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Army veteran collects stories of New Mexicans who fought and died in World War II
The Santa Fe New Mexican - 11/24/2022
Nov. 25—In Steve McGee's view, every monument over a veteran's grave has a story to tell.
But what if there is no gravestone or, perhaps, there's a marker with a story that remains unknown?
McGee, an about-to-retire U.S. Army engineer who lives in El Paso, wants to uncover those stories — about 2,600 of them. That's how many New Mexicans died during World War II, either in combat or stateside, by his estimate.
He's looking for volunteers to help him compile a database of Stories Behind the Stars, a national nonprofit initiative to record the military careers of those who died during the war.
"It's a shame how much history we lost not knowing those stories of those people who served and came from so many different backgrounds — like farmers — who didn't have family pictures or records," said McGee, who will retire at the end of December after 25 years of service in the Army and Navy.
He wants New Mexico residents to help him record stories through the use of online archival sites like ancestry.com, newspapers.com and findagrave.com, as well as local and national media reports and obituaries.
"Some of them are difficult [to find and write]; some are easy," he said. "Sometimes a lot has been written about them; sometimes their family has done a lot."
The idea is to get basic information about men and women who died in combat, accidents or from natural causes — whether they were stateside or on leave — in one database. People can then access the information on a computer or smartphone, said Don Milne, director and founder of Stories Behind the Stars.
The goal, he said, is that people visiting national cemeteries and other burial sites will be able to enter the name on a gravestone into the database and pull up the story of any World War II veteran who died during the war.
He said it's important to value and honor that generation of warriors because "the world would have been a very different place if America said, 'We're going to let Europe handle this war and stay out of it.' "
Milne, who grew up in Pueblo, Colo., and now lives in Kentucky, started the program in 2016 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which thrust the United States into World War II.
At that time, he was working for a bank. He used his lunch break to research and write about the people who died in the attack, which took the lives of more than 2,400 American service members and civilians. He posted the stories online.
"It became super popular," he said. "I had a million views within six months."
Volunteers helped him research veterans and tell more stories, he said. "We would do one story a day."
One volunteer told Milne, "It's a shame this has to end."
Milne agreed and decided to expand the project to first cover the lives and legacies of the 2,100 Utah residents who died in World War II. He was living in Utah at the time. That took six months.
Recalling that World War II survivors who would note in interviews with media the real heroes were the guys who didn't make it back, Milne then decided to tackle the ambitious goal of writing the stories — mini-obituaries, some as short as 100 words — of all Americans who died in the war.
Most online historical and military sources put that number around 420,000. Milne said at least 700 are women, including nurses who died in hospital bombings or on fallen aircraft.
Milne said the search for stories can be complicated by a 1973 fire in the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis that destroyed many service records. And, he added, while the U.S. compiled a list of World War II deaths in 1946, it was incomplete.
McGee said he found at least three New Mexico casualties listed as Kansas deaths "because of a middle name or something like that got confused with the county they were from."
He also found a Doña Ana County soldier who went missing in action in February 1944 somewhere around Australia. His research indicated most of the action in that area ended by January 1944, he said, so he knew there was more to the story. He found a book on the 2nd Engineer Battalion of the U.S. Army and discovered four soldiers — including the Doña Ana man — died when their amphibious vehicle was destroyed by a Japanese fighter plane.
"That's a lot of validation," McGee said. "I'm sure his family were told he went missing in action."
McGee is just getting started on the New Mexico stories and already has one that ties to the upcoming anniversary of Pearl Harbor — Ivan Lee Block of Glorieta, who died aboard the USS Arizona in the Dec. 7, 1941, attack.
Block's Stories of the Stars account says he and his brother Charles journeyed to Denver to enlist in the Navy on July 9, 1938. Charles became a machinist, while Ivan trained as a medic. Ivan was assigned to the USS Arizona on July 9, 1941 — probably aware the scent of war was in the air but still not foreseeing the surprise attack that took his life about five months later.
Another New Mexico story — that of 2nd Lt. Alfred Doroteo Ramirez from what is now the ghost town of Valedon, who served in the European Air Transport Service — was written by Pamela Baker of Mississippi. She began volunteering for Stories Behind the Stars two years ago and said she has written over 500 profiles for people in several states.
"I always liked writing and research and World War II," the retired state government worker said. "I can sit here and research and write all day long — you can see I am hooked."
Baker said she thinks a lot of people still don't have a good grasp of the history of World War II or the men and women who served in that era.
"It is critically important that people understand that the lives we live today were paid for by the lives of men and women who came before us," she said.
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