere.

Did NARA have any records related to my subject?  Fortunately, in the months leading up to our D.C. vacation, I met two NARA archivists who suggested I send an email to with my father’s name, the designation of his unit, the dates of service, and indicate my interest in doing onsite research.  I was told that the response should verify whether records existed and if so, the citations for record retrieval.  Following is my email inquiry:

Dear Archivist,
I'm interested in researching my father's unit records.  I will be visiting DC beginning May 24th and can come to the College Park office via the Archives I/II shuttle.  Following is his information:

Name: Robert Martin Hibsch
Unit: 417th Military Police Escort Company
Rank/occupation:  Pfc/Military Policeman
Date of Active Service Start:  8 Feb 1943
Date of Separation:  4 Feb 1946
Date of departure for Europe: 19 Jan 1944
Date of departure for US:  8 Jan 1946

Texas:  he also guarded Italian prisoners of war (POWs) held in Texas after he returned to the US in 1946.   I don’t have dates or a location though but would like to research these records also.

I would be most grateful if you could tell me what records are available and how to access them.

Thank you.

Eleven calendar days later a thorough response by email arrived.  Records existed – yeah!  I now had the Record Group numbers for the 417th Military Police Escort Guard Company and a referral for finding aids for the POW camp near Hereford, Texas. I printed the email and put it in my carry-on bag.

Lessons Learned –  contact NARA well in advance of your visit so the archivists have plenty of time to respond to your request.  Bring a printed copy of the response with you to show the onsite archivist and to make notes on.

Arrival at NARA D.C.
Photo by Denise Hibsch Richmond from pedicab ride
(Click on any image to enlarge)
We took a taxi from our hotel to NARA D.C.  Taxis can only drop passengers on one side of the building for the public tours entrance.  Researchers enter on the other side so we walked around the block.  We passed through security and went to the reception desk to ask about catching the shuttle to Archives II.  It turned out that we already walked past the shuttle stop and we didn’t need any badge or other identification to board.

Lesson Learned – check with NARA in advance about boarding the shuttle as the policies may change.  Had I thought to do so, we could have saved about a half hour.

Arrival at Archives II
We went through security…again.  Did I mention that the process rivals TSA?  But leave your shoes on.  Then we were directed to a registration office where we each completed forms, showed our picture ID, had our pictures taken and then received our official NARA ID badge to wear at any NARA location.

I also had to present the materials I wanted to take into the research room.  These consisted of my initial inquiry, the email response and the POW camp information. The receptionist stamped each piece of paper on the back.  I intentionally brought very little paper with me although I generally bring more hardcopy materials on research visits.  If other documents related to my father’s service were needed, I could access them from Dropbox on my phone.

Examples of my pull requests
About 45 minutes later (camera problems) we went to store our stuff in a locker. These were the items I couldn’t bring into the research room:  small wired notebook, pocket folder that my papers were in and my purse.  I was permitted to bring the loose, stamped papers, a pen/pencil, my phone and my seat cushion.

Lessons Learned – read the NARA website about planning a visit before visiting your NARA location of choice.  Arrive early.  Re-evaluate the paper you want to bring into the research room.  Paper-stamping takes time and you know you’ll be watching the clock for the pull-times!  Use the locker to retrieve other materials during the day.

Archives II Research Room
Badge, check.  Locker key, check. Papers for the research room, check.

But there was another checkpoint before getting on the elevator.  Before we could pass through the turnstile to get to the elevator, a security guard checked our badges and the papers for the official stamp on each page.  Then we got the go-ahead.

But there was another checkpoint when we entered the research room.  The receptionist repeated what the guard did at the turnstile. Then we got the go-ahead.

Now.  To the Consultation Room.

Archivist Eric greeted us on the Military Records side of the room.  We sat at a table where I briefly described my research goal and showed him my initial inquiry with my father’s service details and the responses.  We chatted for a bit – he said he was thrilled that the response was so detailed that he could immediately write a records pull request for the 11am pull.  (We were too late for the 10am pull.)  Then he looked at a couple binders on the bookshelves in the room, described their content and we concluded the information was worthy of review as was the POW information I brought.  He completed two more pull requests – for the 1pm and 2pm pulls. (One request per pull.)

Example of my pull request attached to the file box
Eric showed me where the records would be delivered and identified a table where we could sit and review the files.  Too bad I didn’t take a picture of the room.  The room was large, mostly filled with square tables literally marked for four workspaces.  No encroaching!  Microfilm readers and computers were at one end.  Happily, room noise was at library-level.

I claimed the first set of files and a staff member stronger than me pushed the cart to my table.  One box at a time, I retrieved the files with single sheets of papers, some handwritten, most typed.  I started scanning with my ScannerPro app on my smartphone.  This continued as each set of files became available.  I was only there for the day so no reading, just scanning.  Until I came to the roster for the 417th Military Police Escort Guard Company, 11 Jan 1944, page 2: Hibsch, Robert M. Sweet since finding my father’s name was not expected!

