An American Peculiarity

A subject which often arises when I chat with friends here in the UK is how curious it is that most Americans know not just their ethnic background, but are able to quantify it readily. This seems to be a byproduct of the waves of immigration which had different groups arriving in the US at different times meaning that groups tended to be segregated at first, think of the famous stereotypes of the signs “Irish need not apply” for example. This reluctance of the older immigrant groups to welcome new ones seems to have created points in time where families would look back at when they themselves first came to the American continent.

Since new waves of immigrants continued to come from around the world, and still do, this retrospection of one’s family’s or one’s own origins kept being reinforced. A further factor which emphasizes the ratio of an American’s ethnic makeup is that new immigrants often settled in like communities. For example, in my home state of North Dakota the groups which immigrated are largely Swedish, Norwegian, and German. These groups ended up settled in towns largely equidistant along the train line with immigrants from Germany getting off on one stop, those from Norway getting off at the next, and Swedes getting off at the next. This created very tight-knit communities which, until the age of large-scale agriculture and the interstate system remained largely closed.

It was often quite the scandal if a woman from one town married a man from another, such as happened with my great-grandparents who were Swedish and Norwegian respectively. This further emphasized where origins were from creating a third pressure to remember.

But, there can be practical reasoning behind this sectioning off of one’s person as well. In this I mean that there are some groups of individuals where membership offers either monetary or societal rewards such as with certain Native American tribes. While it would be a grave mistake to simplify the greater impact of membership to these groups it can be beneficial in certain specific areas, especially where there are casinos which offer a redistribution of wealth throughout the community. In these cases, to try and prevent abuse of these income sources inclusion in the tribe is sometimes strictly limited to members who can prove a certain percentage of heritage within that group.

All of these various forces result in the ability of many Americans to calculate exactly where their ancestors came from, and in some cases the precise time of their arrival as well. This boils down to the peculiar ability to site ones own ethnic heritage very precisely, in my case 50% German, 25% Norwegian, and 25% Swedish. A fact that to me is just basic knowledge but to many of my British and European friends is often surprising and puzzling.

Thanks for reading and I hope you found this as curious and interesting as I have come to.

-Mike

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The Story of Joe Jablonsky

mary ann and joe jablonsky

Mary Ann (my grandma) and Joe Jablonsky (my great uncle)

This past Christmas, my grandmother dug up her family photo album. Going through the old pictures, she began telling us stories about her parents and her brothers. A figure of special interest was her older brother Joe, a radio operator who was stationed in the UK during WWII. I set about to reconstruct the story of this man I had never known, using my grandmother’s memory and the contents of that crumbling photo album. I now share that story with you.

Emil “Mill” Jablonsky and Antonia “Antoinette” Kerch (circa 1917)

My great-grandparents – Emil “Mill” Jablonsky (b. 1891) and Antonia “Antoinette” Kerch (b. 1900) were both first-generation immigrants who met and married in the 1910s. They had two sons – Joe and Danny – during the prosperous 1920s. Joe in 1920 and Danny in 1928. Their daughter – my grandmother – Mary Ann was born in 1935, during the Great Depression. As a result, there are not as many baby pictures of her as there are of her brothers.

joe jablonsky in uniform

Sgt. Joseph “Joe” E. Jablonsky

With the start of WWII, the Jablonsky boys went to war. Cousins Tony and Les joined the Army. Cousin Steve enlisted in the Navy. Danny was too young at first, but he would be a part of the post-war occupation of Japan. Joe enlisted 30 September 1942 and went into the USAAF.

THRU THESE GATES PASS THE BEST DAMNED RADIO OPERATORS IN THE WORLD!

Joe trained to become a radio operator in Scott Field, Illinois – home of “the best damned radio operators in the world!” As Mark Walderman wrote for the Belleville News-Democrat (2018), this school produced 77,370 radio operators/mechanics for the war. It remains an active Air Force base.

During training, Joe kept his family updated about his life at the base, sending them photos of him with his friends. He doesn’t name them, and I could not find out any more information about them in my research. Joe was deployed in late 1943.

Joe and friends (circa 1942/43)

Joe goofing off (circa 1942/43)

From here on out, gaps and inconsistencies start to appear in the story the photo album was telling us. I decided to start my own research, consulting the American Air Museum in Britain, the Museum of Berkshire Aviation, and the website http://www.airbornetroopcarrier.com to determine the official record of my great-uncle’s activities during the war. While helpful, there was only so much information to be found, and occasionally I would see his surname misspelled as “Jablowki.”

