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
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.”
Fortunately, joining the website Genes Connected (now genes reunited.com) 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 ( alanhfraser.esy.es/FrasersAlbum/ 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 ancestry.com – and of ancestry.co.uk 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.”
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