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May 22, 2012

From Record to Reality - Gleaning Your Family's Story of Service

Olive Tree Genealogy is very pleased to present an article by Guest Author Marie Rundquist. Marie's books (listed at end of article) are available at (Infinity Publishing), Barnes and Noble, along with other Internet and E-book sources. 

From Record to Reality
Gleaning Your Family's Story of Service
by Marie Rundquist
May 2012

At Memorial Day events and backyard barbecues, we cherish the memories of our beloved men and women in uniform, share their treasured photographs, and display their medals of honor, but what do we really know of their stories?  As time passes, and wartime memories fade, an ancestor's military registration record, limited to the most basic of vital information, may be the only evidence of his service to his country.  While genealogists highlight marriages, births, and family lines in their research, military service is often incidental -- a footnote annotation in a charted family tree.  When I initially researched my own family history, I found elaborate details related to my ancestors' marriages, births, and deaths, but noted only a cursory mention of their military careers.  

At a recent memorial service for my husband's paternal uncle, we had the opportunity to witness the presentation of an American flag by an Honor Guard, a stunning tribute to my husband's “Uncle Ed” and his service to his country.  At Ed's viewing, there were many stories shared about his love of family, his devotion to his real-estate career, his ability to organize community events, and put people at ease, but little was said about his military service.  As he was laid to rest, and an American flag, folded into the shape of a three-cornered hat, was presented by the Honor Guard to surviving family, all in attendance were at once reminded that Ed had enlisted in the the military during World War II, and were deeply moved.

Ed's World War II enlistment record offers an abbreviated view of a high school graduate with machine-shop training, a single man with dependents, who were his immediate family. Challenged to complete Ed's story of service, I searched the 1930 Federal Census records and discovered that Ed was, in fact, the youngest in a family of eight, that his mother and father were originally from Poland.  I examined the census reports of adjacent households in Trenton, New Jersey's sixth ward, observed numbers of Czechoslovakian and Polish surnames in close proximity, and concluded that Ed lived in a tightly-knit, Eastern European immigrant community.  I browsed the recently published 1940 Federal Census and unearthed the roots of Ed's (and my husband's) deeply ingrained work-ethic, for according to the enumerator, Ed's three elder brothers all contributed to the household, and each held a job – as, respectively, a night-club musician, a factory-worker, and my father-in-law was, at the time of the1940 Federal Census, an apprentice linoleum layer for a department store.  According to the census taker, Polish was the language most commonly spoken at home in Ed's neighborhood..  

A 1941 parish directory was shared at Ed's memorial service, its pages lined with the photographs of young men in uniform, their faces full of hope, eyes bright and shining.  Leafing through the directory, I was reminded that while most view senior year as a launching point for college and careers, for a high school graduating class in the early 1940s, senior year was a weigh-station on a long and perilous journey – one that for many would end on foreign shores.  From a published obituary, I learned that Ed was an Air Force veteran of World War II, who served in the Asiatic Pacific campaign.  After returning home, Ed approached life with boundless optimism  -- that he, as a survivor of World War II,  had the opportunity to marry, buy a home, build a career, educate his children, and be of help to  his family and friends ranked highest among his concerns. A lover of music and song, and a devoted family man, Ed didn't “sweat the small stuff.”  Quibbling over trivial and insignificant events of the day simply didn't factor into Ed's priorities – nor did quibbling factor into his brother's priorities, as I recall, and certainly my husband is not a quibbler..

By extending my research beyond a single military registration record, to include the 1930 and 1940 Federal Census, newspaper articles, and other published sources, I gained insight into a family's shared traits, uncovered the greater reality that upheld “Uncle Ed's” military enlistment record, and, in honor of Memorial Day, advanced one enlisted man's story of service from footnote to front-and-center.

Marie Rundquist is a DNA project manager, collaborative research community moderator, president of an information systems consulting firm and author of Revisiting Anne Marie: How an Amerindian Woman of Seventeenth-Century Nova Scotia and a DNA Match Redefine “American” Heritage and Cajun by Any Other Name Recovering the Lost History of a Family and a People. For more information visit:

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