|William Stewart Leslie (1923-2005)
As I’ve said before, I’m a rookie genealogist, but I do know that the cardinal rule of this undertaking is to start with yourself and work backward. Wouldn’t you know it, the moment I begin working backward to the generation preceding me, my father’s generation, I run into a problem–and a possible solution.
I’ve also said before that as part of this project, I’d like to know more about what my father, William Stewart Leslie (1923-2005) did during World War II. Perhaps there were some things he didn’t want me to know, or things he would have rather forgotten. One of my great regrets after his death in 2005 was that I had never asked him more about what he did during those years. He would tell us kids funny stories, things that made the whole experience sound like a lark, an episode of “Hogan’s Heroes,” or a Boy Scout camping trip. I knew that he served in the U.S. Ninth Air Force, was stationed in England for a time, and flew P-51 fighter planes, but that was about it. I never even knew what specific unit or units he belonged to.
After the dedication of the World War II Veterans Memorial, after he died, and after the release of films such as Saving Private Ryan and The War, Ken Burns’s mammoth documentary series about World War II, I resolved to find out more about Dad’s military service. I wrote to the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis twice in 2007 asking for copies of Dad’s service record, but they were unable to locate any information about him. It’s possible that I did not have enough specific information about him to locate his records, or it may be possible that his records were lost. The NPRC sent me back a form letter explaining that a fire there in 1973 damaged or destroyed thousands of records, and from the way the letter described the damage to the building, Dad’s records would have been stored where the damage was worst.
In the meantime, I did a Google search for “U. S. Ninth Air Force in World War II” and turned up the marvelously useful ArmyAirForces.com website. Here, veterans, children and grandchildren of veterans, researchers, and military history buffs can meet in cyberspace, ask and answer questions, and exchange information. There I learned that the military service that preceded the current U. S. Air Force was known as the U. S. Army Air Forces (plural) as distinct from the Army Air Corps. I also learned about Craig Fuller’s Aviation Archaeological Investigation and Research (AAIR) website which maintains a database of accident reports involving World War II aircraft. When I searched the database, I found that “Leslie, William S.” of the 15th Squadron, 73rd Reconnaissance Group,was involved in two training accidents near what was then Camp Campbell, KY. One of them involved a P-51.
At about the same time, my brother Allen discovered a set of dog tags bearing what appears to be a serial number: “0-668096.T 42-43” On 17 May of this year I submitted a new request for Dad’s service records to the NPRC with this new number as the serial number, in the hopes that this would lead to Dad’s records finally being found, if they still exist. I’m still waiting for a reply.
In the meantime, I’m about to order copies of the two accidents that appear to involve my Dad, on the theory that such reports would certainly contain his serial number, rank, and information about what units he was assigned to. I also downloaded a sample accident report from AAIR’s database to see what one looked like. What I found there encourages me that I may have found Dad’s actual serial number. The serial numbers of the officers in the sample report match the pattern of the apparent serial number on the dog tag: a zero (or possibly the letter “O” for officer) and a hyphen followed by a string of six additional digits. Even if the serial number for “Leslie, William S.” in the reports and the apparent serial number on the dog tag don’t match, I think I’ll be one step closer to finding out about this hidden period in my Dad’s life.