This is a guest post by Jennifer Holik.
Myth and misunderstanding surround World War II records access and reconstruction due to the 1973 Fire at the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, Missouri. Eighty percent of the Army, Air Corps, and National Guard Official Military Personnel Files (OMPFs) were lost in the fire. Do not worry though because all is not lost, contrary to what you may have heard. Rather than rehash the fire and record loss, you can read about it on the National Personnel Records Center website.
You may ask, how do I find information if the records burned? Am I entitled to receive any information if I’m not the next-of-kin? And, where do I start?
The first place to begin is the same place you would if you were doing any other type of genealogical research. Start with what you know and record everything. To help you record information and locate sources, download my Military Service Questionnaire and some research checklists. Begin filling them out, including source citations. Military records, like all other records, sometimes contain errors and conflicts with dates and information.
Research Fact: The majority of the records you need to reconstruct World War II service are not online. The OMPFs at the NPRC have not been digitized and are not available online. There are however many databases, indexes, maps, photographs, and various unit-level reports you can use on Ancestry and Fold3 to navigate your journey, create service timelines, guide you to offline resources, and honor service.
To help you move along the research path after completing the Military Service Questionnaire you’ve downloaded, let’s explore the myths and misunderstandings of World War II research.
Myth & Misunderstanding #1: You must be the next-of-kin to receive records.
This is partially true. If your soldier, sailor or Marine, died or was discharged by 1953, the Official Military Personnel File (OMPF,) also known as service records, are available to anyone. If your soldier died or was discharged after 1953, you still must be the veteran or next-of-kin to receive access.
Medical records are a different story.
It is important to understand that medical records are kept separately from the OMPF. These records have different rules for access. For Army, Air Corps/Army Air Forces, and National Guard, the medical records are available to anyone.
For Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps, you must be the veteran or next-of-kin to access medical records. Even if a sailor or Marine has been dead 100 years, you cannot access those records unless you are next-of-kin. If you have the opportunity to access these medical records, I encourage you to do so, because future generations will be unable to do so.
Myth & Misunderstanding #2: I do not have a serial number/service number so I cannot attempt a record search.
The serial number/service number was a number issued to every serviceman and woman. This was not their social security number. Social security numbers were used in the military post-WWII.
There are several ways to attempt to locate a serial number or service number.
- For Army personnel, search the Ancestry collection of U.S. World War II Army Enlistment Records, 1938-1946 to see if your soldier enlisted. If he or she did, the serial number will be within the indexed record.
- For Marine Corps personnel, search the U.S. Marine Corps Muster Rolls, 1798-1958 on Ancestry. If you locate your Marine, the serial number will usually be found within the Muster Rolls.
- For Navy personnel, search the U.S. World War II Navy Muster Rolls, 1938-1949 on Ancestry.
- If your soldier, sailor, or Marine died in service during the war, you can check the U.S. Rosters of World War II Dead, 1939-1945 on Ancestry.
- If you are unable to locate a serial number through those sources, the NPRC in St. Louis has a Veterans Affairs (VA) index on microfilm. To access the information, send a letter to them with $5 requesting a search for your soldier. They will mail you a copy of a VA index card with the name, address, serial number, service branch, sometimes a unit, and dates of enlistment, discharge, and sometimes death. Mail your letter to: NPRC, 1 Archives Drive, St. Louis, Mo. 63138.
Myth & Misunderstanding #3: If the OMPF burned, there is no way to trace service or reconstruct service, because there are no records online.
First, whether the OMPF burned or not, unless someone hands you a serviceman’s file and all resources to tell their story, you will need to reconstruct the service history. Everyone basically begins in the same place, but those without the OMPF have to do a little extra work.
Second, in our age of digital records, with more resources available online daily, we have become a society conditioned to believe it all exists online. The reality is, it does not. We should approach our World War II research from the collaborative standpoint of using both online and offline resources to reconstruct service history.
The NPRC in St. Louis has several record sets that can help you reconstruct a timeline of service, so that you’ll know where your soldier was at any given time. Utilizing those resources and continuing to build on that information with unit records from the National Archives in College Park, Md., and Ancestry and Fold3 record sets, the possibilities to tell a soldier’s story are endless.
Myth & Misunderstanding #4: I can search online for information, because I know the exact unit in which my soldier served. Or, he was in the 1st Division. That’s all I need to know.
It is not a good idea to assume the one unit you believe your soldier was in, was the only unit – or the correct unit – and go look for everything about that one unit. You could be chasing the wrong lead. It is also important to locate unit information down to the company, as many records are kept by the company.
There are many reasons we may believe we know the exact unit in which our service member served.
- It may be listed on a discharge paper or in the Individual Deceased Personnel File (IDPF). Unfortunately, this final unit could be a unit in which soldiers were placed for their return to the U.S. for discharge. They may have never seen combat with this unit.
- Soldiers who died, like my cousin James Privoznik, was only in an infantry regiment 14 days before he was Killed In Action (KIA), because Patton needed replacement soldiers during the Battle of the Bulge. The rest of the nine months he was overseas, he was in the Ordnance Company.
- The veteran or a family member told us. Over time, memories fade. It has been my experience in speaking with people and conducting research for clients, that veterans tell a story one way or pass it to their children, with some facts jumbled. This is not to say the veteran or the family member lied, only that war was full of chaos and change. It is easy to confuse which unit you were with and when.
In addition, soldiers were often transferred between companies and units for various reasons. Never assume what you’ve found is the final answer. The best advice I can give you, is to follow every lead and compare what you learn against other records.
Come back next month and learn how to begin a timeline of service, what information to search for in your home, how to request military records, and if your soldier died in service, how to request the IDPF.
Military research is a lengthy, but rewarding process, and there are many tips and tricks to searching the vast resources offline and on Ancestry and Fold3. I hope you’ll join me next month and continue our journey.