Kali Martin's grandfather John Frank Martin died before she was 2. Her only knowledge of him came from what her father could recount.
One particular area of John Frank's life remained shrouded in mystery: his time in the service during World War II. He hadn't talked about it much, and Kali Martin's father knew only scant details.
So Martin, a researcher at the National World War II Museum, decided to see what she could find out from government records. Early on, she realized that she had waded into deep bureaucratic waters.
"There are a lot of layers to it," she said.
Martin realized that if she, a professional researcher with a master's degree from UNO, had a tough time finding information, how much more difficult it was for relatives seeking the records of their loved ones.
So she decided to help others navigate the complex forms and agencies that can dispense records from World War II. She has produced a guide to help more people learn about their loved ones.
Such a guide is needed. With each passing year, there are fewer survivors able to offer first-hand accounts of military exploits in World War II. Relatives of those who served and other interested people frequently query museum staff members about what information is available, and how they can get it.
"The museum didn't have anything to help people find these records," she said.
The resulting glossy booklet, published on Veterans Day, is 35 pages of step-by-step instructions on how to request information on a person's time in the service during World War II. It includes descriptions of the types of records available, how to request them, a checklist for what you need to make the request and even a pair of sample forms filled out. It is also available online as a free download.
Martin was a natural person for such a task. In addition to her graduate work on naval gunfire doctrine in the 20th century, she had worked as a researcher on the museum's PT 305 restoration project. While on that project, she became interested in moving beyond the history of the PT boat to the lives of the men who crewed her during the war.
Martin is eager to help people take the same steps she did.
The first place she went was the National Archives facility in St. Louis. Martin faxed a request for her great-uncle's Official Military Personnel File. For her grandfather, she asked her father to request the records — as a next-of-kin, he was able to file online.
She soon learned of a problem. A fire and resulting water damage in 1973 had destroyed or damaged millions of records, including 80 percent of those from the Army. Conservators with the National Archives can restore some of the damaged records, Martin said, but many of them are lost forever.
For her grandfather, Martin was able to get some service records from St. Louis. But she went further and began researching his unit, an infantry regiment known as the "Raiders." From the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, Martin was able to read after-action reports, unit histories and narratives of engagements.
John Frank Martin arrived in Europe on Dec. 16, 1944, the same day the Battle of the Bulge began. He spent Christmas day in a foxhole and then, with his unit, fought his way through northern Germany, where he was wounded in action on March 15 east of the Rhine River. He recovered, however, and remained in Germany as part of the occupation, playing on his unit's baseball team, also known as the Raiders.
During his service, he earned a Purple Heart, a Good Conduct Medal and the Combat Infantryman Badge.
But perhaps the biggest thrill came when she was paging through a regimental newspaper while researching in Maryland. There, on one page, was a picture of a grinning Staff Sgt. John Frank Martin, wearing his unit baseball uniform and sitting cross-legged on the dusty ground.
"Johnnie Martin carved a place for himself in the esteem of the Raiders and the men around the league with his hard play in the Raider infield," the accompanying text read.
For Martin and her father, it was a connection with John Frank that they had not had before.
"I think my dad was just shocked that I found his father in the National Archives like that," she said. "It was special for him."
Martin hopes the guide can help others experience that same feeling.
"I hope that others can find those personal connections and fill in those stories," she said.