Yours truly holding the roster with my father's name

I scanned about 50 pages which are still being analyzed. My brother and I have learned more about the unit history and of course, have more questions.  We’ve created a timeline of our father’s service including the dates and locations mentioned in the files.  Key events during WWII will be added as they correspond to the unit’s history providing a greater perspective of his participation in the war.  

Lessons Learned – arrive early. Know the pull times and frequency rules which are followed. If you can return the next day or so, your pulled files can be held for three days, five on request. Bring a charger which I didn’t do.  Outlets are available at each workspace.  A public cafeteria is onsite with reasonable prices and extensive offerings.

Leaving Archives II
I finished scanning all files, returned them and thanked Eric for his assistance.  Before we left the research room, all the papers I brought in were re-inspected for the official stamp.  They were inserted into a bag that was locked.  We were then able to leave the research room.  Downstairs at the turnstile we waited in line with other researchers and employees leaving for the day.  Here, the security guard inspected everybody’s bags; he unlocked our bag, verified the stamped contents, gave them back to me and kept the bag.  No more checkpoints.  We unloaded the locker and headed for the waiting shuttle.

The last shuttle of the day.  Already full of NARA employees.  Whew, we got a seat!  The last seat was taken by someone running from the building.  The shuttle left at 5:05pm.

Lesson Learned – if you’re using the shuttle, beware, the last one fills fast with employees so be early.

This post was written rather humorously and admittedly we rolled our eyes as the security redundancies multiplied.  But NARA holds precious historic documents and more.  Security means that those treasures will be there for us and not leave the building in the hands of an unscrupulous person.  Security is a researcher’s friend and with planning, a negligible annoyance.

Oh, I also sent a thank you email to Eric and the archivist who responded to my initial inquiry.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Treasure Chest Thursday - Thanksgiving 1944 France

You just never know what treasures you'll find when looking through a box of photos.  I was looking for Halloween photos of all things when I came across a few WWII-related documents my father kept and I forgot I had. 

Shown here is a wonderful piece of history - a Thanksgiving menu in 1944 France.  The menu was typed on a regular piece of paper with what appeared to be hand-drawn artwork around the borders and a turkey in the center.  It's possible that the original paper only had a typed menu on it and someone decorated it, named and dated it.

Attached to the menu with "scotch" tape was the roster for the 417th Military Police Escort Guard Company.  My father's company.  His name appeared in the right-hand column - Robert M. Hibsch.

  • Is this menu authentic?
  • Why were these two documents attached to each other?  Did my father attach them?  Maybe to signify who ate this meal?
  • Was my father in France in November 1944?  Why would he keep the menu if he wasn't?
  • What is the significance of the dashes next to names on the roster?
I recently obtained some files about the history of the 417th Military Police Escort Guard Company from the National Archives in College Park, Maryland.  I think it's about time to move the review of those files higher on my to-do list! 

The menu looks pretty yummy except for the creamed corn.  No can do on that.    

Happy Thanksgiving 2016!

Thursday, November 10, 2016

My First Visit to the Family History Library

Last April, I went to Mecca for genealogists: the Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City, Utah.  The world’s largest genealogical library.  Drool.

My badge
My husband Scott and I were among the 38 members from the South Orange County California Genealogical Society (my home society), who came for a week of research and group activities.  This was the Society’s second annual trip to the FHL. It was loads of fun.

It’s all in the Prep
Prep is everything for any research trip no matter where you’re going or how much time you’ll spend there.  My group’s fearless leader, David Flint, held advance-planning meetings to help us get our research organized and start researching the minute we entered the library.  I was a believer.  My research plan was going to be a thing of beauty that would keep me busy all week.

Binder, tech bag, water,
microfilm, notebook
I decided to organize my materials in a 1” binder.  I learned from a previous research trip to a library that I didn’t like relying totally on digital or cloud-based materials – I want paper.  The binder turned out to be just the right size to hold what I needed and not tip over the airline luggage scale.

What surnames/families should I research?  After considering David’s suggestions, I decided to concentrate primarily on Eisenman (just starting research in Germany; Hübsch (just starting research in Prussia) and Hutson (brickwall for this “the disappearing dude” in U.S. records).  If time permitted, I’d look for Brown and Clark (both brickwalls in U.S. records).

Next, I updated the data in my Legacy Family Tree genealogy software program.  Missing, incomplete or weak data became a To-Do item in my software program.  Then I spent hours scouring the Catalog for more records and books to look for at the FHL. These too were added to the To-Do List.

My binder was full with these research materials:
  • Pedigree Charts, Family Group Sheets, and To-Do Lists by surname, all printed from Legacy Family Tree
  • Timeline for ancestors
  • German-English lists in German Gothic and Frakturs script:  common words, the alphabet and family names and locations.  Knowing what the alphabet looked like in German wasn’t enough. I also needed to know what the words birth, marriage and death looked like as well as names such as Andreas Eisenman and Johann Ernst Hübsch.
The Salt Lake Plaza Hotel, next door to the FHL, was home for the week.  I was literally 90 seconds from Mecca. What a commute!

