Ellis Island held the key to my great uncle’s wartime death

Mick Crick knew that his great uncle Philip had died during the First World War but it took some nifty detective work to uncover what had really happened.

Philip Frank, back row, with family 1900

I remember asking my grandmother, Rosetta, in the early 1960s if any of my relatives had fought in the First World War. She replied that her brother, Philip, had been killed soon after the outbreak of the war. She didn’t have any of his medals, photographs of him or documents and had no more to say on the subject, so I didn’t pursue it at the time.

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Many years later, long after my parents and grandparents had passed away, I decided to investigate what had happened to Philip – how and where he had died.

I knew that my great grandfather (Rosetta and Philip’s father) had come to the UK from Europe. The family surname was Frank and they were Orthodox Jews. They had lived in New Cross Road, south London, and my great grandfather had been an umbrella manufacturer. I found the family fairly easily on the 1891 census. I discovered that Philip had been born in 1886 and Rosetta two years later.

Knowing that Philip had died during the war, I did a casualty search on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website (CWGC), but could not find any record of him. There was no sign at all that he was killed in the war.

My ‘eureka’ moment

Confused, but undeterred, I continued to search for information on the internet. One day, I found an interesting entry on a passenger list for the RMS Lusitania, which sailed from Liverpool to New York in January 1914. There was a Philip Frank among the names on the manifest and his address was New Cross Road.

Following this discovery, I tracked down an entry in the Ellis Island immigration records showing that on 9 January 1914, Philip officially entered the US. Ellis Island was the main immigration station for people travelling to America intending to make it their home, and millions passed through its doors in the early part of the 20th century.

But I remembered being told that Philip had been killed during the war. So did he return and enlist in the British Army or did he remain in the US and fight with its armed forces?

Unlike the UK, with the CWGC, the US does not have a single central record of all First World War casualties and after searching the records at www.roll-of-honour.com and contacting the American Veterans’ Association without success, I was advised to check the records from Philip’s home state. Except that – as an immigrant – he didn’t have a home state.

So once again, my search stalled. I tried looking at US death records, but the online information was too vague for me to pin down a match. Then, one day while I was on familysearch.org, I came across a record in the ‘World War I Draft Registration Cards’ for Utah for a Philip Frank dated 5 June 1917, which was the first day of US conscription. I checked the record and it was my great uncle. He had joined the US Army and had taken the first steps to becoming a fully fledged American soldier.

My breakthrough

I discovered another document on Ancestry in the ‘Utah, Naturalization and Citizenship Records 1858-1959’ dataset. This record showed that Philip had given up his UK nationality and become a citizen of the United States on 7 June 1917 – two days after he’d enlisted.

Next, I found a small index card, which was part of the ‘Utah, Military Records, 1861-1970’ dataset. It stated that “Private Philip Frank of the Machine Gun Company, 43rd US Infantry, had died of cerebral meningitis in Pulaski, Arkansas, on 10 February 1918”. The card confirmed his home address as New Cross Road, London. He was 32 years old.

The final piece of information I uncovered (courtesy of www.findagrave.com) was a photograph of Philip’s headstone in a cemetery in Little Rock, Pulaski County, Arkansas, close to the hospital at Camp Pike where he had been stationed.

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I have since found out that Conscription didn’t apply to non-US citizens. He was not required to sign up and I’ll never know why he chose to. Maybe it was to gain US citizenship or just, as so many young men did, for a taste of adventure.