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The National Archives at St. Louis thanks WWII Navy veteran Paul Wittmer

The National Archives at St. Louis staff extended a special thanks to World War II U.S. Navy Veteran Paul Wittmer on April 14.

World War II submarine veterans take part in a ceremony honoring their counterparts who lost their lives during the war. The ceremony is taking place as part of an observance of the 50th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. 12/06/1991. NAI 6476472.

World War II submarine veterans take part in a ceremony honoring their counterparts who lost their lives during the war. The ceremony is taking place as part of an observance of the 50th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. 12/06/1991. NAI 6476472.

During World War II, Wittmer served on six war patrols on the USS Tinosa SS-283. He was part of the crew responsible for the capture of the famed Japanese I-401 submarine taken at the end of the war and returned to Pearl Harbor from Japan.

The I-401 was the largest submarine in the world at the time. It was designed with an air-tight airplane hangar on board so it could surface and launch three torpedo bombers in attacks against enemy vessels or land targets. To prevent this technology from falling into the hands of the Soviets, the I-401 and the only other submarine of its kind to enter service, the I-400, were sunk near Pearl Harbor.

Despite his age, Wittmer has faithfully made his standing Tuesday research room appointment since 2007.  His tireless efforts have culminated in a six-volume publication titled United States Submarine Men Lost During World War II, which honors U.S. submariners killed in action during World War II. Each profile contains a small bio with information on dates of service, military photographs, hometown info, and the ship that each man served on until his death. Fifty-two U.S. submarines were lost during the war.

Wittmer, who worked alone for the bulk of the project, combed through thousands of official military personnel files (OMPFs) and collected information on approximately 3,600 submariners lost. These submariners are largely forgotten, except by family and friends. These are veterans who have no white marble headstones in American National Cemeteries. For most, their final resting place is still unknown.

Over the years, Wittmer shared photographs and memorable comments on files of veterans who were personal friends or acquaintances. His six-volume publication is an invaluable asset to anyone studying this part of World War II history. NARA is honored that Wittmer donated a complete set to the St. Louis archival research room for use by researchers from around the world.

Wittmer was also featured in a PBS documentary examining the biographies of persons on Japanese I-401.

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. The team recovered the engine numbers and serial plates of the carburetor and radio compass and noted that “A Chinese Flage [sic] Identification which was worn on this fliers [sic] jacket, number 12331, has been found.”

One of the greatest fears a soldier has is being lost or injured in a place where he or she does not speak the language and needs assistance to get back to their unit. The blood chit was created with this scenario in mind—it is a notice written in the local language and carried by military personnel, identifying its bearer as friendly and asking for help.

Possibly the first recorded usage of such a document was in 1793, when Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blanchard came to America to demonstrate his hot-air balloon. Blanchard could not speak a word of English, so George Washington gave him a letter stating that all United States citizens were obliged to help him return to Philadelphia. In 1842, British troops used the same type of document while fighting in Afghanistan.

Before America’s entry into World War II, American pilots were training in China under the command of Claire Chennault to help defend that country against the empire of Japan. During this time, the most recognizable form of the blood chit—a larger paper version is still used today by military personnel—came into being.

Foreign pilots were issued a rescue patch called a hu chao after they become advisers to the Chinese Air Force in 1937. The hu chao depicted the Chinese National Flag, the chop (stamp) of the Chinese Air Force Headquarters, and text in Mandarin or Cantonese that read: “This foreign person has come to China to help in the war effort. Soldiers and civilians, one and all, should rescue, protect, and provide him medical care.”

Lt. James Vurgaropulos carried just such a chit. James was born on February 22, 1919, in Lowell, MA, to Greek immigrant parents. He was a pilot in the 75th Fighter Squadron, 23rd Fighter Group of the United States Army Air Force when his plane went down on June 29, 1944, apparently killing him instantly. He was 25 years old.

Wong Ch’ing Lien was one of the first people at the scene of the crash. He gave a witness statement to the Changsha Search Team and showed the team where James had been buried at the village of Eya-Ch’ung. Lien also helped the team recover the blood chit.

