Hidden Genealogical Gems – Part 1

In June of this year I sold my childhood home in Pittsburgh. This was something I had been putting off for a long time. Most of my extended family, friends, and former neighbors had been telling me for years that I should sell the house due the safety risk of keeping a house in a depressed neighborhood in a crime laden town that had long seen better days. I am sure they were probably right—I should have put the house up for sale right after my mother passed way in September of 2000. But, it wasn’t the right time.

Also, my father was still living and although due to various health problems was unable to live in the house (he spent a couple of years in an assisted living facility and the remaining time living with my husband and me), I felt that selling the house would be too final for him. Dad passed away in November 2005 and at that point I knew that soon I would need to part with the house. In order to complete the sale, we had to clean out over 41 years worth of personal effects—everything from furniture to tools, to nearly hundreds of different glass vases in all shapes and sizes. There were also family photographs, notebooks, documents, and other miscellaneous items, which I like to refer to as “Genealogical Gems.”

As a genealogist, I could not just toss the 200+ memorial cards from funeral homes, the tiny little notebooks where my father kept track of the mileage and maintenance on his various cars over the years, or the collection of newspaper clippings he had stashed in envelopes.

From time to time in this Blog, I will share some of my findings during this impromptu family treasure hunt. I will describe a particular “genealogical gem” that I uncovered and how it has helped me know more about my family’s history.

The Navy Diary

While cleaning out one of dad’s closets, I found a small brown, unmarked notebook. Out of curiosity I flipped through it, and to my surprise, discovered it was a diary of sorts—notes that my father kept during his service in the United States Navy during World War II. It really wasn’t a diary, rather more like a log of the events from the time he entered the service (he was drafted two months after his high school graduation in 1943) until his final notation on August 14, 1945.

While my dad was not all that interested in genealogy, and knew very little about his ancestors (see the article “What Do I Care About Those People, They’re Dead” that I wrote for Ancestry Daily News, he did like to talk about his time serving in WW2. He said when he was drafted he actually got to choose which branch of service, so he chose the Navy. Why? “So he wouldn’t have to sleep in a foxhole.” In the Navy, he would have a bunk. Dad referred to his days on the ship as being on “a floating bomb” because the ship on which he served carried hauled fuel for the fighter planes.

My father was not much of a writer (so I did not inherit my love for writing from him I am afraid) so it was a pleasant surprise indeed to find this little gem. A couple of interesting entries included:

“Entered the service on 16th of August 1943. Boot training at Great Lakes”

“Boarded U.S.S. Tablerock on 15th of December”

“Dec. 25th – First Christmas away from home.”
“December 27 picked up invasion barges in Wilmington, CA.”

“Dec. 28 – Left Wilmington for Pearl Harbor at 5:00 p.m.”

“Dec. 29 – 1st verge of seasickness.

“June 11 – Arrived in Panama 10:00 p.m. Eleven hrs. to get thru locks.”

“June 12 – Met Whitey Petrisko” (his best friend from home who was in the Army)

“Ships position at time of surrender: August 14, 1945. Time 12:31 10º N by 164º W.”

While it is a pretty cut and dry account of his time serving his country, it is still a written testimony of his experiences as part of “The Greatest Generation” and a piece of my father that I can always keep with me now that he is gone—something to give me greater insight into his life as a young man.

In addition to this journal/diary, I have a photo album with many snapshots of my father during his time in the U.S. Navy (some of them I am sharing here), as well as an address book listing the names of some of his fellow servicemen. These items will be invaluable to me as I document the story of my father’s life

God bless you, Dad (and all those of your generation) for your brave and dedicated service to our country.

It is easy to think of our parents or grandparents as we know them best – in their adult years, but I am always thrilled to see photographs of any of my relatives or ancestors when they were young. It brings a whole new perspective—showing that these folks are more than just names in a pedigree or ancestral chart.

In all the years I spent with my father I never knew that he kept this journal. I can use this new “genealogical gem” as background material for telling my father’s story, and because of this I know the little brown book is a real treasure.

I hope that you will find this story helpful and inspirational. First, don’t ever just throw something out without carefully examining it. Secondly, ask your parents, grandparents, and relatives if they have such items while they are still around to talk about their contents. Finally, in genealogy always “expect the unexpected,” because you never know when a “hidden gem” will appear that may hold a valuable clue to your family’s history!

Happy Hunting!


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