Not All Military Service was Honorable: Realities of Genealogical Research

A genealogist’s research into her uncle’s WWII military service ends with surprising results.

Many of us have at least one story of a family member’s military service. As family historians and genealogists, we strive to document that history by obtaining records to support these cherished anecdotes. Occasionally, as those second-hand accounts pass down they take on a life of their own and have very little in common with the actual facts of the event.

Case in point: my Uncle Daniel John Dougan. He was the first child of his generation, born of immigrant parents in Pennsylvania on June 14, 1922. Dan was born on the very day set aside in observance of the American flag—in a country that granted his father citizenship upon his Army enlistment in April 1918.

Dan was 10 years older than my mother, so they did not share a childhood home long. When I was 10, he came to Detroit for a week to attend my grandmother’s funeral. I hadn’t met him before and never met him again, ergo, his family nickname, "Disappearing Dan." My siblings and I were thrilled when he walked in the door handing out gifts; he gave me a Barbie suitcase and the others received dolls and trucks. Surprisingly, when he left in the middle of the night without notice, he took all the gifts he had brought with him. We were devastated. What would a grown man do with all those toys, especially my Barbie suitcase?

Perhaps that is why he held a certain fascination for me. What kind of man didn’t mind walking down a street carrying a Barbie suitcase in 1964? My mother only shared one story about her oldest brother. She recalled that as a Marine during World War II he entered a Chicago radio station’s singing contest. He won the grand prize of an all-expenses-paid trip to California and a date with a Hollywood starlet. She did not know the starlet’s name. The search was on to prove or disprove this tale.

Did Dan serve as a Marine in World War II? Did he win a singing contest? 

Several online resources provided documents: census records, “Social Security Death Index,” “California Death Index,” “New York Passenger Lists,” “U.S. WWII Draft Cards Young Men, 1940-1947,” “U.S. Marine Corps Muster Rolls,” “U.S. World War II Navy Muster Rolls,” and “Montana, Prison Records, 1861-1969.” Whoa! What? Montana? Prison records?

 “In accordance with the requirements of the Consolidated Boards, I have the honor to report: That Dougan, Daniel #14728, a convict, was received at the prison on the 25th day of September, 1948 convicted of FELONY sentenced September 24, 1948. Term of sentence is FOUR years and SIX months.”


He pled guilty to larceny. The personal information clearly identifies him as my Uncle; born June 14, 1922, Jenners County, Pennsylvania, parental names match those of my maternal grandparents—complete with the address in Detroit where I tap-danced as a child on the wooden front porch. This is information he would have supplied to the authorities, including that he enlisted in the US Army on November 1, 1945, and was discharged on February 5, 1948.

On the reverse of the document, the findings of an FBI report detailed quite a list of offenses and activities ending the day of sentencing, September 25, 1948.  One entry seemed particularly relevant. A January 22, 1943, charge of “illegal wearing of Uniform” in Los Angeles, California (disposition: probation). The document does not mention that he served in the Marines.

But he did.

The Marine Corps Official Military Personnel File (OMPF) records his birth as 14 June 1921 [not 1922], enlisted 28 June 1940 in Detroit does provide positive identification. His personnel file also highlights his inability to be one of “the Few, the Proud.” Even while in the Marines, he lived up to his family nickname.

His first desertion occurred within four months of his enlistment and lasted for five weeks before he returned to Detroit and was promptly delivered to the District Headquarters Station by his father. He was “awarded” three months confinement plus a $90.00 fine. Great Lakes Naval Station transferred him to Parris Island to finish his confinement. After his release, he was assigned to the Naval Yard in Washington, D.C. From there, he went AWOL for two days and received 5 days of confinement with bread and water only.  In the same month, he left again and, one week later, the Marines offered a $50.00 award to anyone who could deliver him to any Marine Barracks, Naval Station, or Recruiting Station. He turned himself in four months later and pled not guilty. During the court-martial, the “accused stated that he did not intend to stay away.” He was found guilty and incarcerated for three months (reduced from eighteen-months) and fined $150.  One wonders if he was credited the $50 for delivering himself.

Upon release, he was reassigned to Co. H. 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines and then First Marine Division, Fleet Marine Force, First Division Camp. On 29 September 1942, a Depot Transfer Order moves him from ‘Base Depot, Fleet Marine Force, Straw’ to “an orally designated ship, for confinement and further transfer to the United States.” The file continues—he had eleven Special Captain’s Masts and paid $1,230 in fines plus loss of pay—before his bad conduct discharge from Mare Island, California on 19 November 1942. Unbelievably, he wrote a letter on 15 December 1943 asking to re-join the Marine Corps.

Obviously, the Marines weren’t going to take him back, so he joined the U.S. Army. Most of his Official Military Personnel File was destroyed in the 1973 fire at The National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri. The “Final Payment Roll” survived and records his date of entry as 1 November 1946 (not 1945), but his discharge date of 5 February 1948 is accurate. He received his “other than honorable discharge” while confined at McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary for postal money order fraud beginning 17 December 1947. This information was recorded on a payment roll, as he was AWOL for a total of six months (during fifteen months of service), and owed the Government $212.50. He was paroled on 30 August 1948 from McNeil Prison in Washington State and, within a month (25 September), was imprisoned at the Montana State Prison for Grand Larceny.

The focus then turned to newspaper research to ascertain if contemporary reporting of the singing contest and the illegal wearing of a military uniform could be obtained.

The hunt for a singing contest that named Dan Dougan (winner or not) proved fruitless. However, there was mention of my rogue relation by famed Hollywood gossip columnist, Hedda Hopper. She wrote an article “Fake Guadalcanal ‘Hero’ Jailed After Fooling All [of] Hollywood” providing some background information on illegal uniform use by “Danny Dougan, 21, former marine of Detroit.” She states that before the “first class make-believer” fraud was discovered, he was wined and dined by approximately twenty Hollywood celebrities. However, not once does the famed tell-all gossip queen identify the celebrities he scammed and never writes about it again. I wonder why—was she one of the twenty that bought into his story?

Although there is more to the celebrity aspect of the story to be uncovered, you get the gist: he was a Marine and he did meet celebrities; albeit, under somewhat less illustrious circumstances than the family imagined. The retelling was short on facts and details, but research and documentation provided “The Rest of the Story.”

I now theorize the Barbie suitcase was probably stolen merchandise. There is an old saying that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. In this instance that saying does not apply. Uncle Dan fell from a patriotic father, rolled down the hill and into the ditch.

Moral of the story: We cannot expect that information in documents will only confirm or just differ slightly from family lore. The information may actually conflict or provide evidence of a vastly different occurrence. That possibility is a reality we must be willing to accept before we start research. Not all service was honorable. It does not mean you discard your family’s shared reminiscence. The telling of family anecdotes by older relatives are childhood memories to be cherished. However, we can and should unite the stories with the facts in our writing. That blending of fact and memory may prove fascinating or problematic, depending on the story and your perspective.

To learn more about your veteran's story, download our free research guide here and check the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy's new WWII Research Services here.


Clarise Soper

Clarise Soper, certified by the Board for Certification of Genealogists® and a US Army veteran, works with the Department of Defense POW/...
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