Letter found in the Official Military Personnel File of John Vurgaropulos.

Letter found in the Official Military Personnel File of James Vurgaropulos.

This chit measures 8″ x 9.5″ and bears some damage from the fire and its aftermath. Rust stains are in the upper left, and the purple stamp with two Chinese characters has offset to create a mirror image formed while it was folded . The silk is discolored and has a tear to the right of the flag. The chop (block stamp) on the left is heavily faded, possibly being a highly water soluble ink. It is possible that the record was vacuum dried following the fire at the  National Personnel Records Center in 1973. Other documents in this record do not have burn damage, but are brittle with rust stains from staples and other fasteners. The small thumbnail photo of Vurgaropulos clearly shows damage from high humidity as a result of the fire.

It is not clear from the documentation whether the chit was found in the grave, or had been kept by those in the village who had buried him and given to the search team. Given that Changsha is a rice-growing region, it may be more likely that the chit was saved by those who saw to Vurgaropulos’s burial and who later assisted the search team in locating his grave over a year later.

By March of 1946, the remains had been moved to Shanghai, and paperwork had begun to amend James’s status to “Killed in Action.” Unfortunately for the Vurgaropulos family, James was not their only loss during the war. His younger brother, John, a bombardier on a B-26, was killed when his plane was hit by flak in 1945.

In this photo, John smiles at the camera as he poses with his former crewmates in front of his aircraft, the “Panchita del Rio.” John was later buried in Arlington National Cemetery, and James’s remains were moved from China to the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii. In 1979, the brothers were honored together when the state of Massachusetts designated a bridge on Pawtucket Street in Lowell to be the Vurgaropulos Memorial Bridge.

Now that its significance has been recognized, National Archives preservation staff will create special archival housing for the blood chit that James carried, and it will be kept in a secure location at the National Archives at St. Louis.

We all hope to leave some tangible evidence of our existence behind when we’re gone. It could be our children, something we’ve written or drawn, maybe even a memory that sticks in the mind of a friend or a loved one. Both James and John Vurgaropulos have touched National Archives staff who have learned their stories, and we are honored to help preserve their memories so that neither man will be forgotten.

Photograph of John

Photograph of James Vurgaropulos.

On this Memorial Day, we honor not only the memory of the Vurgaropulos brothers and others lost to grieving family and friends, but also the gracious assistance of Wong Ch’ing Lien and untold others like him who came to the aid of those far away from home as best they were able.

We thank all who served, however they were called to serve, and are grateful that they were willing to step forward to assist our nation and its people.

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 the 1862 Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee. He said it was “so covered with dead that it would have been possible to walk across the clearing, in any direction, stepping only on dead bodies.” The proper burial of these and other Union soldiers took years and an expansion of the Federal Government to complete.

Edmund B. Whitman of the U.S. Army’s Quartermaster Corps led one of the crews charged with converting temporary graveyards into permanent national cemeteries. Over four years beginning in March 1865, Whitman’s men located, disinterred, and reburied almost 115,000 bodies. In his Final Report, now on display, he included drawings of Shiloh and several other new national cemeteries.



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 Christian Duerr and photo archivist Ute Bauer-Wassmann. We learned about the origins of the Archive and its development.

Hans Maršálek, a camp survivor, had compiled about 20 cubic feet of records from various sources into binders. After the war, he served as a special investigator for the Austrian Interior Ministry and helped investigate war criminals. From 1964 to 1976, he was the head of the Memorial. He died in 2011. In the last 12 years, through the efforts of the Mauthausen Memorial Archive staff, the collection has grown substantially. Memorial contract researchers working at the National Archives at College Park are also digitizing thousands of records  that will eventually be available on their website.

Mauthausen was a complex of more than 40 labor camps spread over the eastern half of Austria and southeast Germany. At Mauthausen,  political and ideological prisoners and Jews died by “extermination through labor,” gas, shooting, starving, and beating. They came from Albania, Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, and the Soviet Union. American POWs were also held captive there.

The Memorial was first organized by camp survivors and established by the Austrian government in 1949. Today, it is administered under the direction of the Austrian Interior Ministry. The Mauthausen Committee, a non-governmental organization, organizes the annual liberation ceremonies, educational programs, and other activities. The site receives close to 200,000 visitors a year.

