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By David Allen LambertChief Genealogist
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Military records provide important information for family historians. The records for both World War I and World War II, however, present unique challenges. Simply having the name of the veteran will often not be enough to begin a search. You may have some family ephemera related to the service of the veteran, such as dog tags, personal letters, or discharge papers, that can give you clues to the unit or the vessel your relative was attached to—essential information when trying to locate relatives (obituaries and gravestones may also provide this information). This subject guide lists some key records and resources for finding information on your World War I and World War II veteran ancestors.
U.S. Military Records: A Guide to Federal and State Sources, Colonial America to the Present by James C. NeaglesNEHGS, 7th Floor Reading Rm Z1249.M5 N43 1994
How to Locate Anyone Who is or has been the Military – Armed Forces Locator Guide, 8th ed. by Richard S. Johnson and Debra Johnson KnoxNEHGS, 7th Floor Reading Rm U11.U5 J54 1999
The Great War: A Guide to the Service Records of All the World's Fighting Men and Volunteers by Christina K. SchaeferNEHGS, 7th Floor Reference CS14 .S33 1998
World War II Military Records – A Family Historian’s Guide by Debra Johnson KnoxNEHGS, 7th Floor Reference D797.U6 K56 2003
Over 24 million men registered for the U.S. Draft at the time of World War I over the course of three drafts. The resulting registration cards can be searched and viewed online for free at FamilySearch.org. Note: Even though a name might appear in the draft registrations, it does not confirm that they were actually drafted into the military service.
Draft records for the first three drafts of World War II are not currently available online. This is in part due to the fact many thousands of these individuals are still living. The fourth draft, conducted April 27, 1942, was for men born between the years 1877 and 1897. These men were the last line of defense, and often included many former World War I veterans. These draft cards can be searched and viewed online at FamilySearch.org.
You can request copies of WWII draft registration cards for the men affected by the earlier drafts, those born between February 17, 1897 to July 31, 1927. To obtain a copy, the requester must be the registrant or show written permission from the registrant. If the registrant is deceased, a copy of the registrant's death certificate or obituary is needed. In your written request, include the registrant's full name, date of birth, and address (including county, if known) at the time of registration and send to:
National Archives and Records AdministrationAttn: Archival ProgramsP.O. Box 28989St. Louis, MO 63132-0989
Over 9 million enlistments for the U.S. Army between the years 1938 and 1946 are available online. These enlistments can be searched and viewed online at FamilySearch.org. This database includes the following information:
You can also find information about your World War I veteran ancestor in the 1930 U.S. Census. For that return the enumerator asked “Whether a veteran of the U.S. military or naval forces mobilized for any war or expedition.” This was a yes or no question, which further asked “What War or expedition.” The responses ranged from Civil War veterans to World War I veterans. Note: Because World War II had not yet occurred, the “Great War” was abbreviated as “WW” for World War.
Since the 1940 U.S. census is currently the most recent census released by the National Archives we do not have knowledge what military service information was provided on the later censuses for WWII and other veterans.
The National Archives's National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, Missouri stores U.S. Air Force, Army, Marine Corps, Navy, and Coast Guard service and personnel records for individuals who no longer have a service obligation. Read more about Military Service Records and Official Military Personnel Files.
Veteran records may be accessed for the following U.S. military branches for those veterans who were discharged, died, or retired during the time periods listed below:
Military personnel records may include information on the following:
Unfortunately, a fire at the NPCR in 1973 destroyed 16 to 18 million personnel records for the U.S. Army between (service years 1912 to 1960) and the U.S. Air Force (service years 1947 to 1964). Veterans and their families may be interested in donating a copy of what records they have to help restore the national collections. Learn more about the fire and what was destroyed.
A Report of Separation is issued after a service member performs active duty or at least 90 consecutive days of active duty training. Before January 1, 1950, the military used a number of different forms, including the WD AGO 53, WD AGO 55, WD AGO 53-55, NAVPERS 553, NAVMC 78PD, and the NAVCG 553. These discharge papers provide important information for verifying military service for benefits, retirement, employment, and membership in veterans’ organizations. It is also an important document if you are faced with Army records that were destroyed in the 1973 fire. Information shown on the Report of Separation may include the service member's:
To obtain your relative’s honorable discharge or Separation Documents, contact your local veteran’s agent who should be able to help you obtain these records from your state veteran’s office. View a current list of office of the Adjutant General’s Office for your state.
If your veteran ancestor from World War II is living, he or she will need to make the request for their military records. If deceased, his or her next of kin may make the request. To obtain records, or to make an inquiry, online use the NARA eVetRecs form. If mailing or faxing your request use the Military Service Records Standard Form 180 (SF-180) and send to: National Personnel Records Center (Military Personnel Records)1 Archives Dr.St. Louis, MO 63138-1002FAX: 314-801-9195
Order of the First World War (Descendants of WWI Veterans), orderfirstworldwar.comSons and Daughters of World War II Veterans, sonsanddaughtersofww2veterans.org
Veterans Service Records, archives.gov/veteransU.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs: Nationwide Gravesite Locator, gravelocator.cem.va.gov/U.S. Headstone Applications for U.S. Military Veterans, 1925–1949, FamilySearch.orgU.S. Navy Log, navylog.navymemorial.orgA database of thousands of sea service veterans; part of the U.S Navy Memorial.
American Battle Monuments Commission (graves registry for veterans buried overseas), abmc.gov/search/wwi.php
American Battle Monuments Commission (graves registry for veterans buried overseas), www.abmc.gov/search/wwii.phpWorld War II Honor List of Dead and Missing Army and Army Air Forces Personnel, archives.gov/research/military/ww2/army-casualties/State list of Casualties from World War II for Navy, Marine Corps, & Coast Guard, archives.gov/research/military/ww2/navy-casualties/index.htmlUnited States World War II Prisoners of War of the Japanese, 1941–1945, FamilySearch.orgWorld War II Memorial, wwiimemorial.com
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