A Legacy to Carry

by John “Spoons” Sponauer

 

“Where do we get such men? They leave this ship and they do their job. Then they must find this speck lost somewhere on the sea. When they find it, they have to land on its pitching deck. Where do we get such men?”

– Rear Admiral George Tarrant in “The Bridges at Toko-Ri”

I have come to realize a concrete answer for Michener’s fictional admiral and his theoretical question…they are all around us. Oftentimes, we don’t even know it.

There’s been few experiences in my life as interesting as the research and realization of my own ancestry and their service to this country. While I’ve had a lifelong interest in history, aviation, and military topics, I have no service experience myself. An aborted-too-early thought to apply to the USAF Academy has only served to be a reminder to me that while so many others of my generation have served, my role must be different. It wasn’t until 1999 that I think I found it.

It was in that year that my paternal grandfather began discussing “his war” as a B-24 navigator in the USAAF during WWII. Since that time, and armed with a few scraps of paper and some 60-year old memories, my father, grandfather, and I have mapped out virtually all of his 50-mission tour, talked to his fellow crewmen, and are in the final stages of recording it into a narrative. Once that’s done, it’s time to turn my attention to my deceased maternal grandfather, a coxswain in the US Navy during WWII, my father-in-law, who was a nuclear submarine officer during the height of the Cold War, and my own father, who has worked in the defense industry for the better part of 30 years. My goal is a simple one…my children will know what their family has done for the defense of this nation.

I’ve been fortunate in completing this task in that the three stories that I’m mapping out are fairly exciting ones…my love of aviation keeps me enthralled of stories of bomber raids, my love of history allows me to use a cigar box of Pacific War memorabilia as a reminder that more work needs to be done, and my love of journalism drives me to record on paper stories of underwater tales which have never seen the light of day.

However, the task is no less for the descendents and friends of any vet, whether they served on the front lines, or shuffled paper safe at a desk. Whether they were in the US military, the Luftwaffe, the Royal Navy, or any other service, their history is ours…their work has contributed to our present reality. It doesn’t matter if they served in the Great War, the colonial wars, WWII, Korea, Indochina, Desert Storm, the Falklands, or during a time of ‘peace.’ There can be no shame in recording the work of any vet. And I increasingly feel that the task of doing so falls to people like me…and you.

Someone who has shared that interest — and has been an inspiration — is Scott Burris, a 36-year old computer consultant (as well as a Navy vet, and occasional simmer himself) who has become an influential online force for the collection of information about the USAAF. His web site, http://www.armyairforces.com, is home to amazing stories, reunion information, and much, much more. A simple project to learn more about his own late grandfather has led Scott to change literally thousands of lives. I feel his work should be an inspiration to anyone trying to preserve our history.

Scott’s involvement in historical research began as a way for a grandchild to learn more about the history in his own family.

“The subject [of my grandfather] was a curiosity to the grandchildren. We were reluctant to bring up a subject that caused so much pain for our parents, and frankly too intimidated by our grandmother to ever ask her,” he says. “My grandfather’s B-17 was shot down with only two crew members out of nine surviving; he was not one of them. At the time of his death my grandmother had twin infant daughters, and a son on the way who he would never get to meet.

When I came of age, dropped out of college, and joined the Navy, finding out what really happened became important to me.  It was the experience of military service that really jump-started my quest. I knew two things; 1) the military generated tons of paperwork, and 2) military concepts and acronyms were no longer a foreign language to me.”

There are three main traits that would make the simming community ideal for this kind of work.Scott’s research has paid off for thousands of others, and I feel his example is one that should inspire us all to conduct research of our own families. I feel this is especially important for the people who read this site…the simmer.

Simmers are in a unique position to do this, and in my opinion, may be more capable than the general population in pulling the information out of vets and recording it for posterity. Why? There are three main traits that would make the simming community ideal for this kind of work.

Simmers tend to be young. We know from our readers here at SimHQ that our average reader is between 16 and 40, male, and fairly articulate. Our youth is our saving grace….as the WWII generation leaves us, for instance, it will be up to later generations to record their work. Fast forward 30 years, and it will be the Vietnam generation in this country. If the attendance at my grandfather’s bomber unit reunion this fall was an indication, there won’t be enough of us to continue to tell these stories….any youthful injection of energy can help.

Simmers tend to be fairly knowledgeable. If it’s one thing that we’ve heard from developers and marketing departments, it’s that our genre isn’t one that lends itself well to a mass-market like simpler games. There’s a reason for this. It’s not the average gamer who can discuss the difference between a FW-190 and a Bf-109, or how the M1 Abrams’ gun is aimed, or how many radar sub-modes the F-16 has. While not every simmer considers themselves ‘hard-core,’ a certain degree of knowledge of the history and technology is required to enjoy this hobby; I feel many of our readers have it. Being able to talk coherently with a vet in his discussion of a plane, or a situation, has helped me many times in the past. It’s not a requirement, by any means, but it can help greatly.

Simmers tend to be Internet-savvy. “We are the information generation,” says Burris. “At our fingertips is the ability to access data lost in government archives, out of print books, or the from the memories of a generation passing away before our very eyes. Not only do we have access to information, but we have access to community. The ability to gather like minded persons through an e-mail list, web site, or bulletin board is a tremendous tool.”

Simmers already see this merger of online community and research at any number of web sites, including SimHQ.com. By already being comfortable with online groups, and the technology and initiative to learn more, we are perfectly positioned to be able to do the research needed. Scott sees the Internet as a key component of not only researching the information, but archiving it.

