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.
(Get your ad-free Show Notes Cheat Sheet at the bottom of this page in the Resources section.) This article includes affiliate links. We will be compensated when you use our links at no additional charge to you. Thank you for supporting our free content!
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
Browse-only databases at FamilySearch are easy to use and may hold the key to the genealogy brick wall you have been working on.
Don’t be scared off because the records haven’t been indexed. Guest blogger Amie Tennant Bowser show you how to take advantage of these great records!
New Genealogy Records Come Online Every Week
Each week, we report on the latest genealogy records to have come online.
Sometimes in our weekly record update articles we include databases from the free FamilySearch website that are not yet indexed. These collections are referred to as browse-only. Have you ever been disappointed when you realized the database you are most interested in is only able to be browsed?
The highlighted genealogy records in these collections are browse-only
You may be thinking, “Good grief! I can’t possibly browse thousands of records!” and we don’t expect you to. In this article we are going to share strategies that you can use to zero in on the genealogy records you want to browse.
Browse Only Records Versus Indexed Records
Most folks search for genealogy records at FamilySearch by typing in some key information at the home page. It might be just the first and last name, and the place where that ancestor lived. Here’s an example:
When you use this method, you are only searching for records that have been indexed.
Indexed records are great because they have already been reviewed by one of the thousands of FamilySearch volunteers. They use online software on the FamilySearch website to download images of historical documents. Then, they read the information on the image and transcribe the information.
A second, more experienced volunteer then reviews the transcribed information to ensure accuracy before it is submitted to the website where they can be searched. It’s a huge effort to help genealogists more easily search the online records.
So, it’s important to understand that not all digitized record images that are on the FamilySearch website have been indexed. This means there may be countless records that will not be retrieved by a name search.
Unindexed records can only be browsed until they are indexed. So as you can see, there is a very good chance that there are records on the site that apply to your family, but you won’t find them through the search engine.
Instead, you need to go in the virtual “back door” to locate these records. Follow along with me and I’ll show you how.
How to Find Browse-Only Records at FamilySearch
Let’s imagine you want to search probate records in Auglaize County, Ohio.
You would click the little map in the vicinity of the United States and choose “Ohio” from the pop-up box.
At the Ohio research page, you could do a general search of the Ohio collections. Again, this is only searching records that have been indexed.
Instead of using this method, scroll down until you see “Ohio Image Only Historical Records.” Look at all these databases you might have missed!
For our example, continue to scroll down until you see the database titled “Ohio Probate Records, 1789-1996” near the bottom. Click on it.
You will notice right away that there is no way to “search” this database.
Many people give up at this point, after all, who has time to search nearly 7,000,000 records. Click on it anyway!
The next screen has been broken down by county name. Choose the desired county name. In this case, I’m selecting “Auglaize.”
You are then directed to a page listing the volumes of records for Auglaize county that have been digitized.
In this example, we are seeing bonds, settlements, wills, estates, and so much more:
It is as if you are standing in the courthouse probate office surrounded by volumes and volumes of the records you need.
Select the volume you want to search by clicking the title.
“Open” the pages of the book and search like you would as if you were flipping the pages of a book or scrolling through a roll of microfilm.
Click the arrow at the top of the screen to scroll through the pages.
Friends, we want you to get excited about all the new records that are coming online, even if they are browse only databases. If you like this tutorial, share this tip with your genie friends so they can do it too.
More Genealogy Gems on Records and Databases at FamilySearch
For more tips and tricks to help you in your genealogy journey, sign-up for our newsletter by entering your email address on this page.
If you’re looking for more genealogy records to mine, here are some of our articles. These will help you not only find new records, but also use other valuable genealogy indexes:
The MyHeritage app is growing in popularity around the world, and it’s got a fresh new update!
A “completely redesigned version of our mobile app for iOS and Android” is now available, says Chief Genealogist Daniel Horowitz. “The enhanced app enables families around the world to build their family tree, instantly discover ancestors and relatives, and preserve and share their legacy, all with a better looking and more intuitive interface.” Download the free app here: iOS and Android.
The mobile app is increasingly popular around the world, says Daniel. “So far more than 4 million people have downloaded the MyHeritage app, and its usage is growing worldwide. Within the last 3 months, the MyHeritage app for Android has ranked in the top 100 apps in its category on Google Play in 40 countries. In addition it is currently ranked in the top 5 apps in its category in Denmark and Norway in both Apple’s App Store and Google Play.
“The Android version was recently selected by Google as a ‘featured app’ in more than 100 countries, making MyHeritage the first company in the family history industry to receive such recognition.” Watch the video below about the redesigned app:
Click here to see why we partner with MyHeritage here at Genealogy Gems. Want to learn about more various genealogy apps? Go to our home page and, from the category list on the left, select “apps.”
Welcome to this step-by-step series for beginning genealogists—and more experienced ones who want to brush up or learn something new. I first ran this series in 2008-09. So many people have asked about it, I’m bringing it back in weekly segments.
Episode 29: Immigration and Naturalization Records for Family History, Part 1
In this podcast episode, one of my favorite experts talks about one of my favorite topics: immigration and naturalization records. Stephen Danko, PhD is a genealogy lecturer and a very popular blogger. In this episode he’s helping U.S. genealogists cross the pond through the use of immigration and naturalization records. He’ll talk to us about the challenges we’ll face in locating these records—and some documents you may not even know existed: certificates of arrival.
