Sunday, July 20, 2014

In memory of Cousin Phil, 70 years later.

On this, the 70th anniversary of the death of Philip Albert Justis, I wanted to take a minute to write a brief memorial from what we know about his life and death.
Philip Albert Justis was born in Somerville, Massachusetts on 16 February, 1916. The 1920 Federal Census finds him living in Somerville with his parents, Albert Young and Mabel Alberta (Irving) Justis.  By 1930, the census shows the family living in Wellesley, Norfolk, MA, where his father worked as a printer. He had no siblings, but Mabel’s niece, Lina Irving (age 17) was living with them.

Ten years later, Albert was working as an executive for a drug company, and Philip was a stock clerk in a wholesale drug company. For reasons we can only suppose, Philip enlisted in the U.S. Army as a Private in Boston on 15 March 1941, nine months before the attack on Pearl Harbor.

It is at this point in the narrative we must mention one of the most tragic events in family history research: The fire at the personnel records center in St. Louis, Missouri in 1973. Millions of service men and women’s personnel records were lost. Both the fire and the resulting water damage to records have created a documentary disaster that is still being sorted out over forty years later.

The next document we have been able to locate for Philip is his burial record, listed on the website of the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC). They list his service number, 31030229, his date of death, 20 July 1944, his rank of Sergeant, and the fact that he had been awarded the Purple Heart. His body lies in the Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, France in Plot E, Row 14, Grave 36 overlooking Omaha Beach. We also know from the ABMC listing that Philip served with the 359th Infantry Regiment, 90th Infantry Division. Recently, I was contacted by a findagrave volunteer who was headed to Normandy and volunteered to both photograph and do a rubbing of Philip's headstone. When folks come to photograph the headstones, volunteers provide sand from Omaha beach to rub into the engraved letters to make them stand out for the photograph, and then clean the headstone afterward. 

Poignantly, his mother died three years after her only child’s death, and their marker in the Needham Cemetery in Needham, MA lists Philip’s name and dates of birth with “Lies in France” underneath.  His father passed away in 1956.

Because he had no siblings, there are few folks left who knew him at all, but last year, I called his cousin, Ginnie, who lives in Wellesley. She recalls him as a quiet, serious man who was always kind.

I hope one day to know a little more about Phil’s last days, but in the meantime, I just want to remember and be grateful for his service and sacrifice. 

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Petty Officer 3rd Class Donald W. Keillor, Photographer's Mate

We recently interviewed my father-in-law by telephone to learn more about his history in the Navy. We learned that he joined the Navy Reserves in 1950 at NAS Grosse Ile, and began training as an aerographer, or Navy weatherman. Apparently there was some sort of paperwork snafu, he was supposed to be exempt from attending drills, and when he didn't attend, got turned in for not attending. He returned to the draft board, who sent him to the personnel office. He spent a brief time as a clerk until an opening came up in the photography lab. He took a few photos and was told "Welcome Aboard!"

During the time he was stationed at Grosse Ile, he took classes at the University of Detroit. He also found a way to hop MAC flights to exotic places in the Carribean such as Puerto Rico, Cuba and Jamaica.

He became an aerial photographer, as seen here in the bubble of a PBY Catalina. After two years, he left the Navy to finish his studies at the University of Detroit. He was working at the University of Indiana when his co-workers starting tell him good-bye. They had seen that an opening at the University of Puerto Rico had come up and knew that he would take it, and he did.

Monday, February 24, 2014

What are the Odds?

Recently we hosted a new-found cousin for a week. We had met via, got acquainted through email and skype, and formed an eternal bond during our visit. Like my mother-in-law, she grew up in Jamaica, but now lived and worked in Germany. I had extended an invitation to her that if she was ever in the States to visit with us, and she took us up on it in February.

The family name we have in common is Robinson from Jamaica. Her great-grandfather, Rose Bingham Robinson and my mother-in-law’s great grandfather Charles Robinson were brothers. His first name of Rose is a family surname, and yes, it does cause a good bit of confusion regarding his gender, but several documents confirm him as a him.

On our last night together, I was introducing her to the joys of We were able to find several documents for which she had been searching for some time.
Above are the christening record for her grandfather Earnest, and the death record of Rose Bingham Robinson.

Almost as a post-script, I mentioned another website that she might find helpful, I wasn't too sure there were many memorials from Jamaica, but I thought I’d enter Robinson as a search term without a given name just to see what turned up. The search results showed nine Robinson memorials in Jamaica, including an R.B. Robinson, died 15 April, 1899. We held our collective breaths as we double-checked the death date from the document we’d just found on Then the collective hooting began! It was him, the great-grandfather whose burial place had always been a mystery to her. And more amazing that he was found in a cemetery in Port Maria, so very close to the village where she grew up. 

How did we ever do family history before the internet?
(Many thanks to Scooter T for the photograph and findagrave memorial!)

