More About My Dad

2nd Lieutenant William S. Leslie
9 Oct 1943, Age 20
So young!

Friday morning I got a long-awaited letter from the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis in response to my latest requests for my father’s World War II service records. My search was partially successful. It confirmed that I had indeed found his wartime serial number (0-668096) and it also confirmed my long-held suspicion that his complete service records, if they were ever held there, were destroyed in a fire in July 1973. However, the letter also stated that, “[w]e used alternate sources to reconstruct some record data lost in the fire,” and included two copies of a Certification of Military Service that includes his complete dates of service, including a short period as an enlisted man that I did not know about. I am so very proud.

The date of his enlistment conflicts slightly with some other information that I have (ironically, also supplied by the National Archives and Records Administration which oversees the National Personnel Records Center), so I may have to look into this further to make sure the details are correct. Also, although the caption on the original photo of my Dad identifies him as a 1st Lieutenant as of October 1943, I believe he was actually a 2nd Lieutenant at the time. The accident reports I mentioned in a previous entry bear this out.

I Found My Dad!

Caption on the back of the original photo reads:
“1st Lt. William S. Leslie, 20 years old, Oct. 9 1943”
(Scanned image supplied by William F. Leslie)

This was a big weekend for me. I found my Dad.

Early Saturday morning I received a long-awaited e-mail from Craig Fuller of the Aviation Archaeological Investigation and Research (AAIR) website that maintains a database of accident reports involving World War II aircraft. The e-mail contained a link to a page where I could download copies of two reports of two accidents involving my father, William Stewart Leslie, during his pilot training in World War II. The serial number of the “Leslie, William S.” in these reports matches exactly the serial number on a set of dog tags in my family’s possession, so I know this is my Dad. Now that I know for certain his rank and serial number and the group and squadron he was attached to at the time of the accidents, I can use these pieces of information to try and locate more details about his military service.

In the first accident, he was returning to Camp Campbell (now Fort Campbell), Kentucky after a routine cross-country training flight early on the morning of 15 August 1943. He landed about ten feet short of the end of the runway because the sun was in his eyes, and when he landed, the spindle supporting the left landing gear on his Bell P-39F AirCobra broke, causing the landing gear on that side to collapse. The board investigating the accident concluded:

Bell P-39F AirCobra with U. S. Army Air Forces Markings

Although pilot did land a few feet short of hard surfaced runway due to the fact that his visual judgment was hindered because he was landing into the sun at 0830 o’clock, it is not the opinion of the board that this fact would have been a factor in causing the landing gear to fail. It is a known fact that landing gear spindles on P-39 Airplanes are light and delicate. It is believed that spindle had Crystallized and cracked.

In the second accident, he was leaving Camp Campbell for another routine cross country training flight on the afternoon of 25 October 1943 when ice formed in the carburetor of his North American P-51 Mustang, causing a sudden and and complete engine failure. The official report reads:

North American P-51 Mustang

“After about 50 minutes of flying there was a tremendous backfire and engine failed. Pilot made crash landing, wheels up” in a farmer’s cornfield near Scottsville, Kentucky.

The board investigating the accident recommended “that pilots be directed to use full carburetor heat when atmospheric conditions indicate that moderate to severe icing conditions exist,” and “That WILLIAM S. LESLIE, 2nd Lt. Air Corps, Res., be relieved of all responsibility in this accident.”

I’m relieved to know that in both cases, the investigating boards concluded that Dad did not cause or was not directly responsible for the accident.  A pilot is always ultimately responsible for everything that happens on board his aircraft, but apparently in these cases there were mitigating circumstances. A severe enough accident might have caused Dad to wash out of pilot training, which I think might have broken his heart. Dad loved flying.

I admire his persistence, too. One accident is one thing, but after the second one, I would have considered the Quartermaster Corps or the Navy!

A Picture Worth More Than A Thousand Words

I’ve received permission from Debbie Bloom, Manager of the Walker Local History Room at Richland County (SC) Public Library to reproduce this photograph of Columbia, South Carolina’s Main Street as it appeared before 1900, with the old city hall building in the background and to the right. The original photograph was given to the library by Security Federal Savings and Loan Association of Columbia. The digital image is part of the library’s Flickr stream and Local History Digital Library collections. I’d like to thank Ms. Bloom for allowing me to reproduce the image and for her enthusiastic support of my genealogical research.