“The Internet offers us a tremendous opportunity to both preserve and promote history,” he says. “Some would argue that its transitory nature is anti-history, but I say they are wrong.   The Internet offers what stale classrooms and dusty libraries do not…access.  Access to the veterans themselves and access to those with vested interests in their history.”

So, how do you even begin?

Ask. There’s nothing simpler. For the WWII generation, I’ve found hats and pins to be a major jumping off point for conversation. It seems that virtually every time that I go into Wal-Mart, the grocery, or other stores, I see another older vet with a ballcap of his ship, his unit, or other related information. Ask them, politely, if they served in that ship. If they’re confident enough to wear their service on their head or sleeve, they’re probably going to be nothing but flattered that someone noticed. It takes two seconds, and could lead you down a path you never imagined. I learned of a local meeting of USAAF vets simply because I asked a volunteer at a blood drive why he wore a US Air Force hat. At a recent party, I inquired why someone more a small pin of a Harrier. He was so impressed that I knew what kind of plane it was, he proceeded to tell me that his son is a USMC Harrier pilot serving in Afghanistan. A bumper sticker led me to a conversation in the parking lot of a Friendy’s restaurant with someone who was a tank crewman in the Korean War.

Keep a notepad with you. Reporter notepads, which are spiral-bound at the top and tall vertically, are great for keeping in your glove box. They’re compact, they allow you to easily hold it with one hand and write with the other, and come in handy for lots of other reasons too. You just never know when you need to jot something down.

Learn about the resources available to you. For US military vets, most veterans’ service records are available under the Freedom of Information act. Simply write to:

National Personnel Records Center
Military Personnel Records
9700 Page Avenue
St. Louis, MO 63132-5100

And simply request the record. Provide as much information about the person as you can, including Social Security Number, full name, approximate dates of service, etc. Other countries and branches of service offer their own equivalent…find out what is available to you (see the URLs at the end of this article). And in any case, expect the information that you receive to be just a springboard for more research. Scott said an official information inquiry to the Records Center launched his own search, as it did in my family’s case as well. Calls to the Pentagon produced detailed mission summaries for my grandfather’s unit.

“The first thing I did was submit a records request to the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis and to the Veterans Administration.  These contacts were an exercise in patience, taking months to obtain any documents. The effort was rewarding, but just the tip of the iceberg,” he says.

Also, go online and do a search for unit associations….I’m a member of both the 460th Bomb Group Society and the Escort Carrier Association. For only $20-25 a year, you get instant access to people who can fill the pieces in your research puzzle. Some restrict membership to veterans of that unit, but many do not.

These stories often do not come cheap.Be respectful. Some vets don’t talk about their service for a reason. War is a horror, and many vets have seen things that no human should. One bomber vet I met online told a story once that he said pained him greatly. After one tough mission, he walked into his hut to find a new replacement navigator settling in. The new navigator asked if he had any advice, and the grizzled vet replied, ‘Yeah, don’t bother unpacking.’ On the next mission, he happened to see the new plane take a hit, and peel away from the formation with fire clearly visible inside. This is the type of story that can haunt people for years, and maybe for the rest of your life. My grandfather’s best man, for instance, was in the same unit as he and was killed on their second mission. These stories often do not come cheap.

Remember the maxim “You have two ears and one mouth for a reason.” Your point isn’t to get into a debate about historical trivia, although maybe that discussion can happen down the road. Your point is to hear the vets’ story. Let them talk. Use your knowledge gradually at first to just open up new paths of conversation.

Accept that memories fade and stories may not always make sense. Remember that stories can be fuzzy, or even false, after so many years. Rumors fly in a war zone, and sometimes those rumors get cemented into fact in the minds of vets, for many years later. There are several persistent myths that seem to permeate WWII bomber crew recollections, for instance….but there’s little proof some of them are real. Beware of stories that came from ‘a friend of a friend.’ Listen, but be skeptical to things that don’t ‘smell right.’

The turning point in my research was the Internet.Use the Internet. “The turning point in my research was the Internet,” Scott says. “My search for answers about my grandfather was not at all unique. I put up an experimental web site in 1993 while at college and it was quickly apparent that there were a lot of people with the same questions.  We exchanged tips, started an informal email loop passing on bits of information, and made new friends. I then started up an email list in 1997 and by 1998 took the plunge with a domain name.  At first I was only going to cover the B-17 units of the 8th Air Force. Then it was B-24s and B-29s just to keep everybody happy.  That worked pretty well for several years. By 2001 I had moved the email list over to a forum system and in 2002 expanded the site to cover all the combat units of the Army Air Forces, complete with new domain name.

It’s grown beyond anything I could ever have envisioned, mostly due to the efforts of some great veterans that I met along the way.”

There's no time like the present.Get going! There’s no time like the present. Ask family if there’s anyone who served, even if you think you already know. If the person is deceased, ask politely if they had any memorabilia of their service you can look through. If you genuinely don’t have anyone in your family, ask like-minded friends…perhaps they do.

Email me at jsponauer@simhq.com if you have any other good tips or success stories to share…maybe we can even put together a group of simmers dedicated to this task on our message boards.

 

Related Links

US Veterans

http://www.archives.gov/facilities/mo/st_louis.html

http://www.defenselink.mil/faq/pis/PC03MLTR.html

UK Veterans

http://www.hmc.gov.uk/

http://www.bl.uk/collections/warfare4.html

http://www.kcl.ac.uk/lhcma/info/lhnews.htm

Canadian Veterans

http://www.vac-acc.gc.ca/general/sub.cfm?source=department/organization

http://www.archives.ca/

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