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Dig a Little Deeper

I never met Louis (pronounced in the French “Loo-ie”) Derragon (der-A-gun). But over my lifetime, I heard so many stories about him that I felt that I had known him. He died in his mid-forties, a few years before I was born, and according to my dad, he was asthmatic, so apparently that was a contributing cause of death.
His photos all show a handsome, open smiling face, and the whole family seemed to hold him in the highest regard.

 One photograph shows him in the traditional Navy “crackerjack” uniform. My dad remembered that he worked at the Fargo Building in Boston as a recruiter, since he was restricted by his asthma. Many years later in an search, I came across the application for a military headstone for him. I was surprised to see it listed his service aboard the USS Ira Jeffrey as a Ship’s Cook First Class.

It was very interesting to learn about the history of the USS Ira Jeffrey. Based on the time period of Louis’ enlistment, 7 November, 1942 – 25 Sep 1945, and the time line of the Ira Jeffrey, 13 February 1943 until it was sunk in a target exercise off the coast of Charleston, SC in 1962, it looks like Louis may have been a “plank owner,” or part of the original ship’s crew. It also suggests that Louis may indeed have spent some time as a recruiter in Boston before his time aboard the Ira Jeffrey.

A history of the Charlestown Navy Yard published by the National Park Service states: “The Fargo Building on Summer Street in South Boston which served as headquarters for the First Naval District. The building today is owned by the Army and known as the Barnes Building.” It was a recruiting and processing station for the Navy during WWII.

The Ira Jeffrey was built at the Bethlehem-Hingham Shipyard in Hingham, Massachusetts in 1943 and was sponsored at its launching by the mother of the young Ensign for whom the ship was named. The shakedown cruise took her crew from Maine to Bermuda, and then an assignment to Quonset, RI. From there, she escorted eight troop convoys to Europe. From The Dictionary of American Fighting Ships, we learn that: ‘On the [last] return crossing, 20 December 1944, the escort's convoy was attacked by a German submarine.  After sinking an LST and damaging destroyer escort FOGG (DE-57), the submarine was driven off.  IRA JEFFERY assisted the damaged ship and eventually escorted her through rough seas to the Azores.”
Following her cruises across the Atlantic, the Ira Jeffrey was converted to a high-speed transport at New York Shipyard, and following a shakedown cruise in the Chesapeake Bay, she “then sailed 25 May with aircraft carrier ANTIETAM (CV-36) for the Panama Canal and Pearl Harbor, where she arrived 18 June 1945.”
In San Diego, she began training with underwater demolition teams which entered Pacific beaches in advance of the “American occupation landings,” and after island-hopping her way across the Pacific, returned to San Diego. The Ira Jeffrey was decommissioned  in Jacksonville, Florida in 1946.
Although he is listed as a Ship’s Cook, I know that he must have received other training, at least as a fireman – all Navy ships train their crew as fire/damage control. I was able to learn a good deal more, thanks to Tim Rizzuto and the wonderful museum of the USS Slater in Albany, NY. Visit their website here: Tim took the time to answer a few questions via email and fill in some of the blanks, such as during WWII, Louis probably received gunnery training as well.

I have not yet acquired the marriage record of Louis Philizia Derragon to my Aunt, Agnes Louis Smith, but they were married in 1945, and remained wed until his death in 1955. It is a great regret of mine that I did not take the time and overcome some timidity to ask Aunt Agnes more about a man with such a history as Louis Derragon. 

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Aunt Hattie's Hermits

As a child, one of my favorite dessert treats was "Aunt Hattie's Hermits," a raisin-filled spice cookie in bar form. But all those years, I never knew who Aunt Hattie was. Later, as the family historian, I had collected all the impersonal, cold hard facts about Henrietta Josephine Wenz. It was many years before I ever saw her photograph. Now she seems like an old friend! She was born in Acquackanouk, Passaic, New Jersey in 1878, lived with her older brother, my great-grandfather, in 1930, never married, and worked as a housekeeper until she died in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1943. She is buried in an unmarked grave in Mountain View Cemetery in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts.

I believe the recipe came from her father, Philip Henry Wenz, a German immigrant to New York and New Jersey, who was listed as a confectioner, baker or cook in various censuses and city directories from 1875 to 1902. The photo below is believed to be of Philip’s bakery wagon in Passaic.

Here is her recipe for Hermits:
Cream together:
¾ cup shortening or butter        ½ cup molasses
1 ½ cups granulated sugar        2 eggs
 Combine and add to mix:
¼ cup warm water                    1 teaspoon baking soda
 Combine and add to mix:
3 ½ cups flour                          ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon    ½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground ginger         ½ teaspoon ground cloves
¾ cup raisins                            ½ cup chopped nuts (optional)

 Spread in greased shallow baking pan or jelly-roll pan and bake at 376° for about 35-45 minutes.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Uncle Benno

I never met Uncle Benno, but my husband Howard seems to hold very fond memories of him. He married Howard’s grandmother’s next older sister, Jane Elizabeth McDonald on 26 Oct 1922 in Huron County,  Michigan.
Benno Frederick Christian Hahn was the son of German immigrants, August R. and Fredericka (Boettcher) Hahn. When the United States declared war in April of 1917, Benno was already 26, elderly by military standards, but he ended up in the Army anyway. Because of his German parentage, he was not allowed to serve in the infantry, so he was assigned to the Ambulance Corps.

