A U.S. Army Sergeant with a bag over his left shoulder looks at the camera. Behind him, many other men with bags are visible.

Photos Provide Context for WWII Memorabilia

It’s been almost five months since my father passed away in November 2018.  Much of the paperwork and immediate action items are behind us.  This month, we acknowledged what would have been his 93rd birthday.  Coincidentally, I had recently turned my attention to his World War II memorabilia, which we set aside as we tackled more pressing matters in the months immediately following his death.  There are three daughters, and I volunteered to research what the various badges, ribbons, lapel pins, etc. represented. The day before his birthday, I mailed my findings to my two sisters.

We agreed it would be difficult deciding what to do with these items without actually understanding the significance of each one.  That’s where photographs and a three-page itinerary of his travels in WWII came to our assistance.  When did he earn each of these items?  For what reason?  How were they worn?  Of course, online research was also a big help.  Our father was in the U.S. Army, and I learned about insignia for infantry divisions and regiments, the Third United States Army, overseas service (“Hershey”) bars, Chevrons, and items worn on the home front.

Part of the itinerary of a U.S. Army Private, in World War II. It is four sections, each with 2-13 lines.
A sample of my father’s itinerary, February – April 1945.

As I reviewed our father’s documentation, “My United States Army Career,” I calculated his age when he went through basic training at Fort McClellan, Alabama, at the end of 1944:  he was 18 1/2.    By the time he was 20 1/2, he was home.  I remember him saying his basic training was accelerated due to the Battle of the Bulge, which occurred as his training was wrapping up.  I know his parents visited him at Fort McClellan (they would have traveled from Ohio), but his itinerary also indicates he was home (due to a delay) for about five days in January 1945, before sailing for Scotland.  I am certain the images below were taken during one of those two timeframes.  From these formal pictures, I know which lapel pins were issued to him before he departed for Europe.  I know that he had already earned the Sharpshooter Qualification Badge on his left breast (the clasps read:  Sharpshooter, Rifle, Carbine).  The shoulder sleeve insignia (SSI) on his left shoulder (red, yellow, blue) is for the Replacement and School Command.   

Our father was made Private First Class (PFC) in April 1945.  In fall 1945, he was assigned to a Quartermaster truck company in Germany. He made Corporal in January 1946.  I can’t make out his enlisted rank insignia in these photos, but it looks to me like he is still a PFC (a single Chevron on his arm).  He has also acquired some medal ribbons, on his left breast.  Two of his ribbons were the World War II Victory Medal and the Army of Occupation Medal.  Our father’s itinerary noted the end of the war in Germany (May 9) and in the Pacific (September 2); since these photos include the medal ribbons, they were probably taken in the second half of 1945.  

When someone saw the below image of my father, he expected it was a basic training (“boot camp”) photograph.  After conducting my memorabilia research and comparing this image with other Army photos, I now know he was homeward bound.  He is wearing his Combat Infantry Badge on his left breast, which his itinerary states was earned in April 1945.  But, he is also wearing Sergeant insignia on his right shoulder (earned February 1946).  I believe his Ozark insignia (102nd Infantry Division, assigned March 1945) is barely visible on his right shoulder, above the Sergeant Chevrons.

A young Army Sergeant with an Army duffle bag over his left shoulder. Behind him are many other men with similar bags.
The insignia in this photo tell me it is 1946; similar photos indicate he is preparing to depart Germany for the U.S.

The most helpful photo in understanding how memorabilia were worn is this image with three individuals (my father in the center).  My father has the “A” insignia of the Third United States Army on his left shoulder (assigned July 1945), above his Sergeant insignia (three Chevrons).  His left wrist has two overseas (“Hershey”) bars; he ultimately earned three of them.  His lapel pins read “Up Front,” the distinctive unit insignia for the 405th Infantry Regiment to which he was assigned in March 1945.  The medal ribbons are more clear in this image, but without color, it is still hard to determine exactly which ribbons these are (he ultimately earned three).  The gentlemen on his right and left both have 26th Infantry Regiment insignia (“Blue Spaders”) on their caps (my father was transferred to that regiment in May 1946).  His itinerary notes he headed home at the end of June, 1946.  

Three men in the U.S. Army in World War II. All are wearing caps and jackets with various insignia (lapel pins, badges, and shoulder sleeve insignia).
My father, in the center, with others from the 26th Infantry Regiment (note the “Blue Spaders” pins on lapels and caps).

I was also touched by two different kinds of pins, worn on the home front during WWII.  I expect these were worn by his parents.  The one on the left is a Son in Service-Infantry lapel pin; the number of stars indicated how many sons were in service.  My father was an only child.  I remember commenting to my parents, “It must have been difficult for Dad’s parents to see him go off to war.”  They immediately responded, “Everyone was sacrificing, that’s just the way it was.”  Mutual sacrifice was accepted by all and expected by all.  The pin on the right has a single Chevron symbol under USA, so I expect his parents acquired it sometime after he was made Private First Class in April 1945.    

There are still some questions that the photographs and the itinerary don’t answer (left to right, below):  When did he receive his Good Conduct Award?  When did he earn the Marksman Qualification Badge (with five clasps)?  Was he ever affiliated with the 406th Infantry Regiment (he had one of the lapel pins)?  What happened to the SSI for the Replacement and School Command (referenced earlier)?

I am at peace with not knowing the answers to all of these questions.  The documentation he left behind paints a mostly complete picture, so I am content.  I am grateful for this glimpse into his distant past – the young man he was before marriage and fatherhood.  After returning home in 1946, he attended college, where he met our mother (they married in 1949); he always said that the G.I. Bill was critical to his education. He never would have considered college due to the cost; the G.I. Bill made college feasible for him and many others.

A 24-year-old man in a cap and gown for college graduation in 1950. He is standing outside with the side of a house behind him and plants at his feet.
College graduation, 1950, courtesy of the G.I. Bill.

In summary

I have scanned and photographed each of the memorabilia items; the photos from this timeframe are partially digitized. I am envisioning a photo book that pulls together his itinerary, images of the memorabilia, and the photos from that time period. Perhaps the story can finally be recorded, with some degree of completeness, in one location.

If you have a family story with bits and pieces in various locations and formats, pause and consider all of the materials available to you as you work to understand the context of memorabilia and photos – different kinds of items may work together to complete much of the puzzle. 

For our family, the three-page itinerary of his U.S. Army career, typed by our father in the 1940s, was in a three-ring notebook of unrelated material.  It was part of the story, but separate from everything else.  The pictures were in a photo album; unfortunately, they were glued in place, so any helpful information on the back is no longer accessible to us (there are some cryptic notes in the album).  The medals, badges, lapel pins, etc. had been framed years ago in a shadow box but had no identifying information.  Online research was key for these items, as well as photos where he was wearing at least some of them.  If the itinerary told us when an item was earned or when he was reassigned, then we knew that a photo with an associated item must have been taken after the date from the itinerary.  Slowly, a story of two formative years in this young man’s life has emerged.  Yes, there are a few unknowns, but the story is sufficiently complete for my satisfaction.  I’m just going to treasure it.


4 thoughts on “Photos Provide Context for WWII Memorabilia

  1. Susan D says:

    Nicely done. Thank you for coordinating and sharing such meaningful items and stories. I hope you find it comforting to work on these projects. Your time and attention to detail are special ❤️

    Sent from Yahoo Mail for iPad

    Like

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