If a member of your family served in World War II, consider following in their footsteps the next time your travels take you to Europe or to the Pacific. I traced my dad’s military path in Germany and France. It was extremely moving -- more so than I could have imagined -- to stand where he stood during a world crisis.
Tracing your family’s military history is an experience that will stay with you for the rest of your life. There are few better ways to feel a connection to the places you visit on your travels.
Following In My Dad’s Footsteps
My dad died in 2003, and for more than a decade, my mom lived alone in their house. When she moved to a retirement home a few years ago, I cleaned out all of the drawers and cupboards she hadn’t touched since my dad’s death. To my surprise, I uncovered a small box of his army memorabilia, including his dog tags and a notebook in which he had meticulously recorded where he'd served during World War II. All of a sudden, I had his army unit information and the names of the places he'd lived. When he was alive, he seldom spoke of his wartime experiences, so I had only a vague idea of where he had been in France and Germany. His notebook became the basis of my travel plans to trace his military path.
My dad’s army unit took him close to the eastern border of Germany. I decided to go there first and then to backtrack west. He traveled to Paris twice on leave, even taking his own photos of the Eiffel Tower and Versailles. While I did go there, as well as Sankt Goar, Germany, and Le Havre, France, I didn’t see any need to go in chronological order. As long as I visited the main cities he went, I could go in any order, which turned out fine.
Two places in particular stood out. The first was the former concentration camp in Flossenburg, Germany. Visiting this memorial and museum was sobering. My dad arrived shortly after its liberation, when the sick prisoners were still there, since they were not able to travel. In the museum, I found a photo taken at the exact time my dad was stationed at Flossenburg. That’s how I learned that German SS prisoners arrived there. He surely would have seen them. This is the kind of insight you can only gain by being at a place in person.
Another meaningful place I visited was the small town of Schwabach, Germany. I knew from my dad’s notebook that it was there he learned the war in Europe was over. As I walked around the town and visited its small museums, I found photos of Schwabach at the time my dad arrived. Due to the bombing and fighting, the buildings lay in ruins. I was able to see what my dad saw just two weeks after the Germans retreated east.
Tips For Tracing Your Relative’s Military Journey
Here are a few tips for tracing the military journey of your relative.
Start With The Official Source
For information on those who served in the United States military during World War II, check the National Archives National Personnel Records Center’s website and fill out the form. Many records burned in the 1970s, with records on last names from M through Z especially affected. You will be told that there’s no guarantee your relative’s records survived. Go ahead and try anyway. A remarkable number of these records are still sitting there in some form. I got a pile of copied records that were slightly blackened around the edges but totally readable. They cost about $70.
Search The Internet For Your Relative's Unit
Next, look for information on the units in which your family member served. My dad served in the 90th Infantry Division. A group of these “Tough ’Ombres” is still around, and I joined their Facebook group to learn more about their experience. I had the opportunity to correspond with some of these amazing guys and get a sense of what my dad’s life was like during the war.
Reach Out To Military Historians Before You Travel
If you can get in touch with a historian who specializes in your relative’s military branch or division, you’ll probably uncover a treasure trove of information.
I contacted Jennifer Holik at the World War II Research & Writing Center. She put me in touch with a soldier who was in the liberation unit at Flossenburg. He sent me a huge notebook of information he’d collected so that I could copy whatever I needed. It’s a one-of-a-kind resource I was so thankful to have. He and other army guys encouraged me and helped me plan my trip.
Don’t Be Shy About Contacting Museums Or Memorials
If you are planning on visiting a public memorial like the one in Flossenburg, write ahead and let them know you are coming. I was planning on only a short time there -- maybe an hour-long tour. When the on-site historian wrote back offering a personal tour, the visit turned into a full-day experience and a priceless time of learning about the camp during the summer my dad lived there.
Don’t Be Afraid To Ask Locals For Help
You will be amazed at how helpful local people can be.
In Le Havre, more than 90 percent of the city was destroyed during World War II and then rebuilt. We easily found the Halle de Ville, which my dad photographed in 1945. I also wanted to find the war memorial and fountain where my dad stood and took a photo. The streets are quite different now than they were then, and we couldn’t find the monument.
Before giving up, I ran into a small museum and showed my photo to the young man at the front desk. I don’t speak French, and the man didn’t speak much English. But he recognized the place. “Not the same now,” he ventured. He gave us directions, and soon I was standing in the exact spot my dad visited 75 years earlier, in the shadow of the war memorial.
Reach out for help, be polite, and persevere. Go on your journey knowing that you will experience a deeper connection with your family. You might even make new friends in distant places. Return and make a photo book for your family so that the generations to come will know their heritage. This trip will change the way you look at life.