OTTAWA - The details of my grandfather's time as a prisoner of war were always hazy to me, a series of intriguing vignettes about fly-ridden soup, a German officer who would bark PoWs awake at dawn and especially the dramatic nighttime parachute jump from a plummeting Halifax bomber.
But on the whole, former flying officer Frank Ditchburn was not keen to get into great detail about his wartime years, despite participating with his fellow Canadian "kriegies" in a national prisoner of war association. They took the kriegie nickname from a short form of the German word for PoW.
After he died in 2007, I was sorry I hadn't asked him more questions while there was time. He was a navigator with 428 Squadron of the legendary Canadian No. 6 group, part of the Royal Air Force's Bomber Command. When a German night fighter downed his plane over occupied Holland, he was on a raid against Aachen, Germany.
But I discovered that there are other sources Canadians can tap into for information about ancestors who served in wartime. Copies of actual military records can help fill in the blanks that relatives or personal records cannot, especially when it comes to precise dates and places.
For example, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) holds records for many people of all nationalities imprisoned during the wars of the 20th century. I wrote to the ICRC last June for information about my grandfather and ten months later, I received an "attestation" in the mail from Geneva with the information the Germans had collected about him.
Seeing the information in black-and-white suddenly transforms interesting anecdotes and vague notions into something starkly real:
"Arrived at Stalag Luft 3 on 30.07.43, coming from Dulag Luft....Transferred from Stalag Luft 3 to Stalag Luft 4 on 13.01.1944...Detained in Stalag IIIA (Oflag), Luckenwalde, on 09.02.1945..."
The information, the ICRC wrote, came from telegrams and letters sent by the Germans and lists issued by senior British and American officers in the camps. With the help of the Internet, I was able to get more details on what life was like in each of the camps.
I learned he was moved out of Stalag Luft III only a few months before the famous Great Escape of March 1944. The camp was located southeast of Berlin near what is now Sagan, Poland.
Library and Archives Canada is another great resource for families looking for information about former servicemen and women. Records from the First World War have already been digitized and are searchable on a website, but for the Second World War and the Korean conflict, formal requests must be mailed or faxed in.
The service record, with its detailed account of every step of a soldier, sailor or airmen's military career, is the backbone of the information. But other interesting items turn up — including x-rays, dental records and even temperature charts. Servicemen and women were also photographed when they enlisted for the Second World War and each got a discharge certificate when they left — including a notation on where they intended to settle.
Researchers can use the record of service as a jumping-off point to then search through the "war diaries" compiled by each unit describing its day-by-day activities.
The British government's National Archives also hold a wealth of information on troops both from the U.K., and the larger Commonwealth.
Joan Miller of Calgary wrote to Library and Archives Canada for her father Edward John Kerr's military records and received them in only four months. Sgt. Kerr was from Nokomis, Sask., and grew up in a farming family.
"Stories get fuzzy with time, and he really didn't want to talk about this," says Miller. "This was a tough time, enduring a soldier's life. You can imagine the horror they saw. You don't often hear a lot about it."
The records showed that he served for 55 months, 29 of them overseas with the army's Lanark and Renfrew Scottish Regiment. Included in the records were the details of every place Kerr had been during his years of service — the U.K., Holland, Italy, Germany, Belgium and France. He had been hospitalized at different times with malaria and wounds.
One of the records that made the biggest impression on Miller was the notation by a senior officer on her father's request for assistance under the Veteran's Land Act after the war. It read: "Kerr is tall, clean-cut soldier, 26-years of age. He speaks easily and quietly and knows what he wants to do...he is obviously a capable, dependable man with plenty of initiative."
"Reading that kind of thing is very touching," says Miller. "Especially at a time point in his life, at 26 years of age, that's not a reference point that I would have ever known."
Marthe Seguin-Muntz of the Canadian Genealogy Centre at Library and Archives Canada has been tracking down military service records for the last five years. Occasionally, she gets to play sleuth, finding information about loved ones and connecting families with lost memories.
A few years ago, someone in Britain found a Bible in a church under renovation. The book was inscribed with the name and service number of a Canadian soldier. Seguin-Muntz discovered the soldier had married before the war and had a daughter in 1911.
"I thought, well, 1911, what are the odds of the daughter still being alive? I did some research in that province and so on and coincidentally the daughter was still alive, she was 98, and they returned the Bible to the daughter, her father's Bible from the First World War," she recounts.
"I think they all retain their certain particularity from one request to another, but that one certainly stands out at this time of year, definitely."
Seguin-Muntz admits its hard not to be touched by some of the stories she uncovers in her research.
"Sometimes they lied about their age, 16 or 17, in order to get into the forces and I have children who are of that age," she says.
"Of course, you hear, 'Oh yes, my grandfather lied about his age.' But the happy scenario was when the person lied and went and came back. When they lied and went and did not come back — as a mother and a human being I can certainly associate with all the feelings that surfaced."