The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery is one of the most stirring of symbols of the price of American freedom.
Built as a final resting place for an unidentified Soldier who fell on the battlefield in World War I, the tomb has a permanent military honor guard on duty at all hours of the day and night, all year ‘round, no matter how inclement the weather. Their stoic presence is a reminder of America’s unceasing devotion to all who have served honorably in uniform to defend its liberty and ideals.
The thought of forgetting one who gave their last full measure of devotion to this country is unconscionable to most of us. Yet how many lifelong civilians—which, since the end of conscription in 1973, describes the vast majority of Americans-- have loved ones who served honorably in the military, but whom we know little or nothing about their experiences in uniform?
In my extended family, I have more than I can count on the fingers and thumbs of both hands. Yet recently my thoughts in this area focus mainly on my maternal grandfather.
When the United States defeated Imperial Japan in August 1945, numbering among the men in the 305th Infantry regiment of the Army’s 77th Infantry Division was Stanley Wellence, who had turned 19 years old two months before.
Less than 16 months earlier, he had been wrapping up his senior year at Edison High School in Gary, Indiana, then home to the largest steel mill in the world. He was captain of the school’s football team in this steely American city, a place where the mills were so productive that white laundry left on the clothesline for more than an hour would be blanketed by a covering of soot.
He was inducted at Indiana’s Camp Atterbury and ultimately shipped to the Pacific Theater, where he saw action on the Philippine island of Leyte and on Okinawa, where the 305th’s third battalion received a unit citation for action in May of 1945. In July he was back in the Philippines, this time on Cebu. The next month, Japan surrendered unconditionally.
Had the war continued, he surely would have been part of a massive invasion of mainland Japan. In anticipation, the War Department contracted for one million Purple Heart medals—every Purple Heart issued to wounded American Soldiers since 1945 was manufactured in this batch.
Like most members of the Greatest Generation, after the war my grandfather was honorably discharged and returned to civilian life. He married, worked, had children and grandchildren. Only one of the grandchildren-- a National Guardsman about to deploy to Afghanistan—ever heard a word about his war experiences pass from his lips.
It never occurred to me to ask him, despite my interest in history and the fact that I work for the United States Army. I lost my chance to do so when he died at age 90 in 2017.
Sadly, many of my generation with an interest in genealogy may never know even a small part of their heroic forebears’ actions. A four-day fire at the National Personnel Records Center in 1973 burned the records of an astonishing number of service members: an estimated 80% of the records for Army personnel discharged between 1912 and 1960, and 75% of those for Air Force personnel between 1947 and 1964 with a surname between H and Z, were completely destroyed. All told, at least some service records of nearly 20 million American veterans were reduced to ashes. It was by far the most catastrophic archival loss in American history.
If their ancestor was reticent about sharing their war stories, the only chance of reconstructing their service record calls for a visit to the National Archives in Washington, DC to view documents like medal citations, general orders, after action reports, pay vouchers, and casualty lists. Devoted volunteers on site strive to help those who can’t make the journey themselves, but their ranks are far smaller than the volume of requests for assistance they receive. There are also private companies that conduct similar research for a fee. The less information that you know about your relative’s service, however, the more difficult the search for the needle in the haystack.
Much easier, of course, is to simply ask the veterans in your family to share with you about their service-- and not wait until it is too late.