LEHI — By the end of June 6, 1944, when Operation Overlord, or D-Day, launched on the beaches of Normandy, France, some 156,000 Allied soldiers had arrived to battle German forces and create access for hundreds of thousands of additional troops in the effort to take Western Europe back from Nazi occupiers.
In recognition of the 75th anniversary of the massive operation, Utah-based Ancestry.com is opening up free access to its voluminous stash of military records so the millions of living ancestors of those soldiers can discover family connections to an event Winston Churchill described as "undoubtedly the most complicated and difficult that has ever occurred."
Ancestry family historian Lisa Elzey said the family search giant has an enormous trove of military records that it will make available — free of charge — from Thursday, June 6, through Sunday, June 9.
She said the company hopes people will take advantage of the opportunity to discover family ties with D-Day and WWII they may not have known about, or learn more about connections that are already a part of their family histories.
"Ancestry has the largest and most comprehensive collection in the world for these kinds of military records … including draft cards, service records and prisoner and casualty lists," Elzey said. "People want to contribute to their family stories and that’s what opportunities like this helps them to do. When we make offers to dive in, it gives people the chance to explore things they hadn’t before."
Elzey offered encouragement to those who have attempted record searches before and come up empty, noting Ancestry has spent some $300 million digitizing records over the last 20 years and each day adds 2 million more to their cache of data.
Elzey herself was able to leverage access to Ancestry's military records to discover something remarkable about a grandfather, who was estranged from her family and whom she knew little about, other than he had served in the military during World War II.
"I didn’t really know much about him, really, just his name because he wasn’t part of my mom’s life," Elzey said. "Through Ancestry's records I was able to search and put his life together. I was able to get … his military number and where he was posted, and got information about where he served."
Turns out, Elzey's grandfather was something of a war hero, having flown over 30 missions as a ball turret gunner on a B-17 bomber — purported to be one of the most dangerous wartime assignments of the era. And Elzey's maternal grandparent also played a role in the Normandy invasion.
"One of the missions he flew was on D-Day over Sword Beach, on the east side (of the Normandy landing area)," Elzey said. "Their job was to go in first and bomb the gunnery stations. Just to know that I’m a part of this history, that my grandfather fought in that part of the war was really humbling."
Elzey said it's particularly significant for families with members who are WWII veterans to capture and record their stories and histories before they are lost to time. For her, getting her grandfather's story incorporated as a written record into her family history documents was a "reclaiming of information" that will now be available to future generations of her family and the connection and remembrance will live on.
Randi Law, communications manager for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, told the Deseret News that there is a collective obligation to keep the stories of those who fought for freedom alive and relevant as the events themselves fade further into the past.1 comment on this story
"This is a generation with a storied and important history," Law said in a statement. "A generation whose sacrifice changed the course of the future, not just for our country, but for the world.
"It’s our duty to keep their stories alive and work to ensure future generations know the contributions of those who served."
Ancestry's free record search portal, found at ancestry.com/DDay75, will be accessible to the public starting at midnight EDT on June 6 and run through midnight EDT on June 9.