16 million Americans answered the call to serve their country during World War II and tragically over 400,000 never returned home. To honor them, each family of a fallen hero received a banner with a gold star to hang in their window. Now 80 years later, there’s another way to ensure they are honored and most importantly, not forgotten. Today the nonprofit Stories Behind the Stars focuses on researching and writing the stories of every one of the WWII fallen. In this special Veteran’s Day episode of Elevenses with Lisa, Don Milne, founder of Stories Behind the Stars joins me to discuss the project, how to access the stories, and how you can help with the research that ensures that every single one of the World War II fallen are remembered.
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16 million Americans answered the call to serve their country during World War II and tragically over 400,000 never returned home. To honor them, each family of a fallen hero received a banner with a gold star to hang in their window. Now 80 years later, there’s another way to ensure they are honored and most importantly, not forgotten.
Today the nonprofit Stories Behind the Stars focuses on researching and writing the stories of every one of the 421,000 US World War II fallen. I want to share with you how to find them, and how you can help with the research that ensures that every single one of the World War II fallen are remembered.
The Stories Behind the Stars founder Don Milne joins me in this video episode. He’s a lifelong history buff, and a few years ago he decided to write a daily story about one of the US World War II fallen for his blog called WW2 Fallen 100. His effort totaled more than 1,200 stories and has been read more than 1 ½ million times.
After his banking job was eliminated at the end of 2019, Don decided to devote his full time to create Stories Behind the Stars and find volunteers to write the stories of everyone of the 421,000 US World War II fallen.
The Story of a Fallen Hero of WWII
Lisa: I’d love to start by putting the fallen heroes of World War II front and center. Can you share with us one of the stories that has really touched you?
Don: Yes. It’s harder and harder to do that because so far we’ve already done about 13,000 stories. One of the more recent ones that we’ve done on our Pearl Harbor project was a fellow named Don Whitestone. He was on the USS Arizona, the battleship totally decimated at Pearl Harbor. More than 1000 people were killed on that ship, and he was one of those. If you go to the USS Arizona Memorial, you just see a name on the wall. And that’s basically all you know about him.
USS Arizona (public domain)
So, for our project that we’re focusing on right now, is to tell the story of all the men lost at Pearl Harbor, all 2335 of them. We’ve already finished the one for Don Boydston.
Just to give you a little bit of information about him. We know he was from Fort Worth, Texas. He was the youngest of six children. Almost every one of his brothers also enrolled in the military during World War Two. His eldest brother survived the war. His second oldest brother, he was actually in Hawaii the same time as his younger brother. Don was there while he was on shore. So, he would have probably been looking for his brother right after the attack, and wouldn’t have found him because he didn’t survive and they never found his body. He ended up continuing in the military and rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. And he received the Silver Star for leading his men against the Germans in France in 1944. He died in 1945 while the war was still going on.
Another brother by the name of Robert served as a lieutenant. He was wounded, but he survived the war and lived to be age 90.
Another brother by the name of Ward, he joined the Army Air Forces. He was on a mission to Tripoli in 1943, in his B24 Liberator, and his plane went down.
So, here’s a family of five brothers. Two of them survived the war, and three of them didn’t. One of them died the very first day of the war, Pearl Harbor, and one of them died during the very last year of the war. It must have been devastating to have a family of five sons and lose three of them. But the father of the family, he did something really interesting. He decided that he was going to write stories, to write letters to the servicemen that may not be getting letters, because back then there wasn’t any social media. You couldn’t pick up a cell phone and talk to people. You had to write letters. And that was like, the thing that all of the servicemen looked forward to is they wanted to get letters from home. And so he made it a project in 1942. He was going to write stories to servicemen who didn’t have someone writing to them. He wasn’t going to be able to write to his son Don because he died at Pearl Harbor. But rather than feel sorry for himself and live with that loss, he decided to write the letters for a long period throughout the war.
He started with 137 different soldiers that he wrote to on a regular basis. So, I think that’s a wonderful thing that I didn’t know about. And all of these men and women who didn’t come home from World War II deserve to be remembered by more than just seeing a name on a memorial or gravesite. So, there’s a lot more Don Boydstuns out there. What we’re trying to do is find volunteers that can help us find those stories.
Lisa: That’s such a fitting story. That father was making sure that the soldiers weren’t being forgotten. You’re in a way, of course, carrying that on today, through your project. And, as you listen to that story, you realize that you think you’re hearing one person’s story. But I’m hearing the story of the parents. I’m thinking about the mom. I just can’t imagine all the sons going to war and losing one. And so really, you’re capturing the stories of many more than the 421,000 fallen.
