This is a guest blog post by Michael Chamberlain, whose family recently donated his father’s large WWII photograph collection to the Veterans History Project (VHP).
As the executor for my father’s estate, I know how difficult it can be for families to consider handing over what is sometimes the only tangible legacy of a family member’s wartime service…
Military service is part of our family’s story.
My dad was Staff Sergeant Demart Carl Chamberlain, known to his family and friends as Carl. He served during WWII in Italy as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne (504-B Parachute Infantry Regiment) from November 1942 to May 1944 and subsequently with the 334th QDS (Aerial Resupply unit) in France, and was discharged in October 1945. My grandfather, Carl Sr., served as a doughboy in France during WWI. My brothers–Robert, who served in the first Gulf War, and Richard–both retired from the 174th Air National Guard. My niece, M/Sgt Alexandria Chamberlain, is retiring from the 151st Air Guard at the end of 2021.
Although my dad passed in 1993, it wasn’t until 2018 that I began sorting through his personal papers and photographs. In addition to the many family photographs he took, I discovered four albums and hundreds of loose photos from his time in uniform. There were over 900 photos from World War II. Although I was close to my dad, like many veterans, he had never spoken much of his service to our country. As I began researching the photos and his story I found that he had taken part in combat jumps during the invasions of Sicily (Operation Husky) and Italy (Operation Avalanche), participated in the amphibious assault at Anzio (Operation Shingle) and the invasion of southern France (Operation Dragoon).
While most of the photos were taken after the 1943 Winter Offensive and Anzio, there are several photos from Sicily, Naples, Monte Cassino, Anzio and Rome. There are also photos from his time in southern France when he was attached to the First Airborne Task Force, as well as from the Rhone River valley and eastern France when his unit supported the Seventh Army as they pursued the retreating German Army up to the Belfort Gap and the Battle of the Bulge. The photos include scenes of the daily life of soldiers, civilian life, people celebrating liberation and images of the destruction wrought by the war.
Given the extent of my dad’s photo collection, I was certain that it would be of interest to the Army, the 82nd Airborne or a history museum. I began sending out multiple and often repeated inquiries by email in the fall of 2018. I heard back from just some of these institutions. Most said simply that they were not interested in materials from individual veterans. Eventually I turned to the National Archives, which suggested I contact the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center. My note to the Library was answered by Megan Harris at the Veterans History Project in less than 24 hours. In her email, she said “my colleagues and I were thrilled to hear of your father’s photograph collection . . . it would be a wonderful addition to our World War II holdings . . . particularly as we approach the 75th anniversary of many of the engagements that your father took part . . .”
That email set the tone for my experience with VHP and its staff. Despite the challenges of navigating the accession process during a pandemic – the respect, caring, knowledge and attention to detail of the VHP staff was evident at every step in the process. As a corporate consultant for the past 30 years, I have worked with many organizations, and few have compared to the level of professionalism I experienced while working with the VHP staff.
Although it took me nearly a year to scan, catalogue and research my dad’s photo collection, VHP staff stayed in touch and patiently assisted with information, guidance and suggestions. We were finally able to hold an in-person hand-over ceremony on September 21, 2021. It was so wonderful to finally meet the VHP staff who I had been working with (Megan Harris and Monica Mohindra), and to review the collection with the archivists who would be handling the photos (Justina Moloney and Nathan Cross).
As the executor for my father’s estate, I know how difficult it can be for families to consider handing over what is sometimes the only tangible legacy of a family member’s wartime service. I have seen that hesitancy in some veterans and the veteran families I have spoken with. With that in mind, what helped convince our family to donate these materials was the fact that an institution such as the Library of Congress has the resources and capacity to preserve my dad’s photos and papers permanently. Another factor was that, while our family retains the copyright to these materials, they would forever be available – not simply to our family, but to other veterans, researchers and the general public. Now I can add another reason – our experience with the VHP staff reminded our family of the gratitude this nation has for our dad’s service. The grace, kindness and professionalism of the VHP/LC staff served as a testament to and heartfelt reminder that my dad’s service is remembered, honored and respected by the country that he served. I only hope that by sharing our experience with the VHP we can encourage others to donate their materials to the VHP as well.
Mike Chamberlain would like assistance in tracing the movements of the 334th Quartermasters Supply Depot (aerial resupply) unit from April 1944 through September 1945. Anyone with information on the 334th QDS is encouraged to leave a comment on this blog post, and VHP staff can put you in touch with Mike.