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C-47A #42-92099 (aka “Iron Ass”) │ http://www.airbornetroopcarrier.com (photo T. Albers)

There were a few facts that I could determine. He was the radio operator on C-47A #42-92099, nicknamed “Iron Ass.” His crew included 1st Lt. Edgar H. Albers Jr. as pilot, alternately 2nd Lt. Roy E. Alderman and 2nd Lt. Charles F. Bryan as co-pilot, 1st Lt. Ralph S. Gorton as navigator, and Sgt. Edward Baldwin as engineer. They were part of the 75th Troop Carrier Squadron in the 435th Troop Carrier Group in the Ninth Air Force. For the bulk of the war, they were stationed six miles outside of Newbury at Welford Airport. The squadron arrived 25 January 1944 and relocated to France in early 1945. On 19 January 1945, a different crew had to execute a forced landing due to engine failure. That was the end of “Iron Ass.”

Joe at Trafalgar Square in London (circa 1944)

While in Britain, Great-Uncle Joe and his crew flew two missions during D-Day (6 June 1944), dropping paratroopers at 1:20am and later gliders at 11:10pm. The whole of the 435th was awarded a Distinguished Unit Citation for their performance during the invasion. They were also involved in the unsuccessful Operation Market Garden (17-25 September 1944). On one of their missions, Joe’s radio was destroyed by flak. He would bring a piece of that flak back home with him as a memento. For the remainder of the war, they flew resupplies for the 101st Airborne Division.

Joe’s letter from somewhere in North Africa (9 Nov. 1943)

The family back home never heard about these missions, though, at least not as Grandma remembers it. The only bit of the above information she recalled was that his plane was called “Iron Ass.” Admittedly, that is probably the most memorable part of the story. Joe’s correspondence did not mention specifics, or alternately it outright misled his family. For example, a letter dated on the 3 November 1943 was supposedly sent from somewhere in northern Africa. Joe evens writes about seeing jungles and deserts. However, he flew directly from the US to the UK on 23 October 1943. They did not have a layover in Africa.

That said, even after the war, Joe would relay stories about flying over jungles in South America. He would even tell his son about having to shake their boots every morning in case of scorpions while in northern Africa.  As I do not see why Joe would continue such a ruse so long after being discharged, I must acknowledge that there is some incongruity to his story.

Joe’s postcard to Mary Ann (16 Feb. 1944)

Joe’s postcard to Mary Ann (3 Mar. 1944)

The rest of the correspondence that my grandmother preserved were more innocuous and straightforward, as he took time to send his 8-year-old sister souvenir postcards from Scotland and London in early 1944. In these posts, he joked about London Bridge and thanked her for the candies sent from home. In one of his stories, while in London, Joe had his first ham sandwich and covered it with Coleman’s Mustard, thinking that it was the same as American yellow mustard. It was not.

G.I.-Grams (14 May 1944)

For Mother’s Day 1944, a local Chicago paper published his and other soldiers’ messages for their mothers. Joe wrote: “Dear Mother, having swell time in London. Thinking of you very much this Mother’s Day.” These correspondences all preceded D-Day.

joe jablonsky after the war (~1945)

Joe after the war

Joe was never the same after the war, as my grandmother recalls. She shared a few of his stories. Joe had a girlfriend in London, the daughter of a local professor. But they were killed by a bomb, presumably as part of Operation Steinbock (21 Jan – 29 May 1944). Joe found out when he went to visit their house only to find it in ruins. Grandma did not remember the girl’s name, so I was not able to learn anything else about her. In another story, Joe recounted seeing one of his friends and fellow crewmembers hit by shrapnel and bleed to death right next to him.

Joe died in 1976, survived by a son. He was 55.

Over these past few months, I’ve been scraping together bits of information from various sources in order to create this incomplete narrative of a man’s life. I wish I could say that this exercise has made me closer to him, but it doesn’t. He just feels further away. The pictures are fading. The online archives are incomplete. Soon, Joe will leave even living memory. This blog post too will turn into digital dust. Putting this story up here feels like a futile gesture as I hope for someone – anyone – to remember Joe Jablonsky.

Rather than despair, I am more convinced than ever of the importance of keep these stories – these people – alive through preservation and through retelling. Thank you for indulging this little bit of family history. I hope that you enjoyed it.

A special thanks to Mary Ann Hedin, Michael Jablonsky, and Elizabeth O’Malley for helping me compose this account of our family’s history.

fritzy the cat

Fritz the Cat

-Francis

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This Day In History!

At a loss for what to write that could spark my interest today I decided to look up events of this day in history and was pleasantly surprised to discover an event which had, possibly, a transformative impact on the world. In this day in 1941 the Lend-Lease Act was signed into law allowing the transfer of free provisions and materiel from the United States to Allied countries at war with Germany, Italy, and Japan.

This was quite a controversial move for a country that was still technically neutral until events later that same year. However, strong arguments can be made that it was the transfer of materiel, especially aircraft and food, which tilted the balance in the Battle of Britain and in gaining air superiority over the English Channel.

