One of the great challenges of historians and genealogists is matching an individual in a historical record or newspaper article to vital records. The John Smiths and the like are usually the worst: common first and last names who seem like they will never be found. My own family tree contains a line of Joneses that I would have probably never been able to sort out if a member of the family hadn’t written a family history (and it seems like a well-researched one too).
Professionally, I find myself trying to figure out lighthouse keepers and military servicemen. Depending on the record there is sometimes little to go on besides a name, a branch of service and rank, and the deductions than can be drawn. A man generally had to be in a certain age range to serve at a certain time and in peacetime enlistments usually came soon after high school. For the Coast Guard I know a S2C or SA (Seaman 2nd Class or Apprentice Seaman, the post-1948 equivalent) indicates someone who has not been in the service very long.
Headstones are useful as military service is often recognized on a tombstone, especially wartime service and/or a long career. Another great resource for piecing things together is the Department of Veterans Affairs BIRLS Death File, 1850-2010 on Ancestry.com. It contains branches of service with dates of enlistment and discharge as well as birth and death dates. BIRLS does have some limitations though. Some people who served either do not have a file or their file does not have dates of service (or at least this information is missing or incorrectly transcribed into Ancestry). Middle names/initials are usually absent so it can be a slow process to wade through more common names and Ancestry does not seem to effectively search for the branch of service. Sometimes, though not frequently, the BIRLS files are simply wrong. The wrong branch being listed is probably the most common, but sometimes service dates only show 1 of 2 periods of service or show an enlistment date that is actually when the serviceman reenlisted.
One of the more usual mistakes in a BIRLS file I’ve found pertains to a man named William Lee Coats. I am quite confident I have found the BIRLS file for the correct person of that name. His service is listed as 1948-1951 and 1957-1958. I know from logbooks and newspaper articles his service was continuous through the 1950s. His service prior to 1948 is also missing. His obituary mentions World War II service, the 1940 census indicates he was living in Norfolk, VA in 1935, and he married his wife in 1938 in North Carolina despite having been born and grown up in Florida. However, that same census lists him back in Florida with his wife and parents. My deduction is that he enlisted in the Coast Guard when he turned 18, went to VA and NC during his 3-year enlistment, got married, and didn’t reenlist. Then he reenlisted for the war, probably being discharged during demobilization. Then he rejoined the USCG for the third and final time in 1948.
Another mystery man is Jack M. Peebles. He served in Florida during World War II with the beach patrol as a BM2 (Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class) and possibly as a lighthouse keeper. A search for people with the right dates of service and right age comes up with only one possible match: Jack McFarland Peebles of Georgia. However, his BIRLS file and obituary both refer to his World War II service as being in the Navy. Are they both wrong? His brother, Frank, served in the Navy (at least according his BIRLS). The Coast Guard was under the Navy Department during World War II. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve heard as someone being referred to as serving in the Navy during the war when they were actually in the Coast Guard.
Both of these mysteries could probably be solved with military personnel files, but Coats’ would probably be unavailable due to when his service ended (they are not normally available to non-relatives until 65 years after discharge/retirement). Regardless of accessibility, getting personnel files is expensive.