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Ask Ancestry Anne: My Father Was in the Navy, But Where?

Question: My father, Matthew Gene Wietecha, served in the Navy in World War II. I have been unable to find out about his service because of the fire in the National Personnel Records Center in  which military files were destroyed. I do know that he served on the USS Evangeline. How can I find out information on his service for our country and about the attack of his ship??

— Doris

Answer:  This case is interesting, because it illustrates that even though the answer isn’t where you would expect to find it, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t out there.

I started my search in the U.S. Military Records collection http://www.ancestry.com/military and chose World War II.  I entered Matthew’s name.  Usually you would want to also include a birth date, but I suspect that Wietecha is not the most common of names.

I found Matthew’s death record, which is helpful because now I have a birth and death date. And I know he was in the Navy and he served from April 24, 1942 to November 10, 1945.

I could not find him in the Navy muster rolls or in the enlistment rolls, so I decided on a different tack. Rather than searching, I went directly to U.S. World War II Navy Muster Rolls, 1938-1949  to see if I could browse the list for the Evangeline. 

But it wasn’t there.  Nor was it in the U.S. Navy Cruise Books, 1918-2009


Since searching and browsing these collections had both failed, I decided to expand my search to see if I could find a nickname in the census records or a clue in some other record. I found him the 1940 census, living with his parents and brothers and sisters. I noticed in the suggested records on the right hand side of the record page that he is also on five different passenger lists.

I clicked on the first link, and learned that Matthew was on the Esso Baltimore in the Naval Armed Guard Crew.

This list is from May 14, 1943 – right in the middle of World War II.  The other four links are also from the Esso Baltimore.

In search of more information, I found a page on the Naval Armed Guard Service in World War II in the Navy Department Library’s site.  Their job was to protect the ships moving material and men across the “submarine infested” waters both in the Atlantic and the Pacific.

“The Armed Guards played an important part in defending ships which cost $22,500,000,000 to build and operate. The value of the cargo which they defended cannot be estimated in dollars.”

You are correct that there was a fire at the National Personnel Records Center in 1973, but the bulk of the records that were lost were for Army personnel discharged between November 1912 and January 1960 (80 percent lost) and Air Force personnel discharged late September 1947 and January 1964. You can read more about the fire on the National Archives website

Digging deeper into the Navy Library’s website, on the Official Service and Medical Records page, ( I found that the records for men in the Navy Armed Guard are held at the National Personnel Records Center. You’ll find more information on the Start Your Military Service Record (DD Form 214) page.

Your father played a fascinating part in World War II.  I’m hoping if you order his records, you will learn even more. It’s always good to remember that if you don’t find what you are looking for where you expect it, keep expanding your search.  You never know what you might stumble across.

Happy searching!

— Ancestry Anne

Israel Arbeiter: Ready to Return to the United States

After 8 days that took him from Warsaw, Poland to his native city of Plock in Poland, to Krakow and finally into Germany, where he gained his freedom in 1945, Izzy is tired.

At 87 years old he has the right to be.

After seeing his parents and brother shipped off and murdered at Treblinka, his friends and other relatives also killed in the concentration camps, he has said his final goodbyes to the places and the difficult times that shaped who he is today.

Izzy has walked the grounds at Auschwitz-Birkenau, his home in 1944, where the Nazis killed 1.1 million of the 1.3 who came through their three separate camps there (at Auschwitz).

He walked in darkness beside the memorials at the Treblinka death camp and said a prayer for his family members murdered there.

He has met with school kids from two nations to talk to them about his experiences as a Jew living through the Holocaust and the price he paid for his religious beliefs.

He has reconnected with the daughter of a German family that sacrificed their own lives to throw bread to Izzy and the other slave laborers in his group as they passed down the family’s street on a daily basis to work in a local quarry.

He has visited with old friends, both Polish and German.

If there is one final lasting memory for all of us on this trip it occurred just last night. It’s the photo that accompanies this blog. It’s a snap shot taken last evening of Izzy and another man also in his mid 80’s. His name is Walter Fischer. Walter was a German World War II army veteran.

Walter’s hometown happens to be the same German village that housed a concentration camp in which Izzy spent his last days behind a wire fence before becoming a free man again after almost six years of torture and mind-numbing experiences.

Walter and Izzy sat next to each other during dinner. Their discussion was both quiet and personal, but also animated at times. It was not accusatory in any way, but there were also not a lot of smiles, back slapping and toasts to the past.

There is forgiveness in Izzy Arbeiter, but to forget is impossible. Walter said he was not a Nazi in WWII, just a soldier doing his job. He also said he never knew about the concentration camps, especially the one in his own village. Izzy has heard that reaction many times.

