From the World War I Centennial News Podcast
Remembering Veterans and Stories of Service: An Interview with Deborah Dudek
In July 13th's WW1 Centennial News Podcast, Episode 80, genealogy expert Deborah Dudek spoke with host Theo Mayer about researching family members who served in the war. Additionally, Theo Mayer explains how anyone can upload their ancestor's information to our Stories of Service page. The following is a transcript from the podcast:
Theo Mayer: This week, in our remembering veterans segment, so often at the Commission, we're contacted with questions about how to learn more about a family member who served in the war. Doing genealogical research has been made much easier since the advent of the internet, but major challenges still remain. Especially, when you're looking for information from a century ago. Today, we're joined by Deborah M. Dudek. Deborah is with the Fountaindale Public Library in Bolingbrook, Illinois. Importantly, she's also the author of the World War One Genealogy Research Guide: Tracing American Military and Non-Combatant Ancestors. Her book is available as an ebook, and in paperback, both on Amazon.com. Deborah, thank you for joining us.
Deborah Dudek: Thanks for having me, Theo, I really appreciate it.
Theo Mayer: So, Deborah, at the Commission, we get information requests like literally every day, from people asking for help and looking into the wartime service of a family member. So we're really happy to be speaking with you. So let me do a couple of scenarios, and maybe that will lead you into explaining to people how this could work. In scenario one, my grandfather served in World War One, let's say, and I know he was in the marines and went to France. Where do I start?
Deborah Dudek: Well if you're super lucky to have an ancestor who served in the Navy or Marines during World War One, you have a really straightforward task to doing research. If your ancestor was in the army or the air service, that's a totally different story. There was a disastrous fire at the National Personnel Records Center in 1973, and we did lose about 18 million official Army and air service and Air Force military personnel files, from about 1912 to 1964. But there's a really great, fool-proof way that you can start your research, regardless of what branch of the military your ancestor may have served. Go through what you already have. It sounds very simple, it sounds very elementary, but go through those old trunks in the attic, or call the relatives who have the older photographs, the medals, the uniforms, the post cards. And go and examine everything. This is the time to bring them out. Get your smart phone out, download some of those apps that allow you to scan them effectively through your smart phone. So go through all of those photographs together, as a family, and start talking about what everybody remembers. If you don't have any of those family heirlooms, you're not alone. All you may have had is a story that's like, grandpa served in France. But even that's a great place to start. If you have that information, you can start going through things like ancestry, Fold3, and internet archives, or even the National World War One Museum and Memorial online. And you can start doing your research there.
Theo Mayer: Okay so, in scenario number two, let's say my grandmother drove an ambulance in Italy. She wasn't a soldier, she was a volunteer in 1916. How do I start with her?
Deborah Dudek: If they were starting off as a volunteer, I always tell people, again, go through what your family already has. And from there, branch of into things like newspaper articles. But also remember that women served in a lot of different capacities with a lot of different lineage and civic organizations. YWCA, the Salvation Army, the American Red Cross, Colonial Dames, Daughters of the American Revolution, the National Federation of Women's Club, and also Women's Labor Union. All of those organizations kept archives, you just have to find it at that local chapter level. Women's efforts were also extensively documented in the World War county honor book, and the state history documenting the World War. And a lot of them are online, and they're free. They're online through Happy Trust, and they're online through internet archives. And sometimes, you can find them on Google books, as well. Remember, when you're searching for titles, you're not going to find County Honor Books World War One. It was just called the World War. So you don't want to necessarily add the one into the search. And if you really can't find anything, visit your local library, visit your local historical society, call the local county where your ancestor lived during the 1920s and see if they have a copy that hasn't been digitized yet.
Theo Mayer: Now, one of the really cool things about your book is that you also address how to research World War One genealogy for Canadians. Who were, after all, in the war a lot longer than the Americans. And we have quite a few listeners in Canada. So for them, what's the biggest difference between doing genealogical research in America vs Canada?
Deborah Dudek: For the Canadians, they have an ease of access that Americans can only dream about. The National Library and Archive in Canada did a stellar job before the World War One Centennial digitizing all of their World War One military service files, as well as their daily war diaries and petition papers, which is sort of like our enlistment papers. Really, really lovely, because it's free and it's searchable. That ease of access is a wonderful thing. But there's also really great connections at different archives that are around. Like, the Ontario archives have a wonderful selection of regimental photographs. So there's a lot of help, and a lot of support for people who are doing Great War research, and it's very straightforward.
