1940s era slips from living memory

Veterans' families search diligently for loved ones' records

March 14, 2002|By Matthew Brown | Matthew Brown,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

HACKENSACK, N.J. - The Japanese soldier's postcard, a World War II souvenir, had been buried in a dresser drawer in Clifton, N.J., for almost 50 years. It had been found on the body of an American GI killed on Okinawa, and sent home to his family with other personal effects.

For the GI's brother who found the postcard, scrawled in a barely decipherable hand, it might have been just a sad memento.

Feeding an obsession

Instead, it fed an obsession.

Employing investigative skills honed during nine years of mining details on his dead brother's life, Frank Niader tracked down its author - still alive - and in the process filled in yet another piece of a long-ago world.

He returned the postcard to the Japanese man in January. Then Niader added a photocopy of the document to a 6-inch-thick black binder, a book stuffed with shards of the history of Pvt. William Niader, killed in battle on the Japanese island of Okinawa at age 19.

"I've got over 300 letters and e-mails from people in my brother's unit and people who fought in the same battle," said Niader, 70, a retired city of Clifton worker who spends several hours each day chasing down minutiae related to his brother's military service. "I've got his personal Marine records. I've got his death certificate. I make long-distance phone calls all over the place to get more information - I don't care, I need to know."

A growing drive

His determination mirrors a growing drive among World War II veterans and their families to reconnect with the past, according to those who facilitate such searches. And as many of the veterans reach their final years, the need to put into fine detail events that marked a turning point for a generation is increasingly urgent.

"The family members want to know what happened [in World War II] and either the veteran member doesn't remember because of age, or doesn't want to remember, or is dead," said Debra Knox, a South Carolina investigator and author of the book How to Locate Anyone Who Is or Has Been in the Military. "We're getting so many requests from family members. They want to know."

Frank Niader was 13 when his brother died in June 1945 in the Battle of Kunishi Ridge. His parents "were hurt so much that they would never talk about it," said Niader. For decades, the younger brother was left to guess at what William Niader's last months had been like.

After their mother, Catherine, died in 1992, Frank Niader found an envelope containing William's personal effects at the back of a drawer in her dresser. That's when the obsession began.

`Such a void'

"It was just such a void in my life," said Niader, a lifelong bachelor whose only other sibling, a sister, died years ago. "My brother was five years older; he had his friends and I had mine. I lost a part of my history when my brother died. Everybody wants to find out about their history."

The increasing curiosity about World War II is reflected by a shift in the type of document requests made to the National Archives and Records Administration, the federal agency that oversees old military personnel records.

The archives get about 1.4 million requests for military information annually. Historically, most have been from veterans or family members inquiring about health benefits, special entitlements, and other so-called primary needs, said Assistant Director for Military Records Scott Levins.

"But the World War II era is starting to switch," he said. "People are starting to ask for more genealogical data," including where people served, what battles they might have been involved in, and unit rosters that would reveal a veteran's companions on the battlefield.

Those "secondary" inquiries come from family members eager to relive a grandfather's war exploits, veterans seeking to reconnect with old war buddies, and historians working on projects spawned by recent interest in The Greatest Generation.

Through the administration, Niader was able to track down William's death certificate, his personnel records, and the daily after-action report for his unit: H&S Company in the 1st Marine Division, 7th Regiment, 2nd Battalion.

Niader attributed his obsession to equal parts longing for a brother lost, and an insatiable fascination with World War II history.

Oddly, Niader has since assumed many of the trappings of a war veteran, perhaps standing in his brother's stead.

He's got a combat knife identical to the one his brother would have carried, given to him by a member of William Niader's Marine unit.

From another member of the unit, he received a small amount of sand from Okinawa's beaches.

Also on Frank Niader's wall is the Purple Heart medal William Niader received for being wounded in battle before his death.

"Everyone says `Semper Fi' when they call me," Niader said, referring to the Marine Corps motto, Semper Fidelis. "Semper Fi means `always faithful.' It's such a close-knit clique."

Niader also writes poems about war - from his brother's perspective - which he "gives out to everyone I meet."

Bits of the past

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