Lisa: What’s the mission of the Stories Behind the Stars project?
Don: The name of the project kind of tells what we’re doing. It is what they still do today. During World War II when a family lost a serviceman or woman during the conflict, they were given a banner with a gold star on it that they could hang in the window. We want to tell the stories behind those stars.
We have the World War II Memorial in Washington, DC. Th Price of Freedom monument carries that same motif. It has more than 4,000 individual stars, each one representing 100 of the fallen.
Stories behind the stars, our mission is pretty ambitious. We want to make sure that all 421,000 servicemen and women Army, Air Force, Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, Merchant Marines, every single one of them will have a story.
Part of the mission isn’t just to have it on some obscure website somewhere. But we want to have it available so anyone can read it at the memorial. It’s got to be super easy to find on a smartphone. That’s our mission. And the only way we can accomplish this is we need volunteers that are genealogy minded, that want to want to do this and do something more than just bring flowers to remember someone on Memorial Day. We’re looking for folks to create a permanent record that will go forward for decades to remember them.
WWII Fallen Resources
The National Archives hosts the following casualty lists on their website:
MyHeritage: Stories Behind the Stars volunteers often use MyHeritage’s photo enhancement and colorization tools on the photos included in the stories, in addition to their genealogy records. Visit MyHeritage.
Up until June 2021, all of the stories our volunteers have been writing were saved directly to Fold3. In the case of the Pearl Harbor project, it was decided to first save these stories to theTogether We Servedplatform because it allows for some extra features not part of using Fold3. However, all TWS content is also shared over to Fold3.
Fold3 recently updated its user interface and this change did not include the automatic transfer of the stories from Together We Serve to Fold3. This is scheduled to happen by December 1, 2021. Once the update is complete, you will also be able to find stories like Don Boydstun’s story on Fold3.
The best place to search for all the completed Stories Behind the Stars stories is at the Stories Behind the Stars page at Fold3. Currently, the search only works for stories saved with the new Fold3 format. As previously mentioned, there are about 10,000 stories saved in the old format and Fold3 is converting those over.
The Pearl Harbor project webpage is still a work-in-progress, and writers are still working on the stories that have been researched. They have about 500 unassigned stories and anticipate a completion date of December 7. Until then, you can find stories at the D-Day page where there is a link that will take you to a page that separates the D-Day fallen by state. You will then find links showing a list of all D-Day fallen from each state.
Volunteer for Stories Behind the Stars
You can help Stories Behind the Stars reach their goal of completing all the stories by the 80th anniversary of the end of WWII in September 2025 by writing one story a week. Visit Stories Behind the Stars and click the Volunteer button.
They occasionally share sample stories on their blog, as well as their podcast. This will help you get the idea of what these stories are like.
From Don: It does attract a lot of people with a genealogical background, but it’s not totally necessary. We’ve also got people with 40, 50 years of genealogy experience that they’re just wonderful at doing the research and stuff.
Basically, what we’re asking people to do is write a short story. We’re not writing a 40,000 word document. We’re basically writing short obituaries. Most obituaries are what 400 to 1000 words, and they just include basic information. And that’s what we’re basically trying to do.
The whole idea is we’re not creating stories that someone’s going to sit down and spend two hours reading. You’re going to go to a grave site, maybe you’re going to Normandy or Arlington, or your closest National Cemetery, where you see flags put out for all those that are in the military. The idea is you’re going to be able to take your smartphone and go up to that grave site and pull up a story and read it right there. Something that you can read in maybe five minutes or so. So pretty much everybody can write an obituary. Unfortunately, all of us probably will have to write an obituary sometime, right. That’s what we’re asking them to do.
We’ve created some training that gives people all the tools they need, so that they’ll feel really comfortable about writing these stories. And if they don’t consider themselves, writers, we have other ways that people can help. They can help with the database. Some people are better at editing than writing. So, we have people helping with that.
Top Tips for Researching WWII Fallen Soldiers and Sailors
When researching the stories of the World War II fallen, Don recommends the following:
Search Ancestry and MyHeritage. Look for all types, particularly the application for a headstone, muster rolls
Search Fold3– search by name and dates such as birth and death.
Organizations partnering with Stories Behind the Stars include Ancestry, MyHeritage, FamilySearch, Arlington National Cemetery, Friends of the National World War II Memorial, The National D-Day Memorial, JustServe.org, BillionGraves, and Together We Served.
From Don Milne:
This project now involves more than 1,500 people from all 50 states and more than a dozen countries. Hundreds are people with a background or interest in genealogy.
We have completed more than 13,000 stories but we still have 408,000 to go.
