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.


A group of five girls on a front bench and three behind them, each holding white slips of paper for a swim heat.

21 Hi8 Tapes Transformed For the 21st Century

The transfer of 21 Hi8 tapes to a digital format took 28 hours; splitting the resulting files into 452 edited movies required months of detail work.  Is it worth it?  I believe so, since the end result is the way we store and consume videos today:  we don’t have a series of unrelated events in a single file that is one or two hours long; rather, we have a number of separate video files that we can view individually or combine in a creative way if we choose.  Fortunately, the way we consume video in the second decade of the twenty-first century provides us with much more control than was afforded us in decades past.  It is simply more practical to share clips from old tapes than it is to share a digital file of the entire tape.  

In a previous post, I discussed the benefits of breaking videos that are hours long into individual clips.  I still believe that a first step should be to capture the videos in their entirety, if your only copies are on tape.  Tape degrades over time, so preserving your memories in a digital format is something you should tackle immediately.  The upper end of the life span for tape is 20 years.  Some of the tapes I recently worked with were older than that (1990 – 2011), and they were in fine shape, but yours may not be.  Don’t tempt fate if the only copy you have is still on tape.

The client’s 21 Hi8 tapes (and 2 audio tapes); I grouped and labeled them by type of tape.

Transferring using Vidbox

I discovered the Vidbox device a few years ago.  I have used it with a VCR and with two different camcorders, with S-Video, RCA cables, and camera-specific cables.  I did experience problems with a continuous feed when using the S-Video, which I solved by avoiding all USB hubs and power strips and disconnecting unnecessary devices.   Power was not an issue when using just camera-specific or RCA cables.  

There are demonstrations of Vidbox available, and all were positive; I can add my experience to that list.  I have now transferred over 30 tapes with the device.  It connects to your computer via USB and then to either a VCR or a camcorder using the appropriate cables.  The instructions on screen are clear, and if you encounter issues (as I did with the S-Video), then Vidbox support is available by phone.

Another option is to have the tapes transferred by a local camera shop, a photo organizer, or a national company.  If you use one of these approaches, be clear regarding what file format will be delivered to you, whether you will be able to edit the files, and what media will be used (USB, EHD, DVD, etc.) for delivery.  

The client did not know how much footage was on the 21 tapes. As shown in the chart below, eight tapes had about two hours of material, nine had about one hour, and the remainder had a half hour or less.  The total number of hours for all tapes was just under 28.

Creating and editing clips

I used iMovie 10.1.9 to separate hours-long video into separate clips.  Consider a hypothetical one-hour tape that includes Christmas, an indoor birthday, and swimming at an outdoor pool.  I begin by selecting all of the Christmas footage and copying it into the iMovie project pane.  Then I watch the footage and observe breaks in the filming.  I separate the footage and add transitions for each of these breaks (Cross Dissolve is my favorite transition).  The Christmas movie might end up having four different clips (opening presents, cooking in the kitchen, eating dessert, playing with toys), with transitions between them.  The indoor birthday movie might have ten different clips.  The outdoor pool movie might have just a single clip.  

I inserted transitions between these basketball game clips wherever there was a break in the original footage.  The yellow tint can be improved with auto color balance (below).

Auto color balance

A number of the clips benefitted from auto color balance, which was part of my base rate.  Examples of video that improved after auto color balance included:  indoor basketball games (above), some outdoor swim pool shots, and events in the kitchen.  Generally speaking, outdoor shots with grass did not improve with auto color balance (e.g., soccer games, Easter egg hunts).  I found that whether auto color balance would improve a clip or not depended on the direction of the light source relative to the camera, use of a camera light while filming, and the source of light being natural or artificial.

Auto color balance improved this footage from a preschool pumpkin-carving video; the yellow tint was removed.  

It also improved this footage of father and child at an outdoor swim pool by removing the unnatural shade of blue.

This footage from a neighborhood Halloween parade did not benefit from auto color balance, since it was filmed outside.

So many Power Rangers (1994)!

I always apply auto color balance to the individual clips within a project.  As the videographer was shooting and possibly changing position, the light may have shifted.  While one clip benefits from adjustment, a different clip may actually look worse.  Although it can be tedious to apply to each clip and view the impact, I highly recommend it; one size does not fit all.  

Manual color correction options (versus auto) are available in iMovie, but that level of adjustment was not within the scope of this particular project.