In the next episode, we’ll continue our conversation with a discussion of Departure Passenger Lists. Departure information from European ports is often available on microfilm at the Family History Library, on Ancestry.com or other websites. Some of the passenger steamship lines themselves kept departure lists, like the White Star Line or the Red Star Line, and these are on microfilm.
Here are my favorite tips from the episode:
Once you find an ancestral hometown, use Stephen Morse’s advanced search tools (see below) to look for others who arrived from the same place. This can help you identify other relatives, friends and others who part of a group or chain migration.
Usually we start with the most recent records and work backward. But when we look for immigration and naturalization records, look FIRST for immigration papers. THEN look for naturalization papers they may have filed later. You know they arrived—but not every immigrant naturalized, and their naturalization papers may have been filed in multiple places and may not be indexed.
Beginning in 1926, applicants for naturalization who arrived in 1906 or later had to be issued a certificate of arrival. These certificates were issued after their names were confirmed by the government on the original passenger lists. Between 1926 and 1943, information about certificates of arrival was noted on the original passenger lists.
The certificate of arrival information helps you in two ways:
The date tells you about when they applied for naturalization
The first part of the certificate number is the naturalization district (Northeast, Midwest, West coast, etc), to help you narrow down where to look.
Anything that helps you narrow down a search for naturalization records helps!
Updates and Links
About 70 million immigration and naturalization records have been indexed in recent years through an enormous community indexing project led by FamilySearch. Check out their site (below) to see what records are searchable now.
Extra, extra! Thousands of pages of US and UK newspapers are newly online for your genealogy research. Also new this week are birth, marriage, death, and parish records for England and the United States, a large historic Irish photo collection and a unique family history research aid for Iceland.
Feature Photo: Newspapers
UK Newspapers, Parish Records and More
England: Parish records and newspapers
Ancestry.com got a big update recently to their English records! The following collections have been added for Derbyshire, England:
Originals of these documents come from Derbyshire Church of England Parish Registers, and dozens of parishes are included. You can narrow your results by parish by selecting from the drop-down menu in the Browse this Collection box (shown here) on the right side of the page.
Also brand new this week are several newspapers for England, hosted by the British Newspaper Archive:
You can search the British Newspaper Archive for free, and they’ve recently created a brand new package: Save 31% with their 3 Month package for just £25.90! You’ll get access to over 22 million newspaper pages across Britain and Ireland, with more added every day.
Scotland: Parish records & newspapers
A new collection of Scottish parish records is now available at Ancestry.com: Extracted Parish Records, 1571-1997. The records in this collection include baptisms/christenings, burials, marriages, tombstone inscriptions, obituaries, tax lists, wills, and other miscellaneous types of records. For copies of the originals, “the microfilm number of pertinent corroborating records can often be found on the LDS Church’s FamilySearch site (www.familysearch.org) in the Family History Library Catalog.”
Also new for Scotland, the Paisley & Renfrewshire Gazette newspaper is available at the British Newspaper Archive. Years span 1875-1908 (except 1877) and it was published by Newsquest in Paisley, Renfrewshire, Scotland. 1,722 issues comprised of 14,000 pages are now available to view online.
Historic Irish photos & newspapers
More than 10,000 historic pictures from have been added to a folklore website, duchas.ie. A recent article announcing the launch stated that “the Collection contains photographs taken by professional photographers and by collectors working with the National Folklore Commission, amongst others, and are classified under 14 different topics including: festivals; holy wells; settlement; folklore collection; and games and pastimes.” A large number of the photographs date from the early 20th century.
The British Newspaper Archive has added a new newspaper title from Antrim, Northern Ireland: Carrickfergus Advertiser 1884-1895, 1897-1910. Nearly 1,400 issues and over 5,000 pages are included in this new digitized collection.
Iceland: New language resource
If you have ancestors from Iceland, this unique resource is for you! A new website has made Icelandic spelling, declension, and etymology dictionaries now free online. From Iceland Magazine: “In an effort to protect the Icelandic language in a time of smartphones and computers, The Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies at the University of Iceland has opened a website which offers free access to the institute’s large catalogue of dictionaries, including etymology- and spelling dictionaries and the institute’s declension database for the Icelandic language.” Here’s a tip: The site is in Icelandic, but use Google Translate to navigate in English! Plus check out our favorite resources for pronunciation help.
United States: Vital records & more
California.County Birth, Marriage, and Death Records, 1849-1980 are new online at Ancestry.com. This collection contains records from various counties throughout California, and you can use the drop-down table to search by the county, record type, and year range of your ancestor’s life events.
Connecticut. New records are available online at Findmypast for Connecticut baptisms, church records, and burials from the 1600s-1800s. These records cover various towns and have been transcribed from public domain records.
Georgia. New from the Georgia Archives: Colonial Conveyances. This collection contains 11 volumes of property transactions between private citizens in the Colony of Georgia from 1750-1804. Each book contains a grantor index at the end of the volume.
Maryland.The University of Maryland Student Newspapers Database has recently launched. From the press release: “[This collection] provides keyword and date access to issues of The Diamondback and its seven predecessor newspapers from 1910 to October 1971. Users can search names and topics across all the issues, as well as focusing in on a particular day, month, or year of publication or publication title.”
Want more help with newspapers, Google Translate, and more? Genealogy Gems Premium Members can watch full-length video classes by Lisa Louise Cooke on those topics and more! Sign up today
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!