Library of Congress to archive local family's WWII photos
Sep. 1—A collection of nearly a thousand wartime photographs from one local soldier are headed to the Library of Congress next month for permanent archival.
Demart Carl Chamberlain, a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division who jumped thrice into combat during World War II, carried with him a handheld Kodak in his deployments across Italy, France and northern Africa.
Upon his father's death in 1993, Michael Chamberlain inherited a trove of around 900 photographs depicting Demart Carl Chamberlain and his brothers-in-arms from their time at parachute jump school in Fort Benning, Georgia, through their assignments in Alsace-Lorraine until the verge of their return stateside in 1945.
Also included in the collection are scenes of supply ships docked at port, rubble-scattered cities and daily-life vignettes of those who lived there.
"This was at a time not many people were carrying around a camera in combat," said Michael, an Auburn resident. "It's amazing to me he had a camera at all."
His father "picked up a camera sometime after high school," though it's not clear where or why, Michael said. His only clues are the serial numbers on the lenses, which he has yet to trace.
Known to most everyone else in his Schenevus neighborhood as Carl Jr., Chamberlain was born in Worcester in 1921, the oldest of nine children, according to Michael.
At 21, Chamberlain enlisted in the Army in November 1942 and joined the paratroopers, an operation still in its infancy and relying solely on volunteers.
"It was considered an extremely hazardous duty," Michael said, estimating a 20% survival rate for the early generations of paratrooper volunteers. "The draw for doing something so dangerous was the pay — paratroopers were paid the most in the Army, even more than pilots. In all likelihood, my father took the job because he had a family to support."
While many of his fellow servicemen were already married by the time they enlisted, Chamberlain remained a bachelor, trying to provide for his younger siblings at home in Otsego County.
As a teenager, Michael said, his father became the primary breadwinner of the family when his own father, Carl Sr., a combat veteran of World War I, fell ill as a result of mustard gas exposure.
Chamberlain shipped out with Company B of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment in April 1943, arriving in Casablanca in May and training for the summer in Tunisia.
Two months later, Chamberlain was among the first to jump into combat during the invasion of Sicily, the Allied Forces' first assault on continental Europe, Michael said.
He made his second combat jump in September 1943 during the Allied invasion of Italy, landing behind enemy lines on the Salerno beach as part of a reserve unit. In late January 1944, Chamberlain was deployed in an amphibious assault on Anzio, a port city about 50 kilometers south of Rome.
The photo collection serves as the roadmap to Michael's understanding of his father's time at war, which he said was discussed very little during his childhood.
"These were things he never ever spoke about," Michael said, noting that such behavior was common among veterans of the age. "We all knew there were certain things you just don't ask Dad."
Michael recalled sipping a soda alongside his father at a bar when he was young and overhearing fragments of his conversations with the men next to him as they exchanged cursory wartime narratives.
"That was how I got to know that he'd been injured," Michael said. "Otherwise, those things would never have come up."
Few details are known about the circumstances of his father's injury, Michael said, except that he was spent most of February 1944 at a hospital in Naples and did not return to combat afterward.
Having accrued enough "points" under the Adjusted Service Rating Score — a scoring method used to determine priority for postwar assignments and sending troops home — Chamberlain left the 504th and joined the 334th Quartermaster Depot Company, which was attached to the 1st Airborne Task Force, Michael said.
Chamberlain helped retrofit planes designed to drop bombs so that they could safely drop bundles of supplies instead, Michael said. His unit was attached to the 6th Army for the invasion of southern France, accompanying its members in their pursuit of the German army up the Rhone valley to the Battle of the Bulge.
The photographic prints, varying in size and quality, were largely developed and printed in the field overseas — an incredible feat, Michael said, considering the rarity and expense of the materials needed.
The photos, of little apparent interest to the various associations formed from his father's former units, had no place at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C., either, Michael said, but a staffer there recommended he try the Library of Congress.
From there, Michael said, he was immediately connected with the Veterans History Project, which aims to "collect, preserve and make accessible the personal accounts of America's wartime veterans so that future generations may hear directly from veterans and better understand their selfless service."
The project, created by Congress in 2000 as part of the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress, collects original, unedited personal narratives, primarily in the form of recorded oral histories, Michael said. The organization also accepts letters, diaries, journals, military documents, two-dimensional artwork, maps and unpublished memoirs.
Together with other family members, including his niece, Alexandria, a fourth-generation Chamberlain to enlist in the military, Michael will travel to Washington, D.C. next month for a formal accession ceremony as the photographs are transferred to their permanent home.
"I feel a sense of obligation to do this," Michael said. "I just don't want to see these things become lost."
Since his retirement in 2018, Michael said, he has logged thousands of hours scouring documents at the Library of Congress and the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri, sifting through daily logs and company reports to finally piece together his father's story — up until this point, told only in illustrations.
"I'm so grateful to have as much time with my dad as I did," he said. "We had a really solid relationship. As I got older, that's when part of you regrets that you didn't have time — or take time — to hear these stories."
"It's like having a painting that you've always enjoyed just to have," Michael continued. "But then to discover the backstory and the nuances behind it — it's great to be able to paint a fuller expression of who my father was."
Michael said he is grateful to local historians, researchers and military family members who work to preserve the histories of others who fought in World War II, sympathizing with their sadness and grief that fewer and fewer members of the Greatest Generation survive to tell their stories with each passing year.
"It's a shame because a lot of these men, like my dad, went their whole lives without ever really talking about it," Michael said. "Now we've got a whole generation of Vietnam veterans who won't be around for much longer either. It's their stories — and those from Korea and the First Gulf War and so on — that we need to preserve so we don't make those same mistakes."
Visit loc.gov/vets for more information about the Veterans History Project.
For help submitting or obtaining veteran narratives to the Library of Congress, call 1-888-371-5848 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.