Perhaps you have records and memorabilia you would like to know will be preserved for future generations. Have you wondered what you can do so these treasures are not casually set aside by someone who doesn’t recognize their value? Here is what one daughter did to honor a family legacy.
Like many who are interested in family history, Rebecca Mitchell had valuable records at home gathering dust in a closet. Those records related to her father’s military service and the time she had spent with him some years after World War II.
A Family History of Military Service
Rebecca’s father, Lieutenant Colonel Russell Kelch, was an officer in the 951st Field Artillery Battalion. Many in Colonel Kelch’s unit had enlisted around the same time and followed each other from one duty assignment to the next, through the war and beyond. Rebecca had met many of them at reunions and knew that 613 men in the battalion had been among Allied forces who landed on Utah Beach in Normandy six days after the D-Day invasion in 1944. She also knew a few had spent time together as prisoners of war.
In 1994, Rebecca had made a promise to her father to “be there” (for the unit) until the last man was down. She kept this promise dutifully and gathered the records for her father’s military unit as the official archivist. For a time, she had published a newsletter entitled Fire Mission that kept the men in touch with one another.
Providential Meetings Set the Stage
In 1994, Rebecca went with her father to a reunion for the 183rd battalion—a sister battalion to the 951st. There, her father became reacquainted with an old buddy, Lieutenant Leo McCollum from Texas, whom he had not seen for over 50 years, and they also met McCollum’s son. The four of them connected immediately. They later went back to Europe and retraced the battalion’s steps from Utah Beach to Nordhausen in Germany, the site of a Nazi labor camp. As they traveled, Rebecca's father and Lieutenant McCollum recounted stories about their experiences.
The following year, another reunion of the 951st brought Captain Ernest Chamberlain into the life of Rebecca and her father. Captain Chamberlain felt impressed to have a monument built to soldiers of the 951st at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. They joined efforts to work on the project. Within a year, enough donations were gathered to have a monument erected to honor all 613 members who fought together. That monument was inscribed with soldier names and the states where each of the men came from, adding valuable insight into the soldiers of the 951st.
Rebecca’s Dream Leads to an Inspired Project
When her father’s veterans’ group was disbanded in 2007, Rebecca thought most of the men had died and only one survivor remained. She considered her work in preserving her father’s legacy to be completed. Then something remarkable happened toward the end of 2019. Rebecca had a dream in which she thought of herself as dead. In her dream, many strangers were in her home going through her belongings. These strangers took many of her possessions outside to a dumpster that sat in her front yard.
She saw people she did not recognize going to the closet where she kept records for the 951st and 183rd Battalions. The strangers began picking through things, briefly looking at old photos, cards, letters, reunion announcements, and copies of Fire Mission, taking only enough time to glance at them before bringing them out and adding them to the dumpster.
Rebecca awoke with a firm resolve to preserve those records. She realized that Fire Mission wasn’t the fulfillment of her promise and that there were things she yet needed to do.
As she began to formulate a plan, Rebecca thought of FamilySearch. Earlier experiences with her father also came to mind, along with recollections of people her father had known. Soon, she had a solid plan about how she could preserve the records and fulfill the promise she had made to her father and his unit!
Plans Take Shape and Pieces Come Together
In 2020, Rebecca began to add to her father’s profile on FamilySearch.org and Lieutenant McCollum’s, the friend from the 183rd Battalion. Another individual from the past, Captain Chamberlain, already had many of his own records in Family Tree. His profile was easy to add information to, as were the profiles of many other members of the 951st.
The rest of the men had no dates for life events and needed to be researched to find what happened to them so photos and stories or other information could be uploaded to the right profile. She discovered a few more surviving battalion members. The last man died in 2017—ten years after her initial assumption that all had passed on.
So far, Rebecca has entered information for 175 men, which points her to a bigger project than what she anticipated. As Rebecca tracks down the missing pieces of these men’s lives, she describes the project as a large jigsaw puzzle that will one day fill out a bigger picture.
When she can confirm that she has found a battalion member in the FamilySearch Family Tree, she adds what she knows and then messages that person’s relatives who have also added information in FamilySearch. She tells them what she has found and that there is a monument with the name of their ancestor at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma. She also tells them that her father knew the person during the war. She has been gratified by overwhelming responses from people who remark that they never knew the things she shares and how much they appreciate the work she is doing.
Making Connections and Finding Unexpected Rewards
With the COVID-19 pandemic keeping Rebecca and her husband at home, she has had time to work in earnest on the project. At age 74, Rebecca feels an urgency to get all the information she knows about battalion members into the FamilySearch Family Tree. She has continued adding information the tree and to Memories as soon as she is able to positively identify a battalion member.
Some battalion members have common surnames, so it has been difficult to find the correct person to match battalion records. Sometimes she is readily rewarded, and other times she has had to struggle, but she has been helped along the way.
She says that there were not nearly so many sources for records in 2007, but in the intervening years many more records have been indexed and are available to search, and more archives are also available about the men who fought in World War II. She keeps an eye on new records and on research helps so she can fit more pieces into her genealogical puzzle. She only hopes she has enough time to complete the project.
In her work she has found that members of the 951st are bound together by more than friendship. The term “band of brothers” commonly used in military circles has led her to some men who were actual brothers who served together, but even among men who were not blood relatives, she has sensed a special bond in the way battalion members would refer to one another years later as “my brother” or “my bosom buddy.”
More recently she has realized that of the 175 men she has completed adding records for, 127, or about 73 percent, are her distant cousins in Family Tree and are literally family. This fact has broadened her perspective and definition of what families are all about!
Records Gathering Dust in Your Closet
You might have records you have not looked at in years. Perhaps you are the family archivist or have inherited the records from a relative who has entrusted you to preserve them. Consider creating your own family history project on how you can preserve those records.
Some things to think about might include the following:
- Use your smartphone to scan and digitize photos in albums. Several free photo scanning programs are available to help you preserve documents and put them online.
- Learn about Google’s image search capabilities to identify people or places in unidentified photos. Someone may have a match for the same photo or can identify where or when it was taken.
- Join a group in the FamilySearch Community, and ask for help. Turn on permissions that allow others to see your relationship in the FamilySearch Family Tree, and message other contributors. Be willing to share what you have and what you know.
- Get help in the FamilySearch wiki in organizing your files.
- Talk to relatives, and enlist their participation. Ask them to share with you what they know, and incorporate in your project what you learn.
If you start with something simple and achievable, your family history project need not take years or full-time dedication, but your appreciation for your ancestors will grow as you find relationships and connect with more of your family.