July: Archives & Genealogical Research

How are archival research skills useful outside of academia? Well, lots of ways, but I’m especially interested this month in genealogical research, which, I’m sure, some wouldn’t take seriously as “research” at all. But consider this: in an education/professional climate marked by doubt over the uses of a humanities degree, Ancestry.com boasts an annual revenue of over a billion dollars and a paid subscription base of three million users. Three million! As an educator who uses archival research in my teaching, that figure excites me. It shows that everyday people are interested in digging into historical documents, connecting threads, pursuing leads, and learning about and finding meaningful connections with the past. PBS even has a show specifically about ancestral research. If we’re trying to give students an authentic learning experience, I wonder why we haven’t yet tapped into the exciting, personal, and genuinely engaging field of genealogical research. This post is going to be about my own (very) recent archival adventure based in genealogy. The genuine investment that it sparked in me has been far deeper than much other research (which I’m usually pretty excited about and invested in as it is), and to me it serves as evidence that there is value in tapping into this passionate experience to motivate students to become involved in archives for academic and non-academic research (and maybe there shouldn’t be such a distinict binary here).

A young man in navy flight gear, including a helmet, googles, and a jacket with a large fur collar.

For decades, this photo was one of the only pieces of documentation we knew of that bore witness to our family member’s existence.

The past year has been a breakthrough period in some of my own genealogical research—with particular regard to my father’s father’s brother, Benny Zukowski. All my family ever knew about him was that he “died in WWII” in a plane crash, but nothing more. My father always said that his father never talked about the war, and for good reason I’m sure. He and his three brothers all served, but their experiences were kept private and their stories have been buried with them…until recently.

Having never known anything about my mysterious great uncle, I’ve now and again felt an urge to learn more about him and fill in the blanks of his story. So every few years I would Google his name, never to come across anything.

A 2012 newspaper clipping from the Bristol Press about my email to them.

Then, in 2012, I had some luck. An article in the Bristol Press (this line of my family lived in Bristol, CT in the 1920s-40s) mentioned Benny Zukowski, listed his real name as Bronislaw, and identified his squadron. These were new leads that wouldn’t take me anywhere new just yet, but would be useful later on. I emailed the local historian who wrote the article, but never heard back from him. To my surprise, I was recently shown the article on the left.

In any case, that discovery led me to some key search terms that would be important in more recent years, when I used the research tools I’d been using in my dissertation to try to unravel this mystery (of course, one of the research tools/skills I now have is the common sense and confidence to pursue the author of this article by every means available until I get an answer, but back then it took a lot of guts to reach out to him the one time). Through strategies like using digital newspaper archives, modifying searches with truncation, wildcards, and priximity settings, and  adding new terms like “Bristol” and “Fleet Air Photographic Squadron Five” (VD-5 for short) expanded my knowledge of the world Benny was in, but I still found very little about him. 

Then, one rainy moroning last November, I tried again. To my surprise, I found an article published about two weeks earlier, advertising a “Gold Star Exhibit” honoring four Bristol veterns who died in WWII— Benny was one of them. It was on display at the local public library for a few weeks only. So my sister and I made plans, and, not knowing at all what to expect, we took the two hour drive and showed up unannounced. What a powerful experience! When we walked in, I immediately saw the Gold Star Exhibit across the room and even in that short flash of a moment couldn’t believe that I was looking at my great-uncle’s actual belongings. A staff member named Jay welcomed me and my sister, and I said something silly like, “I’m a Zukowski.” I’ve since been told that the experience was powerful for Jay as well, but even then I could register on his face the recognition that this was a profound situation. He was super grateful to have us there, showing us to the exhibit and explaining what was what. He also introduced us to several community members who were in the room for their own local history research projects. By the end of our visit, several of these people (Jay included) were looking through old phone directories, yearbooks, and digital records to help me and my sister find out more.

Part of the exhibit on Benny Zukowski, November 2018.

That day, I was able to look (through glass) at Benny’s wallet, some of his photos, his rosary, a mess pass from the day he died, his flight log, some photographic instruction manuals (he was an aerial photographer), and his dogtags. In all of the excitement (yes, archives are exciting places!), we learned what kind of planes he was in, what his (and my grandfather’s) home address was, and the very basic fact that my grandfather had three brothers (not one), and that they had all served in the war. Most importantly, Jay pointed us to Bristol’s Memorial Military Museum, which was the organization to which Benny Zukowski’s materials officially belonged.

