A few years ago I bought some stamps on eBay. I collect stamps. Most of the stamps were loose, but some were still on their envelopes (“on covers” as stamp collectors call it). As is usually the case, the envelopes were empty. Except one. One of the covers was postmarked March 25th, 1945, had U.S. Army censor markings and an APO return address from an airman serving with the United States Army Air Forces in the 93rd Bombardment Group. (Remember, it was the “Army Air Forces” until it was renamed to the “United States Air Force” in 1947.)
Inside was a letter from the airman (a sergeant) to his parents back home in New York, three pages long. At the end is a poignant message that is as true today as then:
A few weeks ago, I came across this letter and set myself the goal of reuniting it with the young sergeant’s family, if I could locate them. It feels wrong to keep hidden away in a box what could be so meaningful and so treasured to the right person.
Some of the most challenging genealogical research problems are those dealing with the distant past or the recent past. The former, I think we all have a sense of. Records are less plentiful, less complete, less accurate and require more sensitive interpretation when we look back to times and places quite different from our own. But researching recent times is also challenging, due to restrictions on record access, generally for privacy and identity theft prevention reasons.
So what did I do to find the family? In the interest of privacy, I won’t disclose the identities of the parties involved here, but I did identify a grand-niece of the airman, and after an exchange of emails to confirm this was the right family, I sent off the letter to her last week.
Sources I consulted to find the right family included:
- U.S. federal census for 1940 and 1930, to establish the airman’s age, place of birth, age of parents and whether he had any siblings. (He had no siblings.)
- Social Security Death Index and FindAGrave to see if he was still alive. (He was not.)
- Newspaper.com to find information on any marriages and children. (I found a marriage notice and notice for birth of one daughter.)
- Ancestry.com user family trees to see if anyone else was researching the same family. (I found someone.)
I considered this to be the ideal outcome. Finding a family member who was an amateur genealogist, even if not an immediate family member, “opened the door” for me, and gave me someone who could help unlock all the relevant names that Ancestry.com anonymizes as “Living.”
With that mystery solved, I have one other batch of letters that I’d like to work on next. They are 13 letters spanning 1914-1919 to a man named James Doherty, originally from Boston, but who moved about to Buffalo and Rochester in this period. As far as Irish-American names go, this one is not exactly rare. In particular, the 1910 census shows 90 different men living in Boston named James Doherty!
On the other hand, do I even look for him, or should I focus on the the sender of the letters, a woman named May (no surname given) with only a return address in East Boston? Which family would treasure the letters more? I’m thinking the sender’s would, since the letter is her words, her handwriting, telling her thoughts. It is from someone’s great-great-grandmother. But with 100 years distance and only a first name and an address to go on, let’s see how this goes. I’m confident I can crack this case!
What about you? Have you ever found a letter or something similar and used your genealogical sleuthing skills to track down someone to return it to?