Temple Square was abloom in April
We arrived a day before the rest of the group to sightsee.  The four hour City Grand Tour of Salt Lake City history picked up at the hotel.   It included the State Capital (gorgeous), Heritage Park, historic mansions and a no-host lunch at Lionsgate Pantry, part of Brigham Young’s house.  Period food was served – we had the delicious chicken pot pie.  Good tour and guide, highly rcommend it.  The temperature was 45ish and windy.  NOT my kind of weather.  Also, I was huffing and puffing because of the 4,300’ elevation of the city so walking to other nearby sites was crossed off the list.  Grr.  Happily though, we went to the library instead.  I downloaded a few books (two in German, uh-oh) to my USB drive. The books were downloadable only at the FHL so this task was at the top of my To-Do List.  I also bought a $2 copy card.  I was ready for the week of research.

Game On
Before I hit the aisles and aisles of books and microfilm, I needed to get oriented to the FHL.  Sure, general information was available on the website but the floor experts identified the extras, like the gems in a small bookcase along a wall or behind the information desk.  The stuff I needed.  David Flint arranged an orientation on each floor just for our group.  I attended each one.  My ancestors were waiting for me to find them so I needed to know what was where.

My ancestors are in this microfilm drawer
As hopeful as I was to have success from the get-go, all that I thought of at the end of day one at the FHL was the lesson my first genealogy teacher, Glenda Gardner Lloyd, taught me:  negative results are good too.  In other words, I didn’t find anything about my search target,  2nd great-grandfather Ernest Hübsch.  The German experts I consulted at the library said there was only one microfilm in which my family might be mentioned. Nope, not there.  (I’ve since learned that the Polish Archives may be a better source.)  For hours, I searched using a digital microfilm reader on my own after getting a few lessons from mission staff.  On the bright side, I didn’t get motion sick which was remarkable since I forgot to take the meds.

One of many stacks of books reviewed
The rest of the week was more fruitful.  Book heaven, aka the 3rd floor, had aisle after aisle of books even with the FHL’s huge, ongoing book digitization project.  The shelves had real books to hold, touch, turn the page, smell the dust...and happily download if it was already digitized!

In composing this post, I inventoried my findings at the library for the first time.  Mentally I knew but listing the information by category and surname revealed the comprehensiveness of my findings.  I'd say the research trip was quite successful.  Here's what I found:

  • Clark, Ogle, Swearingen and Van Pelt of Adams Co., Ohio: deaths, deeds, marriages
  • Eisenman of Fillmore Co., Minnesota and Germany: baptisms, plat book
  • Hübsch of Calumet Co., Wisconsin and Prussia: church records book, county/town histories, plat book and map, newspapers

The Happy Dance prize went to the baptismal records found for siblings Valentin and Catharina Eisenman born in Baden-Württemberg, Germany in 1762 and 1764 respectively.  This was by far the oldest record I have found.  Wow!  The discovery almost didn’t happen on this research trip.  When I discovered the information about my Eisenman ancestors might be on microfilm, I was about to give up and defer to a hired researcher.  You see, operating a regular microfilm reader on my own was physically impossible.  Not so fast said a mission staff member who was advising me on the microfilm.  He stood and scoured the room.  Within moments I was introduced to Sister Ludema. She cheerfully took on the task to help me.  We exchanged some information about ourselves and then we began.
Sister Ludema (r), Denise Hibsch Richmond
 and Valentin Eisenman baptism record 
Sister Ludema threaded the film into the reel spindle and rotated the knob to advance the film.  She didn’t know German and I knew “ein bisschen”. (Did I mention that the film was in German?)  Luckily, my research binder had examples of the Eisenman names in German script as well as the words for birth, marriage, death, etc.  We closely studied how the letters were formed.  As the search began, we happily breathed a sigh of relief because the quality of the microfilm was good and the handwriting clear, not heavily Gothic.  Search and search.  Rotate and rotate that knob.  And there it was.  Two baptismal records for the Eisenman children.  Wowzers!  One of the German experts was nearby and offered a basic translation of the record.  Next, Sister Ludema made a copy of the records.  I couldn’t thank her enough for spending nearly 3 hours with me. Shall we dance!

It's Not all about the Research
We didn't starve during the trip.  Many of us participated in the group meals.  We shared research successes.  We got to know each other better.  The camaraderie was high.  Besides the research, these were the other advantages for going with a group.  Let's visit.

  • Lunch with the group at the Church Office Building cafeteria (we had passes; good food, reasonably-priced, noisy seating area)
  • Evening banquet and speaker Luana Darby
  • Lunch at the Garden Restaurant on the 10th floor of the Joseph Smith building.  Beautiful view of the mountains.  Afterwards, we met some members of our group for a complimentary, sepia-tone photo at the local Family History Center.  We posed in front of a replica of New York Harbor as if we were newly-arrived immigrants.  My Hübsch ancestors arrived there in 1872 from Prussia.
  • Evening wine and cheese party with the group at the hotel
  • Dinner with the group at a restaurant/brewhouse
  • Farewell breakfast at the hotel
  • Many meals on our own at nearby eateries often happily joined by others 

I'm already reserved for the 2017 research trip.
New arrivals in New York Harbor