Misconceptions & Mysteries: SSgt Bernard Kramer


As I mentioned yesterday, there are many mysteries hidden in my family tree.  There are the two relatives of my great-granny’s that left for Kansas and were never seen or heard from again.  There is the question as to when and where my great-grandfather Bernhard died, even though I thought I’d had this one at least somewhat figured out for a good two or three years.  And then there are larger mysteries.  Not just twigs but whole branches with no beginning or end in my tree.

When I first started this genealogical journey I remember asking my dad about his father.  He had never really talked about him before.  His mother, my Granny Agnes was still alive but honestly, her sarcasm (which I now cherish) was hard for someone my age to understand and because of that we weren’t close.  Plus, she obviously favored my sister :).  His father I’d never really heard about.  There is but one picture of my grandfather Bernard in my parent’s home, a house full of walls of family photographs, lovingly framed and organized around the table in which we all now sit for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners.  I never got the impression that this was because Bernard, or Ben as he was called and for whom my brother was named after, was a bad man or a shitty father.  It was just that Dad never talked about him.  He died in 1976, when my dad was just 18, and it seemed like something he’d come to terms with long ago and maybe that my dad never understood him anyway.  This made it all the more interesting to me of course and it gave me a way to connect with my dad.

I asked my dad for any information he could give me, a look at heirlooms and possessions of Ben’s, stories about him while my dad was growing up.  My dad rolled his eyes no doubt and gave me very little for he has very little.  There was the oh-so-mysterious Purple Heart, a hat my grandpa wore in the jungle during the war, and a few scant pictures.  He remembered meeting my grandpa’s two brothers, Wally and Frank, at his dad’s funerals.  But his grandpa and grandma’s names?  Yeah right.  He remembered that his grandpa was a butcher at the Chicago stockyards and that his family was German.  This is what I got.  It was all my dad knew.

While there are so many things I’ve learned from researching this side of my family, the most immediately pressing things I felt I should research was Ben’s military service.  It was a huge part of my dad’s life — not only was his father a career military man, his mother was a lifelong civilian employee at the military hospital (we live very close to a large military base in the Midwest).  At that point, I was certainly a novice but I started researching where I could.

The obvious best place to locate military records is the National Archives.  Because we live in Missouri, this seemed easy to me considering that most of these records are house at the Archives in St Louis, just a few hours from my home.  But as I wanted information pretty quick like and because I had no desire to travel that far with a small child who has a penchant for destroying my stacks of papers lying around with drawings, I used eVetrecs to request the records for my dad.  Through my own fault of the fault of NARA, the records were not found through my initial 5 requests.  Finally, after diligently requesting records for years, I got notice that NARA would be sending two gigantic envelopes with every record they had on my grandfather.  The day they arrived was probably the greatest day of my research I’ve experienced yet.  Pulling a giant envelope out of the mailbox, knowing what answers might lie inside, was absolutely exhilarating.

Little did I reckon, I can’t read a damn military record.  As I’ve come to find out, even people who spent a lifetime in the military and study it as a pastime, have a hard time reading them as well.  I frantically thumbed through the hundreds of pages of records looking for three things: mention of my grandfather’s Purple Heart, mention of where he might have served, and the names of my grandfather’s first son and his first wife.

The story I’d always been told (in bits and pieces) was this: my grandfather had served in WWII and Korea.  In the latter war he was injured and a POW.  He had a scar on his leg, evidence of a battle wound.  It was said that he was either shot or had a stick of bamboo shoved through his leg.  There was mention of the Bataan Death March but nobody knew for sure.  During his early service my grandfather married and had a son — this was only mentioned ONCE and even then, my grandfather mentioned it while speaking to my dads 4th grade class.  My dad had no idea he had an older half-brother but he never asked about it after that mention.  My grandfather retired from his long career in the military on permanent disability due to his raging diabetes, something my grandmother always attributed to his time as a POW and his poor diet then.

These papers, however, did very little to answer my questions and in fact, only compounded them.  There is mention of his first wife, Dorothy McKenna of Chicago, Illinois.  There is mention of money being sent to his first son, Robert Neal Kramer, also of Chicago, even after my father was born in 1956, and even though my grandfather was then supporting my grandmother and five children.  When my grandpa finally retired he received more than $2000 a month in pension from the VA.

But my questions about his service loomed large.  There is but one mention of his Purple Heart — and it’s not mentioned on his official papers.  There is mention of him being a military hospital for a while — the 229th General Hospital in Nagoya Japan — but really nothing else.  The military sent along the medals to which he was entitled, medals my dad remembers from his childhood but did not possess.  He remembers that at one time the Purple Heart, still in it’s original box, had “some other little pin with it” and that there was also a certificate.  Those very necessary other bits have long since disappeared.

Military records are a maze of confusing terminology and dates and unit abbreviations.  I’ve consulted with two different people who specialize in records and both were pretty mystified.  The latter could find no indication that my grandfather had actually earned his Purple Heart or served in combat.  I’ve searched for living Kramer family members who might remember something but the older ones directly related to my grandfather have passed away.  His brother Walter died in a car crash in 1985 in Schaumburg Illinois and his other brother Frank died in Florida long ago.  Both their wives have also passed.  My grandfather’s mother, Elizabeth Wonderlin (the surname coming from her second marriage) died in 1952, before my dad was even born.  I’ve spoken to Walter’s grandson but his mother was adopted and he knew nothing of my grandpa.  I’ve looked for old war buddies but with such confusing unit assignments shown on the records it’s hard to pinpoint with whom he might have served.  My grandfather helped to form what is now the American Legion Hall in my town (the men who started it each asked their wives for $100 a piece and raffled a donated car to build the building) and I’ve looked for men who were his friends here in town who might have a story or clue but only one is living — he remembers the Purple Heart and insists my grandpa earned it.  Aside from that, my grandpa’s name does not turn up in NARA records for POWs (oddly, he was given three different serial numbers throughout his time in the service).  In short, he is a phantom.