This photo has come to mean a lot to me even though I’d never seen it before a few days ago. As I explained in this post, my maternal great-grandfather Joseph R. Allen, was the auditor for the city of Columbia during the 1890s. He worked in that old city hall building. When a fire destroyed the building on the night of 30 March 1899, he went into his burning office and risked his life to retrieve valuable city documents. When I went looking for an appropriate image for that previous blog post, I found this picture. Since it was part of the library’s collections, I wanted to ask permission before posting it, and that’s how I met Debbie Bloom. Doing family history research is one thing, but when you can find a visible, tangible reminder of your ancestors and the worlds they lived in, and make new friends in the process, that’s really something special. Thank you, Debbie Bloom.

Historical Minute Books of Columbia (SC) City Council Now Online

Attention, historians, genealogists, residents of Columbia, South Carolina and anyone else with an interest in the history of South Carolina’s capital city: Minutes of meetings of Columbia City Council during the 19th century are now available online. The first volume of minutes covering meetings from January 1883 to September 1886 is available for viewing here. Other volumes will be available over time..

I learned this from Debbie Bloom, Manager of the Walker Local History Room at the Richland County (SC) Public Library. We were discussing my maternal great-grandfather, Joseph R. Allen, who was auditor for the city of Columbia during the 1890s. I’ll be checking through those minute books periodically to see how often “Pappa Joe” pops up. The digital minute books are part of the South Carolina Digital Library, a collaboration between major libraries across the state..The digital minute book pages are hosted by Thomas Cooper Library at the University of South Carolina.

These are scanned image of the original handwritten pages, not transcriptions, so those not familiar with 19th century handwriting styles (like me) may find these books challenging to read. There is a table of contents with meetings arranged by month and year, and there are links for individual pages in the minute book. Manipulating the image viewing application to view a particular portion of a page may also be a little tricky at first.

Nevertheless, these pages could be a gold mine of information for anyone who wants to know more about historic Columbia. In these pages, important decisions in the city’s past were recorded as they were made by the people who made them.

A Gem From My Files

While organizing my paper files and records this weekend, I found a gem that I had previously overlooked: a photocopy of a newspaper article from 1899 describing a heroic act by one of my ancestors.

According to my mother and my uncle, my maternal great-grandfather, Joseph R. “Pappa Joe” Allen (born about 1866) was the auditor for the city of Columbia, South Carolina in the 1890s and a Major in the South Carolina Militia (which later became the National Guard). A fire on the evening of 30 March 1899 destroyed the city hall, but Pappa Joe went into the burning building and risked his own life to retrieve valuable city records. To see a photo of Columbia’s Main Street as it appeared some time before 1900,  with the old city hall in the background, click here. The explanatory notes accompanying the photograph mention the fire that destroyed the old city hall. The image is part of the Richland County (SC) Public Library Flickr stream and Local History Digital Library. I’d like to thank Debbie Bloom, Manager of the Walker Local History Room at RCPL for being so courteous and enthusiastic in granting permission to post the link. You can find her blog, “The Dead Librarian,” newly added to the blogroll over there on the right

 In 1999, my uncle Eddie sent me a photocopy of the original newspaper story about the fire (probably from a microfilm reel) as reported by The State, Columbia’s leading newspaper, in their morning edition of 31 March 1899. I found the photocopy hard to read, so I put it aside and largely forgot about it—until Sunday

I still found the photocopy hard to read for a variety of reasons: parts of it were illegible, and the original newspaper broadsheet must have been much wider than standard, U. S. letter sized sheets of paper, making it difficult to copy the story legibly. I decided to read and transcribe as much of the article as I could, and  once I started, I found it a fascinating and sometimes unintentionally amusing piece of cultural history. Even though the events it described were tragic, the highly overwrought, florid, and sentimental 19th century language and writing style sometimes make it hard for a modern reader to take the story seriously. Here, for example, are the original headlines and the opening three paragraphs. I retained the original spelling and punctuation:

FLAMES SPREAD WITH SPEED OF PRAIRIE FIRE.

