What does "No man left behind" truly mean? For Megan Smolenyak, it means working to identify servicemembers from past conflicts, finding their families, and bringing them home in the process of military repatriation.
About Megan Smolenyak
Megan Smolenyak has been involved in numerous genealogy projects, including being a researcher in the early seasons of Who Do You Think You Are? and working with the Ellis Island Foundation (and correcting the historical record on Annie Moore, Ellis Island's first immigrant).
But it's her work with repatriating U.S. soldiers that we focused on in this episode. You'll want to listen to this one to better appreciate the work that she does.
What Is Repatriation?
As Megan says, it all starts with the belief of no man left behind. It's all about identifying the servicemember and finding his family.
Currently, there are approximately 82,000 US servicemen unaccounted for; the majority of them are from World War II. Megan has worked on 1,400 cases, specializing in members of the US Army.
The project started in the 1990s, when DNA was collected from family members of men (and a few women) unaccounted for from the Korean War. This database led to the identification of many soldiers whose remains were discovered.
Complications in the Repatriation Process
As Megan explained, the fire in 1973 at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis destroyed about 85% of the US Army's records that were stored there. (Other branches of the military suffered losses, but not to the extent of the Army.) This means that for many of the soldiers, their families aren't listed in the records that remain. (And even when they are, those family members are often deceased, meaning that Megan has to look for other relatives, using a combination of DNA and "traditional" research.)
The work of identifying family members is further complicated in the numerous instances of the soldier giving a false name or a false age. (Megan worked on one case where the soldier was actually only 15 when he was killed.)
Contacting the Families
The hardest part can be making contact with the families, not because they don't want to talk about their relative, but because they don't answer the phone. (Honestly, I rarely answer the phone if I don't recognize the phone number.) But with persistence, Megan is usually able to make contact.
Emotions run the gamut. "When they come to understand that this is a real... they want to talk about Buddy. You know, they hadn't thought about him and so long and they're so happy that somebody out there cares... sometimes you can get somebody who just wants to talk about him for an hour, that kind of thing. So it just depends... every call is just it's own special experience."
Megan wouldn't say she has "favorites," but she did share three that stand out.
Capt. Lawrence E. Dickson was a Tuskegee Airman who took an electric guitar with him to war. When his remains were found, they also found his harmonica. Capt. Dickson left behind a wife and young daughter. (You can read more about Capt. Dickson here and here.)
Harriett Engelhardt was in the Red Cross in World War II and was killed in a jeep accident. Many of her letters home have been digitized and placed online by the Alabama Department of Archives and History. Megan said that reading her letters, you get the sense that "we lost what could have been incredible southern writer."
Walter Cichon of the Jersey Shore was killed in Vietnam. He left behind a wife and two children. It turns out, he was also Bruce Springsteen's musical idol. Megan said this case was especially personal for her, as her own father served in Vietnam and their family lived in the Jersey Shore at the time.
As Megan pointed out, when people talk about their favorite episode of a genealogy program, it isn't the one with their favorite celebrity. "It's the story that is closest to their own family story."