One of 400,000

Harold Pfaffengut
Harold Pfaffengut, Fireman First Class US Navy

Despite the airwaves being dominated by news of the pandemic, I hope that people everywhere remember that 2020 is the 75th anniversary of another global event—the end of World War Two. I like to think that with so many efforts underway to memorialize the events, battles, and the people who served that it would be impossible to escape knowing the significance of 2020. 

I am most likely very optimistic.

So, I do what I can to mark the anniversary and keep the sacrifice of so many alive. And, a couple of weeks ago, I stumbled on Stories Behind the Stars. Yes, it is yet another group determined to recognize our country’s veterans and, in this case, the 400,000 who died while serving in the war (and thus have earned a gold star). It’s an all-volunteer, grassroots effort that has garnered support from entities such as Ancestry.com, Newspapers.com, and Fold3.com. Their goal is to create an online record of each of the 400,000 who perished, most of whom have never had even an ounce of recognition. 

To make it possible, volunteers sign up through the site (storiesbehindthestars.org) and gain access to the list of names of those who perished as well as access to research sites to help gather details about each soldier or sailor or marine’s life. The group asks little and does not expect any of the volunteers to spend more than a half hour to an hour doing the research and then posting the information to a “memorial” on Fold3 and mentioning the work on the group’s Facebook page.

With my acknowledged interest in all things WWII, I decided that I could spare an hour or so here and there and contribute to the cause. So far, I’ve documented six or eight memorials and learned much in the process. One of the soldiers I discovered was a member of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services). Now if that doesn’t get your heart beating, perhaps the project is not for you. I did a bit more digging only to find that the soldier’s records were sealed until 2024. My heart is racing. The available information is hazy and in a separate record the soldier is listed as having survived and is believed to have been John F. Kennedy’s real assassin. Okay, so I had to park that record temporarily as a few minutes of study was going to become years, especially if I have to wait until 2024.

Next, I found information for 15 men who were killed when their destroyer the USS Sturtevant was sunk of Key West. Not by a U-boat attack as you might think but by hitting an allied (American) mine field that no one thought the Sturtevant needed to know about. Most of those who died were tending to the ship’s boilers or were fire fighters. They suffered a horrific death, as anyone can imagine, all for a terrible mishap. They were all young men, anonymous eighteen or twenty-year-olds, never before given any due. I’m working my way through the group, posting as I go and was deliriously happy to find one young man’s photo in the records, Harold Pfaffengut.

You can read his story here: Harold Phaffengut on Fold3

If you would like to help the cause, contact Don Milne via Stories Behind the Stars and the WW2 Fallen 100 Facebook group at:

Stories Behind the Stars
WW2 Fallen 100

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