A patron wrote ASK NYPL to ask about her uncle, who died in March 1945 while serving in the U.S. Army during World War II. She granted us permission to share the story of the search here.
Frank E. Downs. Trip to Nome, Alaska, May to Sept. 1900: Bergs; Bergs; Dutch Harbor, Aleutian Islands, Wake of ship leaving harbor; Bergs., Digital ID 1596905, New York Public LibraryThe patron knew very little about her uncle "Buddy." When the Army notified her uncle's next of kin of his death, they did not disclose how or where he died. Further, her uncle's military records had been destroyed in the 1973 National Archives fire. Moreover, the relatives who knew her uncle before the war were now either dead or suffering from Alzheimer's disease. The patron asked specifically for information about her uncle or information pertaining to her uncle's unit, such as where the unit was stationed, what type of work it did, etc. However, the patron only had the "bare bones" of her uncle's military service record: he served in the Second Battalion, 138th Infantry Regiment; one of her relatives remembered sending mail to an "A.P.O in Seattle, Washington;" and that "he may have been sent to Alaska."
I was able to locate further information for the patron about her uncle, where he died, and the nature of his service in the Army. I consulted the Unit Histories of the U.S. Army in World War II and its later Supplement in the General Research Division at NYPL, but to no avail. Nor was it to be found in the List of Unofficial Unit Histories. However, as it turned out, no Unit Histories were created for the Second Battalion, 138th Infantry.
The reason that there were no "Unit Histories" for the her uncle's battalion and regiment is because her uncle was stationed in a "Secret Base" on the tip of the Alaskan peninsula at Cold Bay. In 1942, two of the Aleutian islands off Alaska were actually occupied by the Japanese, and the islands were the site of bombings, fierce fighting, and a number of casualties. These islands were not recaptured until well into 1943. This period is known as the "Forgotten Battle," as it was overshadowed by the simultaneous Guadalcanal Campaign. Moreover, the U.S. Military maintained Cold Bay and other bases in the Aleutians until the end of World War II, as they were seen to have strategic importance and might provide a way to bomb Japan.
I was able to locate the base where her uncle was stationed and identify his unit's duties by tracing the genealogical records of another serviceman who had served in her uncle's own battalion and regiment, but who had survived to tell his descendants about it. This bit of research made the information that the patron had already provided fall into place. Her uncle died in March 1945. However, the Army did not disclose to his next of kin the nature of his death (it was not in combat), the precise location of his death, or the duties of his unit. This was due to the "secret" nature of the work of the Second Battalion, 138th Infantry Regiment. Their work would almost certainly, by March 1945, be concerned with the U.S. Army's imminent plans for the invasion of Japan.
It also fit that her uncle's last known mailing address was "an APO in Seattle, Washington." Seattle was the northwestern "Official Post Office of the U.S. Army" in 1945, as Alaska and Hawaii did not formally obtain full United States statehood until 1959. The Army would then transship U.S. Mail to those serving in Alaska, then an organized territory of the United States. The occupation and bombing of the Aleutian Islands was reported upon in 1942 and 1943. The continued existence of the "Secret Bases," such as the one where uncle Buddy died in 1945, was not. So even the fact that her uncle served in a Transportation Unit — one that moved men and material via trucks, jeeps, and other motor vehicles — could not be acknowledged.
However, the historical record is now complete and you can find more about the critical role of the Aleutians in World War II in the documentary Red, White, Black and Blue or in several books discussing their role — all available at The New York Public Library.