Honoring vets: Volunteers compiling list and photos of those who served from Blair County

HOLLIDAYSBURG – Now they’re just photos scattered across a tabletop, some colored and others grainy, pictures of soldiers smiling on the day they enlisted, most eager to serve their country.

But many of them ended up dying far away from home, their family and friends never knowing how or where they died, lost in the ugliness of war.

That’s why the two women who sit at the table carefully cut out the copies of the soldiers’ photos, mostly men but a few women, and pin the photos to papers that list information about each soldier. Then the photo and paper are filed according to the proper time period.

The women are volunteers for the Blair County Genealogical Society, which has its headquarters in Hollidaysburg. They hope to eventually publish books of all veterans in Blair County, with each book representing a different war or conflict.

They plan to offer the first book about Blair County WWII veterans by this Veterans Day, Nov. 11, at a cost of between $10 to $20.

There have been books published before that listed soldiers in Blair County, such as Floyd Hoenstine’s “Soldiers of Blair County,” published in 1940. But that book didn’t contain any photographs, said Jean Neely of Lakemont, one of the two women who are helping to assemble the photo books.

“Wouldn’t you want to know what your grandpap looked like,” Neely asked. “With this book, you can see, ‘Oh, that’s what he looked like.'”

Some of the photos have been sent in or e-mailed by family members, while others have been collected by genealogical society members. They represent soldiers from every American war and conflict starting with the Civil War through the current conflict in Afghanistan, said Addie Beck of Greenwood, who’s helping Neely with the project.

“Here’s one that’s a man and wife, but I didn’t want to cut it apart,” Beck said, gesturing to a photo of a young couple dating back to the Civil War era.

Another photo Beck holds up shows two young men who were brothers, perhaps ancestors of hers because their last name is Gardner and she has relatives who share that name. According to the information provided with the brothers’ photo, one of the brothers enlisted in 1892.

“It’s amazing what you get in here,” Beck said.

The project actually got its start when the Altoona Water Authority was building its new home and wanted to add a memorial to Altoona veterans, said genealogical society librarian Sharon Merritts. Unable to find a definitive list of just city veterans, the water authority turned to the society for help.

But finding out only those soldiers who came from Altoona was very difficult, Merritts said. Military records only list name, rank and serial number for each soldier plus if the soldier was killed in action, died of wounds or a prisoner of war, she said. The records don’t list the soldier’s hometown or if the soldier later died in prison, died if his plane crashed or in some other way than on the battlefield.

Society volunteers spent countless hours combing through newspapers files and war records to try to come up with a list for the water authority, Merritts said. In some cases, there weren’t even newspaper accounts that the volunteers could rely on to help with their research, she said.

“Sometimes the article would just say ‘three more killed in the war,’ so because of the enormity of the war, these gentlemen did not even get an obituary, but we did the best we could,” Merritts said. “Sometimes we had to take a guess. We felt a lot of these people died in action even though they were not killed in action.”

Eventually the society came up with a list for the water authority, although some family members have said after the memorial was finished that they believe their relative was missed, Merritts said. However, she said one problem is that sometimes soldiers who were raised in Altoona but made the military their career often enlisted from other cities or even other states. If that’s the case, the society wouldn’t have found them in their research because the soldier would be listed from where he or she enlisted.

Overall, though, people seem happy with the memorial. But the society saw a need for a closer look at all Blair County veterans.

“Because we got so in-depth with (the list for the memorial) and the so-little recognition these men got, that’s really how this project got started,” Merritts said.

Many veterans belong to the society, which has 700 members, and several said they think the photo books are a great idea.

“It’s unfortunate that so many people who served have just been forgotten,” said Ray Beck, Addie’s husband. Beck was in the U.S. Navy from 1944-46 and served as a radioman in the Pacific, most notably on Iwo Jima. “So many men were lost and nothing was found except their dog tags.”