One young German in his early 30’s, when asked on this trip about Germany’s role in WWII and the Holocaust said loudly “It’s over”-meaning the war and that era should be put behind all of us. Should it be forgotten? Is it time to move on? Is it really over?

I can tell you for Auschwitz survivor Israel Arbeiter it’s not that simple and the answer is no. The lessons of that time have to be talked about and preserved. If not for him, then for the six million who cannot be heard any longer. Those voices silenced in the cruelest way possible just because of who they were and what they believed in. Izzy speaks for them. He must carry on. If you have ever visited Auschwitz or Treblinka then you will understand why.

Thank you for following this blog the past week and we hope you have enjoyed tracking Israel Arbeiter’s travels. If you would like to help us in our efforts to fully-fund this important documentary film project, you can donate via: www.wwiifoundation.org. Thanks Izzy for allowing us to be a part of this incredible experience.

Prisoner A18651 Returns to Auschwitz

Contributed by Tim Gray, chairman of the non-profit WWII Foundation. For more information about the foundation, visit www.wwiifoundation.org

The majority of Holocaust survivors have not the desire nor the will to return to the place where they lived through the most disturbing moments of their life and watched others die in ways still not easy to describe more than 70 years later.

Today in Oświęcim, Poland, 87 year old Israel Arbeiter confronted his past for most likely the final time. He did it on his terms. He held his head high and walked with a crisp step. He wore a Boston Red Sox 2004 World Series baseball cap, dress pants and sneakers and carried a bottle of water with him at all times.

It was a far cry from the striped uniform the German SS made him wear in 1944 designating him as a Jew and that he could die at any time the Nazis so chose.

The German SS could have shot Israel Arbeiter, hanged him, starved him to death, gassed him, thrown him in a pit of already burning corpses or just left him to decompose as a result of disease. In reality, Izzy could die in any fashion his captors could dream up. There also wasn’t any bottled water back then. In fact, Izzy was lucky if he could find any drink or food at all. He was sure he was going to die here. It was almost certain.

Fast forward now to a beautiful Friday in April of 2012. On this sunny and warm morning , thousands of miles from his home in America, Izzy Arbeiter walked through the gates into Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.

Auschwitz-Birkenau is part of the Auschwitz complex in southern Poland (3 camps in all, about an hour from Krakow). Auschwitz-Birkenau or Auschwitz II as it is also known, is a place where trains pulled directly into the camp from the outside world and as you stepped off your over-crowded, wretched-smelling cattle car, you were told to go to the left or the right. Either way determined whether you lived a little bit longer or died that very day in the gas chambers.

The young and strong had the best chance to live and Israel Arbeiter had one thing going for him, he was a determined teenager from Plock, Poland who had made his father a promise to stay alive and also keep alive his Jewish tradition.

Because of his youth and strength Izzy was “fortunate” in that he would be forcibly worked to death as a slave laborer for the German war machine instead of killed right away. Izzy was told to go to the right.

On Friday, April 27th, 2012 as Israel Arbeiter walked back into Auschwitz-Birkenau he felt free, because inside he knew he could leave the camp at any moment if he so chose and that the gates that once closed behind his train car in 1944 would not be making the sound of metal locking onto metal on this day in 2012.

Israel Arbeiter is a survivor.

This place could not kill him, no German Nazi could, even after they already had murdered his parents and younger brother in another death camp (Treblinka).

As Izzy walked around the camp today he had the air of someone who owned the place and the blue tattoo on his arm that read, A 18651, labeling him a prisoner of Auschwitz, pretty much gave him the right to say so if he wanted to. He didn’t.

His ability to walk freely around this place was enough for him and a silent statement that he had beaten the Nazis at their own game. Izzy was still alive and they were now all dead and residing in Hell.

Israel Arbeiter showed those with him today where people were killed. He stopped to talk about his life in the camp, even visiting what was left of his old prisoner barracks, number 28, now just a pile of bricks. The chimney and the foundation were still visible, but the wood siding and roof were gone. He showed his grandson Matt where his wife future wife (and Matt’s grandmother) Anna lived at Auschwitz II, the exact barracks where she and other female inmates slept and prayed.

He talked about how the gas chambers would be so busy that the Germans actually had a waiting area in the nearby woods where prisoners were politely asked by the SS guards to remain until it was their time to die (or as their guards told them, to take showers or be fed, whatever the lie). He (and we) sat on that very ground, under those very trees today, and listened to Izzy talk about what is what like watching those people wait. He knew what was going to happen to them and could do nothing about it. It was the killing of the young children that bothered him the most. I poked through the dirt with a stick while Izzy spoke, maybe hoping to find something buried by one of those who sat on the very spot I was now sitting on. Maybe if I did find something I could return it to a family member still living somewhere in the world. I found only more dirt.