We completed the stories of all the WWII fallen from one state (Utah).
We completed the stories of all the 2,502 Americans who died in Normandy on D-Day.
We are on pace to complete the stories of all 2,335 Pearl Harbor fallen by December 7.
Arlington National Cemetery gave us their list of WWII fallen buried there. Our plan is to do a story for each of these 7,700 by Memorial Day 2022.
By December 1 there will be an accompanying smartphone app people can use to read these stories at any gravesite or memorial.
1. Video Player (Live) – Watch live at the appointed time in the video player above. 2. On YouTube (Live) – Click the Watch on YouTube button to watch live at the appointed time at the Genealogy Gems YouTube channel. Log into YouTube with your free Google account to participate in the live chat. 3. Video Player above (Replay) – Available immediately after the live premiere and chat.
Free Newsletter Keeps Alerts You to New Premium Content
Every Friday, we highlight new genealogy records online. Scan these posts for content that may include your ancestors. Use these records to inspire your search for similar records elsewhere. Always check our Google tips at the end of each list: they are custom-crafted each week to give YOU one more tool in your genealogy toolbox.
This week: British POWs in World War I, North Carolina marriages, and church records for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and various denominations in Scotland.
BRITISH POWs IN WWI.Prisoners Of War 1914-1920, with over 43,000 records with images at FindMyPast, consists of “10 series of British Foreign Office documents relating to prisoners held by the Ottomans during World War One. They not only include the names of military personnel taken prisoner–both allied and foreign–but also the names of civilians, merchant seamen, fishermen, diplomatic employees and more.” Some documents “contain the names, ranks and locations of PoWs and provide insights into life in the Ottoman camps. They contain details of requests made by inmates for items including footballs and biscuits, details of visits by foreign diplomats and reports on camp conditions.”
NORTH CAROLINA MARRIAGE RECORDS. Ancestry has a new collection of North Carolina “marriage bonds, licenses, certificates, and registers, as well as indexes and abstracts to the various records from 87 North Carolina counties….Of special interest to African American researchers are records of cohabitation, which were required to be recorded in 1866 in order for the marriages of recently emancipated slaves to be legally recognized.” The records span 1741-2011.
SCOTLAND CHURCH RECORDS. Births, baptisms, banns and marriages, deaths and burialsare among a slew of newer records searchable on MyHeritage.com. According to the site, “The records in this collection were taken from Kirk Session material of the Church of Scotland, other Presbyterian churches, and also the registers of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). These parish registers cover a wide range of dates (from 17th to 19th century) and many of them are not to be found in any other record source.” Information listed in these records may include names, family relationships, dates and places of events and details of the parish.
U.S. LUTHERAN CHURCH RECORDS. Baptism, confirmation, marriage and burial records from more than 2000 congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (1875-1940) are now on Ancestry. These have been available on Archives.com but have migrated to its parent site. “The information…varies from congregation to congregation (and sometimes from minister to minister). In some ethnic congregations, you may run into records in German, Danish, or some other language….Within the collection you may also find membership records, with some listing the names and dates of admission, communion records, and how they were received into the church.”
Google tip of the week: If you see a record collection online but don’t have a subscription to the website that hosts it, Google the name of the database. See whether a free site (like FamilySearch) or another site to which you do have access also hosts the same data set or a similar one. Can’t find it? Click on the description of the record collection (you can generally read the description even if you can’t search the records themselves) and read its source. It may come from a book or a resource that’s been microfilmed–something you can search for on WorldCat and borrow to a library near you. This tip is brought to you by The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, 2nd edition–fully revised and updated in 2015!
Next time you’re trying to find old maps online, take a look at OldMapsOnline.
As the site explains, “The OldMapsOnline Portal is an easy-to-use gateway to historical maps in libraries around the world.” And not just a few minor libraries, but a long list of major libraries, like:
the British Library
David Rumsey Map Collection
Charles University (Prague)
Dutch National Archives
Harvard Library Map Collection
Map Library of Catalonia
Land Survey Office Czech Republic
the National Libraries for nations like Scotland, Wales and Colombia
The portal allows the user to search for online digital historical maps across numerous different collections via a geographical search. Search by typing a place-name or by clicking in the map window, and narrow by date. The search results provide a direct link to the map image on the website of the host institution.”
AUDIO PODCAST SHOW NOTES: Whether you want to visit the village where your ancestor was born on your next vacation, or you just want to find their records, you’ll need to know the exact place name and location. Professional genealogist Rich Venezia of Rich Roots Genealogyjoins me in this video to help us pin down those ancestral places.
