Friday, March 18, 2011

Grandma Forgets--But Libraries Remember

My grandmother Chapman's scrapbook covering my father's service in World War II.

I've been working on a book proposal about the end of World War II, and I owe a debt to the work my grandmother did--keeping a scrapbook of my father's photos, newspaper articles from his hometown paper, as well as telegrams and letters. All this has been an enormous help in my work.

One thing my grandmother did not do, much to my dismay--when she cut out newspaper articles about my father--she did not include the name of the paper or the date of the article. For the family, at that time, it didn't seem important. For a researcher--it is essential.

Thank goodness for libraries. I learned that the downtown library in Birmingham, Alabama (my father lived in Homewood, a Birmingham suburb) has microfilm from the 1940s of both the Birmingham News and the Shades Valley Sun. I suspected the articles about my father appeared in one or the other of these papers. The Sun was a weekly published for Homewood and surrounding neighborhoods, where my grandfather was President of the City Council.

An online request could not be fulfilled, because one has to give a librarian a date range of just a few days if one wants a librarian to pour through the microfilm.

So, I took a recent research trip to Birmingham and went through the microfilm myself. I rolled the dice and started with The Sun and began my search in August of 1945 when the war was coming to an end. I based that on the content of the articles and their placement in the scrapbook. One was about Nagasaki, so I knew it had to have appeared after August 1945.

Within less than an hour I had found both articles--with name of the papers, page numbers, and dates

"Capt. Chapman Served on World's Remotest Islands" appeared on page 10 of The Shades Valley Sun on Friday, September 28, 1945. My grandfather was in advertising and he had a flair for promoting the service of his self-effacing son.

The more important article, "Homewood Boy Visits Scene of Atomic Bomb Destruction," appeared on page 11 of The Shades Valley Sun on October 26, 1945. Based on a letter my father wrote home after touring the destruction at Nagasaki, it quotes his observations including: 'The stench of the dead is still present in some places."

I knew my father had seen Nagasaki--though he never spoke about it to me. I learned it from this article, which I had seen in my maternal grandmother's scrapbook decades ago. More recently, I found it in my grandmother Chapman's scrapbook. But without a date, or the name of the paper, I was stymied. Now, with the rest of the blanks filled in, at least of this mystery--I can move forward with my research.

History is like a large puzzle and my father's war history is like a puzzle within that puzzle--with a few pieces filled in here and there by my father in random conversations throughout his life. Now, as I am gradually finding the other pieces with research, the true story of his experiences in the last and largest battle of the Pacific Theatre--Okinawa--is beginning to come into focus.

I wish he would have talked to me about it in his lifetime. But he didn't seem to want to.

But there are still ways to learn:

My grandmother helped by saving the articles. My mother helped by saving my father's letters. And the Birmingham Library helped by aiding me in my microfilm search through their archives. I hope one day to find a gracious way to thank them.

My grandparents might have had an inkling--but it has taken us all many years to realize how much we all owe to the contributions of all these men whom Tom Brokaw thoughtfully dubbed "The Greatest Generation."

My father, standing third from left, with his men on Ie Shima, during the Battle of Okinawa.

If you are interested in reading more about the Battle of Okinawa, I recommend Typhoon of Steel: The Battle for Okinawa by James H. and William M. Belote. It was published in 1970 and can be found at Abe books On Line or at your local library.

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Del said...

Hi Robin: I watched your reporting on KGW and am glad you are doing well. I became a historian and archivist and now work at the National Archives in College Park MD.

Also sleuthing in my family history, including DNA-based genealogy which helped me break a 15-year brick wall and push another 100 years past it.

Anyway, another very good way to search old papers is through Newsbank online. Though marketed to genealogists every single word is indexed so you would be able to find articles like you describe here much faster than by going back to the microfilm.

Robin Chapman said...

What a lovely note you have sent me and what great information for me to use as I draft a book proposal from my father's WW II letters. Thanks Del--I used to live in Bethesda when I worked at WJLA TV, and I know you must be at the top of your field to be at the National Archives. Thanks for letting me hear from you.