When German SS troops evacuated the Mauthausen Concentration Camp on May 3, 1945, ahead of advancing Allied troops, elderly militia, police, and firemen were left in control of the camp.  Two days later, the 41st Reconnaissance Squadron of the US 11th Armored Division, 3rd U.S. Army approached from the west, disarmed the militia and police, and left. More U.S. Army units arrived on May 6 and occupied the area for several weeks. Among those freed at Mauthausen was Simon Wiesenthal, who dedicated his life to tracking down Nazis who had committed war crimes.

Germany surrendered to the Allies on May 7, 1945. Mauthausen was put under the jurisdiction of the Soviet Union’s Red Army in July 1945. In the weeks before the Red Army took over, U.S. Army investigators swept up the death books and other camp records for use at the Nuremburg Tribunal and other war crimes trials. Eventually, the records were transferred to the National Archives.

Totenbuch Mauthausen (Volume 1) is one of seven registers in the National Archives and covers the period from January 1939 to December 1939. The six other death books span the years up to the liberation of May 1945.

The first volume of the Mauthausen Deathbooks shown open. National Archives.

Entries 1838 to 1864 in the first volume of the Mauthausen death register. National Archives Collection of World War II War Crimes Records, RG 238.

From 1941 to 1942, prisoner Ernst Martin recorded the entries in the books. In 1943, prisoner Josef Ulbrecht from Czechoslovakia followed him as the clerk in the office of the head doctor until liberation. Martin would be especially helpful to the investigators in compiling the camp records that would be most useful at trial.

Tomaz Jardim writes in The Mauthausen Trial: “Although Martin was ordered not to record the true causes of death, the books clearly reflect mass murder. On March 19, 1945, for instance, 275 Jewish prisoners are listed to have died of heart trouble at Mauthausen between 1:15 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. They died alphabetically, one after another, from Ackerman to Zyskind.”

The SS directed Martin to destroy the books, but he took great risks to preserve them. About the death registers, Jardim writes:

More than any other piece of  evidence gathered by War Crimes investigators, the death books of both Mauthausen and Gusen proved to be vital in the investigation and ultimate trial of the SS staff.  These books record the deaths of near 72,000 prisoners [and] survived through the efforts of a prisoner clerk named Ernst Martin. . . . By posing as a “dumb and disinterested clerk,” Martin gained the trust of the Nazi overlords and was put in charge of updating the death books on a daily basis.

At the trial, prosecutor Lt. Col. Denson asked Martin questions about entry 2,768 in one of the death books. “Did you make any notation after the place of birth to tell you whether or not that man died an unnatural death?”

Martin responded: “After the birth place, a period.” The cause of death in the book read “shot while trying to escape,” but this was a Polish Jew who was confined to a quarantine block with no opportunity to escape.

During our visit, we asked Duerr, the Mauthausen Memorial Archive Director, about the existence of other death registers and other evidence at Mauthausen. Duerr responded:

In general, the SS ordered the destruction of the most incriminating evidence of their crimes before the camps’ liberation. . . . However, the effort of prisoners saved some of these documents from destruction . . . registers concerning prisoners who died or were murdered are preserved in different archives. Our own archive, for example, holds death registers for the camp Gusen, which were compiled independently from the ones held at the National Archives. Also, there are registers of so-called “unnatural deaths” held at the National Archives in Prague.

When we arrived at the Memorial, Barbara Glück and her staff greeted us outside at the front entrance to the infirmary.

The Totenbuch was one of the last objects to be installed. The Memorial’s contract conservator Bettina Dräxler of Vienna and National Archives conservator Terry Boone made a careful record of the volume’s appearance.

The register is in good condition. It is a quarter-cloth case binding with paper labels on front cover, and section gatherings are held by staples. The machine-made paper has manuscript text entries in red, blue, and black fountain pen ink. Occasionally ink manuscript entries have been scraped off and overlaid with rewritten information. In coming years, the other death books will be rotated into the exhibition as a preservation measure to ensure limited handling and light exposure of each volume.

