Curious Charles and the Swearing Parrot

By J. L. Starkey

The important thing is not to stop questioning.

Curiosity has its own reason for existing.

– Albert Einstein

This week I had a chance to share a favorite family story again, thanks to Ancestry Hour.

“We had to say goodbye to our cat,” posted Dave at Lifelines Research, “and it got me thinking about the importance of pets in our ancestors’ lives. So I thought it might be nice to share photos of ancestral pets.”

Hoping to bring a smile to someone’s day, I shared a photo of my grandfather with Pee Wee, his swearing parrot.

Grandpa and Pee Wee, the swearing parrot, ca. 1960s [Family photo collection]

Yep – Grandpa really did teach Pee Wee to swear, but he didn’t stop there. I learned just this week that Pee Wee was also trained to eat sunflower seeds right out of Grandpa’s mouth!

Both “skills,” incidentally, frustrated Grandma to no end.

Grandma and Grandpa in the 1960s, sans Pee Wee! [Family photo collection]

I should add the sunflower seed story to my imaginary “why Grandpa receives top honors in the family legend department” file. Come to think of it, that file should be an actual thing, because Grandpa’s shenanigans could supply me with blog ideas for months.

How about the time he met my Grandma in the ER after a drunken Chicago brawl? Or how about that Felix the Cat tattoo that he had? (Six-year-old me is still in shock over that one, because tattoos were for young people, and Grandpa was really really old…or so my young mind reasoned, anyway.)

Or how about the time Grandpa lied his way into the military? Rumor had it that he falsified his age and enlisted when he was about sixteen. Some versions of the story had him getting kicked out of the military altogether, while other versions had his father “buying out” some sort of contract to secure Grandpa’s discharge.

Yes, I was pretty darn curious about that particular legend.

But never – not in a million years – did I expect to learn the truth behind it.


You’re in the Navy now!

Grandpa during Navy Basic Training, 1928 [Family photo collection]

Dad loved to talk about his dad, and I’m so thankful that when he was home with hospice care he was well enough to share photos and stories from Grandpa’s time in the Navy. He recalled that Grandpa served on the USS Texas as a machinist, and that he had visited several ports in Cuba and South America.

News article shows erroneous birthdate of 21 June [1]

A few years after dad’s death I would discover that Grandpa was named “Honor Man” of his Navy basic training platoon, and that he was a bit of a hometown hero during those years [1]. Using news articles and military records, I pieced together the basics of his enlistment, which lasted from 1928 to 1931 [2]. It can be frustrating to search for military records, so it sure is nice when the pieces fall into place so easily, isn’t it? This was one story that made perfect sense, and that was that!

Actually, that story would have have made perfect sense, had it not been for that one FamilySearch volunteer who indexed that one record.

That one record would change everything.


Wait! You were in the Army then?

Just what was “E3 U.S. Engrs”? [Fold3 image]

The information rankled from the first time I saw it, because it threw a curveball into Grandpa’s perfectly sensible enlistment story [3]. While the document actually included very little information, what it did include just seemed…wrong.

“Service…Navy,” I read the words aloud to make sure it said Navy and not Army. The record showed that Grandpa was “E.3 U.S. Engrs” in the Navy. While that may have been the case, a simple Google search of that job title led to a whole lot of information about the Army Corps of Engineers…and nothing at all about the Navy.

Well this was a bit of a conundrum, wasn’t it? But the next step was pretty obvious, because it’s something that I say over and over again when I’m researching (just ask my family): Recheck your sources!

That’s right, recheck all of your sources. Think you’ve gotten every bit of information you need? Think again – and check again.

That is why, in 2020, I found myself rechecking sources for something I researched in 2017. I knew Grandpa’s military history, but there was that one record that just didn’t fit at all. Would it make a difference if I rechecked a few things?

It turns out that it did make a difference – a big one. Because this time, there was something new in those records. Sometime after 2017, a FamilySearch volunteer indexed an additional document that showed Grandpa’s military history…his complete military history, that is [4].

A newly-indexed record provides a clue! [FamilySearch image]

Sure enough, the phrase “3 engrs” was placed next to his Navy record in error. The newly-indexed document showed that (as dad had stated) Grandpa was a Machine Mate in the Navy from 1928 to 1931. But the document also included Grandpa’s prior service as a Private in 1st Company, 3rd engineers, Honolulu, Hawaii Territory, from 6 May 1925 through 6 June 1926.

Hmmm…could it be that 3rd engineers and the E3 U.S. Engrs were the same things?

It could be just that. In fact, it was exactly that.

In other words, this legend about Grandpa was starting to become a fact.