Determining dates of clips

If cases and/or tapes are dated

For this collection of 21 tapes, some cases were dated with years and a brief description of contents (eight cases were not labeled at all):

  • Softball 2002
  • End 4/5/96
  • Beginning 10/7/93  End Myrtle B. 1994  

The tapes themselves were not labeled, so I had to be aware that if a tape had been placed into the wrong case, then the case label might not be appropriate for the tape inside of it.  I made a note of each case label as I began to work on that particular tape, as it was my first indication of what might be on the associated tape.

If the video itself is dated

The case labels were a starting point.  Dates recorded using the camcorder proved to be very reliable, when they were available.  The camcorder manual explained how to view the date while playing the tape (it could be toggled on and off).  While capturing the footage using Vidbox, I made sure to toggle the date and timestamp off.  While editing the clips, I would replay the tape in the camcorder, toggle the date and timestamp on, and use it to date the clips.  The camcorder date and timestamp were not always available, even on a single tape (i.e., it would be available for some footage but not for all footage).  I utilized it whenever I could.

A toddler in a bath tub; his mother appears to the right in the picture.
A Christmas bath.

If neither of the above are available or reliable

There is always a bit of detective work associated with dating of tapes and clips.  The client provided me with some key dates (anniversary, birthdays, baptism, etc.)  If you cannot determine the date for a particular event, continue working with other material that follows on the same tape.  If you ultimately determine the date of events before and after an event in question, the two known dates can at least sandwich the unknown one.  In many cases, I ended up labeling with seasons if months could not be determined.  There is a caveat to this approach, however.  In a few instances, I could tell that an event was out of order on the tape.  Perhaps something was accidentally recorded over (someone grabbed the wrong tape), or perhaps the intent was to record over something that was no longer needed.  You cannot always rely on the order of items on the tapes themselves.  Consider the age of individuals in the footage and the season to help you determine if something is out of order or not.

Information can also be gathered from the video and/or audio.  This does require taking time to watch and listen to the recording so that you can identify any clues.  Below are a few examples of dating clips using clues within the audio and video:

  • July 4, 1990:  reference to July 4 (Independence Day) in the audio, and I was confident of the year.
  • Sunday, September 2, 1990: audio reference to Sunday night; this clip followed Labor Day weekend clips (known from audio).  I was confident that the year was 1990, so I could determine the dates of Labor Day weekend that year.
  • October 20,1990; Notre Dame score was 29 to 20 (on audio); they played Miami on that date with that score.  This date also matches the newspaper headline in the video – Oakland As and Cincinnati Reds in World Series (those dates were October 16-20, 1990).  
  • Friday, April 1, 1994:  I was confident of the year, and there was mention of it being Good Friday on the audio.
  • January 7, 1996:  date was available from local newspaper coverage of a blizzard on this date; it was revisited by the newspaper 20 years later in 2016.

Most of the examples above were audio clues (except for the newspaper headline).  An example of a video clue was this brochure from a piano recital (a bit hard to read:  June 4, 2000).

This is how the brochure appeared, briefly, in the video.  Upside down and a bit fuzzy.

Diving terminology

Both children in the family participated in springboard diving during the summer months.  I was unfamiliar with this sport and the associated terminology, which made dividing the clips and naming the movies challenging.  I didn’t know how many dives were performed at a particular meet, whether the kids alternated or not, and what “DD” meant (announced as each diver stepped onto the board).  

I learned to use background imagery to help determine if diving clips had been filmed on the same day or not.  The umbrellas at the tables, where the dives were positioned relative to other structures (buildings), and the attire of spectators and coaches all helped me to determine if what I was viewing was a different dive meet than prior footage.

The site USAdiver.com had a table that helped me decipher the terminology used when the divers were announced.  Each dive had a number (101), a letter (A, B, C), a description (back dive straight), and a degree of difficulty (DD = 1.7).  Having access to this information enabled me to label the movies with more accuracy and to add appropriate titles.

File formats

I used an iMac for this project, so Vidbox Video Conversion for Mac provided me with .MOV files.  After creating and editing the clips in iMovie, I researched export options.  I ultimately chose Quality:  ProRes.   The higher the quality and resolution, the larger the file size.  There is debate as to whether ProRes is “overkill” for video shot in the 1980s and 1990s.  However, the goal here was to enable preservation of these videos/clips for the long term (i.e., decades).  There is general agreement that ProRes is a format that is likely to enable future editing (the larger file size means there is a lot of data retained) and easier migration to new file formats when the time arises.  Since ProRes files are large, individual movies can always be further compressed if smaller files are needed in specific circumstances.

