Real Life Genealogy Detectives 4

This month a new TV show, “Genealogy Roadshow”, is starting on PBS.  As an FGS attendee last month, I was treated to a preview.  If you ever watched, “Who Do You Think You Are?” or “The History Detectives” you can expect the same combination of good research, mixed with some good television drama to create a great show.

Sometimes the life of an ordinary genealogy librarian can be almost as exciting. Last month, we had an interesting case in The Genealogy Center that made us feel like The Genealogy Detectives.  A patron, named Patty, came in with a letter written in 1944 by a World War II pilot, Wallace Harris.  It was addressed to “Dear Friends” and told the story about how his first wife had died shortly after giving birth to his daughter but that shortly after her death, he found a wonderful woman to marry who loved his daughter like her own.  The letter contained a photo of a young girl, probably less than a year old.  On the back of the photo, it said, “Please return to me when you are done.”

Patty said that she found the letter in her aunt’s estate and had no idea who the pilot was but she guessed that he was a friend of her grandparents, (her aunt’s parents).  She wanted to locate family members to be able to return the letter and photo.

Three of the genealogy staff and one of our volunteers worked together on the problem.  We first found a Declassified Missing Air Crew Report on Fold3, that said he had been missing in action-just one month after the letter was written.


"Missing Air Crew Reports (MACRs) of the U.S. Army Air Forces, 1942-1947". NARA: M1380. Database online., aircraft serial number: 42-50630, for Wallace A. Harris, pilot, page 2, accessed 25 Sep 2013.

At that point we were not hopeful about finding anything further but we did locate a 1940 Alabama census before the war, on Ancestry.  The census showed him with his family, Jimmie (listed as James in the Missing Air Crew report) and Ella.  Ancestry often gives hints about other records to search and in this case, there was a record for a prisoner of war. His status was listed as Returned to Military Control, liberated or repatriated.  Wallace Harris lived!

We followed the trail and discovered that he lived until 2003.  He and his first wife have an entry on Findagrave.  We found his obituary in the library’s newspaper database Newsbank and learned that his daughter, the little girl in the picture, had married and had children of her own.   One more search on Zabasearch gave us some possible phone numbers.

A few weeks ago, I received a phone call from Patty and she had contacted the pilot’s daughter, who was thrilled to hear about the letter.  The letter and the long lost photo were returned to their rightful owner-69 years later.

While as librarians we often say, “it’s not all online”, in this case, we found enough in a couple hours to feel like we were the real Genealogy Detectives.



Liz Walker

About Liz Walker

Liz Walker was born in Indiana and raised in Missouri. She has lived in Oklahoma, former Indian Territory, for more than 27 years. Her own family research leads her east of the Mississippi but working in an Oklahoma Genealogy Library has taught her about the complicated research involved in finding Five Civilized Tribes ancestors. Liz can be found blogging at and at Liz is the author of IDG’s bi-monthly column, Indian Territory Genealogy.

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4 thoughts on “Real Life Genealogy Detectives

  • Marian Wood

    What a fascinating and moving story. Thank you so much for sharing this. I echo the idea of getting photos and other materials back to the family to which they belong. First I scan everything, of course, to maintain a complete genealogical record for our family and close friends. Then I give the originals to the cousin or friend or whoever should rightfully have them. This is my way of trying to have family documents, photos, and memorabilia be passed down to the children, grandchildren, and beyond. Incidentally, family friends sometimes turn out to be distant cousins–so this process is helping me identify specific relationships, also.

  • Grace Stafford

    Wallace Harris was my uncle, my mother’s younger brother. He was captured in Germany in December 1944 after his planed was shot down. and was imprisoned in Gernamy until May 1945 when the camp was liberated. His daughter Shirley is the child of Wallace and his first wife Dorothy who died at her birth. He and his wife Ina Fay had two more daughters, Lynda and Shari. I am in touch with them all.

    • Liz Walker
      Liz Walker Post author

      Grace, wonderful to hear from you! We were so happy to hear that Wallace’s daughter had been contacted about his his letter and photo. We were very happy to do our small part to help the family reconnect with their long lost heirlooms.