I received the service file for a World War II Naval Pilot I am researching. There is still a lot of work to be done but one thing struck me that needs to be addressed. This is the date a soldier was declared Missing in Action versus the date they died or were presumed dead. When I say soldier I refer to anyone who served – soldier, pilot, sailor, anyone.
During World War II when a soldier left on a mission or was in the field and did not return to his unit, ship, or base, the following day he was declared Missing in Action (MIA). If that soldier did not return within a year of his Missing in Action date, a Finding of Death or Presumed Death Date was placed in his record. For this particular individual, a Navy Pilot, the MIA date was 25 September 1943 and his Presumed Death date was 25 September 1944. This was based on Section 5 of Public Law 490, 77th Congress.
When a soldier was legally declared deceased, the family could then receive the insurance money and any other benefits to which the beneficiaries were entitled. It was extremely rare a MIA soldier was discovered alive. Although, if you read the book Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, you will know it did happen. Louis Zamperini was held by the Japanese and his name was withheld from the Prisoner of War lists. According to the book, his family received his insurance and were allowed to keep all monies after his return. I am not sure if this was common practice or not for those rare individuals who did return.
So what date is listed on official paperwork, a memorial gravestone, or a Table of the Missing? The Finding of Death or Presumed Death Date. Does this put your genealogy research in question when you list this date? Maybe because it is not likely the official date of death. If this pilot’s plane went down on 24 September 1943 when he was on a camera gunnery flight, he likely died that day unless he floated on the ocean for a while. Since his remains and plane were never located, the military waited a year before officially declaring his death. So using that official date is correct. Looking at his name and date on the Table of the Missing in California, one may assume he was fighting the enemy or enroute to fight. This was not the case. This pilot never participated in the war, based on records to this point, by engaging with the enemy. He was still training, and protecting the California coast. Not fighting the Japanese.
As a final thought, when you conduct military research, always be wary of the date of death and do not make assumptions that he was fighting the enemy when lost. Examine all the records available to find the real story. Include the Finding of Death or Presumed Death Date in your genealogical record because that is the “official” date according to law and records.
© 2014 Jennifer Holik, Woodridge, IL