Two years ago, Bobbie Jo Buel started an ambitious project.
Buel’s husband, David Carter, was the project designer behind the USS Arizona memorial on the University of Arizona campus. More than 1,000 people were killed aboard the ship in the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor.
The memorial features bronze medallions that include the names of the 1,177 lives lost, their ranks, home states and birth years.
But what the medallions don’t mention are the stories behind the men and, in some cases, boys.
“I think when you have a story, history is less likely to be forgotten,” says Buel, a former Arizona Daily Star editor.
The couple thought there should be a digital component to the memorial — one that would be more extensive than the information featured on the medallions.
Before she got started on the project, Buel initially thought someone had already found the stories behind each of the men — she just needed to find the person who did the research and get permission to use it.
Easy enough. She could get it done in two weeks, she thought.
Then she found that no one had actually profiled the sailors and Marines before.
So Buel set out on a journey to find out who the men really were, though the process has proven to be a lengthy one.
She first picks a person and runs the name through seemingly endless internet searches — newspapers.com, ancestry websites and historical societies, for example.
Many sites lead her to names of relatives, so she tries to contact them.
In one instance, Buel connected with 94-year-old Charles W. McClelland, whose two best friends were killed on the ship. The three attended elementary school together in Detroit.
And despite the many resources Buel uses, sometimes they just don’t work.
“Sometimes I’ll hit a dead end and I can’t really find anything,” she says, adding that she’ll set it aside and return to it later.
So far, she’s found stories for close to 350 people. They’re slowly being added to the USS Arizona Mall Memorial Facebook page, which has also helped put Buel in contact with more families. When more stories are ready, a website will go up.
Buel says she thinks she’ll find details for about 80 percent of those killed. She spends about 20 hours every week researching.
Buel will be at the Star’s upcoming Exploring Family History Expo on Nov. 11, which will teach Southern Arizonans how to explore their roots.
She’ll talk about her favorite stories and will prepare a handout detailing her sources.
“I want to honor these guys by telling their stories,” she says. “It’s been a real history lesson for me in a way that I just didn’t understand before.”