Finding Admiral Bill in the family tree: A Veterans Day story

During recent ArchiveGrid team meetings, Bruce, Merrilee and I discussed Veterans Day post ideas for this blog. We considered personal angles and what our own family histories could offer. I drew a blank. No one in my immediate family had served in battle. Two distant relatives on my father’s side fought in combat in the Philippines in World War II but never spoke of it and are now deceased.

Then I remembered a name on my paternal grandmother’s side of the family tree: William Nicholas Updegraff, a U.S. Navy admiral I sometimes brag about because, well, he was an admiral and I’m, well, related. Distantly. He is my second cousin twice removed.

So I searched Google, Wikipedia, ArchiveGrid, and called my father for information.

Here are five new things I learned about Bill:

  • He graduated in 1919 from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. That he went to the Naval Academy meant so much to my grandmother, she openly wished my father would have done the same.
  • Captain Updegraff was the commanding officer of the Naval Air Station at Dutch Harbor (Territory of Alaska) when Japanese forces attacked it in June 1942.
  • He received a Navy Cross for “extraordinary heroism and distinguished service in the line of his profession” during the Dutch Harbor attack. According to the Military Times Hall of Valor, “Captain Updegraff’s coolness under fire, his calm and courageous bearing were a source of encouragement and inspiration to all who served with him.” Not only do I want to learn more about Bill, I want to be like him too.
  • His mother, Anna, christened the U.S.S. Kalinin Bay during World War II at the Kaiser Shipbuilding Company in Vancouver, Wash. My father watched.
  • He retired as a Rear Admiral in San Francisco. When my grandmother visited him, he showed her around and took her to the “best places.” Her stories inspired my aunt to move to San Francisco after she finished high school.

Research in ArchiveGrid led me to collections of photographs which may have Bill pictured. Wikipedia took me to a link with a digitized report Bill wrote of the Dutch Harbor attack. I have been to my share of Veterans Day parades and events, but this year’s holiday prompted a delve into my own family history. Hopefully I will learn more about Admiral Bill’s admirable leadership qualities this holiday in one of my favorite learning environment: at the family dinner table.

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