This interview is also available in video form here on the show notes page (below). And if you’re a Genealogy Gems Premium Member, you’ll be able to download those show notes as a PDF cheat sheet in the Resources section at the bottom of the page.
Listen to the Podcast Episode
Click the media player below to listen now (AUDIO ONLY):
Family history can, and should be found around our own homes. Your house is a great place to look for clues as well as the ideal place to display what you’ve already found! In this free genealogy live webinar Lisa Louise Cooke will show you how.
Elevenses with Lisa Episode 65
In Elevenses with Lisa episode 65 Lisa Louise Cooke will:
explore our homes for family history
see if we can’t unlock some mysteries, and
look at some fun and creative ways to incorporate family history into our homes!
Episode 65 Show Notes
Watch episode 65
Home is where the heart is and it’s certainly where the family history is. If you’ve found an interesting piece of family history around your home tell us about in the Comments section below so we can all get more ideas of what to look for.
She wrote about being retired and becoming a grandmother. “The new baby (my first grandchild) and new house ignited one of my long-awaited projects—excavating crawl spaces and basement corners on a hunt for possessions to pass on to the next two generations. It’s easy to predict how this played out. My son and his wife turned down many more items than they accepted. Much of what I had hoped to “upsize” to them stayed in my basement and attic. What wasn’t easy to predict, however, was how complicated this seemingly simple transaction could be. It involved multiple perspectives, across multiple generations. It showed how possessions, when held up to the light, often lose the very qualities that prompted us to set them aside. And, in my case, it offered a glimpse of a future that I’ve thought about—and looked forward to—for years.”
She proceeds to describe how she went through items in the house, offering them up to her son and daughter-in-law. She got replies like:
No Shelf space now, maybe later,
“They did give thumbs-up to desk lamps, guest sheets and towels, a few kitchen items and one folding chair, among other things—utilitarian items with no stories or expectations attached.”
It’s an interesting dilemma I hadn’t thought about when I was carefully collecting and saving things over the past few decades: that being attached to the story behind the item was key to valuing it. We’re attached. They aren’t.
Then of course if enough years and even generations go by, we develop an interest in family history and can’t believe our good fortune to unearth such a treasure.
“Then there was the collection of unrelated items I now saw in a different light—those whose stories matter only to me: the child’s battered wooden rocking chair from the porch of my grandparents’ summer house; a faded, inscribed photograph of my father as a young man standing next to his own father, whom I never met; and the small tarnished music box with a twirling ballerina on top that was a gift from my godfather when I was young enough to still dream about being a dancer.
These things will stay with me here in the home where I have lived for decades.
One day a young girl visiting her grandparents comes upon the music box. She picks it up and turns the key that starts the music playing. “Grandma,” she says, “what’s this? Can I have it?” “It’s yours,” I say, my heart skipping a beat. “It always has been. You had only to ask.”
I’ve inherited a lot of sets of dishes, and I have three grown daughters, and so far there aren’t any takers. My friend Kim recently proposed the idea of taking a class to learn how to make mosaic stepping stones for the garden. I can’t think of a better way to downsize some of this china!
making mosaic tile stepping stones with my besties
So during last week’s live show (and you’ll find the link to the video replay here on YouTube in the video description below or go to genealogygems.com and click Elevenses in the menu to go to episode 64) I asked if any of you have family china:
Ann Baker: Inherited? No, but we have some wedding china from our wedding 52 years ago that our kids absolutely don’t want. I’m putting it in the will that they must keep them. Or I’ll haunt them.
Barbara Dawes: Wedding gift from my grandmother was my set of sterling silver – do I take it with me?
Anne Renwick: And yes, I have LOADS of old china!
Karen de Bruyne: had to give lots of grandparents old china away earlier this year, I kept one cup and saucer
Louise Booth: 3 or 4 sets — I’ve lost track!
mosaic tile stepping stone
China Plate Mosaic Stepping Stone Supply List (the links below are affiliate links. We will be compensated if you make a purchase. Thank you for using them and supporting this free show):
Concrete stepping stone from the local garden or hardware store
At least 2-3 large dinner plates or several smaller sizes. Strive for flatter plates.
Masonry cutters – ABN Glass & Ceramic Tile Nippers, Premium Carbide Cutting Wheels and Comfort Grip Handle
Grout Sealer (about 1/3 cup applied to the grout with a small paintbrush.)
2-3 popsicle sticks
Small cheap paint brush
China Plate Mosaic Stepping Stone Instructions:
Cut the plates up into piece 1-2” in size. Toss the pieces that aren’t fairly flat (like the raised rim that the plate sits on.)
Arrange them as desired on the concrete stepping stone. Place them as close as possible while leaving room for the grout. You don’t want large grout lines that might crack later.
