Next year marks the 75th commemoration of the end of World War II. As we move closer to this anniversary, I have been fielding more questions from patrons about researching World War II ancestors and what local resources are available. While some families have a large collection of letters, photographs and other memorabilia, others may not. So I was very excited to make a trip to the Will County Historical Society and Research Center (WCHS) in Lockport to check out the progress of their new World War II digitization project.
I sat down with society director Sandy Vasko who has been leading the charge in digitizing a collection of Will County military articles and photographs published in the Joliet Herald-News from 1941 to 1945. The collection was part of a large scrapbook which was found in the society’s holdings. However, the name of the original compiler was never found. The scrapbook contained over 600 profiles and photographs of servicemen and women clipped form the pages of the local newspaper. The individuals originate from communities across Will County, such as Joliet, Mokena, Godley and Lockport. To Vasko’s knowledge, this is the largest intact collection of World War II service persons available to researchers all in one place. Unfortunately, the paper and articles are deteriorating rapidly.
“The pages are flaking away into nothing,” Vasko said. “We needed to digitize this now or it would have crumbled apart completely.”
Vasko states the society has digitized around 250 of the entries in the book, and due to the small size of the original images there are two listings placed in each scanned image. A typical researcher can expect to find the name of a veteran, a photograph, family information, branch of service, as well as their training camp or geographical whereabouts.
“That’s a lot of information you are going to have a hard time finding anywhere else,” Vasko stated. “We don’t have copies of the original newspapers and our microfilm collection does not include those years.”
After each image is scanned, it receives a corresponding listing in a searchable Excel document. The name of each veteran, along with the newspaper date, scrapbook page and home location are included in the file. This ensures researchers and society volunteers can locate entries quickly and easily.
How would you use these digitized newspaper clippings in your own World War II research? There is a great set of records you can find through our Fold3 subscription which can help you supplement any newspaper articles similar to WCHS’s collection. Let’s take a look at a few examples from WCHS’s digitized collections and pair them with information we can find on our library’s Fold3 website.
On the left is a news clipping for Lt. Donald J. Wirth of Joliet, and on the right is a transcript of his World War II Army Enlistment Card found on Fold3. The news clipping on the left provides an abundance of personal information, such as the names and addresses of his parents, his graduation day from flight school at Kelly Field in Texas and a general enlistment date. The Fold3 transcript lists information such as his Military Service Number, enlistment location and date, education level, occupation before the war and year of birth. Placing the information from each of these items in a narrative and timeline, we can comfortably begin to recreate Lt. Wirth’s story of service using easily attainable records. From this point, we can move forward to gaining a copy of Lt. Wirth’s military discharge information which is also housed at the Will County Historical Society, as well as placing a request for his Army Air Corps Training Records which are held at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis.
To access the WCHS’s collection of World War II military newspaper clippings, requests can be made in person, by calling 815.838.5080 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. The research center is located at 803 S. State Street in downtown Lockport and is open Wednesday through Sunday, from noon to 4 p.m. Please note the museum and research center will be closed during most of February 2020 while volunteers prepare for a new lineup of exhibits. Researchers should provide the name of the veteran, along with any additional military service information and a volunteer will search the database for you. They will send you a digital copy of the listing by email.
While these reference services are free, donations are always gratefully accepted. The Will County Historical Society Museum and Research Center operates almost exclusively on donations and volunteer assistance. Donations can be made in person when visiting the museum, mailed to the organization directly or can be made online through the WCHS Facebook page.
The organization is also accepting volunteers for next summer’s events at Heritage Village, located at 249 W. 2nd Street in Lockport. This collection of historic buildings from around the county is free and open to the public during the summer months. Volunteers are needed to provide public tours, assist at the visitor’s center and give demonstrations on pioneer skills such as spinning, weaving, knitting, carpentry and soap making.
If you need some help with World War II research or using the Fold3 database, contact me for a one-on-one appointment by emailing email@example.com or by calling 630.685.4201.
See you at the library!