With the 75th anniversary of D-Day celebrations in Europe behind us and Father’s Day this month, we’re reminded more than ever about the wonderful men in our families. Their military and other sacrifices throughout Arkansas and American history helped build a better world.
How much do we actually know – to share with our families – about their military and life experiences? During the D-Day commemorations, it was heartening to see the veterans, some in their 90s, back in France sharing firsthand with high school students about their war service. The young people said it brought the war alive to them, and the vets said they appreciated the cross-generational connection.
Veterans of many wars often didn’t share about their war service back home. That sometimes makes it challenging to learn as much about our fathers, grandfathers or great-grandfathers as we’d like, especially if they served and have died. In the current generation, military service has been voluntary and not shared equally in society, so military history sometimes gets lost.
Learning, Saluting, and Paying It Forward
Preserving that history is one reason why organizations like the Daughters of the American Revolution and others are honoring veterans from World War I forward by recording their stories for the Veterans History Project, which is available at the Library of Congress site. Maybe one of your ancestors’ stories already is there for family to explore. (If you know of an Arkansas veteran whose story should be told, a contact is Michael Dobbs at Central Arkansas Voluntary Services at [email protected] )
Some family historians have written tributes about military ancestors for blogs or the military web site www.fold3.com, such as this excerpt written by Helena native Dr. Leah Wilkinson about a “Gold Star” cousin, Pfc. William Spencer Peterson, who died after D-Day.
Pfc. Peterson died on June 9, 1944, three days after the invasion began, of wounds received in action. His final sacrifice has not gone unrecognized, however. Far from it. He received the Purple Heart, a U.S. military decoration awarded in the name of the President to those wounded or killed while serving with the U.S. Military. Along with nearly 10,000 other D-Day casualties, he lies buried in the American National Cemetery  (ANC) on a magnificent site overlooking Omaha Beach.)
A special gift for Father’s Day or the Fourth of July, might be to gather this kind of ancestor information both to honor our fathers and to keep other family members alert to their sacrifices and contributions. Even now, fascinating information about Revolutionary War, War of 1812 and Civil War service comes out periodically as more war documents such as pensions are digitized.
Many web sites feature information about soldier service, including those already mentioned and Ancestry.com, Familysearch.org, and lineage societies www.sar.org and www.dar.org. The genealogy web sites offer primary documents such as veteran registrations and pension information, and the lineage societies often have compiled histories of families gather by organization applicants for us.
Custom Roots Travel: Learn More During Summer Vacations
One way to learn more about our own family history during summer vacations is to visit locations where wars were fought (such as Civil War battlefields in Arkansas) or other military and family activities took place. Arkansas has national cemeteries in Fayetteville, Fort Smith and Little Rock. There are other veteran cemeteries as well, and Little Rock’s Mount Holly Cemetery has graves of soldiers going back to the American Revolution and includes the graves of four Civil War generals.
Little Rock’s MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History, named for General Douglas MacArthur is another possibility for further learning. Sites like the Chaffee Barbershop Museum where crooner Elvis Presley and other enlistees got their haircuts can also be fun historic side trips.
The Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism and Department of Arkansas Heritage are combining resources to delve into “genealogy tourism” that explores family histories, historic places near a family’s community, and research, as Deputy Tourism Director Kristine Puckett said in June. All three aspects – seeing where family members lived or worked, learning more about them at the Arkansas State Archives, libraries, and historical associations, and enjoying related heritage tourism where they lived – help us experience the essence of our own family roots.
In case your family included politicos and governors, you might explore the new Arkansas Historic Preservation Program’s new Graves of Arkansas Governors project.
Experiencing the historic foodways of ancestor areas both in our state and beyond is another aspect of cultural and roots tourism to learn about our grandfathers putting the whole picture together. The Department of Arkansas Heritage encourages us to “taste Arkansas” with the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame App.
DNA Testing: Exploring Family Origins Further
For the last 20 years, building family trees on computers or online has become commonplace. Many have the trees on their cell phone screens to assist with research on the go. If your family hasn’t delved into DNA research yet, one category of gift that Dad and other family members might enjoy is a DNA test from a major provider such as Ancestry.com, 23andMe, and FTDNA. These are being offered at discounted rates through Father’s Day.
There are ethical and privacy considerations related to DNA testing that should be fully explored before tests are taken, especially as medical aspects of DNA research are promoted. If you are trying to solve a particular kind of family research problem or want to know more about ancestors from particular parts of the world, some testing services are better than others. Before deciding which test(s) to take, it’s a good idea to find articles comparing the features of each, such as this one from PC magazine. (If you’re exploring the male lines in your family in particular, a Y chromosome DNA test may be useful.)
With Father’s Day month reminders all around us, it’s wonderful to to enjoy time with our dads as well as to honor the other male forebears we love. For D-Day, many put their principles and lives on the line when only 18 years old, and never came home to tell the story.
They lie in foreign military cemeteries. Queens and presidents honor them all on worldwide television, and we should respect them, too, especially those whose blood we share. It’s time to tell their stories once again.
Jeanne Rollberg is a genealogist with American Dream Genealogy and Research who serves on the boards of the Friends of the Arkansas State Archives and the Arkansas Genealogical Society. She teaches genealogy classes at LifeQuest of Arkansas.