How the National Archives Helped Me Rediscover My Childhood Correspondence with President Ford

In July 2010, I was the History Content Scholar for a teacher workshop run by the Bill of Rights Institute in Arlington, Virginia.  I accompanied the teachers for a program at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.  In addition to viewing the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in the Rotunda, we participated in a hands-on activity helping a fictitious White House staffer, “Bob Tuse,” demonstrate “the Constitution in action” with documents from the Archives collections.  The Archives’ Education Specialist showed us a letter from three teenage women in Montana begging President Eisenhower not to let the military cut Elvis Presley’s sideburns.  The “Elvis Letter” reminded me that when I was ten years old, in 1976, I wrote a letter to President Ford, and received back a very nice reply.  When I got home to Pennsylvania, I rummaged through some old papers, found the original signed letter I received from President Ford, framed it, and proudly hung it on my wall.  Then I began to wonder: What had I written in my letter to President Ford thirty-six years ago?  I could not remember.  Did my letter to President Ford still exist?  Could it be found somewhere in the National Archives?  Could I get a hold of it?  Immediately I visited the website of the Gerald Ford Presidential Library in Ann Arbor, Michigan and found the email address of an archivist.  I sent a message explaining that in March 1976, I sent a letter to President Ford, and received a letter in return.  Did the Ford Library have a copy of my original letter to the President?  Within hours I received a reply from archivist William McNitt, stating that he had located my letter to Ford, and that he would be happy to mail me a copy of it.  When the letter arrived, I read with great excitement what I had written to the President thirty-six years earlier, and saw what my handwriting looked like at age ten.  I framed the copy of my letter to Ford, and it now hangs next to Ford’s original letter to me.  I am proud that my correspondence is part of the Ford Papers, and am grateful to the National Archives for locating the letter for me.

by Stuart Leibiger

National Archives Note: Learn more about the Constitution-in-Action Lab in the Boeing Learning Center at the National Archives, Washington, DC

Digging in the National Archives to uncover secrets of The Pond, US spy group predating the CIA

Few people had heard of the spy network known as The Pond until we wrote about it for The Associated Press in July 2010, using a newly opened collection at the U.S. National Archives in College Park, Md. Our story highlighted the value of reporting from historical archives and revealed new details about American intelligence operations during World War II and the early years of the Cold War.

The Pond was created by the U.S. military intelligence during World War II, under the leadership of Col. Jean “Frenchy” Grombach, as a super-secret rival to Wild Bill Donovan’s O.S.S. At one point, Grombach’s organization operated a network of 40 chief agents and more than 600 sources in 32 countries. It endured for 13 years.

Among the nuggets we uncovered in our reporting: a top secret narrative of the daring night-time rescue by Pond agent James McCargar of top anti-communist Zoltan Pfeiffer from Hungary in 1947; details on the penetration of communist groups around the world by one of its foremost agents, Ruth Fischer (code-named Alice Miller), a former leader of Germany’s prewar Communist Party who worked under her cover as a correspondent; and descriptions of the use of corporations, including American Express and Philips companies, for funding, contacts and radio technology.

A U.S. State Department official said this to us in an email after the story was published: “I can’t believe that any news operation in this age of the Internet and instant information still pays journalists to do this kind of good digging, especially for history-focused features.”

Documents describing the activities of the Pond – Grombach’s personal and organizational records – were found in a barn in Virginia in 2001 and turned over to the CIA for review. Randy, reporting another story in 2007, learned that the collection was about to be transferred to the archives in College Park.

But it was not until the spring of 2010 that the Grombach collection was opened to the public and we had an opportunity to travel down to Maryland to review it. 

The recipe for any successful investigation into the past is enthusiastic collaboration, so we enlisted the help of intelligence historians and staff at the archives to help guide us through the tens of thousands of pages in the collection. The resulting story uncloaked the role of the obscure spy organization in the formation of today’s U.S. intelligence services.