Vimeo’s blog post was helpful as I considered archival needs, and this Video Compression Guide points out that further compression is always possible if you retain a higher quality master version.

Don’t forget the Memory Stick

This particular camcorder had a Sony Memory Stick.  It was similar to an SD card, but longer.  I set it aside while I focused on the tapes.  Fortunately, I made a note to remember to check it before wrapping up the project.  I truly did not expect to find any material on it.  

The camcorder manual, which the client still had, provided information on how to view the Memory Stick contents using the camcorder.  About 20 images were templates of some sort, but then still images began to appear.  There were ultimately 33 of them.  I wasn’t sure if the client would want to save these images or not, or what quality they would be (the manual specified they were JPG, but not what resolution).  I knew she had invested in a good camera and had used it at the same events where the camcorder was present.  I wondered if these still images might already be reflected in her print or digital photo collection.  I used my iPhone to film the images as they played on the camcorder.  I shared the resulting video with the client, and she confirmed that she wanted to retain the still images.

I found out the Sony Memory Stick was proprietary technology.  Sony customer service was helpful and directed me to Best Buy for a device that could read a Memory Stick.  There were a couple of devices with widely varying price points.  The less expensive one was out of stock, but I found a comparable device elsewhere.  The client was agreeable to spending the $24 needed for the device to access the Memory Stick, so those 33 images were copied to a CD and an EHD for her use.

Wrap up

I give credit to the parents, the videographers in this family.  They still had the camcorder, cords, and manual.  The tapes were in good condition, with some labeling.  Often, audio had been used to record the relevance of the event being filmed.  There was not a lot of wasted tape between events filmed.  Occasionally, the camera had been left running, capturing grass, the lens cap, or a counter – but there was only a handful of situations like that.  Overall, the video was easy to work with and decipher. 

I shared a selected number of movies with the client via Vimeo as I progressed through the project, so I received some early reactions to the work product.  I am anxious to hear from the family as to which events surprised and moved them the most, upon viewing all of them for the first time in a decade or more.

“I love these!!!  Thank you SO much! I am so grateful that we are preserving these diving memories. The middle school birthday party is HILARIOUS…and slightly painful to watch, haha. I was, in fact, a teenager once.…”

~Maria M. in Richmond, VA (July 17, 2017)

“I was able to view the videos and was delighted with them.  Thanks so much for doing such outstanding work!”

Rebecca M. in Richmond, VA (May 1, 2018)

ALL IMAGES ARE USED WITH PERMISSION FROM THE CLIENT.
A memorial service bouquet in a vase with greenery, pink roses and carnations, a purple flower, and three yellow sunflowers; adorned with a turquoise ribbon in a turquoise vase.

A Celebration of a Life, One Year Later

My mother passed away almost one year ago, on November 13, 2017.  She lived with Alzheimer’s disease for about 15 years.  I am the only sibling who lives out of town, nine hours away.  I was grateful when my two sisters and father were agreeable to me contributing to her memorial service and reception by preparing a slideshow and several photo collages of her life.  As a photo organizer, this participation enabled me to utilize that passion.  The items I prepared were easily transported by car when we made the journey north for her service and reception.

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A woman in an orange shirt and hat with a backpack on. The red rocks of a canyon are behind her; she is holding up her hands to celebrate successfully crossing a stream without falling in.

iMovie: First Attempt

Is video part of your vacation memories toolbox?  I advocate for video as a supplement to online photo galleries, photo books, and printed photos.  The ability to capture voices, antics, and movement is unique to the video format.  With some basic training to help you efficiently navigate iMovie, you’ll find it is easy to create a comprehensive video story from a series of clips, taken on a variety of devices.  You can add audio (music or specific sounds), transitions, titles, and credits.  Splitting clips and editing out unwanted content is straightforward.  

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A grid of cacti being grown in pink containers for sale.

The Big Negative Sort

I recently had a client with 175 negative strips as part of her photo collection.  Some were grouped in plastic sleeves from the developer (Rite Aid, Eckerd).  Some had white handling tabs attached to them.  And many were just…loose.  How was I going to tackle the sorting of the loose strips?  My ultimate goal was to recreate the film rolls of which they were a part (so that I could match them to existing prints or to contact sheets).

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A turtle made from sand on a beach.

Help! My Photos are Stuck to…

There is much advice on the internet regarding how to address prints stuck to stuff.  How one should proceed depends on the age of the photos, what they are stuck to, whether they are the only record, and how precious they are.  If they are stuck, they are already damaged.  The goal will be to minimize any further damage as they are separated from whatever they are attached to.

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