Conservator Terry Boone installing the Mauthausen Death book at the Mauthausen Memorial, April 2013.  National Archives.

Conservator Terry Boone installing the Mauthausen death register at the Mauthausen Memorial in April 2013. Photo by Ute Bauer-Wassman, archivist at the Mauthausen Memorial.

When they finished with the condition report, Terry and Bettina were ready for installation. We soon realized the mount was too tall. Everyone waited anxiously while the exhibit crew made the necessary adjustments to the mount. Finally, the volume was in its case, and the case was secured. Light readings were taken; alarms and cameras were tested. Our work was done.

The volume was installed open. To protect against damage to the binding, it will be shown closed for the coming year. Next May, another volume from the series will replace it, and the first volume will return to the National Archives.

The National Archives is a center for Holocaust research, with more than 20 million pages of related textual (and many nontextual) records including the Mauthausen death register and other evidence used at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials. The Mauthausen Concentration Camp Complex: World War II and Postwar Records (2008) was compiled by staff archivist Amy Schmidt and intern Gudrun Loehrer with cooperation from the staff at the Mauthausen Memorial Archives. Also, see and  Many of these records can also be found on and other sites.

We are most grateful to Dr. Glück, Dr. Duerr, Karin Gschwandtner, Ute Bauer-Wassman, Ralph Lechner, Dr. Dräxler and all the others associated with the Memorial who helped us along the way. We are also grateful for the support we received from the U.S. Embassy in Vienna, specifically Jan Krc, Karin Czerny, Mary-Jo Swinimer, Martin Beck, and John McDaniel. Closer to home, we are grateful for assistance from Amy Schmidt, Ann Cummings, and Netisha Currie from Research Services; Kevin McCoy, Lee Johnson, and Bill Nenichka from Security/Holdings Protection; Alexis Hill, Cathy Farmer, and Chris Smith from Exhibits; MaryLynn Ritzenthaler and Kitty Nicholson from Conservation; and Jim Gardner, head of Legislative Archives, Presidential Libraries, and Museum Services.

Further reading: Tomaz Jardim: The Mauthausen Trial: American Military Justice in Germany (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012)

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 on civil rights. Successfully elected but stymied by the 80th Congress, President Truman—armed with documentation from his Committee on Civil Rights—called for a special session for Congress. They were to convene on July 26, 1948.

On that hot, summer day in July, Truman signed his name to two documents: Executive Orders 9980 and 9981, integrating the Armed Forces and the Federal workforce.

At the time, Washington, DC—our nation’s capital—was a segregated city. “Whites only” or “Negroes” signs designated separate lunchrooms, work places, and restrooms. The Federal workforce was segregated, too, a policy implemented under President Wilson’s administration. When President Truman entered the White House, only one agency—the Department of the Interior—was integrated.

Original caption: Card punch operators working on population cards, Negro Section. Approximately 328,341,293 cards in 151 forms were punched for the decennial census. National Archives Identifier: 7741404

Original caption: Card punch operators working on population cards, Negro Section. Approximately 328,341,293 cards in 151 forms were punched for the decennial census. National Archives Identifier:

Original caption: Card Punch Operators working on population cards. A total of 2,400 punchers were employed and 1,859 punch machines of all types were used in the 1940 Census. National Archives Identifier: 7741405

Original caption: Card Punch Operators working on population cards. A total of 2,400 punchers were employed and 1,859 punch machines of all types were used in the 1940 Census. National Archives Identifier:

And more than one million African American men and thousands of black women, who were inducted into the armed forces and served across the globe during World War II, were in racially segregated units. He was President of a country that overwhelmingly opposed integration, but within a day, Truman had profoundly changed the development of the country’s racial landscape.

Each executive order outlined how policies would be implemented by setting up advisory boards and committees. For example, EO9980 mandated that the responsibility fall on the Presidentially appointed heads of each government agency. Within months, agencies began complying with EO 9980.

And despite considerable resistance to EO 9981, by the end of the Korean conflict, the entire military was integrated.

Currently, both EO 9980 and EO 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.