Reader Story

Alan Fraser’s on­line fam­ily al­bum con­nected him with new­found re­la­tions the world over – and helped him to dis­cover the iden­tity of a heroic first cousin who he had never met. By Gail Dixon

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS -

How Alan Fraser iden­ti­fied a Sec­ond World War air­man

Old black-and-white pho­tographs can pro­vide es­sen­tial clues for fam­ily his­to­ri­ans. They can also be­come tan­ta­lis­ing enig­mas, as Who Do You Think You Are? Mag­a­zine reader Alan Fraser dis­cov­ered.

In around 2006, Alan was sent an old pho­to­graph of an el­derly lady stand­ing proudly by a uni­formed air­man. “The lady was my grand­mother, Mary Fraser (née Sargeant), who I never met,” Alan ex­plains. “But I had no idea who the ser­vice­man was.”

In­trigu­ingly, the im­age was cap­tioned, “John McGeachie, shot down over Ger­many in

‘I was as­ton­ished to dis­cover that Dad was one of 12’

1943.” The name didn’t ring any bells for Alan, and he was keen to dis­cover what had hap­pened to this tragic ser­vice­man.

How­ever, Alan’s mis­sion led to a trail of mis­taken iden­ti­ties that were only re­solved through the power of on­line crowd­sourc­ing. This is when fam­ily his­to­ri­ans, who are of­ten to­tal strangers, come to­gether to help each other in their search.

For Alan, the ex­pe­ri­ence has been a rev­e­la­tion, for not only has he bro­ken down his brick wall – he has also con­nected with a large swathe of his fa­ther’s fam­ily tree. A num­ber of them are cousins who he never knew ex­isted.

Alan’s fa­ther Harold Fraser was born in Liver­pool in 1907, to a fam­ily with strong Scot­tish roots. “Dad met my mother Marjorie Hughes when he was sta­tioned in Es­sex dur­ing the war. I knew Mum’s fam­ily well, but af­ter Dad en­listed in 1940 he had lit­tle or no con­tact with his fam­ily.

“He told us that he had a sis­ter who was much older than him who had brought him up with her two chil­dren. Con­se­quently, he al­ways felt like a spare part in the fam­ily. Dad died in 1976, so I never got the chance to quiz him fur­ther about his fam­ily.”

Alan be­gan re­search­ing his fa­ther’s side in the late 1990s, when fewer re­sources were on­line. “I or­dered Dad’s birth cer­tifi­cate and dis­cov­ered that my grand­par­ents were James Wren Fraser and Mary Sargeant, who mar­ried in Liver­pool in 1887.”

Big Break­throughs

For­tu­nately, join­ing the web­site Genes Con­nected (now genes re­u­ in 2003 pro­vided a se­ries of big break­throughs: “Cousins got in touch from the ex­tended Fraser fam­ily who I had never even heard of be­fore. Through them I was as­ton­ished to dis­cover that Dad was one of 12 sib­lings, 11 of whom sur­vived. I knew he had a sis­ter, but it was a great shock to find out that he had seven of them!

“Robert Fraser, the son of my first cousin Ernest, put me in touch with two more cousins, who kindly sent me fam­ily pho­tographs. Philip Green sent the pho­to­graph of my grand­mother, Mary Sargeant, in Liver­pool with the air­man.” The air­man is tall, bald­ing and looks as though he is in his thir­ties.

Alan adds, “In around 2009,

a co­nun­drum arose when an­other new­found cousin, Joan Coul­son, sent me a pho­to­graph al­bum that be­longed to Frank Fraser, my fa­ther’s el­dest brother who em­i­grated to Illi­nois. This con­tained the wed­ding pho­to­graph of a young uni­formed man with a quiff who was also iden­ti­fied as John McGeachie. How­ever, when I com­pared this to the orig­i­nal photo with Mary Sargeant, it was ob­vi­ous that they were not the same per­son.”

Alan was baf­fled – was ei­ther ser­vice­man re­ally John McGeachie? “Hav­ing as­sem­bled a wealth of pho­tographs, I de­cided to cre­ate an on­line fam­ily al­bum ( alan­­sAl­bum/ in­dex.htm). This site be­came the gate­way to solv­ing the mys­tery.”

The break­through came in 2013 when Alan was con­tacted by Ju­dith Dolan­ski, who lived in Chicago. She told him, “You have a photo of my dad!” She had been re­search­ing the Sargeant fam­ily on­line be­cause she is de­scended from Mary’s sis­ter Martha, who em­i­grated to Amer­ica in 1888. Ju­dith saw the pic­ture of Mary Sargeant with a ser­vice­man and iden­ti­fied him not as John McGeachie, but as her fa­ther Harry Clay­ton Lunt, who was known by his mid­dle name.

“This was a real bolt from the blue,” Alan ex­plains. “Ju­dith told me that Clay­ton served with the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) in Reyk­javik dur­ing the Sec­ond World War. The pho­to­graph was taken on VE Day [8 May 1945], when Clay­ton was vis­it­ing his great aunt Mary

‘It was ob­vi­ous that they were not the same per­son’

in Liver­pool. He was my sec­ond cousin, and passed away in 1992.

“This set a new hare run­ning. I de­cided that the young man with the quiff in the wed­ding photo had to be John McGeachie. Ju­dith was keen to help, so she used her gift sub­scrip­tion to An­ces­try to do more de­tec­tive work.”

Users of an­ces­ – and of an­ces­ who have a World­wide sub­scrip­tion – can ac­cess year­books from Amer­i­can high schools dat­ing from 1900 to 1990. These can be in­valu­able for iden­ti­fy­ing Amer­i­can rel­a­tives.