Using the popsicle stick, apply a coat of mastic to the back of each piece. Cover the entire back evenly and press the piece back in place.
Clean up the grout lines so that no mastic sits higher than the plate pieces or clogs the grout line spaces.
Let drive 24 hours.
Mix the grout – use water sparingly and leave extra grout in case it gets too wet.
Let the grout stand or slake for 5 minutes.
Wearing the gloves and using a popsicle stick, fill all the grout lines completely and smoothly.
Follow package directions for set-up time and then buff it clean.
Allow to dry 24 hours.
With a small paintbrush apply the sealer to the grout lines and let dry.
Grandma’s Kitchen Utensils Wall Display
Do you remember spending time in your grandmother’s kitchen? I sure do. My maternal Grandma would take us out to the fields to pick fruits and vegetables and she canned a lot of it to preserve it for winter, keeping it in an old wooden pie safe in her garage.
I inherited many of her trusty kitchen utensils. I’ve hung on to them for years in a cardboard box, dragging them with me as we moved around the country. I’ve always wanted to display them but shelf and counter space is always so limited and precious. I needed a way to get them up on the wall and I finally found it.
When I was out shopping at an antique store I came across an old wire basket. It caught my eye because it wasn’t round. It’s rectangular shape turns into a hand display shelf when it’s turned on it’s side. Being wire, it’s not only easy to hand (place the bottom of the basket against the way and secure over a few good nails or hooks), but it’s the perfect canvas for displaying your utensils. Items can be placed on the “shelf” portion, and wired onto it from all directions. The nearly invisible wire means all you see is the beautiful patina of these old kitchen work horses – flour sifters, peelers, mashers, blenders, funnels and more!
Let’s hear from you: In the comments section tell us what your favorite family kitchen utensil is and who it originally belong to.
Watch Elevenses with Lisaepisode 27 on using Google Lens for genealogy.
Music Box: Name that Tune!
Now we’re going to start off with a little family history mystery that Sharon emailed me about
She writes: “I’m a long time listener and I’m loving Elevenses with Lisa! After watching Beginning German Genealogy, I remembered that my friend, Tera Fey, had shared a unique music box with me, hoping I could identify the tune. Tera had been given the music box by her grandmother, Cora (Cornelia?) DeWein, who had been given the music box by her grandmother from Germany. Tera remembers that the top used to have a crest attached to it but doesn’t remember what it looked like. I was hoping you could share the tune with your many listeners and perhaps someone could “Name That Tune”. Many thanks for the work you do and that you share with us.”
How fun! OK we’ve had success playing Name that Tune before on my Genealogy Gems Podcast so you’ve come to the right place Sharon!
So, here’s my research plan on Tera’s music box. The first thing I did after receiving her email was to put it out on the Genealogy Gems Facebook page asking for help a few months ago.
While I waited for an answer I ran a Google search on the audio, and if you ever need to identify music you can do this too.
How to search for music using the Google search app:
Open the app and tap the microphone
Say “what’s this song?” or tap the “Search a song” button.
Hum or sing the song for about 10-15 seconds.
This works in English on iOS, and in more than 20 languages on Android, as well as Google Assistant.
You’ll get suggested matching results or the response “Try Again”
In this case, we didn’t get a match.
Back on the Facebook post front, my daughter Lacey actually was the one who identified it as a Thorens Music Box, which are Swiss made. She said “Looks like 30-36 note? There would have been a card attached to the inside with the list of tunes. Looking at others for sale on eBay show similar boxes with their songs listed. Could listen to those songs to see if they match?” This is a good strategy.
A great place to listen to the songs available with a particular brand of music box is YouTube. I listened to several and although I didn’t hear a matching tune, there are many videos available naming the songs this box played, so it might be worth a more comprehensive search of Thorens Music Box.
Now it’s your turn. Let’s see if anyone out there knows the name of this song.
If you do, and you’re here watching live, post the title in the Live Chat. If you’re watching the video replay, go down to the Comments section and leave a comment. Let’s see if we can help Sharon and Tera out!
Help Send the Madden Family Tablecloth Back Home
I bought this tablecloth about 5 years ago on ebay.com. It’s covered in embroidered handprints with names and birthdates. Since it’s the “Madden Family Branch” I would guess that those listed without last names are Maddens. Associated surnames are Egge and Arrants. Although a color key to the generations sewn into the corner of the tablecloth, there were other colors in the embroidery, so the “generation” distinctions aren’t hard and fast. I’ve also grouped families together where they appear to be a unit. If you think you know which family this is and have a contact for them today, email here.