Over the next seven months, I stayed in contact with two key individuals at the Military Museum— Mike and Carol—who invited me to see their entire collection on Benny. Unfortunately, the visit had to be postponed until July because of building renovations, but that’s of no matter because two weeks ago I finally took the trip back up to Bristol and was blown away by all that they had there…in terms of material and information.

They explained to me that, according to the donor (a distant relative of mine), when Benny died (six months after the war officially ended!), the Navy sent all of his belongings back to his parents (my great-grandparents), who looked at them once, put them in the chest at the foot of their bed, and never looked at them again for the rest of their lives. That explains why the materials were in such good shape. The collection includes, among other things: silk aviator maps of Japan, Okinawa, and the Philippines; a smoking pipe; a straight razor; a lighter and lighter case; handwritten notes on photographic mission instructions; a handwritten note in Japanese; a Chinese translation book; a Japanese military log; dozens of photographs; a bracelet inscribed to Benny from his fiancee (no, we didn’t know he had a fiancee!); a copy of the Western Union telegram to his parents informing them of his death; numerous medals and naval diplomas; a bowtie; a mess pass from the day he died; lots of pencils and buttons and glass lenses; nine prayer books (several in Polish); the original box in which the Navy sent his parents his military burial flag; and four rolls of undeveloped film.

There was also a one-page “biography” of Benny and his military service, which Mike thinks must have been written by a family member decades ago. And there was an official letter from the Navy to my great-grandparents detailing the major milestones in Benny’s military service. These two documents, together with all the other materials, filled in so many gaps of understanding. Here are a few excerpts from his biography:

  • He “earned his first Air Medal for completing 5 flights over defended enemy territoy in the Bonin, Volcano, and Caroline Islands area from December 21, 1944 to February 17, 1945.
  • “He participated in the first long-range reconnaissance over enemy occupied territory, with no previous information on enemy defenses or installations, and remaining for a prolonged period of time to provide large scale photographic coverage.”
  • He earned his “third Gold Star in lieu of a fourth Air Medal was earned for flights over the Ryukyu and Caroline Islands area from March 29 to May 2, 1945. On these flights, he gathered additional information that aided in the successful invasion of Iwo Jima and Okinawa.”

And, after many years of having virtually no information about it whatsoever, some details about his death:

  • “Having survived more than 25 missions over enemy occupied territory, Benny died tragically after the war was over. He was on a flight over the town of Atami, Japan with seven of his closest friends on March 11, 1946 when the Liberator he was flying in struck a mountain ridge at approximately 9 a.m. All aboard were killed instantly.”
  • “The first letter received indicated that Benny died ‘while engaged in a local flight.’ A later letter from the Bureau of Naval Personnel says his plane crashed while on a photographic mission. His family always believed he died on his flight home. Benny was just 20 years old when he died.”The entire visit lasted about 3.5 hours, and it was immensely moving. First, to feel proximity with an ancestral family member who has always been treated as “lost.” Then, to be able to reclaim him from that “lost” status and to flesh out his story and character and life…to find him embodied in these documents and objects and to find his story finally told. I have relied a lot on archivists, and I have always appreciated what they do, but never before has my respect and appreciation been so deeply felt. It is an amazing that my distant relative thought to donate these materials to a museum, but what’s perhaps even more amazing is that museums and historical societies even exist. People dedicate their lives to making sure that community members and researchers can find local and personal information, access their past, make important connections, and learn about themselves, their families, and their communities. I genuinely mean it when I say that it is a noble cause, much the way that local libraries are institutions meant for the free, open education and improvement of community members and of society as a whole.

While visiting, a local reporter happened to be interviewing somebody else in the room about an exhibit the following day. On his way out, he stopped and asked what I was doing. I told him the story, and he ended up interviewing me the next day and publishing this article just last week in the Bristol Press.

Four rolls of film and a cardboard box for one of them.

Undeveloped rolls of film from ca. 1945-46.

One of the most exciting parts of this whole experience is that I asked Mike and Carol if they’d be willing to send the undeveloped film out for processing if I could find an expert lab specializing in old film processing. They agreed, and after consulting with over a dozen archivists, preservationists, museums, and film specialists, I found a lab. The four rolls were sent out last week, and we should be hearing from the lab any day now with updates. It turns out that one of the rolls was actually color film as well, so if that roll can be developed, it may provide the only known color photographs of my great uncle.

I’ll post more updates about the film processing in August. For now, a more personal glimpse into one way that I’ve applied my academic skills in non-academic settings, and some thoughts on the meaningful experiences that those skills can help produce.

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