Discovering the World War II Bonus Program

Pennsylvania Memories is a special series marking the turn of the millennium featuring readers' memories of events, experiences, incidents, individuals, innovations or inventions that profoundly affected them or gave them a deep appreciation of personal history.

Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that a perfunctory visit to the Pennsylvania State Archives in Harrisburg would produce one of the most poignant moments in my quest to trace my roots.

As a sideline to my regular job, I write a weekly column on genealogy for the St. Petersburg Times in Florida. When I have a chance to tack a couple of vacation days onto a business trip, I often use the time to visit nearby genealogical repositories. It’s educational, and on-site visits enable me to do a much better job of describing what kinds of records are available in a specific geographical area.

A recent conference in Philadelphia provided a perfect opportunity to pay a visit to the State Archives and the State Library. This side trip was a special treat since I was born in Connellsville, Fayette County, and ancestors from virtually all branches of my tree had lived in Pennsylvania at one time or another.

Upon arriving at the State Archives, I announced my intentions, signed the guest book, and endured the security drill. By the time I stuffed my purse in a locker and returned to the front desk, Jonathan Stayer, reference archivist, had appeared on the scene. I requested a quick tour of the research facilities. Ever the reporter, I also wanted an angle, a hook.

“What might the Pennsylvania State Archives have that other places don’t?” I queried. “World War II veterans’ bonus applications,” he responded almost immediately. Well, that was a new one on me. Even with fifteen years of genealogical research under my belt, I had not known of the existence of these documents. According to Stayer, the World War II Veterans’ Compensation Act passed by the state legislature made any Pennsylvania resident who served in the military between December 7, 1941, and September 2, 1945, and who had an honorable discharge eligible for a bonus payment from the Commonwealth. Applications weren’t accepted until 1950, after the legislators passed a !bond issue to fund the endeavor.

“My dad was in World War II,” I said. “Do you think there’s one for him?”

”I’ll take a look,” Stayer said. “What was his name?”
“Norman Thomas Murray,” I replied.

I chatted up the poor guy who was manning the front desk while I waited. To his credit, he kept a smile on his face, even though I was probably driving him nuts.

“Was your name Donna Jean?” a voice

behind me boomed. I nodded affirmatively as Stayer handed me a manila folder.

Although I’m sentimental, I rarely reveal my emotions in public. But I couldn’t stop the tears from welling up as I read the two-page application submitted by my late father on January 20, 1950.

Norman Murray, born on January 7, 1923, in Lemont Furnace, Fayette County, had served in the U.S. Army from January 21, 1943, to February 24, 1946. He overseas. He stated on the form that he had a wife named Marion. His mother, Addie, was living; his father was not. Under the section where he was asked to give the full name and address of living minor children appeared my name: Donna Jean. The date stamps indicate that the Veterans’ Compensation Bureau received the application on March 21, 1950, and awarded my father a four-hundred-dollar bonus seven days later. During that week, my sister Norma Lee both entered and left this world. She lived just three days. Hopefully the bonus – a considerable sum in those days – provided a ray of light during a very dark and dreary period in their lives.

As I stood there touching papers that my father had once held, I became overwhelmed by an array of random thoughts and feelings and fleeting mental pictures: I wondered if my parents had used the bonus to make the down payment on the house they bought the following year in Dunbar, Fayette County; a photograph in a scrapbook of my father holding me when I was a few weeks old; the optimism my parents showed when they moved to Florida in 1958, where they didn’t know a soul, with three children in tow; of my father’s untimely death at age forty-nine; and of my mother’s passing nearly a decade ago. Our lives truly did flash before me. I couldn’t tear my eyes away.

I tried to speak, but the words caught in my throat. Meanwhile, Jonathan Stayer’s eyes took on that stricken “deer in the headlights” look that overtakes most men when they fear a woman is on the verge of a crying jag and they just want to be beamed to another planet for the duration. I forced myself to regain my composure and we completed our professional conversation.

I don’t know why my father’s war bonus application evoked such raw emotion. Perhaps because seeing it came so unexpectedly. I do know, however, that my trip to the Pennsylvania State Archives is etched in my brain forever.


Donna Murray Allen, of St. Petersburg, Florida, a genealogist with nearly twenty years of research experience, writes a weekly genealogy column for the St. Petersburg Times. Her articles, columns, and photographs have appeared in publications in three countries. She is a popular lecturer on genealogical topics, especially research techniques, and teaches at local community colleges. The author has written two books, Murray Family of Fayette County, Pennsylvania, 1799-1999, and My Say: One Woman’s Slightly Skewed Perspective of Life.