Military History Monday: Finding Your Family Heroes

Lately I’ve been working with clients who have asked me to find a Revolutionary War ancestor so they can join either Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) or Sons of the American Revolution (SAR).  It gives me a great sense of pleasure when I can finally inform them, yes, you have a direct-line ancestor who served in some capacity in America’s struggle for independence.  Immediately a smile of joy and pride spreads across their face and they say, “really?”. I have also had people who tell me they’re not sure they want to know more about their family history, implying it might be less than stellar.  I can assure them, however, that if you keep looking you’ll more often than not find something redemptive.  A case in point was one friend whose family were alcoholics and her family, neither her father or mother’s side, would talk about their history.  What a shame that was! While her father, grandfather and possibly great grandfather may have struggled with alcohol, her great-great grandfather was a minister who lived in a part of New York during a revolutionary period in American religious history where the likes of Charles Finney faithfully preached the Gospel in the early decades of the nineteenth century.  Perhaps her great-great grandfather had been converted by Finney or another evangelist of the time. The area in New York which encompassed several counties of central and western New York came to be known as “The Burned Over District” or “burnt district”, as Finney called it in his 1876 autobiography.  In his opinion the area had been so over-evangelized and there was...

Military History Monday: Hello Girls of World War I

During World War I they were officially known as the Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit, but more informally known as “Hello Girls”.  The United States had been reluctant to join its European allies in the conflict, but when Germany began an all-out effort in early 1917 to sink American vessels in the North Atlantic, President Woodrow Wilson’s hand was forced.  He asked Congress for a declaration of war, “a war to end all wars”.  On April 6, 1917 Congress officially did so, engaging the Germans and hoping to make the world once again safe for democracy. The British had been at war with German for nearly three years when the United States joined the effort.  With their men away fighting the war, large numbers of women were working in munitions factories throughout Britain.  Their work was dangerous as explosives and chemicals caused deaths.  The greatest single loss occurred in early January 1917 when a munitions factory in Silvertown, England exploded due to an accidental fire – seventy-two women were severely injured and sixty-nine perished. President Wilson’s cousin John Wilson was in England at the time and described it as a “terrific crash, accompanied by a red glow in the sky.”1  Another American observed that London was shaken from one end to the other – windows within a twenty-mile radius were shattered.  Perhaps this catastrophic event compelled British officials to find a safer way for women to contribute to the war effort. By early March the decision had been made to find ways for women to serve in other capacities such as cooking, mechanical and clerical tasks.  The women...

We Must Never Forget

The early edition of The Daily Tar Heel announced a roundtable discussion scheduled for 3:00 the afternoon of December 7, 1941.  The topic was “Must We Fight Japan?”  Hours later the headline displayed above appeared in the newspaper’s “extra edition”. Japan had declared settlements talks with the United States, over actions taken to prevent Japanese Pacific expansion which included the July 1941 oil embargo, a complete failure.  President Roosevelt had just addressed a personal message to Emperor Hirohito indicating the United States was threatened by the buildup of Japanese military movements in Indo-China and the Gulf of Siam.  Roosevelt was appealing directly to the Emperor over the heads of the Tokyo cabinet in order to prevent a “Far Eastern explosion.”1 While the State Department declined to disclose the contents of Roosevelt’s message they were simultaneously receiving reports of 125,000 Japanese troops in Indo-China, despite Tokyo’s dismissal of these claims as “exaggerated”.  Clearly, a powder keg was about to explode. The University of North Carolina Chapel Hill was scheduled to hold a forum on Tuesday night, December 9, at 8:00 p.m. to discuss national unity.  The discussion would be moderated by Dean of Students F.F. Bradshaw who would be joined by four faculty members. It promised to be a two-fisted debate, answering such questions as “Is national unity a means for propaganda?  Should the Nyes and the Lindberghs be shut up?2  Are the figures behind Civilian Morale impartial individuals?  What happens to civil rights under such programs?”3 Civilian morale was a hot topic that year.  Before that day was over it would become red-hot.  Some believed the government was propagandizing...

