Military secrets: Curious about your soldier ancestor?

You have a relation who fought in World War II. Or, more obscurely, World War I. You've found some military records online that give you a name, rank and serial number, but there's so much you don't know about his or her life in the war, or how to find that information.

Enter Jennifer Holik. An expert on researching and writing the stories of men and women who served in World Wars I and II, Holik will be in Arlington Heights Oct. 4 and Oct. 18 for a two-part free presentation, "Finishing the Story" and "Stories of the Lost."

The Northwest Suburban Genealogical Society will host Holik - author of "To Soar With the Tigers," "The Tiger's Widow," "Stories From the Battlefield" and her latest work, "Stories of the Lost: Discovering the Story of our Heroes Through Genealogy" - at 10 a.m. Oct. 4 at the Arlington Heights Memorial Library, 500 N. Dunton Ave.

Her Oct. 4 program, "Finishing the Story," demonstrates how to piece together the puzzle of your military ancestor through records, genealogy and stories.

Doors open at 9 a.m. for an informal show and tell, where visitors to the program are invited to share their own World War I and II memorabilia and artifacts.

"Tracing the life of a World War I or II soldier can be challenging," Holik says. "Many researchers are unaware of the many records and resources outside the usual genealogical record sources."

Then, on Oct. 18, Holik will return as part of a daylong genealogical extravaganza sponsored by the Arlington Heights Memorial Library.

• "Everyone Has a Great Story: Chasing Your Family Roots" - 10-11:30 a.m. Diane and Dan Pellettiere show how to research and write your family story. Using military records, diaries and other sources, Diane's family story, "Pieces of a Life," will be shared through quotes and narrations from her mother's diaries and her father's autobiography.

• "Meet and Greet: Arlington Heights Greatest Generation," noon-4 p.m. In 2009 students from St. Viator High School interviewed local World War II veterans, whose personal and heroic stories were published in the book, "Arlington Heights' Greatest Generation." Drop in to meet the featured veterans and their family members, hear their stories and see their letters, photos and other war-related artifacts.

• "Stories of the Lost," 1:30-4 p.m. Holik returns to explore what records are available to tell the stories of those who died in service, discussing the men who worked in the Graves Registration Service. She'll discuss what they did, why it took so long to have U.S. soldiers repatriated and what happened to a soldier's personal effects during the course of recovery and repatriation.

All of these Oct. 4 and Oct. 18 events are free.

We asked Holik some questions about military genealogical research to prime our interest for her appearances.

Q. Are someone's personal military records available to researchers? Are there any records from either conflict that are still classified?

A: In 1973 at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, there was a fire. Over 80 percent - an estimated 16-18 million - Army and Air Corps records, were destroyed. (Learn more at There were no duplicate copies of these records. Until a few years ago, World War II personnel records were restricted to next of kin, but the NPRC opened up access to records for anyone who died or was discharged by 1952. Unfortunately many people heard that "all the records burned" and they are accessible to next of kin only. This is no longer true. Personnel records for military personnel who were discharged or died prior to 1952 are now available.

(Records of) soldiers who remained in service after World War II and served in Korea, Vietnam and other conflicts are still unavailable to researchers unless you are the soldier or next of kin.

Q. Does an ancestor's rank make it harder or easier to find information?

A: In general, the personnel files for higher ranking military personnel will contain greater information than a private's file. If the higher ranking soldier participated in a major battle or other event, there is a better chance he is mentioned in a written history on World War II. Of course, if that soldier's record was part of the files that burned in 1973, then there may not be as much information to find.

Q: What other records are available besides personnel records to help locate information on a soldier?

A: The NPRC holds many different records that can be used to piece together a soldier's story - payroll, morning reports, nurse's information, awards cards, Coast Guard records, and many more. There are also civilian records, which are important for family members who had a civilian role during the war. The National Archives in College Park, Maryland, holds records related to unit participation (unit histories, unit journals, maps and photographs) which add flesh to the bones of a story. Many units are digitizing these materials and placing them on unit association websites to make access for researchers more accessible.

Q: What about records for soldiers who died while in service?

A: There are special files - Individual Deceased Personnel Files - for soldiers who died in service, whether that death occurred in the U.S. or overseas. These records vary in length (I have seen 30-page files and 600-page files) and content, but generally contain details about a soldier's death, his temporary and permanent burial location, letters from family members, maps for burial locations, and if the soldier was unidentified, tooth charts, skeletal charts, and POW information if the deceased was a POW. These files are very emotional to read.