By Randy Herschaft and Cristian Salazar, The Associated Press

When Mashpee Indians Went Whaling Together

It was one of those overly humid, summer days when I stopped in the National Archives regional center in Waltham, Massachusetts outside Boston. I had remembered a brief email from a colleague two years before, telling me of a crew list from an 1825 whaling voyage which included men from the Wampanoag Indian community of Mashpee on Cape Cod. Not having found the document in the extensive archives in New Bedford, it seemed the “right moment” to check the holdings of Record Group 36, especially as my car’s air-conditioner was under-performing. It didn’t take long for the file box to appear, to find the original list, and to verify that seven Mashpee men, ages 15-42, were amongst a crew of 22, on the ship Good Return that departed August 1825 on a ten-month-long voyage. Unfolding that document was an exciting step in my ongoing study of how the maritime experiences of Wampanoag Indian whalers helped shape the histories of their communities.

The presence of seven Mashpee men on the same voyage is unique in my data base of Wampanoag Indian whalers. But whaling together in pairs or small groups was a community tradition, occurring, for example, in 20 voyages between 1815 and 1835. While at sea, Mashpee men likely talked about pressing issues back home including the abuse of tribal resources and their desire to govern themselves, free of appointed guardians. They also shared in the global experiences of travel and cultural encounters, learning skills while observing the lives of others. Upon returning, these men often became involved in community affairs. In January 1834, for example, the Mashpee community petitioned the Massachusetts Legislature, seeking redress from various ills. Signers included at least 10 Mashpee whalers including four who had shipped out on the Good Return in 1825, men, who after retiring from the sea, served their community as selectmen, tax collectors, and spokesmen.

Manuscript crew lists, preserved in the National Archives, help me develop life histories for specific whalers. As a community’s biographies multiply and overlap, the connections between work and home are enriched, helping us understand that Native mariners talked about much more than a great, white whale. Herman Melville did memorialize Wampanoag whalers in Moby-Dick. But unlike what happened to his character – the Gay Head Indian harpooner Tashtego – their communities survived down to the present day, in part because they went whaling together.

by: Russell G. Handsman

Deported Granduncle Found in the National Archives

I grew up with a tragic family story about how my mother’s uncle, Wolf Pfeiffer, had been turned back at Ellis Island because of his deformity- and, it would seem, disappeared into the mists of time.  What made it even more poignant for me was that I had been named after him and could never find out anything about him: the actual circumstances of his rejection, who he was, who his family was, whether he ever returned to the United States (there were legends about entry through Canada), what he looked like.

Then Mr. William R. Creech and the other amazing folks at the National Archives in Washington, DC turned up the record of his deportation hearing.  This was a miracle not only because it was an obscure 100-year-old document, but because so few deportees were sophisticated or courageous enough to request a hearing.  I was able to read the whole unfortunate tale.  My grandmother testified at the hearing, showed her bankbook, and swore she would support her handicapped brother.  Another brother of my grandmother’s- whom I had not previously known about- said he would give Wolf a job.  My grandmother’s congressman sent a letter of support.  Wolf was nevertheless deemed likely to become a public charge and was sent directly back to Europe.  Thanks to the archivists, I will now be able to trace his route back to Europe and, I hope, find out whether the steamship company sent him right back to another U.S. port (which happened a lot).

There is much research still to be done.  But the record of the deportation hearing led to many avenues for further investigation: the details of his return to Europe, my grandmother’s previously-unknown brother and several of his children, the names and locations of still other relatives.  With all this new information, I may someday be able to track down their children and grandchildren.

And, who knows?  With one discovery leading to another, there could be a joyous reunion of the descendants of those who were so harshly separated that day in 1906.

by Wendy Griswold

More than a World War II Folk Art Map

Although I’ve used hundreds of National Archives documents in 30 years of teaching and researching, one of them stands out.

My father used to tell me that he and my Uncle Francis liberated the brewery in Pilzen Czechoslovakia. He was in the 16th Armored Division. After he passed away, I decided to research his unit at the National Archives. I had lots of leads. He left me a box with every piece of paper he ever got in the army. His personal archive was extensive.