Military History Monday: Way Beyond the Call of Duty

I don’t recall how I stumbled upon this story, but one day I landed on the Wikipedia page for Milton Rubenfeld — and what a fascinating story I found!  This week will also feature at least one more World War II-related story (a “Far-Out Friday” article), marking the 74th anniversary of D-Day.  Milton Rubenfeld’s story is both unique and heroic . . . read on. Milton Rubenfeld was born on September 13, 1919 in Peekskill, New York to parents Louis and Gussie Rubenfeld.  Growing up, Milton achieved the highest honor of Eagle Scout and served as a lifeguard.  He attended college at New York University and later at the University of New Mexico, where it’s noted in his obituary he hunted rattlesnakes. In the years leading up to World War II, Milton taught aerobatics and when the war in Europe began in 1939 he wanted to serve.  Since the United States hadn’t joined the war, he volunteered for service in England’s Royal Air Force (RAF).  He was a member of the 420 Squadron, a small unit of four pilots and four Spitfires, participating in the Battle of Britain. He served with the RAF until the United States entered the war following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  Under the threat of losing his American citizenship, Milton returned home and joined America’s Air Transport Command (ATC) as a ferry pilot.  ATC missions included flying various types of aircraft from the manufacturer to training bases or to the various combat theaters, as well as delivering supplies and equipment overseas.  After World War II ended, Milton’s military service was far from over,...

Yankee Doodle “Dandies”: Silk Stocking Regiments

The Upper East Side is one of the most affluent neighborhoods in New York City and once referred to as the “Silk Stocking District”.  Within its boundaries lies some of the most expensive real estate in the country, home to some of the wealthiest people in the world.  Through the years the area has been home to Rockefellers, Roosevelts, Kennedys and Astors, just to name a few prominent families. During the Civil War, the Confederate cause was often referred to as a “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight” since certain men of wealth and stature could pay someone to fight in their stead.  After the Enrollment Act was passed in Congress in 1863, that term applied throughout the North as well since the new law provided two ways to avoid the draft: substitution or commutation. A commutation fee of three hundred dollars could be paid when one’s number came up in the draft lottery, although it was not a blanket exemption if one’s number came up in a future lottery.  Hiring a substitute might cost upwards of one thousand dollars, a sum most common laborers and farmers could not afford.  As members of privileged families, the young men of New York’s “Silk Stocking District” could have opted out of service altogether. The Seventh Regiment of the New York Militia was often referred to as the “Silk Stocking Regiment” because many of the city’s elite accepted President Lincoln’s call to arms on April 19, 1861.  However, it wasn’t the first time the term was used.  During the Revolutionary War, Colonel Langdon’s Newport Light Infantry was often called the “Silk-Stockings”, composed...

Military History Monday: R.I.P. Joseph Kopcho Langdell (1914-2015)

Joseph Kopcho Langdell, the oldest survivor of the USS Arizona, died last week on February 4, 2015 at the age of one hundred years old.  He was part of what has come to be called “The Greatest Generation” and only eight more survivors of the attack remain. Joseph Kopcho Langdell was born on October 12, 1914 to Luther and Annie Kopcho Langdell in Wilton, New Hampshire.  In a twist of history, the construction of the USS Arizona had begun a few months before Joseph’s birth.  Twenty-seven years later he would be on board the ship on that fateful day of December 7, 1941. Growing up, Joseph worked on his family’s dairy farm and was an Eagle Scout.  He graduated from Boston University in 1938 with a degree in business administration and worked as an accountant.  In 1940, with the war in Europe and America inching closer to some type of involvement, Joseph decided to join the V-7 Naval Reserve Program at the age of twenty-six. After serving for thirty days as a seaman aboard the USS New York, Joseph was appointed as a Midshipmen at the Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School.  While attending the school in Chicago at Northwestern University, he met his future wife Elizabeth McGauhy.  He received his commission as an Ensign in the U.S. Naval Reserve on March 14, 1941 and was assigned to the USS Arizona, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. His math skills earned him a position working with Navy photographers who were studying better ways to gauge the accuracy of a ship’s guns (Fleet Camera Party).  His training took place on Ford Island in the harbor...