The IDPFs for all branches are held in Maryland and must be ordered through Fort Knox. Send a letter citing the Freedom of Information Act and provide as much detail about the deceased soldier as possible, to Department of the Army, U.S. Army Human Resources Command, ATTN: AHRC-FOIA, 1600 Spearhead Division Ave., Dept. 107, Fort Knox, KY 40122-5504.

For more records and resources, visit the World War II Toolbox on my website.

Q. What got you interested in this area of research in particular? Why do you focus on telling the stories of individuals, like Robert and Virginia Brouk?

A: I started researching and writing about World War II four years ago when I decided to write Robert Brouk's story. The stories I have written to date are primarily about loss, soldiers who were killed in action and never had the opportunity to tell their stories. I have the responsibility to tell their stories so they are never forgotten.

Robert was a Flying Tiger, part of the American Volunteer Group in China and Burma in 1941-1942. After the AVG was disbanded in July of 1942 he eventually was stationed in Orlando to train pilots. He was killed in a training accident just three weeks after he married Virginia. Robert's story was never told and the other AVG personnel who survived the war barely mentioned him in their memoirs and books. His story deserved to be told.

Virginia Brouk's story is one of love, loss, and how to continue to live and find love again. After Robert was killed, Virginia joined the Women's Army Corps and took up his fight. During World War II, the military accepted thousands of women into all branches to help release a man for duty. Her story is inspirational and her service helped provide additional choices for women in my generation.

Q. What's the most frequent question you get at these presentations?

A: I don't think I have a frequent question as much as a frequent reaction. Attendees are shocked and in awe of the fact I have pieced together all these soldier stories from miscellaneous family memorabilia, unidentified photos (that I later identified) and other records because for all my soldiers, the records DID burn. They are also surprised at all the other records available. I use alternate record sources to create a timeline of service and fill in many blanks. To my knowledge there is only one book available on Army records and memorabilia from World War II but it does not explain how to use the records. To aid researchers in locating information and writing their soldier stories, I am writing a four volume series of books on how to do this. The first book will be released in 2015.

Q. Are there differences between the types of records available from the Great War and World War II? Are there differences in the number of records available?

A: Many of the records created in World War I exist but in different formats and locations for World War II. For example, World War I payroll records are not a separate record source in World War II but part of a soldier's personnel file in general.

Q. Are there POW records available from either the European and Pacific theaters of World War II?

A: Yes. These records are held at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. These records vary in contents but generally contain photographs of the POW, an identification card, sometimes testimony about war crimes or camp treatment.

Q. One of the quests of genealogists is to put "flesh on the bones" - to learn more about an ancestor's life than just his or her statistics. Can you help put researchers on the track for that kind of information, or photos?

A: Yes. I blog a lot about military records, wrote a beginning guide to World War II research, and am writing a four volume series on locating and using military records and memorabilia to tell a story. All of these resources will help researchers locate information and fill in the blanks.

Q. What's the most amazing or unexpected thing you have ever discovered - either for yourself or someone else?

A: The most unexpected thing was the process of how I researched and told James Privoznik's story. People talk about genealogy serendipity, where an ancestor provides clues in the form of a photo, record, or someone who has information, just when you need them, to learn more about their life. I obtained a photo album of unidentified photos of James in what looked to be some sort of Army uniform. I thought these photos may have been Camp Butner in North Carolina where James trained before shipping overseas. They were not but someone suggested the buildings looked like Civilian Conservation Corps camps. The Army used old CCC camps for training during World War II.

Looking at the photos and James in particular I formed a theory that he did not train at a CCC camp, but worked in one prior to the war. The CCC Enrollee records at the NPRC and I put in a request to see if James had a file. Turns out I was correct! The training he received in the CCC, I believe influenced the job he held in the Army, as an Ordnance Soldier initially. This was a major find and added a new dimension to his story our family never knew existed.

Q. You are a professional researcher now, no longer an amateur. Do you still get a thrill from making discoveries?

A: Yes. I get a big rush when I locate information on a client's family and can fill in more of their family tree or solve a problem. With my military research, I enjoy the detective work of locating records and information, then writing it in such a way that it evokes emotion or makes people think about the story and the life of the soldier. Much of it is very sad and emotional. But I love every part of my job.

Jennifer Holik
"Stories From the Battlefield: A Beginning Guide to World War II Research."
"The Tiger's Widow"
A World War I draft card from Daily Herald Assistant Managing Editor Renee Trappe's grandfather.
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