Columbia’s City Hall and Opera House Totally Destroyed
DARING CITY OFFICIALS SAVE SOME OF THE VALUABLE RECORDS
Telegraphic Communication Cut Off for Several Hours—Firemen’s Splendid Work Prevents a General Conflagration in the Heart of the City—The Complete Story.
Columbia is today and for the time being a city without her electric fire alarm and police headquarters, fire alarm bell, opera house, Postal Telegraph office, armory, veterans headquarters, lodge rooms, public library and police courtrooms, not to mention the business houses lost. For a time last night it looked as if the most important section of the business centre [sic] of the city was to be laid in ashes despite the heroic and untiring efforts of the firemen to check flames that spread with the startling rapidity of a prairie fire. At times it seemed inevitable that hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of property was going to ascend in smoke, for the wind blew strong south by southwest and the shower of red hot embers was continuous and alarming.
Not since the historic visitation of Sherman to Columbia has the capital of South Carolina seen such a conflagration as that which cast a lurid glare over the heavens for two hours last evening and sent millions of glowing embers hundreds of feet into the smoke-filled air, only to descend with the picturesqueness of one of Pain’s most beautiful fiery showers. There have been fires here, perhaps resulting in as great a money loss, but none have equalled [sic] the display of last evening.
Columbia’s city hall building at the corner of Main and Washington streets has been completely destroyed by fire: it is now a great heap of ruins and in the smouldering [sic] pile are the ashes of many valuable records and plenty of other costly property, including a collection of theatrical scenery that it has taken years to accumulate. As a result the city is temporarily without her fire and police systems and many other inconveniences to the public will result.

The article goes on at great length to explain the history and condition of the building, and the way the fire was detected and fought, but only much later does the writer explain that the cause of the fire was unknown:

It may have been a cigarette stump thrown down by some of the stage hands, or it may have been a defective electric wire, or a match nibbled by a rat. No effort to ascertain the origin has been of any avail.
The paragraph describing my ancestor, Joseph R. Allen, has the subhead “A GALLANT OFFICIAL” and reads:
The difficult problem was the saving of the absolutely necessary city rec[ords?] . . . auditor deserves the thanks of the city. Mr. Allen got to the building before any water was thrown and immediately entered the auditor’s office, got all of the auditor’s books and papers and all of the city clerk’s that were not in the safe, the tax books and minute books running back for a period of 10 or 11 years, carried them to the front of the building and threw them through a window of the council chamber. While there the smoke was almost stifling and the heavy weights from the bell tower fell tumbling within 10 feet of him, but nothing daunted he remained long enough to accomplish his purpose and crawled out the building on a ladder placed over McKay’s back door. He was repeatedly urged to come down but he remained long enough to finish throwing the balance of the books out of the back window. But for Mr. Allen a great many valuable records would have been lost.
 Way to go, Pappa Joe!

Making Progress in Getting Organized

My usual method of tidying up!

A few entries ago, I mentioned that I had a miscellaneous mishmash of paper files of various kinds from various sources, all containing useful bits of genealogical information, and no idea how to organize them. I think I’m making progress towards getting things under control. In this article, Kimberly Powell, the “Guide” or expert on genealogical topics over at About.com suggests a simple system of folders in different colors (or with different colored labels) with a different color for each surname or family group being researched. I had bought a hanging file box and a set of folders in various colors, so this seemed to make perfect sense.

On my Dad’s side of the family, I chose red for the Leslies, orange for the Leatherwoods, and yellow for the Moffatts. On my Mom’s side of the family, I chose light blue for the Roberts, darker blue for the Allens (I happened to have folders in two different shades of blue), and green for the Neubauers. I know I said I was going to focus my attention on the Leslies, but I have miscellaneous documents pertaining to all these families, and I wanted to make sure they were all filed and accounted for.

Since I have several folders in each color and surname, I can begin by keeping all the documents for one surname in one folder, but as the research continues and I accumulate more documents I can subdivide the documents and place them in different folders depending on the types of documents I have: e. g., birth and death certificates, marriage licenses, census records, wills, letters, etc. For example, I have miscellaneous Leslie documents in the main red Leslie folder, but also have documents relating to my Dad’s military service in a separate red Leslie folder. I also have separate a separate folder for documents pertaining to my genealogy software and a folder for blank pedigree and family group charts in case I need them.

