Connections in Unlikely Places: A WWII Genealogy Story
Many patrons arrive at the Milstein Division of U.S. History, Local History and Genealogy with questions and something more. Often it is a letter written long ago, an address of a deceased cousin, or a sepia toned photograph from 1930. All are talismans from which patrons begin their family research.
This photo is my maternal uncle, Sgt. Phillip M. Carlon, 451st Bomber Group, U.S. Army Aircorps. Uncle Phil sits on the barrack steps at Stuart Airfield in Illinois. Outfitted for the chilly temperatures of high altitudes, he's smiling like a 10 year old all dressed up for a party in his Army issue brown leather jacket, with its sheep skinned collar pulled up around his neck, and in his lap the leather cap of an airman. It is January 1944. On October 14th of that same year Phillip Carlon became another casualty of World War II. He is my family's war hero. His photo is my talisman.
I feel lucky to have a few of his letters home from his three years of service. I also have the complete edition of the Wilmington Evening Journal of October 22, 1944. The editors of the paper chose Carlon's official and solemn military portrait for its front page with the headline "Aerial Gunner Killed on Raid Over Germany." The article reported, "Overseas only since August, Sgt. Carlon wrote on Oct. 13 that he had returned from a mission so difficult and dangerous that it would be counted as two missions on his bomber's list of missions. He was reported killed in action on the following day."
Like all researchers, I would like more. From the National Personnel Records Center, a part of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), located in St. Louis, Missouri, I have learned that a massive cache of Military Personnel records, especially for Army and Air Force soldiers of World War II, was lost in a 1973 fire. Sgt. Phillip M. Carlon's, Uncle Phil's, are among them. My project goes on hold until serendipity strikes.
A friend hands me a book for vacation reading. "Here's a book about World War II and poetry. Try it." Daniel Swift's Bomber County: The Poetry of a Lost Pilot's War is a beautiful book. Swift, an assistant professor of literature at Skidmore College, writes of his grandfather, an RAF pilot who trained on the East Anglia coast and was shot down over Holland during Britain's bombing war against Germany. Swift's grandfather and my uncle seem an unlikely pairing. An RAF pilot and a U.S. Army ball turret gunner. An Englishman and an American. One flying air strikes across the North Sea on Germany and Phil part of the air support for the U.S. army advancing up the spine of Italy. I find out differently.
The prologue to Bomber Country provides my inspiration. Swift explains that he and his father had traveled to Holland to the beach where his grandfather was shot down and to the Dutch cemetery where his grandfather was buried. The writer continues, "I'm not sure we wanted to find him in the end: I think we probably wanted to invent my grandfather for ourselves. I think I wanted to tell a story...". We family researchers all want to tell our stories.
But, I want hard facts to complete the little I know of my uncle's story. I start with the Milstein Division's online searching tool Ancestry Library Edition. I find my uncle, Phillip M Carlon's name in U.S. World War II Army Enlistment Records. I know most of the information: Education 4 years of high school, single without dependents. The last data are height and weight. From the Carlon family of big, strapping men, Phil was a mere 67 inches (5'7") tall and weighed 140 pounds in August, 1941. I search for other Carlons; the spelling of our surname is unusual. I find from U.S. Veterans Gravesites an entry for Rudolfo Robles Carlon interred at Golden Gate National Cemetery on July 9, 1946. A Hispanic addition to our Scotch Irish Carlons.
Daniel Swift in Bomber County includes a notes section at the end. Arranged by chapter it is good reading and instructive even to an amateur researcher. Every pertinent U.S. source related to my project can be found in NYPL's collection here at the Milstein Division at the Stephen A. Schwarzman building on 42nd Street. The United States Strategic Bombing Surveys, an important source for Swift, gives me a detailed account of the air campaign in Italy. Swift cites the American reports on London by Ernie Pyle, Janet Flanner and Edward R. Murrow which are collected in Samuel Hynes' Reporting World War II: American Journalism 1938-1945. A search of NYPL's catalog yields 31 entries for Ernie Pyle. Brave Men includes whole chapters on the Italian campaign, Uncle Phil's part of the war. Many of the war correspondents were close to the troops, but Ernie Pyle was a hero to the soldiers he traveled with and the American public who followed his dispatches as though each was written by a loved one. In the index to Brave Men I find an entry for Wilmington, Delaware and Sergeant Sam Lynch. Pyle, on board a supply ship at Anzio, wrote, "Our crew boss was Sergeant Sam Lynch of 2411 West Street, Wilmington, Delaware." I can picture that block of West Street, almost the Carlon's, my family's side of town.
NYPL's online catalog gives me more sources. There is the renowned photojournalist, Margaret Bourke-White's They Called It "Purple Heart Valley", a combat chronicle of the war in Italy which depicts a stark reality of that war or any war. Among many first person accounts is A Bomber Pilot in WWII: From Farm Boy to Pilot: 35 Missions in the B-24 Liberator Bomber by Walter F. Hughes.
My gratitude to Swift the war historian is enormous. The reader learns that the immense destruction of people and place came from all combatants, the Allies and the German Reich. The sections about the American poets and their poetry bring me unexpectedly to Phil again. The American poet, Randall Jarrell was stationed in Texas. Phil earned his gunner's wings at Harlingen Army Air Base in Texas. Jarrell moved on to a base in Illinois. Phil made the same move. I remember Jarrell as the author of the whimsical, children's book The Bat Poet. His war poetry is far from that and brings me to the painful reality of Phil's position in a plane as a gunner with the poem "Death of a Ball Turret Gunner." Jarrell's journals from his time at those bases are right here at NYPL.
John Ciardi, another American poet and an amateur pilot enlisted right after Pearl Harbor. Like Phil, Ciardi was trained as control gunner on B-29s, in charge of the twin guns at the upper rear turret. Ciardi survived the war. Forty years later in an interview with oral historian Studs Terkel's "The Good War:" An Oral History of World War Two. Ciardi recounted his reassignment from combat duty to literary duty. "We need somebody with combat experience who can write. You've taught college English, you've published...You're now working for me.'...Ciardi spent the next six months in an office...writing condolences and citations."
I only recently discovered the condolence letter written to my grandmother. On onion skin paper a carbon on the original letter includes the usual expression or sorrow and ends, "After crossing the eastern border of Italy, the plane encountered a heavy rainstorm. Visibility was almost impossible. The craft on which your son was armorer-gunner crashed into a mountain, killing the entire crew instantly." The letter is signed: "Very sincerely yours, N. F. Twining, Major General, USA, Commanding, General." Twining didn't sit up late at night writing that condolence letter. It would have taken a poet or writer of fiction to compose it.
Back to Swift's personal take on Ciaridi "like my grandfather, he was twenty-eight years old when he completed training, and the oldest man on his crew." Uncle Phil was the same age. Was he the oldest man in his crew?
I leave Swift's Bomber Country and my searches of NYPL's catalog with solid references and a realization my own family story can be found in unlikely places. I want to reread the The Iliad, the first mythic war story, Stud's Terkel's interviews, and learn more about the Italian campaign.
I cannot do justice to Daniel Swift, the writer, and his elegant tapestry of a book. Bomber County is a story of loss, of family, of poetry, the literary imagination, and the destruction of war. It is a book not to be missed.
I sort my papers. I look again at Philip Carlon's 1941 enlistment record, the most tangible of my new discoveries. I read again his height of 5'7" tall and his weight of 140 pounds. Uncle Phil and I could have stood almost eye to eye had we been able to face each other in my adult life.