SALEM, N.H. — For several decades, Lorraine McGhee has lived with regrets.
Now her only grandson, 9-year-old Dylan McGhee, has started asking about the family's history for school projects, and she's even sorrier because she doesn't have much information to offer.
With the nation nearing the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I in November, McGhee wants to learn more about her father's service.
A few weeks ago, she knew almost nothing about his military experiences in the early 20th century. More recently, she gained unexpected information, but still is unclear about how he earned a Purple Heart and two Silver Stars.
She knows more, she says. But it's still not nearly enough.
"If I was starting over, I would have asked him more," the 78-year-old said of her father, Camille Meyer, who spent most of his life living and working in Lawrence.
"I don't have anything I can offer," she added. "I feel bad."
The McGhee's home on Dart Drive in Salem is filled with family photographs, heirlooms and memories. A selection of antique violins that belonged to her husband's father sit on the mantle, and an engraved plaque on the wall showcases his family tree.
"Looking at my grandson, he's got to know something about his relatives," said Lorraine's husband, Earl McGhee, who is 79.
As they grew older, the couple tried without success to find information about Meyer's military service and early life.
Their struggle is not uncommon, according to New England Historic Genealogical Society Chief Genealogist David Allen Lambert.
The young men of that era — dubbed the "Lost Generation" in the years immediately after the so-called Great War — have long since died.
A century later, the records and memories of that generation are quickly disappearing, too.
"We are the last generation that can still say we remember a WWI veteran. In 50, 60, 70 years, they won't be able to say that," Lambert said. "The stories will get slimmer, the details will get fuzzier."
But Lorraine McGhee remembers.
Her father was a quiet, gentle-mannered man, she said. When he died in 1967, all the information she and her late sister were left with about his military service was a few unlabeled photos and a tin box filled with medals.
His records and those belonging to many other men of his generation have been gone for decades, due to a 1973 fire at the nation's largest military records repository in St. Louis. The blaze was so intense that it burned for more than four days and caused acrid smoke so thick that local residents were forced to stay indoors.
The 42 fire districts that responded to the National Personnel Records Center were forced to pour immense quantities of water into the building and onto many of the millions of records located inside, according to the National Archives.
Between 16 million and 18 million records were lost, including 80 percent of the Army personnel files from 1912 to 1960.
Archive officials were unable to determine if Meyer's records had survived.
"The records are basically non-existent," Lambert said. "You'd have a better chance to win the lottery."
In many cases, the only information about World War I soldiers comes from state or municipal organizations, according to Lambert.
Unlike other states, each town or city in Massachusetts has a dedicated veteran's office with resources and records. In Meyer's case, a search at the Lawrence Veteran's Service Office initially led to even more questions.
The Lawrence office possessed two registration records from two different Camille Meyers, both born in the same year and both injured within days of one another. There was little indication as to which man was Lorraine McGhee's father. Furthermore, staff members were unable to determine if the records belonged to two separate men, or if Camille Meyer's service had been recorded twice with errors.
As it turns out, the answer has been in Lorraine McGhee's possession for many years.
Among the things that she inherited when her sister died was a WWI commemorative medal with a rainbow ribbon and five bars, each bearing the name of a battle in which Meyer fought, according to military antiques expert Bruce Hermann.
Those details matched up with one of the documented Camille Meyers and help paint a picture of the heroic man who returned to his homeland to fight in the war's bloodiest battles.
A then 21-year-old Camille Meyer enlisted in the National Guard in 1916 and spent his first year in the military guarding the Mexican-American border during the Mexican Revolution, according to his surviving military records in Lawrence.
As President Woodrow Wilson prepared to enter the war in Europe, Meyer and his fellow guardsmen were mobilized in March 1917.
Inferring from his record, experts remarked that the young French immigrant was given a great deal of responsibility during his military service.
"He was a good solider to go from private to corporal during Mexican border. It was up to him, being a corporal, to train troops," said retired Brigadier Gen. Len Kondratiuk, who sits on the Massachusetts WWI Centennial Commission.
Meyer's regiment would join the famed 101st infantry — known as the Yankee Division — and become the first group of troops to land in Europe.
He would go on to serve in five of the most significant battles of the war and help stop the Germans from taking the French capital.
His division would get a total of 10 days of rest over the ensuing 10 months, according to the 1919 book, "History of the Yankee Division." They were in heavy combat nearly every day and would have constantly been dodging shrapnel, Kondratiuk said.
During the two-month-long Meuse-Argonne offensive, Meyer and his men also would have been subject to the lethal mustard gas sent by the enemy to smother entrenched men, Lambert said.
Many of these battles were within a few hours of the town where Meyers was born.
"I would think he'd have some sad thoughts, fighting like that near where he was born," Lorraine McGhee said.
It was during the Meuse-Argonne offensive that Meyer was wounded Oct. 24, 1918. This is highly likely to have been the inicident for which he earned the Purple Heart, Kondratiuk said.
He recuperated in France and was honorably discharged in April 1919.
It is often up to living family members to help fill in the details between military service records, Lambert said.
While looking at those compiled on her father, Lorraine McGhee remembers his scarred and damaged fingers and surmises that's where he was hurt.
Still, many details seem to be lost to time.
No records have been located to explain why Meyer received the Silver Star, not once, but twice. Any documents with these details would have been located at the national records center.
"It's huge, the berth of what would qualify for that (award)," Hermann said when asked about Meyer's Silver Star, which is the military's third highest combat decoration. "It might have been because he brought ammunition out when the riflemen were running out, or because he put himself in danger some other way."
But for Lorraine McGhee, it's rewarding to be able to tell her grandson even a few details about his great-grandfather's service.
"It's amazing," she said. "I never thought we'd get to this point."