I like the folders with slots in the edges for adjustable plastic tabs with paper inserts. You should be able to find these at any office supply store. You simply write a label on the paper insert, slide it into the plastic tab, and slide the tab into the slots on the folder. The tabs can be easily adjusted or staggered so that you can easily read the label on the folder no matter where it is in the file box.

After a weekend’s work, I have just about everything filed and sorted. I know what goes where. This system seems logical, uncomplicated, and easy to use. If you have any suggestions about how to improve the system, please let me know by leaving a comment or sending an e-mail.

Blogroll Added!

As promised, I’ve added a blogroll of other great genealogy blogs. Many of these were recommended by Lisa Louise Cooke in her “Family History: Genealogy Made Easy” podcast, and created  by listeners to the show. The blogs often chronicle the writer’s research process, but each writer takes a distinctly personal approach, so each blog has its own flavor. Some of the blogs have been updated recently, while others haven’t had a new post in several years, but I’m going to be scanning them all for hints, tips, and tricks on how to make this blog better. I’ll also be on the lookout for other genealogy and family history blogs that I can add to the roll.

By the way, even though Lisa Louise Cooke has not released a new episode of the Family History podcast in several years, I still find the existing episodes useful for beginning genealogists like me.. Her current podcast, “Genealogy Gems,” seems to be aimed at more experienced genealogists, but a newcomer can still pick up lots of useful information. I recommend both shows.

Searching For Dad

William Stewart Leslie (1923-2005)
Dad!
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.

The Paper Chase : How Do I Organize Paper Files?

Not an actual representation of my desk–but close!
Can any of my fellow genealogists out there in the blogosphere suggest a simple but effective filing system so that I know what I have and where I can find it? How do you keep track of the paper records and sources you find in your research?
When I decided to get serious about doing genealogical and family history research, it seemed to me that a logical place to start was with an inventory of all the information I already had. I have a yellow folder labeled “Genealogy” that holds random scraps, tidbits, and snippets of information that I had acquired over the years from goodness knows where: copies of old letters, newspaper clippings, printouts from useful websites, handwritten notes, hard copies of e-mails, and even information of uncertain origin and provenance that people had given me. I have no idea how to organize this stuff to make the best use of it. Believe it or not, I used to be a cataloging librarian, but cataloging this material according to library standards seems like overkill for what I have in mind. I simply want to know what I have and where it is.
I’ve considered a couple of options already: a separate file for papers pertaining to each person in my family tree database; or a separate file for each type of document I have, including wills, letters, e-mails, web pages, notes, etc. The types of documents would essentially create a system of categories that I could use to organize my files.
At first, I thought a person-based system of files might be the way to go, but then I realized that as my research continues and I find out about more relatives and ancestors and acquire more documents about them, my files could become huge. Shamele Jordon, host of the Genealogy on Demand podcast and blog favors a simple type of category system instead. There’s much merit in this suggestion, but I’m not sure what categories to use. I suppose I can only start with the ones I have.
For lack of a better idea and until I make a final decision, I simply numbered each document, put all the documents back in the yellow folder, and created a numbered, annotated list of documents. I know that’s probably not standard or recommended genealogical or archival practice, but I had to start somewhere. Consider it a rookie mistake. If my old cataloging instructor from library school knew that I did that, she’d probably demand my degree back!

If you have discovered or developed a simple but useful filing system for paper documents, please let me know. Leave a comment or send me an e-mail. I’d love to have the benefit of your thinking and experience. Until next time!

So What’s This Blog About, Anyway?

Leslie Castle
Castle Leslie in Abedeenshire, Scotland where my ancestors lived.
Statue of Vulcan in Birmingham, Alabama, where my father was born.
And who’s this guy writing it?