The National Archives text records on the 16th Armored Division were extensive. Still Photographs also had materials related to his unit. Photographs reveal that townspeople in Pilzen, beer pitchers in hand, greeted the liberating tank crews.

I made a surprising discovery in Text Records. There, among the written reports and orders, was a hand-drawn folk art map that detailed the movement of the 16th through Europe in 1945. The unknown artist captured the sense of liberation with a few brush strokes. The archivist helped me a have black and white copy made. I hoped I’d be eventually get a color copy.

Several years passed and then one day after talking with Mr. Richard Myers at NARA, a digital color version showed up at my doorstep. At 50 MB, it shows lots of details. It’s a treasured find. But the story didn’t end there.

I stepped the resolution down to 300 k and e-mailed a copy to Mr. Edward Krusheski, a veteran of the 16th Armored Division’s liberation of Czechoslovakia. He emailed a copy to all of his fellow veterans. Since then, I’ve been in constant contact with Ed and other veterans of my dad’s old unit. The map opened a window to their experiences. Further, the map found its way to Mr. Martin Valek in Pilzen who was writing a history of the liberation. At his request, I sent him the full sized map on a CD-ROM.

Dick Myers’ kindness enabled me to establish an enduring relationship with veterans of the 16th, contribute to Pilzens’s local history, and, yes, confirmed my dad’s story. Dad always enjoyed a good glass of beer. But more than that, he had special feelings for his old army buddies. So do I.

John M. Lawlor, Jr.
Volunteer, Boeing Education Center ReSource Room, National Archives
Professor of History, Reading Area Community College

How the Nation’s Archives Touched the Lives of 5 People in 3 Countries Living on 2 Continents

Sixty-two years after the end of World War II, the National Archives at College Park, Maryland was the source for documents that touched the lives of no less than five people from three countries living on two continents.  The documents provided evidence to family members in Germany and the US that their grandfather was not a war criminal. 

In June 2007, a Canadian collector of WWII militaria purchased a coat named to a Dr. Karl Lüdcke.  Interested in the history behind the owner of the coat, the Canadian researcher contacted my archival research firm, Stenger Historica, in Fredericksburg, Virginia.  I looked up the name in the captured German records from the Berlin Document Collection, RG 242, Microfilm Publication A3343, Roll # 281A.  An extensive file existed which provided evidence that, although Dr. Lüdcke was a member of the Schutz Staffel (SS) and the chief of a Sicherheitsdienst (SD or Security Service) branch office in France, there was no proof that Lüdcke was in any way connected with the Holocaust or the deportation of French civilians from the region of Charlons sur Marne.  On the contrary, Dr. Lüdcke was a hardworking criminal inspector. During the German withdrawal from France in 1944, he was tried by an SS court for encouraging the members of his staff to seek the safety of their homes and families, by disbanding the unit and sending them home.  The trial determined that Lüdcke followed orders and he was released from custody.  However, the fate of Lüdcke was not contained in the documents.  No additional leads were found searching the names of Lüdcke’s children, which were contained in the archival documents. 

When the documents were posted publicly online, they connected Lüdcke’s daughter and husband, living in Germany, the grandson who lived in New York, the Canadian collector, and the researcher for hire.  The collector received information on the fate of Lüdcke from the grandson.  Lüdcke was killed while being evacuated on a train from Poland back to Germany, when the train was attacked by Russian aircraft.  Lüdcke is buried in Germany near the site where he was killed.  The most important aspect to this story is that the documents from the US Archives contained proof that Dr. Lüdcke was not a war criminal, which the Lüdcke family never knew until 2007.

by Dieter Stenger, Stenger Historica, Inc.

Know Your Past to Shape Your Future

While growing up, my parents were not forthcoming about their past, especially how and when they immigrated to the United States.  My parents’ past was a blank canvas to me.

At the Chinese American Family History Conference, I met up with Marisa Louie, an archivist at the San Bruno National Archives.  I was touched by the stories shared, amazed at what they went through.  As I’m a beginner in family history process, there was much information to process and ‘leads’ to follow.

