Thursday, December 7, 2023

Reconstructing the Story


Reconstructing an ancestor's life can be a challenging proposition, but for our more recent relatives, you'd think the process would uncover familiar stories. Not so with my father. 

While it was exciting to learn of his rising star in the New York City music scene during war years, I was aware that the 1940s marked a time in his life when he was also married and a family man. He had long been on the career trajectory that brought him to that point at the end of 1942 when he got in "on the ground floor" with a shot at leading the band selected to play a possible hit piece. It was those earlier years—the ones leading up to this war-time point—which I also want to explore.

Resources like and have been invaluable in helping me hunt through myriad blips of publicity over those earlier decades, but even so, it required painstakingly piecing clues together.

Here's an example. Fortunately, I did know a bit about this episode in his life—but only a very little, with just the foggiest of details. As a child, I remembered hearing that my dad had played in bands providing the entertainment aboard steamships headed to and from England. When, where, or how, I knew very little. All I knew was that at the time, he played the trombone, a good fit for a musician heading into the big band era.

A hint on led me to a barely legible digitized passenger list which contained my father's name. His entry was one of many for which the occupation listed was musician. Above that long list of musicians on the USS Leviathan was another entry: "Musician Ldr"—musician leader. That band leader's name was Richard Kraetke. 

Seeing that entry, my immediate thought was to search for any details on who the band leader might have been. After all, there are now multiple online resources for digitized material from previous eras, including biographical sketches and other resources to piece together our ancestors' past. But for Richard Kraetke, there were only a few items. 

One resource contained only a couple sentences in a New York Daily News article entitled "Two Crew Vets Get Sea Burial." The May 15, 1959, entry noted that Richard Kraetke, one of the two whose ashes had been ceremonially consigned to the sea, had formerly been an orchestra leader aboard some of the U.S. Line ships.

One of those ships had apparently been the USS Leviathan, formerly the German ship Vaterland, seized from the Germans in 1917 by the United States after it entered the First World War, for it was the passenger list of that ship upon which my father's name appeared, ten years later. Another list, with an arrival date only a month after that first list, indicated that this might have been a regular gig for my dad in his twenties. Indeed, further searching revealed a similar list for August, and another for September of that same year.

As exciting as overseas passage to international destinations might have been—even for those working their way across the Atlantic—the thrill would eventually wear off. Sure enough, while there may have been more passenger listings than I was able to find—or than were digitized by genealogical companies—I imagine my father's name would not have appeared on such lists for much longer. Less than two years later, the traveling musician found himself saying "I do" to a woman whose family hailed from Manchester, New Hampshire—seemingly far from the entertainment capital of the east coast.

And yet, even there, my dad found a way to keep in the music world.

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