Izzy talked about the finger nail marks on the inside of the gas chambers, where victims tried to claw their way out through concrete as the SS dropped Zyklon B gas into openings at the top. The finger nail marks remain today, a testament to those who fought to the very last second to stay alive.

I saw them myself and it made me ill. To stand in a gas chamber now and to see those marks on the wall is sickening. Just feet away from the gas chamber at Auschwitz I are several ovens. Victims were cremated within minutes of their death.

Truthfully, ever since we planned to film Izzy’s story here in Poland I have dreaded my first trip inside what today are memorials inside the gas chambers. It  was exactly how I thought it would be. Nauseating. I felt like I had just walked into another world. You could just feel the evil that occurred here.

At Auschwitz-Birkenau (Auschwitz II) Israel Arbeiter visited what was left of several of the crematoria buildings there. Several were blown up by the Germans in 1945 as they tried to destroy evidence of their mass murders and the burning of the victims bodies. The Russians were prepared to liberate Auschwitz. One of the crematoria was also blown up by prisoners using dynamite, part of a revolt in the camp that the SS quickly snuffed out. There were heroes everywhere here amongst the death.

Izzy stopped by a very small pond where fish nibbled at insects. Underneath the surface, the foundation of the pond was a mixture of sand, but mostly the ashes of those killed in the crematoria. Maybe that’s why the water color seemed go grey?

Izzy visited the building where he was given his tattoo and uniform and instead of being gassed, was given a real shower and disinfected.

Mostly, Israel Arbeiter talked. He feels the need to speak for those who did not survive here. Of the 1.3 million who came through the Auschwitz killing factories, an estimated 1.1 million died. Izzy speaks for them and his parents and younger brother. Everyone who suffered.

School kinds from Slovakia stop and talk with Izzy in front of an old cattle car still on the train tracks inside the camp. He tells these high schoolers to go home and kiss their parents and tell them they love them. He tells them to enjoy their day, but stops and laughs and says that “enjoying” was not what they should do here. Learn was probably a better word. He says God Bless America and God Bless Slovakia. They like that. The two generations part and they clap loudly for this 87 year old man. In a place like Auschwitz applause is not a sound heard very often.

It is now time for Israel Arbeiter to leave Auschwitz-Birkenau. Unlike 1944, no one will tell him he can’t. No one will stand in his way. He will no “go out through the crematoria” as his only means of escape, a phrase told to him when he arrived here in 1944. The only way out then they said was to die, be cremated and your ashes blown into the wind of Poland. That would be the only way to freedom.

Our guide on this day told us Auschwitz survivors rarely come back to visit the camp. The majority are now dead or too ill. Also, those still alive find it too difficult.

On April 27th, 2012 Israel Arbeiter and his grandson Matt walked through the front gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau leaving for the last time. Israel Arbeiter never looked back to say goodbye.

Tim Gray is Chairman of the non-profit WWII Foundation. To learn more about the WWII Foundation and to donate to their projects, including the educational documentary on Israel Arbeiter’s return to Poland and Germany, please visit www.wwiifoundation.org

Israel Arbeiter Lands in Poland

Just prior to boarding our Lufthansa flight from Boston’s Logan airport to Munich, Germany and then on to Warsaw, Poland I gave Holocaust survivor Israel Arbeiter a copy of a book I just finished. It’s called “Auschwitz” by British historian Laurence Rees.

There is something very inadequate about handing an Auschwitz survivor a book on Auschwitz. What will it say that he didn’t already experience himself?

Don’t get me wrong, from my perspective Rees’ book was very, very good. It opened my eyes to many things about the camp I never knew. It’s a book I would highly recommend to anyone who wants to know more about the most infamous of the Nazis concentration camps. It’s just that handing it to a man who lived it personally is an awkward feeling. Kind of like giving Neil Armstrong a book about the moon.

To tell you the truth I am not sure how I am going to react to visiting Auschwitz and making the trip with an actual survivor. Trying to see it through his eyes will be difficult. Somehow words seem hollow when trying the describe what he went through. Maybe it’s best just to let Izzy speak for himself. Isn’t that the correct way to hear about history, from those who actually lived it?

I have spent my entire life reading about the people and major battles of World War II. We have filmed all over the world, from Guadalcanal to Normandy, France (9 times) to Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany. But Auschwitz is something different. I like to call it a game changer. Guadalcanal was in some ways like that. I mean who ever expects to go to Guadalcanal and experience the jungle where so much savagery occurred? It’s 36 hour trip from Boston. But in a way it changed my perception. I feel fortunate to have visited a place most Americans couldn’t find on a map during World War II and would still have trouble today. Yet, to anyone who has studied the war, the Solomon Islands and Guadalcanal was a watershed moment in WWII in the Pacific.

