When I was in fifth grade, I was assigned that staple of the American elementary education: the family history project. For my project, I interviewed several older relatives, including my grandfather, Charles Newbury (my mother’s father, and my only living grandparent).
At that time, he gave me several photographs and pieces of memorabilia from his time in the US Army. He served in Germany immediately after World War II, and later in Korea. The project I made from those interviews ended up in a box in the back of a closet at my parents’ house–until recently. As I have been learning German, studying European history, and planning my year abroad as an au pair in Austria, I remembered vaguely that I had some old pictures of my grandfather.
I knew that I had some pictures, but I had no idea what a treasure trove had been bestowed on me at age eleven. I was astounded to discover the artifacts that I’m sharing here. Not only because they form snapshots of places and events that I find fascinating and important, but also because they paint a portrait of my grandfather as a young man, through the photos he took and the things he kept.
According to government archives, my grandfather enlisted on May 4, 1946, age 19, at Ft. McClellan, near Anniston, Alabama. He served as a private in the Signal Corps of the US Army. When I see his pictures depicting army life, from gathering in full dress to marching through a snowy field in Germany, I imagine his curiosity and interest in his rapidly expanding world.
I am even fortunate enough to have a ration card that he kept from his time in Europe, which provides me with specific details about his service that can lead to further research.
Finding this card was literally stumbling upon a piece of the past. It was an eerie feeling to hold this browned and fragile piece of paper as an adult, capable of realizing its significance, but knowing that I had been made its casual guardian as a child.
As fascinating as I find these army images, my curiosity was piqued even more by the other items I re-discovered–the evidence of my grandfather as a tourist. He used his army enlistment as a way to explore and discover Europe during a time when such travel, for Americans, was generally restricted to the wealthy and elite.
I have my grandfather’s ticket to the 1948 Olympic Games in Switzerland, apparently issued by the army as part of a tourism scheme for soldiers, and kept by my grandfather all these years. It is fascinating to think that such an office for tourism existed, presumably fulfilling a common desire to explore Europe while abroad.
I also have four tiny square photos that he took himself–memories of his once-in-a-lifetime experience at this incredible event, the first Olympics after their suspension in 1944.
One of the only things I remembered from receiving all these things as a child was the size of these photos. They are two-inch squares, with a brief white border, and the quality is amazing for such a small snapshot. Even in these scans, you can see evocative details of people and landscape. More than any of the other images, these snapshots transport me into the past.
My grandfather also traveled north through Germany, into Denmark, a trip that I plan to replicate during my time in Europe. He saved this piece of Danish currency, which is dated 1945, as a souvenir–again showing his presence of mind and understanding of himself as a soldier/tourist.
I have other pictures, ones from Korea, ones of my mother and her brother and sister as children, but the above scans represent my grandfather’s experiences in Europe as he presented them to me twelve years ago.
I am so inspired and awed by these photos and documents. They give me a personal connection to Europe, and a renewed passion for my travels there, as well as a unique perspective on the American occupation of Germany. But most importantly, they show me my grandfather, my Papaw, as a young man full of wanderlust and looking for adventure.
Even now, at age 86, he’s still adventuring. I hope it runs in the family.