Finding My Father in the Archives
Today’s post is the first in an occasional series where we will highlight some of the work of our volunteers. Janet Hodges is a volunteer with the Volunteer Office at the National Archives at College Park.
First, this isn’t about genealogy; I don’t like genealogy. I leave that exercise to my daughter who enjoys spending hours and days digging in dry documents to find a bit here and a bit there. However, when she asked me to find out the name of Dad’s plane and the missions he flew over Europe in World War II, I was hooked. One of my best memories of high school was doing a report on D-Day for history class.
I made a list of what Dad had told me about his bit in WWII; he had trained as a pilot and it was as a bombardier that he flew in the greatest mission of World War II — the D-Day invasion. From him I learned that he was in the first box (whatever that was) that soared over France raining bombs on the roads into Normandy both to weaken the Germans and to divert their attention from the beaches.
My first stop was NARA’s online catalog ARC, and, I found, after some fumbling, that Record Group 18 (Records of the Army Air Force 1902 – 1964) poured out information about the 9th Air Force — over 53,000 records. After hours spent online, it became obvious that I needed help finding the records for Bomber Group 323. So I pulled out my Researcher’s Card to use the resources in Archives II. Just in case the search was fruitful, I added five dollars to the card for making copies.
My next step was a visit with the Research Consultants in the Textual Research Room, and with their help I learned how to use the finding aids. The finding aids pointed to specifics: box number and shelf number. I filled out the pull request form and handed it in.
To keep the information from becoming overwhelming, I limited the search to three boxes that contained files (mission reports) from May and June 1944. My dad had reported to Earls Colne, England in April 1944 and the files in the boxes started with May 1944. I had no expectations about what I would find. I was hoping that there would be enough information to point me to another source.
After the files were delivered to the Textual Research room, I went to the Circulation Desk and asked for them. The boxes were brought to me on a cart and then I found a seat at one of the tables.
I opened up the first file folder in Box 1390 and my jaw dropped and my heart beat a little faster; the mission reports are thorough and meticulous. There are reports on the weather; on casualties; on damage to the planes; on the results of the sorties. There are lists of each plane and person who flew the sortie — including my dad. The first record of McLean, J. F. 2Lt. as bombardier on P042 is June 3, 1944. He flew every day for a week; including D-Day as he had told me. I used up a considerable part of the money I put on the card making copies of the reports.
For those who don’t know, a box is the formation that the planes were arranged in as they flew together, and it does look like a box with a head (the lead aircraft) attached.
I haven’t finished the quest. I still have to find the name of my Dad’s plane and a photo of it, if possible, so the research will continue. Since he flew in three different planes in one week, the research will be interesting. I will still leave genealogy to my daughter, but this was exciting.
Did Janet’s story pique your interest? Would you like to work with records like these? Learn about volunteering with the National Archives.