I knew my grandfather, James Wesley Case, was in the Army during WWII. I knew this because I spent time with him and my grandmother, Pauline, in their home in Fountain, MI. I was only about four or five years old and I remember seeing this picture of him and a few of the men he served with. He was standing with his shirt off next to an airplane and it looked like one of the other soldiers was pinning a medal on his bare chest only it wasn’t a medal it looked like a piece of cheese! I know that sounds like a strange memory but it was a strange picture. I remember asking my mom about it one day and she said that he was being made fun of because he had received some sort of citation or recognition and the rest of the guys thought the citation was kind of cheesy.
I had great memories of my grandfather and grandmother and I shot my first rifle when I was with them. Actually my grandfather had set some cans up and held the rifle and let me pull the trigger. He must have been a pretty good shot because we hit all of them.
My grandfather and grandmother had gotten divorced very late in life and my grandmother came to live with us. We became estranged from my grandfather and after his death we had found out that someone else (not a family member) had taken possession of all of his documents and belongings and we never saw any of it again.
I always wanted to find out more about his service in the military. My mother told me that he had been awarded the bronze star because she had seen it when she was a child but never knew much about his service with the exception that he was a mechanic on an airplane.
I am also an Army veteran like my grandfather but served during a period of peace time. My experience in the U.S. Army as a member of the 3rd U.S. Infantry (The Old Guard) gave me a deep conviction about honoring those who served in combat. As a member of the U.S. Army’s Honor Guard and Official Escort to the President I spent a good portion of my time at Arlington National Cemetery walking the hallowed avenues lined with row upon row of white military grave markers honoring many who had made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. My experiences there rekindled my desire to re-discover how and where my grandfather had served during World War II.
I have been an avid genealogist since I was eighteen years old (1984). My passion for family history started much earlier than most other people engaged in such pursuits and I think it is probably the same natural curiosity that eventually led me to a career in law enforcement and later to a career in historical research.
One day fourteen years ago I filled out a form at the Great Lakes Region of the National Archives and Records Administration in Chicago. The form was a request to search for military personnel records at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, MO. I filled out what information I could with what I knew about his service (which wasn’t much) and sent it off.
After a number of weeks I received a form letter stating that his records were stored in an area of the records center that was damaged by a devastating fire in 1973. On July 12, 1973 a fire broke out that took over four days to put out resulting in the loss of 80% of the Army’s personnel records of soldiers discharged between November 1, 1912 and January 1, 1960. Heavy losses were also sustained by the Air Force. The Navy and Marines records were unaffected.
According to the letter, my grandfathers’ record was included in the 80% of records lost. I was devastated! They did provide a document that was called a “Certification of Military Service” which they said was put together with information from alternate sources. The Certificate stated that James W. Case was a member of the Army of the United States from September 4, 1942 until honorably discharged on December 16, 1945 and that he had attained the rank of Sergeant.
Genealogists are a tenacious breed and when I am teaching classes on genealogical and historic research I always tell people to never give up and never take no for a final answer. I resubmitted the request twice more within the next three years thinking that there was a possibility that whoever was working on the request had possibly made a mistake. I received the same answer each time. What is the definition of insanity again?
In 2005 I was volunteering for the National Archives in Chicago and signed up for a class on veterans records at their facility on Pulaski. One of the lecturers was an amazing man by the name of “Buddy” Poe. He was in charge of the National Personnel Records Center and was talking about the fire. I spoke briefly about my grandfather’s situation (one of 18 million similar situations) and he was so kind and understanding. I mentioned to him how I had this feeling in my gut that his records still existed and I was on a mission to find out. He was kind enough to give me his personal fax number in St. Louis and told me to fax the request to him.
I went home and dug out all of my request forms and I saw something that made my heart leap out of my chest! The service number that I had written on my original request was different than the one shown on the Certification of Service form that they had continued to send me! How did I not notice this before.
I hurriedly filled out another request and faxed them to Buddy. In about two weeks I received an envelope that was a little thicker than the envelopes I had received so many times before! I was terrified to open it. I felt a little like Charlie opening that candy bar looking for the golden ticket.
As I carefully peeled back the paper I could see glimpses of old government forms that I was used to seeing in the military. Enclosed was a copy of my grandfather’s honorable discharge and also a copy of his separation papers known as the WD AGO Form 53-55. On this form were the cliff notes of his military service including his unit, the lists of battles and campaigns and his decorations and citations!
James Wesley Case, Army Serial Number 36738615 was a Master Sergeant in the 98th Troop Carrier Squadron of the 440th Troop Carrier Group. He enlisted on March 6, 1943 and left the service on September 8, 1945
He served as a crew chief or flight mechanic on a C-47 Skytrain and C-53 SkyTrooper Aircraft. In addition to serving in many campaigns including Rome-Arno, Northern and Southern France, Ardennes, and Rhineland, he actually served in Normandy on D-Day which earned his Unit The Distinguished Unit Badge which later became the Presidential Unit Citation. The 98th Squadron flew over the beaches of Normandy under heavy German fire to drop paratroopers from the 101st Airborne Division behind enemy lines! In addition to the Unit Citation he indeed earned a Bronze Star as well as his Good Conduct Medal, and his European-African-Middle-Eastern Theater Ribbon with 1 silver and 2 bronze battle stars.
Of course with this information I could see photos of the airplanes of the type he flew which immediately brought back my memories of the photo that I had seen as a child.
The documents have a special place among the thousands of family documents I have accumulated and show signs of having been burned but mercifully intact. Of course this is only the beginning of the story and as any good genealogist knows the story never ends and I will be following up with the information at the Pritzker Military Library and Museum in Chicago as well as the wealth of military unit information at the National Archives in Maryland.
So on this D-Day grandpa, know that your grandson didn’t give up just as you never did! I salute you!
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