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VHP’s Newest Online Exhibit: Family Matters: Relatives at War

Today, the Veterans History Project (VHP) launches a new online exhibit to feature the stories of family members who served in the military—some at the same time, and others decades apart.

As I was composing this blog post and considering the narratives that are included in the new feature, my eyes wandered to a small, weathered banner hanging on the wall of my office cubicle. Featuring a blue star on a white background surrounded by a red border, it’s the service flag that my grandmother hung in the window of her home in Iowa, when my grandfather was serving with the Army in the Pacific Theater during World War II. It’s always been a poignant reminder of my grandparents’ wartime experience, but suddenly I saw it in a new light, thinking about the many houses whose service flags displayed more than one star. As hard as the war was for my grandparents, so many other families—those who sent more than one person off to war— sacrificed so much more.

Screenshot of the new online exhibit. A photo of the Stilson family is on the right of the page, while a list of profiled families is on the right.

Main landing page of the new online exhibit.

Military service is almost always a family affair, but families with multiple members in uniform have a unique story to tell. In this new online exhibit, we have highlighted sets of VHP collections of fathers and children, husbands and wives, and brothers, all of whom served in the military and donated material to the Veterans History Project. Some of these family members served simultaneously, enlisting or getting called up to serve in the same conflict. Other families saw multiple generations serve in different conflicts. For the eight profiled families, VHP was lucky to receive individual collections for each family’s veterans, which provide insight into their individual experiences as well as that of the family as a whole.

One common thread throughout the online exhibit is how a family history of service compelled many of these veterans to enlist. Mary Herrick Krawczyk was a military “brat” who grew up on bases around the country while her father, Curtis J. Herrick, was in the Army. Accustomed to military life, she chose to enter the Air Force. As she said in her oral history interview, “I was lucky to build off a strong family history” of military service.  Michael Lynch chose to follow even more precisely in his father’s footsteps. Like Thomas Lynch, he became an officer in a Naval Construction Battalion unit (the “Seabees”).

When Joe Vila, the oldest of seven brothers enlisted in the Marine Corps, he brought along his 16-year-old brother Willie. Five other Vila brothers went on to enter the military, though they served in different branches and conflicts.

Even in the case of a newlywed couple, family ties offered a compelling reason for pursuing a particular service path. Jeanne and Brian Markle married just a few months before his scheduled departure for Vietnam. Though initially reluctant to take on overseas service, Jeanne realized that doing so would limit her separation from her husband, and they arrived in Vietnam on the same transport plane in December 1966.

A black-and-white studio portrait of Brian and Jeanne Markle in uniform.

1st Lt. Brian Markle and 2nd Lt. Jeanne (Urbin) Markle shortly after their wedding, August 1966. Jeanne A. Urbin Markle Collection, Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/3442.

Many of these families’ narratives evoke a sense of history repeating itself. Fathers who fought in WWI or WWII saw sons go off to fight in WWII, Korea, or Vietnam.

Take the case of the Stilson family. Frederick Stilson served in France with the Army Corps of Engineers during World War I. Although he did not spend time in the trenches, his work brought him close to the front lines, where he experienced gas attacks and shelling. Reminiscing about his experiences in his memoir, he echoed a famous assessment of combat: “Sherman was right, ‘War is hell,’ and no kidding.”

Twenty-five years later, Stilson sent two sons off to war. Malcolm, known as Mac, was serving stateside, while his younger brother Warren was in the European Theater. Tragically, Warren was killed during the Battle of the Bulge in late December 1944. After fighting in the war to end all wars, to see his sons endure the same hell—and then to lose one of them to it—must have been particularly heart-wrenching for Frederick. He wrote in a letter after Warren’s death, “I never thought [at the time of my own service] that both my son and I would shed blood on the soil of France.”

Correspondence donated to VHP by the Lynch family offers another touching example of this. Thomas and Michael Lynch both wrote home to Helen Lynch, describing their experiences in combat in the jungles of New Guinea and Vietnam, respectively. Though they fought in two radically different conflicts, and each had a different relationship to Helen, their letters evoke a similar sensibility.

As the Lynchs’ letters make clear, the collections featured in Family Matters also illuminate the experiences of family members left behind—those wives, siblings, and children who were left to cope with the empty spaces left by their loved ones’ departures. The Curry family sent six sons off to war during World War II, and a seventh son served in the Korean War. All wrote letters home to their sister, Ruth, who acted as a dispatcher for the family, forwarding along news of each brother to the others. While none of their VHP collections feature Ruth’s side of the conversation, it’s not hard to get a sense of the impact of the brothers’ absence on their older sister.

Military service affected each of these families differently and profoundly. The profiled collections are just a handful of the “family connections” that are part of the VHP archive. For more stories of veterans and their families, check out an early edition of Experiencing War, entitled Family Ties. If you are part of a military family, consider submitting VHP collections for each of your veteran family members. That way, your family legacy can be preserved for future generations—not just as lore, but as curated collections at the Library of Congress.

News Coverage of Folklife Research for African American History Month

The American Folklife Center has recently received some coverage for our efforts to research and recognize African American history which we’d like to tell you about. Last weekend the Atlanta Journal Constitution published this article about the spiritual “Kumbaya.” In the article, Shelia M. Poole interviews AFC staff members John Fenn and Stephen Winick (hey, that’s me) and even call me “the folklorist version of Sherlock Holmes” for locating what we believe to be the first sound recording of “Kumbaya” some years ago. She also interviews Griffin Lotson, who did research here and in Georgia, and who helped get the song declared the first State Historical Song of Georgia. We wrote about that research here on the blog. We also did a podcast about it, at this link. And we’ve previously  been covered and interviewed by the New York Times, which you can find here.

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