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A scrap of silk tells an airman’s story

In honor of Memorial Day, today’s blog post comes from  Sara Holmes, supervisory preservation specialist, and Michael Pierce, preservation technician, both at the National Archives at St. Louis.

The piece of silk lay in the folder as if it were just another page in the military personnel record—with holes punched through to be held by the fasteners, just another page to be cleaned of mold and soot from the burned files from the disastrous 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center.

But this piece of cloth with its colorful silkscreen of a Chinese flag was clearly something different from everything else treated by the Paper Lab. Accompanying documents in the file explained how very special it was. The long journey taken by this small silken scrap, called a “blood chit,” to the National Archives began when it fell from the sky.

Preservation staff found this "blood chit" in the Official Military Personnel File of John Vurgaropulos.

Preservation staff found this “blood chit” in the Official Military Personnel File of James Vurgaropulos.

On June 29, 1944, 16 American planes were flying a mission against the Japanese along the Laodoho River in the Hunan Province in China. After several followed a road away from the river, one of the planes crashed into a building and then skidded across the rice fields, breaking apart and burning.

Over a year later, the Changsha Search Team reported finding the grave of an unidentified pilot. … [ Read all ]

Now on display: Whitman’s Report on Cemeteries

In honor of Memorial Day, the 1869 Whitman Report on Cemeteries is on display in the East Rotunda Gallery of the National Archives Building from May 22 through June 5. Today’s post comes from curator Alice Kamps.

Drawing of Shiloh Cemetery from Whitman’s Report on Cemeteries. National Archives, Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General

Drawing of Shiloh Cemetery from Whitman’s Report on Cemeteries.
National Archives, Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General

Memorial Day traditions began in the aftermath of the Civil War. The American people were just beginning what historian Drew Gilpin Faust called “the work of death.”

An estimated 750,000 soldiers died between 1861 and 1865—about 2.5 percent of the population. Never before or since has war resulted in so many American casualties. The task of locating, identifying, burying, and mourning the dead was overwhelming.

Walt Whitman wrote of the nation’s shared suffering in his epic 1865 poem, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d:

I saw battle-corpses, myriads of them,
And the white skeletons of young men, I saw them,
I saw the debris and debris of all the slain soldiers of the war,
But I saw they were not as was thought,
They themselves were fully at rest, they suffer’d not,
The living remain’d and suffer’d, the mother suffer’d,
And the wife and the child and the musing comrade suffer’d,
And the armies that remain’d suffer’d.

In his Personal Memoirs, Ulysses S. Grant described an open field after … [ Read all ]

Death register returns to Mauthausen, Austria

Today’s post comes from exhibits conservator Terry Boone and senior registrar James Zeender.

May marks the surrender of the Nazi forces to the Allies—and the liberation of the Mauthausen concentration camp in 1945.

Last year in April, we traveled to the Mauthausen National Memorial, about 100 miles west of Vienna, with one of the original death registers created at the Mauthausen concentration camp. This camp was a part of the Nazi killing machine responsible for 6 million deaths—almost 100,000 at Mauthausen alone.

The register would be part of a new exhibition, “The Concentration Camp Mauthausen 1938–1945,” on display in the infirmary building where the registers were originally kept. The infirmary is within walking distance of the quarry where thousands of prisoners were worked to death, deaths that would be recorded for history by the prison clerks. Prisoners carried stones weighing 50 pounds or more up hundreds of steps eight or more times a day. The exhibition marks the first time that a piece of original Holocaust evidence from the National Archives had returned to its place of origin for public display.

 The front cover of the first volume of the Mauthausen death books. National Archives.

The front cover of the first volume of the Mauthausen death register. National Archives Collection of World War II War Crimes Records, RG 238).

In Austria, our first stop was the Interior Ministry in downtown Vienna, where we met Mauthausen Memorial Archive Director … [ Read all ]

Executive Orders 9980 and 9981: Ending segregation in the Armed Forces and the Federal workforce

Today’s blog post comes from curator Jennifer Johnson and education and exhibit specialist Michael Hussey. Executive Orders 9980 and  9981 are on display in the National Archives Museum. See EO 9980 until January 5, 1015, in “Making Their Mark: Stories Through Signatures” in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery and EO 9981 until June 17, 2014, in “Records of Rights” in the David M. Rubenstein Gallery

“Recent events in the United States and abroad have made us realize that it is more important today than ever before to insure that all Americans enjoy these rights. When I say all Americans I mean all Americans…Our National Government must show the way.” President Truman, in a speech to the NAACP, June 29, 1947

Without Congress’s blessing, the executive branch or the President of the United States can issue a Presidential Proclamation or an Executive Order. Both carry the force of law.

Executive orders, known as decrees in other countries, are issued to manage the Federal government. Proclamations are aimed outside the Federal government and have been issued for things from declaring war as President Wilson did with Proclamation #1364 to declaring Thanksgiving a holiday as George Washington did when he issued Presidential Proclamation #1.

President Truman, the first President to speak to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), had based part of his platform … [ Read all ]

Now on display: A letter from a mother

Today’s blog post comes from curator Alice Kamps. This featured document will be on display from May 9 to May 21.

On May 9, 1914, President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation declaring the second Sunday in May a holiday for the “public expression of love and reverence for the mothers of our country.”

To commemorate the centennial of the first national observance of Mother’s Day, this exhibit at the National Archives displays just one of hundreds of thousands of letters written by mothers seeking advice from the Children’s Bureau, a Federal Government office established in 1912 to promote the well-being of mothers and their children.

Even 100 years ago, these letter writers wondered: Is it possible to balance the demands of work and motherhood?

With three children under the age of four, and without “conveniences and modern utilities,” Mrs. Neil Williams was at the end of her rope. If anyone could help her, surely it was Julia Lathrop, Director of the Children’s Bureau.

In heartfelt language, Mrs. Williams wrote to Ms. Lathrop in 1920 to ask how to manage “all these scientific and hygienic duties for babies,” keep up with housework, and love and nurture her children. “I love them until it hurts,” she explained, “and know that, when they are out of their babyhood, I can never forgive myself for not making more … [ Read all ]