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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Episode 78 Show Notes
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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.
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.
The Mission of Stories Behind the Stars
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:
- World War II Army and Army Air Force Casualties list
- Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard Personnel World War II Casualties list.
Keep in mind that these lists are incomplete.
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.
How to Access the Stories of the WWII Fallen
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 the Together We Served platform 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.
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.
- Newspapers – Look for casualty lists and other articles. Try Chronicling America which is free. Other excellent newspaper collections can be found at GenealogyBank and Newspapers.
The Stats Behind Stories Behind the Stars
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.
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Artificial Intelligence and Genealogy
Elevenses with Lisa Episode 32
In this episode we tackle a few small geeky tech questions about artificial intelligence, better known as AI, that may have a pretty big impact on your genealogy life. Questions like:
- Is artificial intelligence the same thing as machine learning?
And if not how are they related?
- And am I using AI, maybe without even being aware of it?
- And what impact is AI really having on our lives? Is it all good, or are there some pitfalls we need to know about?
We’re going to approach these with a focus on family history, but pretty quickly I think we’ll discover it’s a much more far-reaching subject. And that means this episode is for everyone.
While I’ve done my own homework on this subject and written about it in my book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, I’m smart enough to call in an expert in the field. So, my special guest is Benjamin Lee. He is the developer of the Newspaper Navigator, the new free tool that uses artificial intelligence to help you find and extract images from the free historical newspaper collection at The Library of Congress’ Chronicling America. I covered Newspaper Navigator extensively in Elevenses with Lisa episode 26.
Ben is a 2020 Innovator-in-Residence at the Library of Congress, as well as a third year Ph.D. Student in the Paul G. Allen School for Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington, where he studies human-AI interaction with his advisor, Professor Daniel Weld.
He graduated from Harvard College in 2017 and has served as the inaugural Digital Humanities Associate Fellow at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, as well as a Visiting Fellow in Harvard’s History Department. And currently he’s a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow.
Thank you so much to Ben Lee for a really interesting discussion and for making Newspaper Navigator available to researchers. I am really looking forward to hearing from him about his future updates and improvements.
Artificial Intelligence and Genealogy
Covering technology and its application to genealogy is always a bit of a double-edged sword. It can be exciting and helpful, and also problematic in its invasiveness.
Tools like family tree hints, the Newspaper Navigator and Google Lens (learn more about that in Elevenses with Lisa episode 27) all have a lot to offer our genealogy research. But on a personal level, you may be concerned about the long reaching effects of artificial intelligence on the future, and most importantly your descendants. In today’s deeply concerning cancel culture and online censorship, AI can seriously impact our privacy, security and even our freedom.
As I did my research for this episode I discovered a few things. Artificial Intelligence and machine learning is having the same kind of massive and disrupting impact that DNA has had on genealogy, with almost none of the same publicity. (For background on DNA data usage, listen to Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 217. That episode covers the use of DNA in criminal cases and how our data potentially has wide-reaching appeal to many other entities and industries.)
A quick search of artificial intelligence ancestry.com in Google Patents reveals that work continues on ways to apply AI to DNA and genealogy. (See image below)
AI now makes our genealogical research and family tree data just as valuable to others outside of genealogy.
This begs the question, who else might be interested in our family tree research and data?
Who Is Interested in Your Genealogy Data
One answer to this question is academic researchers. During my research on this subject The Record Linking Lab at Brigham Young University surfaced as just one example. It’s run by a BYU Economics Professor who published a research paper on their work called Combining Family History and Machine Learning to Link Historical Records. The paper was co-authored with a Notre Dame Economics and Women’s Studies professor.
In this example, their goals are driven by economic, social, and political issues rather than genealogy. Their published paper does offer an eye-opening look at the value that those outside the genealogy community place on all of the personal data we’re collecting and the genealogical records we are linking. Our work is about our ancestors, and therefore it is about ourselves. Even if living people are not named on our tree, they are named in the records we are linking to it. We are making it all publicly available.
In the past, historical records like birth and death, military and the census have been available to these researchers, but on an individual basis. This made them difficult to work with. Academic (and industry) researchers couldn’t easily follow these records for individual people, families, and generations of families through time in order to draw meaningful conclusions. But for the first-time machine learning is being applied to online genealogy research data making it possible to link these records to living and deceased individuals and their families.
It’s a lot to think about, but it’s important because it is our family history data. We need to understand how our data is being used inside and outside the genealogy sandbox.
Answers to Your Live Chat Questions About AI
One of the advantages of tuning into the live broadcast of each Elevenses with Lisa show is participating in the Live Chat and asking your questions.
From Linda J: What about all the “people search” sites (not genealogy) that have all, or a lot of, our personal date?
Lisa’s Answer: My understanding is that much of the information provided on many of the “people search” websites comes from public information. So while the information is much easier to access these days, it’s been publicly available for years. That information isn’t as accessible to projects like the one discussed in this episode because those websites don’t make their Application Programming Interface (known as API) publicly available like FamilySearch does.
From Doug H: Wouldn’t that potentially find errors in our trees?
Lisa’s Answer: Yes.
From Sheryl T: Do these academic researchers have access to the living people on the trees? Or are those protected from them as it is to the public?
Lisa’s Answer: They have access to all information attached to people marked as “Living Person.” Therefore, if the attached record names them, their identity would then be known. Click a hint on your tree at Ancestry for example, and the found records clearly spell out the name of the person they believe is your “Living” person.
From Nancy M: How long do the show notes stay available? am looking for Google Books two weeks ago and last week’s Allen Co Library.
Lisa’s Answer: The show notes remain available until the episode is archived in Premium Membership. You can find all of the currently available free Elevenses with Lisa episodes on our website in the menu under VIDEOS click Elevenses with Lisa.
Nannie A: I heard a rumor that Ancestry .com has been sold. Do you know if that’s true?
Lisa’s Answer: Yes, they were sold again this year. Read:
Private equity firm Blackstone Group Inc. buying Ancestry.com for $4.7 billion
Private equity wants to own your DNA by CBS News.