In June of 2014 I started writing a monthly column for The In-Depth Genealogist’s Magazine to help researchers learn about the records and resources to locate information on their military ancestors who served primarily in World War II. Some of the information I present does apply to World War I records because some of the records did not change much between wars.
I receive a lot of questions on World War II Research when I speak and chat with people on various social media outlets and email. I’d like to share some of the questions I have been asked.
Question 1: Did all the records burn? Is there anything left for me to pursue?
Answer: There was a fire at the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in 1973. You can read about it on NARA’s website. But it is worth a request to see if your Army or Air Corps soldier’s record burned. It is also worth a request to see if they can compile other records from other sources to send you something. Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps records were not affected.
Question 2: My soldier died in service. How can I learn how and where he died? Are there records for this?
Answer: Yes there are records. The first place to start is by ordering the Individual Deceased Personnel File (IDPF) through Ft. Knox. Send as much of the following information as you can to this address. Then be prepared to wait at least 48 weeks for a response. Why? The Army is digitizing all the IDPFs as they are requested. If your soldier’s IDPF was already digitized, you may receive it in less than 48 weeks. If it has not, then be prepared to wait. There is no work around for this process.
Department of the Army
U.S. Army Human Resources Command
1600 Spearhead Division Avenue, Dept 107
Fort Knox, KY 40122-5504
Pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act, I hereby make a request for the IDPF for my below listed family member who died or was killed-in-action while serving in the military during World War II.
Soldier’s Name, Branch of Military, Military Service Number, Unit, Date of Birth, Date of Death, Burial site.
Tip: I wrote a series of basic articles on my blog about IDPFs and other death records. You can view a recap here.
Question 3: I’m looking for history on my dad/grandpa/uncle, etc., unit. I have his discharge or separation papers that list a unit. How can I find out more?
Answer: First it is important to understand the unit listed on a Separation paper or an IDPF is the final unit in which that soldier served. These papers do not detail all the units in which a soldier passed through. This information can usually be found on Morning Reports.
A Morning Report is a record created each day outlining the events of an Army or Air Corps Company the prior day. It will show name, rank, and service number for soldiers who entered or exited that unit, were Missing, taken Prisoner, or Killed. There may also be a record of events that describe battle conditions or movement. The report will also state where the unit was stationed at the time of the report. Soldiers transferring in and out of a Company will be indicated on this report and usually it will state from where or to where they are being transferred.
If your soldier was in the Navy, Coast Guard, or Marine Corps you will want to look for different records. Marine Corps Muster Rolls (many digitized on Ancestry.com) provide a glimpse into the soldier’s life but are not as detailed as a Morning Report. They will not tell you where the unit is and you must look into histories to discover this information or personnel files. Navy and Coast Guard also have Rolls (many digitized on Ancestry.com) and Deck Logs (available through NARA) which detail when a sailor entered or exited a Station/Ship.
You can also investigate Unit Histories created by the unit after the war and the official military branch after the war. Both may not list your soldier specifically but provide contextual information about where the unit served, battles, and other major events.
Question 4: I want to share my dad/grandpa/uncle, etc. World War II story. How can I do this?
Answer: There are many ways you can share the stories. Write the story and share it with family members. This is easily done in a word processing program, then printed or emailed. Another option is to start a blog and make daily, weekly, or monthly posts about the soldier and his or her service. Many family members take advantage of blogs especially when they have diaries or letters from the soldier and family. Posting these provides readers with a glimpse into the life of that soldier or family and allows for feedback. There are also programs that allow you to take your blog posts and turn them into a book!
Write an article about your soldier or your research process for a local or national level genealogical or historical society. These organizations are often looking for content for their newsletters and magazines. What a better way to share the story and possibly receive feedback on the soldier’s service and maybe learn about new relatives. Taking the writing one step further you can write a short book and self-publish it.
Question 5: What are other resources available to learn about my soldier’s service?
Answer: Start with your usual genealogical records, family stories, and home sources. These will provide clues and context to your soldier’s service. Then move into other resources such as newspapers.
Newspapers are more valuable than most researchers believe, especially when you move beyond the obituaries. Did you know many families who lost a soldier placed a memorial notice in the paper after they learned of the death of their soldier? These notices usually occurred 30-90 days after the soldier was killed. In World War II the Army also published, on average three to four times a week, lists of soldiers in all branches who were Missing, taken Prisoner, or had died. These lists not only provide the name of the soldier but often their next of kin and address. These notices also appear on average 30-90 days after the event occurred.
Newspapers provide photographs of soldiers and short letters home. There are also notices of soldiers being put on troop trains and heading to various training camps or being raised in rank. Finally, look for contextual information to put your soldier’s story into greater context and help you move beyond the bare bones facts. Look for information on the battles fought and the weather conditions. Seek articles that talk about rationing and how the soldiers were living. Your soldier may not be mentioned but learning all you can about the battles, areas in which he fought, and conditions make the stories come to life.
Ask for photographs, postcards, V-Mail, and letters from the soldier and family during wartime. These also provide clues, and if you are lucky enough to have them documented, you will know who is in the photos and where they were taken. Sometimes an old scrapbook opens the door to a world of research you had not known existed. Letters, V-Mail, and postcards are usually very calm. Soldiers were not allowed to write about the battles, where they were or what they were really experiencing. Those things would be cut out by the censor. Sometimes a soldier could slip a letter through alternative routes and bypass the censor. The Navy provided typed letters for sailors to complete by writing their name, to whom the letter was going and then crossing out or circling the status of their health, overall well-being, and other basic things. By providing typed form letters in which the sailor could not write much, the censorship was greatly reduced.
And, get on social media! There are many FaceBook groups for military units, reunion or association groups, and those interested in military history. Just search for the unit in which you soldier served. You can also visit the World War II History Network and join the conversation there.
I hope the questions and answers provided here have been helpful. I do look forward to hearing from you on more specific questions. If you need a quick guide to getting started with your research, please visit my website and pick up a copy of Stories from the Battlefield: A Beginning Guide to World War II Research. Then watch for my new series covering all branches of the military for World War II, Stories from the World War II Battlefield to be released this year. Two or three of the volumes will be available in 2015.
© 2015, Jennifer Holik, Woodridge, IL