Remembering our veterans

Much of what I remember from past Memorial Days is my father talking about the loss of his childhood friend, Paul “Butch” Vanderboom in Vietnam. Paul’s family moved away from the neighborhood when they were still quite young, but he never forgot his friend. To the end of his days, he treasured a rubbing he received from a Vietnam vet of Paul’s name on the memorial wall in Washington DC. I posted a photo of them together on the virtual Vietnam Veterans memorial wall last year. I’d like to think my dad would be pleased to know it’s there.

But for this Memorial Day, I want to talk about a veteran who made a difference in my own life.

03 Herb and Kay Pfaff_Topeka KS April 1945My grandparents Herb & Kay Pfaff in 1945

Sadly, I don’t remember my grandpa Pfaff ever talking about his wartime experiences. I was told that he had served in World War II, and have two vague memories about it: one, that our extended family once went to the EAA airfield in Oshkosh to see some vintage B-52 bombers, and my grandfather said he flew in planes like them; and two, that sometime during my childhood, my family gifted my grandfather with a very cool leather bomber jacket that they said was similar to the one he wore during the war. I remember my grandfather was really affected by that gift.

One lesson I’ve learned again and again about family tree research is that you have to be creative in searching for information. I lamented to my husband today about how little I knew about my grandfather’s service to his country, and how frustrating the lack of information I had found online. Both Ancestry.com and the NARA database had nothing listed for Herbert Pfaff. A fire in the National Military Personnel Records Center in 1973 means the records of many servicemen are not readily available online.

One option is to fill out a request form for his official military personnel file, but I don’t know enough at this point for researchers to locate his file among the millions of records stored there. As I told my husband, the little I know is that he must have been in the Air Force because I have photos of him in uniform. My husband asked if I was even sure of that much, at which point I showed him the photos, and the little wing medals on his lapels.

01 Herb3

This is where my husband pointed out that I do have some clues in those photos. He suggested I do some research on what all those pins on his uniform mean. Some googling brought up a very informative website: American Military Patches, Other Insignia and Decorations of World War Two by Dr. Howard G. Lanham.

One disclaimer: I know very little about this topic, and there is a strong possibility that some or all of the information I’ve gleaned is inaccurate. Until I can gain better information, I’m taking all this with a grain of salt (and you should too)!

The first thing I learned was that the Air Force was not its own division until after World War II. I’m going under the assumption that my grandpa served with the USAAF (United States Army Air Forces).  The easiest to identify from the website guide was the pin on his hat. It appears that there were different cap insignias for officers and enlisted men. Looking at reference photos, it appears that my grandfather was an officer! This was a surprise to me.

It’s always good to be cautious with assumptions, however. There is one other item that reinforces the idea that he was of officer rank – this photo to the right.02 Herb2_Olan Mills Studio_Tuscaloosa Ala_C-42514 I always assumed this was taken early in his enlistment, because he was not wearing the full dress uniform of later pictures. However, I found mention of the fact that officers were issued different shirts than enlisted men, particularly in that the cloth “tab” on the shoulder that buttons to the collar is unique to an officer’s shirt.

One other insignia pin provided more clues: the one on his left breast (top photo) appears to be a bombardier pin. Lack of detail in these old photos makes it hard to be certain, of course. Other patches and pins seem to denote that he was part of the general Armed Air Forces unit, and not a specific “sub-group”.

There are a few items I wasn’t able to properly I.D. – the rectangular bar pin in the photo to the right and a patch on his right sleeve in a later photo that was probably taken in Milwaukee circa 1945 (below left).

There’s one thing I do know: Herbert Pfaff married Katherine Baker in 1941, and started a family a few years later. I presume he was still actively in the service for at least a few years after their first child was born, based on other photographs I have with him in uniform holding her.

These photos have a few other small clues on the back of them. While they are unfortunately undated, the photo above right is noted as having been taken in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. There is also a code written in: C-42514. Unfortunately I have no idea if that is a reference to his service, or simply some sort of filing system for the Olan Mills photo studio that processed that image.

One photo taken of Herb & Kay with their first daughter was placed as Ardmore, Oklahoma. And yet another image of the couple is marked “Topeka, KS – April 1945”.

