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New York town’s trove of WWII vets’ records being digitized

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ALBANY, N.Y. >> At the end of World War II, the state historian asked all municipalities to voluntarily compile records of local veterans who had served in it. In a town near Rochester, one longtime public official eagerly took on the task.

Now, 70 years after the war ended and 30 years after hundreds of the documents were rediscovered in suburban Perinton’s town hall, the records for 776 local WWII veterans are being digitized for online access.

The town’s records are a unique and valuable resource among public military archives collected on the home front during the war, one expert said.

“For historians, this is a gold mine if you want to track the impact of the war on one particular town,” said G. Kurt Piehler, a Florida State University history professor.

Other places across America had similar efforts, but most of those documents were thrown out years ago or haven’t been made public, Piehler said.

It’s unknown how many of the state’s approximately 1,500 cities, towns and villages followed through on the request to compile local WWII records, said Jennifer Lemak, senior historian at the state museum in Albany.

During World War I, the state historian’s request for municipalities to collect veterans’ records was so successful the effort was encouraged again in 1945. The response wasn’t the same, likely because many town clerks already were heavily burdened, doubling as the local historians while being tasked with handling record-keeping duties related to draft boards and wartime rationing commissions.

Apparently that wasn’t the case in the then-rural community of Perinton, population 10,000, where Charlotte Clapp was 20 years into her 30-year tenure as clerk and historian as WWII was ending.

The War Service Record forms she compiled consisted of a double-sided page for detailed information on a veteran’s background and military experience. Space was allotted on the front for attaching a photo, and about two-thirds of the records have black-and-white photos. Any local newspaper clippings about a veteran also were included. Sometimes, family members filled out the forms after loved ones were killed in action.

It’s unclear how many of the veterans represented in the WWII records are alive, current Perinton town historian Bill Poray said.

David Voigt perused the service record of his father, Raymond Voigt, when he stopped by Poray’s office Tuesday after learning about the archive in a story the historian recently wrote. His father, who died in 2005, served in the Pacific as a nose-turret gunner in B-24 bombers.

“I think it’s pretty cool, pretty spectacular that someone did this so long ago for this town,” said Voigt, from nearby Webster.

Clapp kept up the call for veterans to fill out service records for several years. She died in 1964, and the records were filed away and forgotten. They were rediscovered in the mid-1980s, when a former resident’s inquiry about a relative killed in the war sent the then-town historian searching. They were found in four ledgers stored in a trunk buried under stacks of books in the town hall’s basement.

A college student has digitized about half the WWII records, with the rest expected to be completed by next summer and posted online afterward, Poray said.

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