I’m stalking a man named Gene Smith, following him intently through a series of black-and-white photographs. He wears glasses and is tall and thin, with ears slightly larger than normal. His relaxed facial expressions tell me he’s easygoing. I’ve learned that his nickname is Smitty, and I think he likes to read the newspaper. He may or may not enjoy beer, but he doesn’t seem to mind having his picture taken.
The odds are against me that he’s alive, because my dad, Bert Ketteler, took these pictures between 1953 and 1954 when he and Smitty were soldiers stationed in Germany.
Drafted during the Korean War, my dad was sent with the 4th Infantry to Frankfurt as part of the United States Army Europe. He understood his exquisite luck at getting sent to Europe instead of the Korean front, and he used his time there to develop his love of photography.
I paid little attention to his Army memorabilia for most of my life. I didn’t ask nearly enough questions before my dad slid into dementia a dozen years ago and then died in 2013. It was only in 2019 that my sisters and I discovered all the photographs our dad had taken of his fellow GIs — reading, drinking beer at cafés and tending to their military truck. Some are portraits. Some seem candid. All feel special.
Now I’m left with a feeling of expiration. Nearly all the people who know anything about my dad’s time in the service have died except for my mom. She is a spry 86, and I’m trying to harvest every morsel she can remember. When she shares a tidbit I hadn’t heard before — like my dad telling her how much he appreciated his buddies who were bigger and stood beside his 5-foot-7-inch, 130-pound frame when bullies in the service threatened — I am giddy.
But she doesn’t know anything more specific about these men — Smitty and George Wilson and Sgt. Cady and a handful more, identified mostly by last names, like Luceralli and Gonzalas, in my dad’s pencil captions.
I’ve used Ancestry.com to search military databases and combed through dozens of obituaries. A lot of men with the rank of sergeant and the last name Cady have died, but the years don’t seem to line up. As for Gene Smiths, I got very excited abouta biographer with that name who was memorialized in the The New York Times. I found what I thought was a phone number for his widow and left a message. I never heard back — but I don’t think the shape of his mouth matched Smitty’s anyway.
I’ve also spent entire afternoons reading posts at the Korean War Project, a website where people can search for information about those who served during that conflict. There is an entire section called “Looking For,” where people can post and search messages. Most are written by children or grandchildren looking for information about a deceased loved one’s time in the service, though some are veterans who want to reconnect.
I found no leads on the message boards dedicated to soldiers stationed in Germany, though it was agonizing to read the pleas of people who, like me, waited too long to ask their parents the right questions.
Apparently, this is a common problem. After their father died in 2014, Dana Perkins and his sister found a cookie tin stuffed with negatives and rolls of film their dad had taken in Hawaii. A radio operator stationed at Fort Shafter shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack, he took nearly 700 pictures of soldiers, civilians and USO performers.
Perkins has scanned all the negatives, reversed them into positive images and put them online as part of the World War 2 Pacific Veterans Project, a website that seeks to identify the people in his father’s photos.
“We wish we had known about these pictures before our dad died at 92,” he told me. “Now we’re scrambling to connect with children and grandchildren who might know something about them.”
He has spent hundreds of hours researching and tracking down the people photographed. He’s found only a handful so far — like a woman who saw Perkins’ photographs of USO performers and recognized one of them as her mother.
“The few connections we’ve made, the people are over-the-moon ecstatic that someone even cares enough to try to find them and send them a picture they didn’t know about,” he said.
That’s exactly what I’m after, too. I dream of chancing upon a woman who says she is Gene Smith’s daughter. In my mind, she’s living some parallel life to mine, searching just like me. I would give her this new artifact, and maybe she would say, “Your dad was Bert? My dad always talked about Bert with the camera!” And each of us would feel the flame of our dad’s life burn brightly again, just for a moment.
Sometimes I wonder, am I simply driven by nostalgia? And is nostalgia just one more vehicle for grief — or is it actually a way to find joy?
Sometimes I wonder, am I simply driven by nostalgia? And is nostalgia just one more vehicle for grief — or is it actually a way to find joy? Longing for the past is bittersweet, but whether it is actually more bitter or more sweet has been an ongoing debate among behavioral scientists — so much so that nostalgia wasa featured research topic for the July issue of the journal Frontiers in Psychology. Does nostalgia help us? Does it harm us? Can it turn us into heroes? The studies and theories abound.
As an optimist as well as the family record-keeper, I’m firmly on the side of sweet, believing nostalgia can be a powerful throughline. These men meant something to my dad. And that means something to me. This understanding is what drives me to share and connect with others, and given that Perkins’ ultimate goal is to identify as many people in the photographs as possible and then donate the entire collection to a museum or archive, it clearly drives him, too.
So for now, I reach out, a little desperate, but also with hope, whispering across the internet: Do you know these men? Are you Gene Smith’s daughter? I have a gift for you.