Thursday, July 17, 2008

Books Help Us Discover the Past — Understanding the Present

by Teresa L. Story, Collections Development Assistant

The Ball State University Libraries offer an impressive military history collection, developed by careful selections of resources and enhanced by thoughtful donations of faculty and private citizens over many years. As an assistant to the librarians who select, develop, and manage the Libraries’ collections, I have many opportunities to view resources before they are catalogued for use by our students and faculty.

While military history is not necessarily a topic that I might select for my own reading enjoyment, I was intrigued by a recently donated book about World War II, Finding Your Father’s War: A Practical Guide to Researching and Understanding Service in the World War II US Army by Jonathan Gawne. It is a handbook for laypersons interested in researching a family member’s experience as an enlisted soldier in World War II. The book features photos, charts, research sources, and general information about the various units in the U.S. Army.

Similar to other veterans of WWII, my father rarely discussed his military experiences. My knowledge was limited to knowing that he was an airplane mechanic and sergeant in the U.S. Army Air Forces. I learned additional information from his discharge papers as I prepared his memorial services, yet I regretted that this unique time of his life had remained a mystery for so many years. As I glanced through the pages of Finding Your Father’s War, I was thrilled to discover even more about my father’s military past.

Perhaps symbolic of Dad’s desire to bury memories of that time, his military documents and related paraphernalia were discretely stored in a small briefcase in his bedroom closet where he kept them.

Until Finding Your Father’s War came upon my desk, I had no idea what these long forgotten items meant or the circumstances in which they were awarded. I learned about the Distinguished Unit Citation awarded to his unit, the Good Conduct Medal authorized by his commanding officer, and the ribbons that all service personnel received at the end of the war.

I was able to match his Unit award, technician’s badge, ribbons, and uniform insignias to photos in the book of the same items. A uniform jacket covered in a plastic bag and trinkets in a briefcase are now more significant to me than ever before. Because World War II veterans are dying at an increasing rate, library tools such as Finding Your Father’s War are very useful in helping us fully appreciate our loved ones’ military experiences and sacrifices.

With additional research, I hope to gain further insight about how this historic war personally affected my father, a young man from rural Tennessee, and its impact on the remainder of his life and our family.

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