Bill Beigel ’80, M.A.’83, has demonstrated rare expertise interpreting the meaning and significance of war time acts and sacrifices for veterans’ families. He has been featured in USA Today, Fox News, CBS News, the Daily Breeze, War History Online, the Daily Bruin, and Hometown Heroes Radio among dozens of other media outlets. Beigel’s book on America’s repatriation of its WWII military casualties, “Return of the World War II Dead Program,” awaits publication.
Bill Beigel is a member of the Association of Professional Genealogists, Military Writers Society of America and the International Society of Family History Writers. Along with his complete list of UCLA veterans who served, Bill has also constructed lists for other universities, communities and organizations. We thank him for generously waiving his speaking fee on behalf of his alma mater.
Q&A with William “Bill” Beigel
1. What inspired you to research and record WWII?
One day in the late 90s, my dad mentioned to me that he had a cousin who was shot down over Germany in World War II, and that the family never knew the story of what actually happened. I decided to try to track down records about his cousin, using my skills picked up as a history major at UCLA. I eventually found the records of my dad’s cousin; the difficulty of locating, but also the depth and detail of some of the records was astonishing. From that point on, I was hooked!
2. What do you most enjoy about your work?
I enjoy helping people find out the details of the military service and, in some cases, the death of their loved ones who served in WWII. Details of their service and experiences were not available to families during wartime and answers to their questions are very difficult to find to this day. So when my clients receive the records I’ve located for them, they are thrilled. One of my clients was a woman whose father, whom she never knew, was shot down and killed in World War II. When she received the information I had located for her, she wrote to me, “How do people ever THANK you enough—when I received the file, that night I cried very hard…”
3. What is a misconception about WWII history?
One misconception that has bothered me for years is the focus that is usually limited to the “key figures” of the war, such as Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, George Patton, Douglas MacArthur and others. While these men are certainly worthy of our interest, I feel that the individual servicemen and women who actually fought and won the war are the ones we must investigate and remember.
4. What are the major challenges in recovering these lost stories?
One of the major challenges is that the record sets I research are not located all in one place. There is no “one size fits all” process. There are records scattered from St. Louis to Fort Knox to West Virginia to Montgomery, Alabama; there are government and private sources for files, both online and stored in massive file rooms. Another challenge is that much of this work involves seeking records that have not been digitized, so there is a lot of old-fashioned “leg-work” involved; much of this research is still done through the mail. Lastly, these records were prepared for immediate use during wartime and include abbreviations and acronyms that are difficult to interpret. Beyond knowing the acronyms, there are subtleties that can only be understood with a significant understanding of WWII history and military operations at that time. Thus, one of the services that I provide my clients is interpreting military documents to uncover the stories they tell.
5. Could you share some fond memories while doing research?
What I enjoyed the most about the UCLA project was finding the names of the Bruins who died in the war which were not included in the original list provided to me by the Military Science Department. In all, I have located 72 more of these men, including four more in the last couple of weeks. In addition, I learn such intimate details of people’s lives, at their most heroic and their most vulnerable, I feel very close to everyone that I research. I really feel as if I know each of them personally. Even though there are nearly three hundred of them, I could go on for hours about individual Bruins from my research.
6. Has your research changed how you see UCLA?
I was walking in Westwood not long ago and saw, engraved into the sidewalk, the date the sidewalk was constructed: It was about 1939. I stopped in my tracks, thinking about how many of the UCLA men and women, including those who died in the war – Bruins I know by name – have walked there before me, along this very sidewalk. In that moment, I truly felt connected to the history of UCLA.
Captain Francis B. Wai ’40, transferred to UCLA, where he was a four sport athlete and graduated in 1939 with a bachelor of science in Banking and Finance. As UCLA Bruin quarterback, WAI (#49), can be seen bringing down the USC Trojan’s ball carrier during the Pacific Coast Conference intra-city tussle at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Nov. 24, 1938. Wai joined the military upon the outbreak of World War. He served as a Captain, 34th Division on Oct. 20, 1944 in the assault at Red Beach, Leyte, Philippines. Finding the first four waves of American soldiers leaderless, disorganized and pinned down on the open beach, he immediately assumed command. Issuing concise orders, and disregarding enemy machine gun fire he rallied the soldiers and moved them inland. During the advance, he repeatedly determined the locations of enemy strong points by exposing himself to draw their fire. In leading an assault upon the last remaining Japanese pillbox in the area, he was killed. Even after death, his leadership inspired the men to advance and destroy the enemy, securing the beach head. To date, Wai is the only Chinese American and one of only two Asian American officers to receive the Medal of Honor.
Major Fred Koebig ’39, UCLA student body president, pursued excellence in his academic, athletic, and social endeavors. On campus he received major sports letters, and led the 1939 crew team, while also serving as commodore of the Bruin Rowing club. Socially, and as member of Blue C, Koebig organized the Frosh-Soph Brawl and participated in selecting the Homecoming Queen. In his senior year, Koebig led Beta Theta Pi, whose mission is to develop men of principle, as president. As an outstanding cadet in his military courses, he also participated in Scabbard and Blade. Koebig enlisted in the Air Force during WWII, where he engage in the Southwest Pacific Theater, and served as Navigator for Pretty Prairie SPECIAL. In 1944, Major Koebig was captured and killed while a POW of the Japanese. He was being held at a camp on Rabaul, New Guinea, when it was bombed by Allied aircraft. Major Koebig is buried in the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery.
Captain Don E. Brown ’40, UCLA student body president, and son of famed comedian Joe E. Brown, excelled in his studies, athletic ability, and contributions to the university. Brown played football for three years, and basketball his four years at UCLA. In addition, Brown led the campus R.O.T.C. as cadet-colonel, and was part of Scabbard and Blade given his distinction in military courses. Brown’s academic achievements placed him within the Blue Key Honor Society. Socially, Brown was a member of the international Zeta Psi Fraternity, and the campus activities organization Blue C. Lastly, as ASUC president, Brown supported the student sponsored events and activities at UCLA, and led the Student Council. Brown graduated with a degree in political science, before joining the United States Army Air Force. In 1942, Brown was killed in a training crash near Palm Springs, Calif. Capt. Brown is buried in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, Calif.