“It was a huge sur­prise when Ju­dith dis­cov­ered John McGeachie’s high school pho­to­graph on An­ces­try. In­stead of solv­ing the mys­tery, how­ever, it com­pli­cated it. The John McGeachie smil­ing out from his year­book looked to­tally dif­fer­ent to the young man with the quiff in the wed­ding pho­to­graph.”

Year­book Rev­e­la­tions

School year­books can pro­vide in­trigu­ing clues to a per­son’s iden­tity, in­ter­ests and ca­reer. John at­tended Seneca Vo­ca­tional High School in Buf­falo, New York State, in the late 1930s. The photo cap­tion men­tioned that he stud­ied elec­tron­ics, en­joyed bas­ket­ball and was nick­named ‘Scotty’.

From this, Ju­dith iden­ti­fied a set of wed­ding pho­tographs in Frank Fraser’s al­bum of John McGeachie and his wife Al­ice Marie Bo­sack on their wed­ding day, 18 April 1942. This matched the year­book pic­ture of John, so Alan and Ju­dith knew that they had the right man.

In 1943, the cou­ple had a daugh­ter called Denise, who is also pic­tured in the photo al­bum. Af­ter dis­cov­er­ing Denise’s mar­ried name, Mankowski, Ju­dith looked her up in the Buf­falo tele­phone

direc­tory and rang her. Denise passed on the de­tails of her daugh­ter Lori, who has been very help­ful in the search.

Lori went through Frank Fraser’s pho­to­graph al­bum on­line, and iden­ti­fied the pho­tographs of her grand­par­ents. Fi­nally, Alan and Ju­dith knew they had found John McGeachie.

High school year­books also helped to re­veal the iden­tity of the air­man with the quiff in the wed­ding pho­to­graph. He turned out to be Frank E Stout, who mar­ried Clay­ton Lunt’s cousin Dorothy Stahl in 1946.

Alan was now able to piece to­gether an out­line of John McGeachie’s short life. He was the son of Bertha Fraser, Alan’s aunt, who was sent to live with rel­a­tives in Glas­gow. She mar­ried Ge­orge McGeachie and had four chil­dren, in­clud­ing John, born in 1919. The fam­ily em­i­grated to Amer­ica in 1929, set­tling in Buf­falo, New York State.

A Hero’s Ser­vice

Dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, John joined the USAAF and be­came a ra­dio op­er­a­tor. His train­ing in elec­tron­ics would have been es­sen­tial for the role.

In 1944 he was sta­tioned at Halesworth in Suf­folk and was part of the 10-man crew of the Stubby Gal II, a Boe­ing B-24 bomber. The B-24 was dif­fi­cult to fly be­cause of its stiff and heavy con­trols, and the air­craft had only one exit near the tail, mak­ing it ex­tremely dif­fi­cult for flight­deck crew to bail out while wear­ing a para­chute. No won­der air­men nick­named it the ‘Fly­ing Cof­fin’.

Stubby Gal II was part of Mis­sion 385, tasked to de­stroy rail­way lines, radar sta­tions, forts and coastal ar­tilleries in the runup to D-Day. The bomber took off on 2 June and made it as far as Villers-Saint-Paul, about 40 miles north-east of Paris, be­fore it was hit by anti-air­craft fire. Trag­i­cally, John was killed by a shell.

The crew bailed out at 3,000 feet and the plane crashed with John’s body on board. All of his friends sur­vived, and were ei­ther res­cued by the French Re­sis­tance or cap­tured by the Germans.

John was buried in an Amer­i­can ceme­tery at Di­nozé in north-east France. He was posthu­mously awarded the Pur­ple Heart, and a plaque in Villers-Saint-Paul com­mem­o­rates his pass­ing.

“John was my first cousin and I never met him or knew of him, which I think is un­usual,” says Alan. “I hope I’ve done the fam­ily a ser­vice, both here and in Amer­ica, since these photos have been misiden­ti­fied for decades. Lori is es­pe­cially grate­ful, and very proud that her grand­fa­ther’s sac­ri­fice is prop­erly recog­nised.

Alan re­mains thrilled with his newly ex­panded tree. “I’m now in touch with pre­vi­ously un­known fam­ily mem­bers in Bri­tain, Amer­ica, Canada, Aus­tralia and New Zealand. We vis­ited Ju­dith in Chicago in May 2015 and I’m in touch with both her and Lori on Face­book – they have been so help­ful to my re­search. This cer­tainly proves the pos­i­tive side of the in­ter­net.” What’s more, his web­site has grown dra­mat­i­cally to in­cor­po­rate his in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions, so much so that Find­my­past named this in­cred­i­bly com­pre­hen­sive re­source the bestil­lus­trated fam­ily tree of 2015.

This pho­to­graph of Alan’s grand­mother Mary Fraser (née Sargeant) with a mys­tery air­man set Alan off on a quest that took sev­eral years to solve

Clay­ton with the Fraser fam­ily in the Ma­rine Gar­dens in 1945, in­clud­ing tod­dler Richard Gelder who met with Alan for our pho­to­shoot in the same spot This pho­to­graph of Alan and his par­ents Harold and Marjorie was taken in Bov­ing­ton, Dorset, in 1947

Frank E Stout (not John McGeachie) and his bride Dorothy Stahl Photo of John McGeachie from his 1939 high school year­book, which Ju­dith Dolan­ski found on An­ces­try

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