To the best of my knowledge, after the war ended my grandfather returned to his family’s bakery business, which he was involved in until 1965 when his father passed away. He then worked for Crestwood Bakery until his retirement. Herbert Pfaff passed away on December 28, 1994 at the age of 73.

It is admittedly frustrating to  know so little about such a significant time in my grandfather’s life… and indeed, a time that would likely have affected his entire family. I wonder about how hard it was for a young couple to start their lives during wartime, and how they both felt to be raising a family while living apart. Until I determine my grandfather’s dates and branch of service, I don’t know if I’ll have much more info about his experiences in the USAAF. But the little clues I’ve garnered today already make me feel closer to him, and honored to be a part of his family tree.

Morgan Gail HerbGrandpa Pfaff taking me on my first pony ride.

Notable events on this date

Since I mentioned Gust Johns in my last post, it seems fitting to note that May 19th will mark the 137th birthday of his sister Martha Johns-Bahlert. But there are a few other notable events from this week in May: the immigration of my great-grandfather Pfaff and my great-great grandfather Krueger.

According to family lore, Wilhelm Krüger (later William Krueger) came to America on May 18, 1872 after a two week crossing, and arrived in Wisconsin just six days later. Records also indicate his brother Carl (Charles) arrived at either the same time or within a year of William. Unfortunately the name Krueger is just too common in this region for me to be sure of the correct ship records at this point.

Family legend also says that William came from an area of Germany called Gluetsa. I haven’t found anything similar to this name in my searches, nor have I located the region for his wife Wilhelmina Stern (family lore says the Sterns originated in Gleritey, another non-existent place name).

However, I did locate this information at the Waukesha Historical Society in the “Pioneer Book”:

William Henry Krueger
Born 24 October 1849 in Germany
Mother: Anna
Married: Wilhelmina born 1852
Died: March 20 1937
Buried: German Evangelical Church (now the St. John United Church of Christ Cemetery in Merton, WI)

The Krueger-Stern families are definitely on my “to do” list for further research!

Turning to our other notable immigrant now… my great-grandfather, Peter Pfaff. His voyage occurred 40 years after William Krueger’s, and I often wonder how different their experiences were travelling to the new world.

Peter Pfaff emigrated from his home in Szakadat, Hungary on the ship Campanello, boarding in Rotterdam on May 2nd, 1912. He arrived at Ellis Island on May 17, 1912. He was just 17 years old.

The ship manifest describes him as having a fair complexion, brown hair and blue eyes, and standing at a height of 5 feet 2 inches. He was employed as a stonemason, and listed his final destination as New York, NY. His nearest relative listed is his father Georg Pfaff, who remained in Hungary.

The steamship Campanello (previously known as the Campania) was built in 1902 in Newcastle, England. Renamed the Flavia in 1916, it was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine off Northern Ireland on August 24, 1918.

Pfaff ship Flavia-CampanelloPS

Records shared with me by a distant Hungarian cousin indicate that the Pfaff family originated in the village of Tevel, in central Hungary on the west bank of the river Danube. Sometime between 1882 and 1887, Gyorgy (George) Pfaff moved his young family to the town of Szakadat, then in Hungary and now a part of Romania, where he worked as a shoemaker.

In 1910, George’s daughter Katalin (Katharina) traveled to America. Katalin Pfaff left her family’s home in Szakadat, Hungary on the ship Carpathia, boarding at the port of Fiume. She arrived at Ellis Island on May 11, 1910. She was just 19 years old, traveling alone to a strange new country.

The ship manifest describes her as standing 5 feet 6 inches tall, with a fair complexion, fair hair, and brown eyes. She listed her final destination as meeting her brother-in-law in New York (I’m not sure yet who this was).

She was followed by her brother Peter two years later. Relatives have continued to emigrate in the years since.

Julius Pfaff, who immigrated to America in 1950 after being sponsored by his uncle Peter (in order to work in the family bakery in Milwaukee), stated that his family was relocated to Germany after World War II. Julius and his family continue the tradition of operating a Pfaff family bakery in Illinois.