Military Monday – WWII Military Research Is NOT The Same As Genealogy Research

Last week I wrote a post called, Where ARE All the WWII Military Records. I wanted to provide some basic information on military records, specifically looking at WWII. After I wrote that post, I spoke to a few people in the genealogy field who are doing research on their military ancestors.  I realized I’m asking the wrong questions and most people have no idea where to start this kind of research or what is available.

The fact that military research is NOT the same as genealogy research……yes, let me repeat that – military research is NOT the same as genealogy research.  This brought up a realization that to successfully do research on your WWII soldier, you can start in the genealogy box but then must leave. Where do you go? Into the historian’s arena. There are some that would argue military research is just another aspect of genealogy research but I don’t see it that way. With genealogy we are looking for names, dates, and places and the records to support those facts and connections. A lot of people don’t dig into the history that accompanies the family. I see military research as history, not genealogy.

How We Have Been Trained

We have been trained to think genealogy for most aspects of any research related to our ancestors. For military research we are encouraged to seek out a few select genealogy databases or record sets. However, for this type of research, we need to go beyond those few databases and record sets. We need to think about historical records. And we must look for the “experts” who have more extensive and specialized knowledge. Harold Henderson explained the concept of “expert” well in his blog post last week called Everyone an “Expert?” Pay particular attention to his final paragraph.

As we learn we are encouraged to read the standard sources on genealogy which contain some information on WWII records. These sources include but are not limited to:

  1. James C. Neagles U.S. Military Records Some WWII records are discussed in here, many of which are references to online indexes through NARA or This book is heavier on pre-WWI records. It was published in 1994.
  2. Lou Szucs and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking’s The Source. The copy I have was published in 2006. This barely touches on WWII records and they are mostly what you can find online.
  3. Debra Johnson Knox’s World War II Records. This was published in 2003.
  4. Val D. Greenwood’s The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy. The latest version of this book was published in 2000 and stops with WWI records. If you haven’t looked at this book in a while, I encourage you to read the first chapter on “Understanding Genealogical Research” and pay particular attention to this (one of my favorite quotes.)

“Genealogy and history (religious, economic, social, and political) cannot be separated. Men cannot be dissociated from the times and places in which they lived and still be understood. It is impossible to recognize the full extent of research possibilities if you are not aware of the historical background from which your ancestors came.” (Source: Greenwood, Val D. The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy. Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2000, 11.)

That quote is fantastic because it encourages us to step outside the genealogy box. Think about historical context, social history, religious history, military history. Now consider this in regards to the above mentioned books. Not only are these books somewhat outdated as far as WWII records, they barely touch on Women in the military or on the home front. A lot has changed related to what WWII records are available and where they are located. And that location changes as NARA moves records.

We Must Change the Way We Think and Research

To successfully conduct military research we first have to jump out of the genealogy box once we’ve gathered initial facts. I will talk more about this in next week’s post. We also have to start thinking and behaving more like a historian. What does this mean? It means moving beyond the gathering of names, dates, and places. We must begin to look at the life of the soldier as a whole – his genealogy information plus the history surrounding his service through a variety of non-genealogical records, oral histories, published works, maps, POW testimony, IDPFs, photographs, and other scattered pieces of the puzzle. Most importantly, we have to go beyond the soldier himself and look into the lives of those with whom he served. You would be surprised at how the records overlap and how you can draw connections to your soldier based on experiences of others. These are all things I will show you throughout this year.

This is particularly important when researching the story of someone who was Missing in Action (MIA). My colleague Mike Boehler in Luxembourg, and I discuss this often. He works on MIA cases. I’ll give you two examples. First, sometimes the soldier is listed as MIA but there are possible unidentified remains that must first be ruled out as an option. Think of all those Unknown Soldiers buried in cemeteries around the world. Unknown Soldiers in these cemeteries may have the potential to be identified. Using new research methods, a variety of records, DNA, and ruling out all other possible candidates, sometimes a solid case can be put together to seek disinterment and possible identification.

Second, there are remains still buried all over battlefields, church yards, former POW camps and cemeteries, and on civilian property. There are many people who work on these cases, assisting families and the government to find the remains of their loved ones. These researchers think outside the genealogy box and incorporate all possible resources. This means they look at not only records pertaining to that specific MIA soldier, but also those with whom he served, those with whom he died, and any remains already recovered to rule out the possibility that he is buried as an Unknown Soldier. Armed with this information, maps, photographs, testimony, and records, particularly IDPFs and X-Files (more on those in the coming weeks,) researchers can go into the field to search for remains.

The bottom line is we have to examine every resource and the fact is, these are not genealogical records. These are historical records.

Stepping Out of the Box

I am going to help change this idea that genealogy research is the same as military research and help move you out of that box to which you are confined. How? Watch throughout this year for a series of blog posts where I dissect records and show you how to make new connections in your research. WARNING! You will have to step outside the genealogy box! I will also debut new lectures and workshops, short research consultations, a series of books soon to be released, and a valuable surprise! You didn’t know I’d been so busy did you?

Like what you’ve seen and want to know more? Sign up for my newsletter on my author website. For military research and writing services, or to book a lecture on military records, please contact me through my website Generations.

© 2014, Generations, Woodridge, IL

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2 thoughts on “Military Monday – WWII Military Research Is NOT The Same As Genealogy Research

  1. Great post – I look forward to your upcoming ones on the topic!

    I’ve been learning as I go for a few years now, and had a lot of fun getting my great uncle’s WWI records in together since NARA wanted everything but fingerprints to find the records. Trying to figure out Merchant Marine records in particular now.

    I found one interesting tip I posted on last year – The US VA cemetery Interment Control Forms database (1928-1962) can hold WWI veterans that died in the war – was helping a cousin cousin and found that his man was moved from France to Brooklyn in the 1920’s, thus he showed up in the database.

    That card was a quick way to get the required to order his NARA records, and was a lightbulb for me, telling me I was thinking too linearly when researching military records.

    • John,

      Thank you for your comment and for sharing that database. That database is only for U.S.National Cemeteries. So for soldiers buried in non-National Cemeteries, researchers have to keep searching. But after WWI, many states published Honor Rolls of War Dead that often listed the name, serial number, rank, and cemetery. It is another resource to combine with the one you mentioned.

      Another comment. After both WWI and WWII, the government gave the families the option to have their Soldier Dead remain buried in a U.S. Military Cemetery overseas or repatriated. (More on that in coming blog posts.)

      Did you get his Burial File from WWI? When a soldier died in service a Burial File (WWI) and IDPF (WWII) was created. This contains original location of burial, sometimes a statement of death. I have one for a WWI soldier in my family that brought me to tears when I read it. Letters from his parents asking the government, pleading for their son’s body to be returned. Lot of information about disinterment, repatriation to the U.S. and reburial here. Excellent resource. I know the WWII IDPFs are ordered through Fort Knox. I’m not sure if NARA moved the Burial Files and they are ordered through there or College Park. But you can start with Fort Knox.

      Department of the Army
      U.S. Army Human Resources Command
      1600 Spearhead Division Avenue, Dept 107
      Fort Knox, KY 40122-5504

      I’d love to know more about your Merchant Marine search. Feel free to email me and I’ll see what I can do to help.

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