Hi, I’m Neil Leslie (aka Niall Mor, or “Big Neil” in Scottish Gaelic) and welcome to the blog chronicling my adventures in pursuit of my ancestors: the Leslie and Leatherwood families of south central Alabama; the Moffatt family of northern Florida; and the Roberts and Allen families of central South Carolina–along with whoever else might show up. The title reflects my preliminary or working assumption (perhaps I should call it a theory or hypothesis) that my family originated in Aberdeenshire in northeastern Scotland, immigrated to the United States, and somehow, over several generations, worked its way to south central Alabama, where my paternal grandfather was born. That mysterious “somehow” is the subject of my search.

I also blog over at “It’s All Straw” on everything from Catholicism to comic books, but I’m starting this blog because I’ve become interested in family history and genealogy again and have decided to see what I can find out about the Leslie family. My ultimate goal with the Leslie family is to find out who came over on the boat. Who came over on the boat to America presumably from  Scotland? How did the family wind up in Alabama where my father was born, and where from what I can tell, the family had lived for several generations?

 As a more short-term but related goal (which may evolve into a separate project), I’d like to know more about my father’s military service in World War II. One of my great regrets is that I never asked him more about the specifics of what he did. I’ve made inquiries a couple of times and tried to obtain a copy of his service record but come up empty. It’s possible that I don’t have enough specific information to locate his specific records, or it may be possible that his records were lost. Just as I’m going to try again to find information about my father’s military service, I’m going to try again to find out more about my family.

 I say “again” because I’ve been interested in family history for years but never did any systematic or thorough research. My interest in family history probably started when I was a boy and I learned that Leslie was a Scottish surname and there was a Leslie family tartan. My older brothers received Leslie tartan ties from my parents, but I didn’t. Jealousy can be a very powerful motivator! Each tie came with a little placard summarizing the history of the Scottish Leslies. I must have read that card a hundred times, but without any context for the people and place names, I lost interest and forgot the details. In 1985, I was fortunate enough to go to Scotland (and get my own Leslie tie) but I wasn’t able to do any family history research.

My latent interest in family history revived in the 1990s when I got a computer with internet access and I found out about the vast quantity of genealogical and family history information that was gradually becoming available in cyberspace. Back then, however, most of the stuff that was available was posted by government agencies, individuals, or networks of genealogists working on their own. If I remember correctly, sites such as Rootsweb were still privately maintained, and aggregate sites for genealogical information such as Ancestry.com were just taking off. (“You young people have it so easy nowadays,” he says in best grumpy old man voice).

The next goad for me to do family history research was my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary in 1999. I met relatives I’d never met before and heard stories I’d never heard before. I started collecting scraps of information here and there, but nothing complete. I wish I had started collecting and compiling more vigorously because my parents were with us only a few more years after that – my Dad, William Stewart Leslie, passed away in 2005, and my Mom, Cecelia Roberts Leslie, passed away in 2006. (*See my policy on names over there to the right*). I lost access to their memories and recollections.

In the years since then, it’s bothered me that I don’t have a more complete picture of our family history. I’ve tried to construct a genealogy, but my knowledge is fragmentary, incomplete, and  unreliable. My older brothers and sisters have become aware of my interest in genealogy and recently my brother Bill offered to pay for a year’s access to the Ancestry.com website as a birthday present. I’ve accepted that offer. I’ve also started watching the TV series “Who Do You Think You Are?” in which celebrities find out about their family histories. I finally decided that if celebrities can do it, I can do it. I’ll have more to say about the show later.

I started this blog because I wanted a place to write down anecdotes, tidbits, questions, and scraps of information that might suggest directions for further research. I would welcome comments, queries, tips, tricks, and gentle corrections. For now, I’ve decided to focus my attention on the Leslie family because I honestly don’t know much about them. My Dad’s sister, my aunt Elizabeth Leslie LeCroy, was something of a family historian, but she passed away in 1984. She passed on some of what she knew to her daughters (and my cousins) Jeanne and Marie Ann. They have added to what Elizabeth knew and shared it with me, but I need to review what I have. We know a bit more about my mother’s family, the Roberts, because my uncle Eddie has become something of a family historian and has a good bit of information about the Roberts and related families.

Thank you so much for visiting my new blog today. If you like what you’ve read (or even if you don’t), please leave a comment. A blogroll and an RSS feed will be added soon, so be sure to check back with us often. Haste ye back!