The featured image in this article is my Grandpa Sam. Samuel Harmon Black was born in northern California in 1895 and died in central California in 1981. He married Mary Snively in 1920 and they had two children. The younger of their two children was my mother. I inherited this photo of Grandpa Sam in his naval uniform. Unfortunately by the time I wondered about the details of his military service, there was no one in the family left alive to ask. I searched on FamilySearch.org and found him in the United States World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918 records collection.
(To see the images full size, click on the image.)
Prior to seeing this record, I had in my records that Grandpa had born in Calistoga, California. This record cites his birth place as Oat Hill Mine. Turns out Oat Hill Mine was very close to Calistoga. I was curious to know what was mined in Oat Hill Mine since my great-grandfather, Morton Black, must have been a miner there. A Google search brought the information that it was a mercury mine. Inhaling mercury vapors, as miners likely would, can cause brain damage which results in cognitive skills impairment and emotional instability. That information may explain some of the things I have heard about Morton. All that my grandma, who didn’t think it was right to speak ill of the dead, would say regarding her father-in-law was that he wasn’t much of a family man. My father, on the other hand, was not the least bit reluctant to call Morton a jerk regarding how he treated family members. I wonder what growing up was like for my Grandpa. After Grandpa’s death, my grandmother told me that he had been raised by his grandparents for part of his childhood and went back and forth between the two sets of grandparents.
This record also demonstrates the importance of finding as many records about a person as possible. On this registration card Samuel give his birth date as April of 1916! I am sure it was a slip’ like many of us have made when asked to write our birth date. We record the right month and day but use the current year. In this case the year is clearly wrong but what if it had not been so obvious? Having several sources to compare would help determine the most likely correct date for any event.
A man can be drafted into the Army, but he has to enlist to join the Navy, so I wasn’t sure how to go from the draft registration card to finding Grandpa’s military record. I took a class given by a local genealogy society to gain the tools to find out more about Grandpa’s military service. I learned that since military service discharge papers cannot be replaced if lost, some veterans chose to file a copy of their discharge papers with their local county clerk. I was advised to contact the local historical or genealogy society from the county that my Grandpa returned to after his military service. I contacted the Tulare County (California) Historical Society by means of their website and they were very helpful. They couldn’t help me find Grandpa’s discharge paper, but they did help me find information about Grandpa on Ancestry.com. The following information came from the U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs BIRLS Death File record collection on Ancestry.com
With the information concerning my Grandpa Sam’s enlistment and release dates and his social security number, I was able to order a copy of his military record from the National Archives. I received an envelope with a stack of paper about one-quarter of an inch thick regarding his military service. I share this one page because it is a good summary of his record.
From this record I learned that Samuel had progressed from Fireman third class to Fireman first class in less than a year. I don’t know enough about the Navy to know how difficult that was but it does to speak to Grandpa’s desire to improve himself.
The last place I found a military record regarding Grandpa was one I didn’t expect, which was the
United States World War II Draft Registration Cards, 1942 record collection on FamilySearch.org. Turns out there was a draft registration for World War II that is sometimes referred to as the Old Man’s Draft because it included men between the ages of 45 and 64. This is Grandpa’s record from this record collection.
Unlike the World War I draft registration records collection that had the front and back of the card in the same image, the World War II draft registration cards were filmed as separate images for front and back. I almost missed seeing the back side of the card, but fortunately, I used the tool that allowed me to see the next image and found the back side of Grandpa’s registration card.
I learned from this record that my Grandpa must have felt a high degree of job security, in that he listed his work supervisor as a person who would always know Grandpa’s address. I do know that Grandpa retired from the California Division of Highways as the top man of the Coalinga yard.
The second page confirmed the hazy memory I had that Grandpa had a tattoo on each forearm. I remember that one was a woman from her shoulders up and the other was an anchor. The physical description of Grandpa reminded me that I am taller than he was.
If what I found about my Grandpa in his military records makes you wonder what you might find out about your ancestors, there are many more records available than I citied in this article. Military records are available from the American Revolutionary and as recent as the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. The oldest records are mostly pension records while the most recent are primarily causality records. Along with FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com, the website, Fold3.com also has many military records. Ancestry.com and Fold3.com are both subscription websites that can be used for free at your local Family Search Family History Center. At FamilySearch.org there are also free classes that you can take online to learn more about using military records. There is likely to be classes given by a local genealogical or historical society or local public library on researching military records. Attending a local class gave me the opportunity to ask questions and receive advice specific to my search. If you find or have found interesting military records, please leave a comment. I would enjoy hearing what you found.
Christine Bell has been seeking her ancestor for almost forty years and continues to find joy in each one she finds. She volunteers in a Family Search Family History Center where she helps others find their ancestors. As a convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Saints, she is grateful to be a member of the Church. She is a wife, mother of six grown children, grandmother of five going on six, and currently living in the western United States. Christine enjoys spending time with family and creating quilts for family, friends and Humanitarian Services of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.