As I explore these ‘leads’, I feel that I am introduced to nearly a whole new world.  Inspired by the conference, my journey to learn about my past started with getting a copy of my father’s and his father’s immigration files.  The only spelling of my grandfather’s name was found on my parents’ marriage certificate.  Marisa was unable to find him in any of the genealogy websites.  The arrival of my father’s file revealed another spelling, and Marisa reported that the file was at her facility.  Coincidentally, Marisa’s colleague, Joseph Sanchez, had accessed that file previously for a request from a cousin in New York.

Upon arriving at my appointment, Joseph brought out my grandfather’s immigration file.  I could not believe that I was handling documents that are over a hundred years old!  As I was making a copy, Joseph helped me find any other files on site based on the sons outlined in his file.  Only one was found, my grandfather’s alleged first son.

After reading both files, I became better acquainted with my grandfather, father, and the uncles who came to the U.S. prior to 1945.  From the interrogation text, I got a snippet of home life at the ancestral village, which intrigued me in visiting there one day.  Through their participation in the Chinese Confession Program, they declared that the first son was a fake.

As I shared with my relatives my experience with NARA and the information gleaned from the immigration files, I wanted to get the file of my deceased aunts and uncles who immigrated to the U.S.  After sharing this pursuit with my cousins, we are now closer than before and it stirred up their interest to research their past.

Although digging up the past may be exciting and painful for others, everyone helps fill in the blank canvas and it’s a legacy that we could pass down to the next generation.

by Jennie Kwong

Bonnie Medford Found It in the National Archives!

When we began to research my husband’s maternal grandmother, Emma Jelf, the only information we had for her was the fact that she grew up in an orphanage and a Civil War story Emma told about her father, Isaac Jelf.  Due to the fact that Emma was an orphan, we thought that it was important to trace and document her family.  During the next three years, while researching other lines, we continued to search for additional information about Emma, but got nowhere.

While attending a workshop on how to search Military Records at the National Archives in Laguna Niguel, California, the presenter helped me locate a Civil War pension file, for Isaac.  This was just before the rates for pension files increased, and I call this my “$10 Gold Mine”.  The file was twenty-four pages of family information and documentation, some of it in Isaac’s own words.  In addition to his military records and details of his illness, the file contained the date and place of marriage for Isaac and Martha Elizabeth Philips.  A statement was given by Martha’s mother, Margery Philips, confirming their marriage.  Martha’s father, William Philips was mentioned. There was a statement from Isaac documenting the names and birth dates of his four children.  Isaac’s date of death was included, as well as Martha’s.  They died less than three weeks apart.  We requested a copy of their marriage record from the county clerk, which gave the names of their parents.  We now knew that Isaac’s parents were William Jelf and Isabella VanWye. 

Several pages documented the placement of Emma and her older sisters Margery Isabella and Ella and younger brother Clyde in the Soldiers’ and Sailors‘  Children’s Home in Normal, McLean County, Illinois.  We were able to obtain a copy of the admission record to the children’s home, which gave us additional information, including the date they were admitted and when they left the home.

Using the information found in the Civil War file we were able to trace Emma’s family back six generations to the early 1700’s.  We may have eventually traced the family without the file, but it gave us a solid foundation to build on.

by Bonnie Medford

Congratulations Winners!

You voted and your Grand Prize Winner is :

  • “More than a World War II Folk Art Map” by John M. Lawlor, Jr.

The runners up are:

  • “When Mashpee Indians Went Whaling Together” by Russell G. Handsman


  • “Digging in the National Archives to Uncover Secrets of The Pond, US Spy Group Predating the CIA” by Randy Herschaft and Cristian Salazar


Thank you for voting!

The public voting for the "I Found It in the National Archives" contest has now come to a close.  We are busy counting the results and will post the winners on September 16, 2011. 

We wish to thank everyone who submitted an entry and for those of you who voted!