While I did not know my grandpa I know of his character through my father.  That he would concoct a story about earning a Purple Heart and then deem it necessary to lie to the Army itself about said Purple Heart seems so very unlikely.  I have no pictures of my grandfather in his uniform to verify he wore it — towards the end of his career he was an activities specialist, a SSgt at our base in Ft Leonard Wood, and most of the time dad says he didn’t wear clothing that resembled any sort of military garb.  While my dad freely admits that he knows very little about his father and that it’s possible he might have embellished the story when he was little, all his brothers and sisters agree on the story.  That a career military man, constantly roaming around bases and surrounding himself with other war veterans, would have the audacity to lie about such an honor seems impossible to me.

But at this point I have no proof, aside from the errant record listing the award.  While there are so many mysteries in my tree, most of them concerning the Kramer side of my family, this is the one that haunts me the most.


4 Responses to “Misconceptions & Mysteries: SSgt Bernard Kramer”

  1. 1 Jeremy Fletcher

    My grandfather was the pfc that reported Ben’s second AWOL, PFC Ivie Burr Knight. The ambiguity surrounding Ben’s service and the mysterious nature of your grandfather’s death are very curious to me. At any rate, I too am interested in what happened to the grandfather I never met and B. Kramer came up as relevant to his overall story.

    Thanks for your work, it’s been an interesting read.


  2. 2 Jeremy Fletcher

    As a side note, my other grandfather, William Roy Fletcher was also taken POW but in the European theater. He was a paratrooper and always said that the krauts treated the american’s fairly well, unlike the japanese camps.

  3. Hi Jeremy…

    I actually just shot off an email to you. Hope to hear from you soon!

  4. 4 Jeremy Fletcher

    My mom recently received an envelope from a lost cousin who’s father (Ivie’s brother) was supposed to give my mom and/or her mother the envelope a long time ago. At any rate, my mom recently received this envelope and we are learning more every day now that we have something to work with.

    So yeah, grandpa, I never met grandpa but I still refer to him lovingly. Burr (everyone called him Burr), was my mom’s dad. Previously, all that I knew of him was the following; he served in ‘the war’ and was taken POW by the ‘damn japs’. I know my grandmother, Edith Marie Knight, or Nan as I knew her, loved Burr more than anything and that she was never the same after he died. He survived the Bataan death march and was then imprisoned. He survived the ordeal and made it back home but was virtually bedridden until about 1949 due to incurred sicknesses. He and his love (Nan) were happily back together and my mother was born in 1953. Grandpa died in 1954 of a bone disease resulting from starvation in the camps, but he survived long enough to make my mom and for that I’m eternally grateful. The only material possession that I care for in this world is the chair that used to be his before and after the war. It was a revered heirloom and fixture at Nan’s house and it eventually became mine. It has not been altered or reupholstered since he used it and it’s now the preferred seat in our apartment for myself, my friends and my pets.

    So that’s about all I knew previously but I am learning more and more rapidly. Burr was a radio operator in the Army Air Corps. He was taken POW in 1942 in the Philippine’s and endured the march to Bataan, was shipped to the Funatsu camp in Osaka and from there he was shipped to the Zinc mines of Hirohata (close to Funatsu) along with 78 other americans for being a ‘trouble maker’. It’s said that he and his buddies were continually laughing in camp and insulting their Japanese captors which infuriated them and led them to ship the ‘trouble makers’ off to the labor camps in Hirohata. Apparently Burr and his fellows had received a dead dog from the Japs which was intended as an insult, but instead was skinned, shared and eaten by approximately 400 other american troops. After that incident, Burr and a handful of other troops made up an imaginary pet dog and petted and loved it to spite their captors for the intended insult. They would laugh and joke and insult the guards by calling them things like ‘Mr. Dogshit’, mocking reverence. For that they were shipped off to the mines of Hirohata. They received half a cup of rice at 10:30am and a cup of rice at 3:30pm daily and approx 8oz of water a day. A Japanese guard was caught sneaking Burr a potato and was executed on the spot when a superior shot him in the face.

    Burr was taken POW for approx. 42 months including the march and finally rescued sometime in 1945. I haven’t seen the picture yet as my mom has not scanned and sent them to me, but apparently Burr was fairly close, or at least friendly, with General “Skinny” Wainwright as told in letters and evidenced by the pics my mom will send. Burr was 6’3″ and went into the army weighing 210 pounds. At the time of his rescue he weighed 115 pounds but regained his health and weight relatively quickly after being liberated. By 1949 he was deemed healthy and released by the VA to resume his life. By 1953 my mother had been born but Burr died a year later of a bone disease resulting from starvation. Needless to say my grandmother was grief stricken. As she was dying in 1996, she would refer to me lovingly as Burr, or Ivie if she was trying to be stern and serious. Her alzheimer’s had become fairly advanced at that point.

    So that’s about all I’ve got for now. I may be forgetting some things but I will have the letters and pictures soon. I found your story by google searching “ivie burr knight” and stumbling on


    I’ve stumbled on some other things as well and will send you what I get if you care to get them. I imagine you will find them interesting at the least. I’m attaching the things that I’ve got so far to an email.

    It was great to read your story and I look forward to talking more.


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