WASHINGTON -- Museums throughout the U.S. preserve historical items tied to the nation’s history. These relics carry a story of their use and often bring forward a level of significance to historians and family members, or at times to complete strangers.
For former Sailor David Royal Gervais and his family, one relic of importance was his grandfather’s uniform -- an item that was considered missing for several years.
In 1916, Royal Gervais joined the Army and served during World War I as an infantry officer with the 76th Field Artillery Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division. He continued to serve through World War II before retiring as a colonel after 34 years of service.
“My father used to tell me about how, when he was a child, my grandfather would take him out to see the horse-drawn artillery,” David said.
“I met him when I was around 10 years of age and was around him a couple of times” growing up, David added. “When we went to visit him, he was tickled to have us there.”
Finding a uniform
When Ann Siegel found an old uniform in her mother’s house after she died in 1986, she was quick to recognize that it had some form of historical significance.
Her mother had previously bought the house from Royal Gervais and his uniform was left there.
Thinking the uniform had something to do with her mother at the time, Siegel packed it up and buried it in storage until finding it once again this year, she said.
“The one thing you can say about COVID-19 -- it has got everyone pouring into the backs of closets and attics looking for things and clearing out stuff,” Siegel said.
Siegel handed off the uniform to her daughter, an archivist, who looked up the many medals and accolades adorned on it.
“She did all that in about an hour,” Siegel said. “She came back and told me, ‘It’s [from] World War I and World War II.”
The virus kept Siegel and her daughter from conducting additional research and seeking in-person help, she added.
“Everything was closed,” Siegel said. “There wasn’t anywhere I knew to go. And online, I didn’t know how to trace this down.”
In May, Siegel found a website to share information and a photo of the historical uniform. People jumped at the opportunity to help out, she said.
“Within 24 hours we solved the mystery,” Siegel said. “What had over a hundred people logged on, [ranging from] military historians, ancestry experts, real estate people.
“Everybody started putting in … a little bit of their expertise,” she added. “All of these people were strangers to me; it was the most amazing thing for everybody to get together.”
Siegel eventually got in contact with an Army historian who later tracked down the Gervais family.
“First off, I was completely surprised,” David said. “If you go back and think about that, [Royal] left the uniform around 1949. From 1949 until 1986, it was just hanging on a hook.”
From 1986 until this year, it sat in storage until Siegel decided to find out who it belonged to, he added. “The fact that they found me was one thing, but the amount of work that Ann and her historian friend did to track it down was astounding.”
When Ann found the Gervais family, she got in contact and set up a time for them to pick up the uniform from her in Virginia.
“I FaceTimed with Ann and her neighbors, and they all talked to me about my grandfather,” David said. “They had learned so much about us. These people went so far to learn about our family.
“I was impressed to say the least,” he added. “They went to such lengths, and there were quite a few of them that they really wanted to find out who this uniform belonged to. It was impressive, and I was so pleased with what they had done. I couldn’t thank them enough.”
For now, the uniform will stay with David Gervais’ daughter, who has become somewhat of the family historian and curator.
David’s grandfather never shared any stories about his time in the military, but he knew his father, who graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1944 and joined the Army Air Corps, which later became the Air Force, was inspired to follow in his footsteps. That dedication to service was later passed onto David when he opted to join the Navy in 1963.
“I remember in my late teen years, there were a lot of programs back then about World War II,” David said. “They served; it was a part of our life, so I decided that it was something I had to do when I grew up.”
David retired from service after 37 years in 2000, spending most of his career as a hospital administrator.
“I always felt proud of my grandfather, who served in both world wars,” David said, “and I’m grateful of all those people who came together to find us to return the uniform.”