Tuesday, September 28, 2010

GI Joe

I recently wrote to the National Personnel Records Center to see if they had records of my father's military service. The request can be made on-line for next of kin through NARA's web site. I wasn't surprised to find that the records were "lost in the July 1973 fire that destroyed millions of records here." NARA followed up with a request that I provide information to help them reconstruct their data base.

Luckily, I have a significant file of documents, including original signed flight reports and his discharge from both World War II and the Korean War, newspaper clippings, and his uniform.

Joseph C. Szymanowicz enlisted in February of 1943, prior to his graduation from Northampton, MA High School and prior to his 18th birthday. He began his service at Fort Devins 30 August 1943 and trained in Miami Beach with the Army Air Corps. He was sent to radio school in Sioux Falls SD for 20 weeks and then to Yuma AZ for gunnery training, at which time he was promoted to Corporal. After 20 days leave at home in Northampton in September of 1944, he was assigned to a B-24 Liberator at Westover. The crew spent the rest of the year flying out of Chatham Field in Savannah GA, before shipping out of Norfolk VA, arriving in Naples, Italy 21 February 1945.

They flew bombing missions over Austria. Few fliers survived more than the 22 that they completed, according to Ken Burns' PBS series "The War." They were disabled over Yugoslavia and forced to land in a field. When they returned to their base in another aircraft, the alarm was raised. Dad said his buddies had already raided his hoard of chocolate bars in their absence.

His Separation Qualification Record states that he "Sent and received radio messages using army equipment, code and procedure on air to ground basis using international morse code. Sent 27, received 25 words per minute. Made minor repair on military radio equipment. Did some Radar work. Manned right waist machine gun in 22 missions over Mediterranean Theatre with 15th AAF." He was honorably Discharged at Westover Field on 5 November 1945.

The men from his bomber got together periodically over the years and kept in touch at Christmas. The bond that they formed over those months in Italy lasted for the rest of their lives. Dad died 26 April 2000 at the age of 74. My son carries his screaming eagle patch with him in Afghanistan today, where he is also in the 101st Airborne. Miss you, Dad!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

See the World

Historic research often makes us think in a completely new way about events that we thought we understood. Civil War enthusiasts may favor a general or a campaign, and the imagery of mass casualties is striking. I have a Civil War story in my family history, complete with documents from the soldier's file. But some recent research I did for a friend gave me a new slant on Naval service during the Civil War.

John J. Lambert was 36 when he was enumerated in the 1860 census of Kittery, Maine with his family, which included his wife Hannah and seven children . The older children were born in New Hampshire. Kittery is a coastal town on the New Hampshire border. I was able to follow the family in the census from 1850 to 1900, when John was 74, widowed, and living with a grand daughter in Kittery.

Although I didn't expect to find an 1890 record, an Ancestry.com search turned up the 1890 Survivor's Schedule, which listed John Lambert among the veterans. Instead of a Company or Regiment, his listing contained the word "Kearsarge."

A Google search yielded a series of descriptions of the steam-powered sloop of war, and later name-sakes. John J. Lambert was a fireman on the ship which was built at the Portsmouth Navy Yard. She was 201 ft. long with 34 ft. beam and 14 ft. draft, built under the 1861 American Civil War emergency shipbuilding program and launched September 11, 1861. John served from January of 1862, when she was commissioned and soon after left for European waters, under Captain Charles W. Pickering, hunting for Confederate raiders.

A book entitled “Civil War Papers Read Before the Comendary of the State of Massachusetts, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States” published in 1900, gives a first-person account of its duty. They sailed to Spain and kept watch on the CSS Sumpter at Gibraltar for several months, then spent the later part of the summer of 1862 in the Atlantic waters around the Azores. From December to March they were in the Spanish port of La Carracas being repaired. They spent several months off Brest, waiting for the CSS Alabama.
John Lambert's record says his service ended in October of 1863, before the decisive battle with the Alabama in June of 1864.

From this information we can picture the family man from Maine sailing into unfamiliar waters and spending time in Spain in 1863. That is a very different picture of the Civil War than I have every had. How did he return home? The 1890 schedule says he had bronchitis. He lived for more than 30 more years, so his illness was cured. What were the stories he told his children and grandchildren in later years?