Theo Mayer: Okay. In your experience, where do people get stuck most often?
Deborah Dudek: The question that I get from the people coming to the library are, did their ancestor even serve? We don't have uniforms, we don't have medals, we don't have photographs. So I always tell people, let's start at the very beginning. And the easiest thing that you can do, at least for a man, go to the 1930s census. In the 1930s census, there's a column, column number 30, which asks if the man from that census was a veteran. If they served, it'll say yes, and then in the next column it will ask what war did you serve? And there was an abbreviation. This is great, not just for World War One research, but all type of research. If you look through VFWW, then you're like, "Oh, well, there's a story here, I can move forward. So let's go see what we can find." When I started my research, I only had two lines. Grandpa Rhodes fought in World War One, he was an ambulance driver, and he never talked about it. The amount of people who say, he or she never talked about it is very common. People wanted to forget this really awful situation, and this really awful war experience that they had been through. If you don't belong to some of these online websites, like ancestry or Fold3, you can still get them for free from your local library, or your local family history center. There are people who will be so excited to see you, and will want to help you every step of the way in your research. There's a lot of options for people who maybe didn't necessarily get a lot of information, but it doesn't mean that just because it looks like it could be difficult that you should just give up. You just have to have a curiosity of going out there and uncovering new information that maybe you didn't know before. And helping document your ancestor's experience, and helping to put their information up, whether it's online through the World War One Centennial website, or documenting that for a local newspaper article. You don't have to be a genealogist to do that.
Theo Mayer: Well that's really great advice. It sounds to me like I'm going to have to get your book. What made you decide to write it?
Deborah Dudek: I was really, really excited when I thought about the Centennial, I thought back to what we had as a family. And as I was doing my own research, I was like, "I don't want people to start at the same place I'm at." It seemed super difficult at the time that I was starting. But once I kind of sat down, and organized my thoughts, I said, "I'm going to write something that anybody can follow." I want to start them off at square one, and I want to give them a step by step guide to getting the best success and the best return on investment. You know, the more people are able to pass on accurate information about where people are, where they went, what they experienced, we don't fall into that pitfall of myths that kind of build around wars that don't have really good documentation.
Theo Mayer: Well Deborah, your guide's going to help a lot of our audience connect with their heritage, so thank you.
Deborah Dudek: Thank you so much for having me.
Theo Mayer: Deborah Dudek is the author of the book World War One Genealogy Research Guide: Tracing American Military and Non-Combatant Ancestors. Learn more about her book by reaching out to us on Twitter, @theWW1podcast. That's @ the W-W-the number one podcast. Or follow the links in the podcast notes.
As a direct follow-up to our interview with Deborah, once you found out about your ancestor's service, we have a wonderful thing for you to do with the information. We can offer you the opportunity to post what you've found into a permanent national archive, to be preserved by the US government, using the Stories of Service feature on our website. There are three parts to this.
Part one, go to ww1cc.org/stories, where you can post your ancestor's story and picture for everyone to read and enjoy. It's easy to copy and paste your information into the form. Now, it may take a few days for your story to go live, especially as the volume of submissions rises. But it will get posted, and it will be archived.
Part two, on that page on the left side, click on the link that reads Stories of Service, and explore some of the other great posts. At the top of that page, there's a search box just for Stories of Service. See what you can find. Try typing something like 42nd, and you'll see all the related stories posted about those who served with the Rainbow Division.
Part three is to check out all the other good genealogy resources that you'll find here, including links to additional articles, a really great connection to Roll of Honor, who's a partner, adding these Stories of Service to their veteran profile pages, and lots more.
You know, the living history of Americans, who've heard these stories directly from a grandparent or a great grandparent is fading. But every day, people are finding diaries, letters, and other treasures that tell the stories of service for those who answered the call 100 years ago. We'd like to invite you to help preserve your family and our national heritage. Get your stories preserved, as a part of the American experience for future generations through our Stories of Service, at ww1cc.org/stories. You can always contact us via Twitter, @theww1podcast. And, of course, we also have links for you in the podcast notes.
Podcast Notes and Links
ww1cc.org/stories (for submittal)
https://www.worldwar1centennial.org/commemorate/family-ties/stories-of-service.html (for exploring the stories)
https://www.rollofhonor.org/ww1/ (for connecting the story to service profiles)