As Howard remembers it, Uncle Benno had Parkinson’s disease, because he had an arm with a serious tremor, so severe he would sit on it to keep it still, and wore a spot in his recliner from the vibrations. 

It wasn't until a few years ago that we learned it was not Parkinson’s – Uncle Benno had been wounded in the war, hit in the head by shrapnel in the land of his ancestry and carried his badge of courage throughout his life.
Evidence of his struggle is poignantly shown in his signature on his draft card in 1942 – the “Old Man’s Draft” as it became known because men between the ages of 45 to 64 years of age were required to register.
 Below are Mr. & Mrs. Benno Hahn and Mr. & Mrs. Howard Keillor, probably about the late 1920s.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Nurses in Combat Boots

On a recent visit with us, my mom brought a ridiculously heavy green suitcase full of what she told me was family history books. Not having time to cope with it, I set it in the “junk room” and spent a couple of months ignoring it. I know that there’s a reason I opened it up, but now I don’t remember why. But it was like opening up Pandora’s Box, because once it was opened, there was no going back! There were several family history books, but there were also many invaluable family mementos such as Uncle Phil’s medals, their WWII ration books and letters between my Great Uncle Phil and his grandmother during WWI (that's a whole 'nother blog post!). There were also dozens of clipped obituaries from many different newspapers, and someone had taken the time to make sure there was a date written on most of them. One such obituary was for Mary Aloise Canning. Mary’s mother, Ernestine Rose Vautrinot Canning was a younger sister of my great-grandmother, Grace Eugenie Vautrinot Wenz.
Here is the text of the obituary, from the Boston Globe, dated 4 Sep 1987:
          “DEDHAM – A funeral Mass was to be said Sept. 8 at St. Mary’s Church, Dedham, for Mary A. Canning, who died Sept. 4 at the Goddard Home, Jamaica Plain. She was 86.
          Born in Dedham, and a lifelong resident. She was a graduate of Massachusetts General Hospital Nursing School, Class of 1921. Miss Canning was employed at the hospital until 1941, when she joined the U.S. Army Nurse Corps. During World War II, she served in Casablanca, North, Africa, and assisted wounded troops through the Italian campaign, serving troops at Monte Cassino with distinction.
          Upon the conclusion of the war in Europe, she served in the Far East, arriving in Tokyo shortly after the Armistice was signed. She retained the rank of major when she retired. After she returned to Dedham, she worked as a public health nurse for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, retiring in 1967. Miss Canning was a member of the Dedham American Legion Post.
          She was the daughter of the late Thomas and Ernestine (Votreneau [sic]) and the aunt of Richard Canning of Wilmington, Del., Edward X. Canning of Fairfield Conn., Harry Canning of Hudson, Ohio, Thomas Canning of California and Rita Meuer of Hagerstown, Md.
          Arrangements were handled by the George F. Doherty & Sons Wilson-Cannon Funeral Hom, 456 High St., Dedham. Burial will take place at Brookdale Cemetery, Dedham.
Having an interest in military history, I was entranced to think someone with whom I was closely related played a critical part in such important campaigns in WWII. The more I read, the more I was impressed with her contributions and distressed to know that the involvement of these women has been so overlooked by history. I read an excellent work by Evelyn Monahan and Rosemarie Neidel-Greenlee entitled “And if I Perish,” which details their amazing service. When the troops landed in Africa, those nurses, including Mary Canning, were landing right next to them. Between Africa and Italy, they had two hospital ships bombed out from under them. In Italy, the nurses were delayed in landing for three days, but remained trapped with the troops on Anzio Beach, otherwise known as “Hell’s Half-Acre,” for the entire time of the German bombardment. This was the first time in U.S. Military history where nurses in uniform travelled just behind the combat troops, and in many ways, they were making it up as they went along.

Like Uncle Ned, she passed away before I was ever aware of her history. But I have been in correspondence with one of her nephews who graciously shared her photo with me. He told me that “she was a very outgoing person and liked to party. She spent much time keeping in touch with relatives. I don’t think she felt that all her activities were any hardship. She rather enjoyed all her adventures.”

 L-R Jack McLaughlin, Millie Irving Wenz, with her husband Fred Wenz behind her, Emily Wenz Morse, Mary Canning, Marie Wenz McLaughlin and Dot Irving Wenz (my grandmother). The occasion was probably the anniversary of the McLaughlins, taken at their home in Hanson, MA in 1975.

And I’ve just learned that I had actually met her in 1975! Oh, that I had known! Hopefully more research will reveal more details of her life and I’ll be able to update this post with more detail soon.