I have interviewed many veterans and survivors of World War II. Many told stories that were emotionally difficult for them to talk about. Many cried. I have also stood in American cemeteries in Holland, Normandy and Luxembourg where the white crosses and stars of David stretched on and on. Full of boys who were barely old enough to buy a beer when they were killed on places like Omaha Beach, the Waal River crossing and in the Battle of the Bulge. But Auschwitz is different and visiting the camp with a survivor will be emotional. How can it not be? Of the 1.3 million who came through the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau, 1.1 million were killed. If hell had a physical street address, this would be it.

I speak with Israel Arbeiter about the book, the pictures in it. The tattoo on his arm which reads A18651. We look at the photos of the Auschwitz SS commander Rudolf Hoss who was responsible for all the killings in the camp. It all feels so inadequate.

We have arrived in Poland. Later today we have a special meeting with the Chief Rabbi of Poland. Tomorrow we visit Izzy’s home city of Plonsk where it has the potential to be a very special day if all falls into place.

Please click to watch the video here about Israel Arbeiter’s thoughts on arriving back in Warsaw today.

Tim Gray is Chairman of the non-profit WWII Foundation. To learn more about the WWII Foundation and to donate to their projects, including the educational documentary on Israel Arbeiter’s return to Poland and Germany, please visit www.wwiifoundation.org  

Prisoner A18651: Israel Arbeiter

“Hitler tried to kill me. I’m still alive. He’s dead”.

Israel Arbeiter, the author of those words, turned 87 within the past week. If you had asked him in 1939 whether he would have lived this long he would have said “unlikely”.

When the Germans marched into his city of Plonsk, Poland 73 years ago Izzy Arbeiter’s life became more complicated. The middle of five boys, Arbeiter, like most Jews in Poland, hoped for the best, but had an uneasy feeling they may be in for the worst.

There were rumors already floating around about deportations and camps where Jews and other “non-desirables” were being taken, but that was just talk on the street. It couldn’t be true. Taken from their homes, their possessions stolen, families torn apart just because of their faith?

Israel Arbeiter’s parents and youngest brother were eventually sent to the death camp at Treblinka, where they were gassed and cremated. Another brother simply disappeared. He may have lived. He may have died. No one knows. Izzy Arbeiter and one other brother survived.  They lived because they were young and strong and would make excellent slave-laborers for the Nazi war machine.

Israel Arbeiter’s Holocaust journey took him through various slave-labor camps and eventually to the worst camp of them all, Auschwitz, where over one million died.

Beginning next week, Israel Arbeiter will make his final trip back to Poland from his home in the United States and re-trace his Holocaust footsteps. He will begin in his home city of Plonsk. A place where he saw his parents and younger brother for the final time. He will visit the camp where they were killed and the various slave camps where the Nazi’s did all they could to to break his will and spirit. He will walk through the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau and relive memories that most of us just can’t dream up, even in our worst nightmares. He will reflect on the tattoo that still marks him as a victim and a survivor of Auschwitz: A18651.

Arbeiter will end his journey in Germany, where he found freedom as the war ended in Europe, just as the Nazi’s were planning to kill him and other survivors to keep their crimes against humanity hidden. Germany is also where he met his future bride, another Holocaust survivor.

Also on this trip, Israel Arbeiter will search for religious artifacts hastily buried under the dirt floor of a basement the day the Germans entered Plonsk, Poland. Items his family didn’t want the Nazi’s to find and destroy. He will hold these religious symbols for the first time in 73 years.

He will wipe the decades old dirt from them and see his past. Items that once belonged to his family and now all he has left of their life prior to September 1st, 1939, the day the Nazi’s marched into Poland. Israel Arbeiter is about to embark on a journey that has to be seen to be believed and we would like you to come along.

We hope you will join us here on Ancestry.com’s blog page beginning on April 23rd as the World War II Foundation documents daily, in video and words, Izzy Arbeiter’s journey home as part of a larger documentary film project, Prisoner A18651 which will debut in the fall of 2012.

To learn more about Israel Arbeiter in a short narrative voiced by Hollywood icon Dan Aykroyd, please visit the following link: http://youtu.be/C5ZDmGiJohM  

This blog post is courtesy of Tim Gray, who is Chairman of the non-profit WWII Foundation. To learn more about the WWII Foundation and to donate to their projects, which preserve the stories of the World War II generation, please visit www.wwiifoundation.org

This is my two older sisters being evacuated to Wales from Gillingham, Kent, England during World War II. They are the two in the front holding their dolls. I was too young to go with them.
Florence Keels

This is my two older sisters being evacuated to Wales from Gillingham, Kent, England during World War II. They are the two in the front holding their dolls. I was too young to go with them.

Florence Keels