While I had known about the Lend-Lease agreement in doing a bit of digging for today’s blog I learned a few interesting new things. Firstly, the agreement was to return anything at the end of the war unless it had been destroyed, however in practicality most materiel was in unusable condition for peacetime and as such allies were allowed to keep, free of charge, most remaining supplies. Interestingly, the agreement was ended without warning though after the surrender of Japan and any shipments which were already enroute to the Allies were charged for, although at a severe discount.

Secondly, the Lend-Lease agreement also accommodated reciprocal  exchange in the use of zero-cost leases for army and navy bases in allied countries, many of which still exist though of course no longer for free.

By the end of the war the equivalent of over $50 billion in supplies (over $500 billion in modern terms) had been donated to Allied nations with the lion’s share going to the UK. Conversely the use of land for bases and other reciprocal deals are estimated to have been at a value of almost $8 billion over the course of the war. This figure was very surprising to me in serving to show just how immense the industrial and transportation capacity of the US was in the 1940s.

All told, the signing and continuance of the Lend-Lease Act over the course of the war was vital to Allied victory and almost certainly altered history in a fundamental way. And it all started 78 years ago on this day.

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Filed under American History, American Politics, Uncategorized, World War 2

Spring 2019 Lecture Series

Spring 2019 Lecture Series - Poster-page-001

The 2AD Memorial Library’s Spring 2019 Lecture Series spotlights the multifaceted nature of studying the United States and World War II. The series features a range of scholars from different disciplines as they discuss the changing face of American culture and our understanding of our own history.

All talks will take place at the Millennium Library on Thursday evenings at 7PM. To book tickets email 2admemorial.lib@norfolk.gov.uk, find us on Eventbrite, or phone us on 01603 774747.

 

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“The current period of Nazi frightfulness”: Cinemagoing in the Blitz (25 April)

A night at the pictures often offers the prospect of escape, but was that possible under the threat of enemy bombers? This talk will discuss what happened to British cinemas and British cinemagoers during the Blitz.

Richard Farmer is a Lecturer in Film and Media Studies at the University of East Anglia.

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/the-current-period-of-nazi-frightfulness-cinemagoing-in-the-blitz-tickets-57878104970

 

The only photograph of the Buddy Bolden Band, c. 1903-05, with Bolden standing next to bassist cropped

Jazz and Disability (2 May)

This talk explores how early jazz reception thought of the new music and dance as disabled and even disabling. It also considers the musical careers of key jazz musicians with disabilities, inviting us to think of jazz as an enabling musical practice.

George McKay is a Professor Media Studies at the University of East Anglia and Humanities Research Council Fellow for its Connected Communities programme.

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/jazz-and-disability-tickets-57878776980

 

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Of Mice and Krazy Kats: The History and Art of American Comics (9 May)

This talk will provide an in-depth examination of the complex history of American comics from early newspaper strips to contemporary graphic novels, including the birth of superheroes, WWII propaganda comics, controversial 1950s horror comics, and contemporary graphic novels.

Frederik Byrn Køhlert is a Lecturer in American Studies at the University of East Anglia.

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/of-mice-and-krazy-kats-the-history-and-art-of-american-comics-tickets-57878242381

 

America Meredith, London Calling cropped

Indigenous London and Beyond: Native Travellers at the Heart of Empire (16 May)

The stories of Indigenous travellers, willing or otherwise, from territories that became Canada, the US, New Zealand, and Australia show the ways in which London and Britain have for centuries been bound up in the Indigenous experience.

Coll Thrush is a Professor of History and Associate Faculty in Critical Indigenous Studies at the University of British Columbia. He is also the International Investigator on the AHRC-funded project Beyond the Spectacle: Native North American Presence in Britain.

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/indigenous-london-and-beyond-native-travellers-at-the-heart-of-empire-tickets-57878315600

 

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American Apocalypse: 21st Century Climate Change Fiction (23 May)

This talk considers how the apocalyptic dangers of climate change are being addressed by American fiction. Climate change fiction, or ‘cli-fi’, offers us a way to assess, understand, and address the phenomenon of global warming and the impact of humans on their environment.

Rebecca Tillett is a Senior Lecturer in American Studies at the University of East Anglia.

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/american-apocalypse-21st-century-climate-change-fiction-tickets-57878709779

 

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A Heroic Mass Shooter? The Politics of Netflix’s The Punisher (30 May)

Due to his unyielding methods of exacting violent justice, much has been discussed about the Punisher. What is the place of Marvel’s controversial antihero within today’s politics? How has his new Netflix series been received in the Trump era?

Miriam Kent is a Lecturer in Film and Media Studies at the University of East Anglia.

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/a-heroic-mass-shooter-the-politics-of-netflixs-the-punisher-tickets-57878147096

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Filed under American Culture, American History, American Politics, Memorial Library, Public Events, World War 2