When the legend becomes a fact…maybe

Schofield Barracks, 1925 [5]

According to records, Grandpa enlisted in the Army on 6 May 1925 and was discharged on 9 June 1926. Based on his official birth record, he turned eighteen two weeks prior to his enlistment, on 21 April 1925 [6]. However, his date of birth was erroneously recorded as June 21 in some instances. If that date was used on his enlistment paperwork, Grandpa would have been seventeen on 6 May 1925 and would have needed parental consent to enlist. According to dad, Grandpa most certainly did not have that!

3rd Engineer Battalion COA [Public domain image]

The birthdate discrepancy may explain part of the family story about Grandpa’s first enlistment, but the other parts don’t seem based in truth. Grandpa wasn’t kicked out of the military (as is evidenced by his pension eligibility), and his father almost certainly did not pay for his discharge.

Grandpa’s Army career began at Fort Slocum in New Rochelle, New York. There, he was assigned to Company E of the 3rd Engineer Battalion, also known as the “Pacific Engineers.” The 3rd Engineers are probably best known for their connection to General Douglass MacArthur, who served as both a Company Commander and a Battalion Adjutant in the early 1900s [7]. By the early 1920s, the regiment was based in Hawaii, and over the next decade was responsible for most of the military construction on the island of Oahu [8].

Grandpa left Fort Slocum, on 21 May 1925 and arrived at Schofield Barracks via the Chateau Thierry on 27 May 1925 [9]. He wouldn’t stay in Hawaii for long, though. Just one year and one day after his arrival, he left Hawaii via the USAT Somme [10]. Less than one week later he was discharged, and his career in the Army was over almost before it began.

Grandpa’s name on the manifest with the 3rd U.S. Engineers, 26 May 1926 [Fold3 image]

I wish I could say that I discovered all of the details behind this legend, but that’s not how it worked. This wasn’t like Grandpa’s time in the Navy – not even close. This time, there were no newspaper articles about his achievements, and sadly, there were no photos, either.

Mystery (almost) solved? [Fold3 image]

Grandpa’s time in the Army may have ended abruptly, but his military career was far from over. Less than two years after his discharge he would enlist again, this time in the Navy. A bright and exciting future lay ahead of him, and it included honors, adventures, shenanigans…and a certain tattoo of Felix the Cat.

But that’s a story for another time, isn’t it?


Citations

  1. “Local Sailor Named Honor Man in Training Unit,” Altoona Tribune, Altoona, Pennsylvania, 23 Mar 1928, p. 13, col. 3. Retrieved 11 Mar 2017 from newspapers.com. [See also: “Local Boy is Honored at U.S. Naval School,” Altoona Mirror, 23 Jun 1928, p. 17, col. 3. Retrieved 20 Jan 2018 from Newspaper Archive.]
  2. Lilly, Charles Lewis, Ancestry.com. U.S., Veterans Administration Master Index, 1917-1940 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT. USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2019. Original data: United States, Veterans Administration Master Index, 1917-1940. Salt Lake City, Utah: FamilySearch, 2019.
  3. Lilly, Charles Lewis, Veteran Pension Certificate, Numerical Index to Pensions, 1860-1934, The National Archives, Publication #A1158, NAI 76193916. Record Group 15, Roll A1158_0355: Retrieved from https://www.fold3.com/image/614781394?rec=633420797.
  4. “United States, Veterans Administration Master Index, 1917-1940,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:71ZL-CCMM : 23 October 2019), Charles Lewis Lilly, 30 Jul 1931; citing Military Service, NARA microfilm publication 76193916 (St. Louis: National Archives and Records Administration, 1985), various roll numbers.
  5. Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/2016840243/>.
  6. Birth certificate for Charles Lewis Lilly, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission; Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Pennsylvania (State). Birth certificates, 1906–1913; Box Number: 77; Certificate Number Range: 033751-036750, image 1322 of 4633. Ancestry.com, Pennsylvania, U.S., Birth Certificates, 1906-1913 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015. [See also: “Chat About People,” Altoona Times, Altoona, Pennsylvania, 20 May 1907, p. 12, col. 7. Retrieved 28 May 2017 from newspapers.com.]
  7. “General Douglas MacArthur Biography.” Military Medals, http://www.militarymedals.com/warhero/general-douglas-macarthur/.
  8. “3rd Engineer Battalion.” 1st Cavalry Division Association, 16 June 2017, https://1cda.org/history/history-3eng/.
  9. Lilly, Charles L., U.S. Army Transport Service, Passenger Lists, 1910-1939, image 990 of 1104. The National Archives at College Park; College Park, Maryland; Record Group Title: Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General, 1774-1985; Record Group Number: 92; Roll or Box Number: 408. Retrieved 29 January 2022 from Ancestry.com.
  10. Lilly, Charles L., US Army WWI Transport Service Passenger Lists, p. 562. Record Group 92. Retrieved 29 January 2022 from Fold3: https://www.fold3.com/image/604468425?rec=627881392.

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