Sunday, November 8, 2020

Shaky Leaf Hint Yields Record Where FOIA Failed

In August, I wrote about the discovery of new details regarding my great-grandfather Samuel Kirk's World War I military service. An shaky leaf hint pointed me to the first evidence that Samuel served overseas. 

It was several years ago when I initially learned that Samuel was an Army veteran who served during World War I. It was carved in granite. His government-issued headstone read: "PFC US ARMY WORLD WAR I." His military career was news to me.

My subsequent research turned up no evidence of service on the front, so I mistakenly assumed he was stationed exclusively stateside. His story, however, was indeed global.

The new record was a passenger manifest for a ship sailing on September 1, 1918 from New York City to Liverpool, England and included Samuel among the crew of enlisted soldiers. It revealed important details about his service, including his service ID number and his rank and unit affiliation: a Private First Class with Truck Company E of the Army Artillery Park, Coast Artillery Corps.

A second passenger manifest pinpointed Samuel's departure from France to Brooklyn on April 19, 1919. The two documents bookended Samuel's service, but left a seven month gap with questions about what happened in between his arrival in Europe and safe return home. When did he leave Liverpool for France? What action did he see, if any? Where was he on Armistice Day - 102 years ago?

Sadly, a 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri, destroyed between 16 and 18 million military personnel files, including Samuel's service records. It seemed that Samuel's story had come to a fiery end.

But I had alternative avenues to push my research forward.

Forging Through The Ashes

Commenting on my August blog post, reader Lisa S. Gorrell advised that I review the Morning Reports held at the National Archives in St. Louis, which provided a daily report on the status of each military unit's enlisted men and the unit's movements.

This is a promising lead, but it will have to wait until the pandemic's worst subsides and the Archives again permit on site research (the morning reports are, unfortunately, not digitized. Have we learned nothing from 1973?!).

While corresponding with an archivist at the National Archives, I asked about how to obtain Samuel's burial case file (after all, he has a military-issued headstone) and his Veterans Affairs claim file (he lived his final months in a Colorado VA hospital). The archivist clarified that Samuel wouldn't have a burial case file because he didn't die while enlisted. However, "the VA Claim file, since he died in 1970, that file will still be in possession of the VA." 

Given Samuel's more recent death, I assumed his application for a headstone would also still reside with the VA. 

With guidance from the NARA archivist, I fired off a series of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to the VA. My requests were expansive - seeking to procure copies of any records they had on file for my great-grandfather.

Their answers were quick (by the standard of government bureaucracy) and disappointing.

Responding to my request for his headstone application, the VA concluded, "We have no records responsive to your request. I am providing an attachment with a picture of Mr. Kirk's government-furnished headstone found on the Find A Grave public website."

They attached a photo of Samuel's headstone that I had taken and uploaded to Find A Grave. I was back at square one, or, rather, the granite marker that had first indicated to me that Samuel had been in the military and sparked this research journey.

Autumn Leaves Shake Records Loose

Just nine days after receiving notification of my failed FOIA request, another shaky leaf hint popped up on Samuel's profile. 

In mid-October, had updated their "Headstone Applications for Military Veterans" database. 

Guess what appeared! 

Samuel's headstone application - dated May 1970 - was among the files spanning the years 1963-1970 that were just added to the collection.

Among the gems of information extracted from Samuel's application were a pension VA claim number (can we say FOIA part deux?!) and his exact enlistment and discharge dates. The application also reiterated his unit affiliation, but with the new information that he was stationed at Fort D.A. Russell - a U.S. Army post in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

Samuel Kirk application for U.S. government-issued headstone

While I continue to forage for information that will help me piece together a more complete picture of Samuel's World War I military service, the headstone application is another example that instances of burned records do not necessarily mean everything went up in smoke. Sift the ashes for clues and you may be surprised what you learn. I know I certainly am.


  1. Glad you're still finding pieces to tell your great-grandfather's military story.

  2. Congratulations. It is so satisfying that records continue to come to light.

    1. And fortunate that they survive to tell the story that the destroyed records no longer can.

  3. This is a great reminder that new records pop up on Ancestry all the time. One of these days I need to go back and look at all the people I researched a year or more ago to see if new things have appeared. Great find, Michael!

    1. It's like a full-time job to push research forward AND circle back to see what new clues surface. But you're right - definitely a good reminder for us all to keep an eye out for new hints.

    2. I am thinking that once I finish the line I'm working on, I may go back and check just my direct ancestors. I can't go back to all the collateral people on my tree (over 10,000) right now. But just doing the direct ancestors is doable.

    3. Good luck, Amy! I'll be curious to hear what gems you find waiting for you.