Military Research, continued from Part 1
Most of my military research experience is WWII-related, primarily Army Air Forces and secondarily Navy research, and therefore it will be the focus of my suggestions here. If you are researching a different timeframe or branch, hopefully you will be able to apply some of my methods to your own search.
Researching Military History – Where to Start
Who are you researching?
Gather copies of the information you have – documents, letters, and military photos – on the person you want to research. Write down the stories you remember hearing. Every bit of biographical data you can record – full name, parents’ names, birth date, birth place, state of residence when joining the service, military service/serial number (see note below regarding ASN), and branch and location of service, if known – will become helpful in finding out more.
What do you want to learn?
Are you looking for basic information like branch and dates of service, or do you want to dig deeper and learn about training and military occupations, the exact unit and location, battles, awards, and decorations?
What do you want to do with this knowledge?
Just something to think about, but your answer will probably determine just how much research you want to do…
- It’s personal? Maybe you just wanted to know and that’s enough.
- Do you want to record your family history for future generations?
- Do you want to connect with other next generation members (NexGens), share your knowledge, and learn more about your common family history?
Resources – Where to Look
There are several places to start that will likely just scratch the surface of the information you can find. If you already have an interest in genealogical research, once you get going, you may find yourself digging deeper and deeper for more knowledge.
First things first
If you have separation papers, you are way ahead of the game. Known today as the DD 214, the separation document before 1950 was form WD AGO, so if you’re looking for WWII Army or Army Air Forces records, look for an Honorable Discharge certificate and Enlisted Record and Report of Separation WD AGO Form 53-55. Accompanying this form for the Army and Army Air Force branch should be the Army of the United States Separation Qualification Record, indicated as WD AGO Form 100. Here’s the information I found on each form:
Honorable Discharge certificate
- Army Serial Number (ASN)
- Branch of Service
- Place and Date of discharge
Enlisted Record and Report of Separation includes above and adds
- Home address
- Date of birth
- Identifying features
- Civilian occupation (prior to service)
- Military history including enlistment date and place
- Military occupational specialty
- Battles and campaigns
- Decorations and citations
- Wounds received in action (date)
- Dates of service outside the United States
- Service schools attended
The Separation Qualification Record offers more detail on
- Military occupational assignments
- Military education
- Civilian education
- Civilian occupation
I have never found these documents available online. If you don’t have this document for the relative you’re researching, it may be obtained two ways. Separation documents can be ordered through the National Archives or possibly through the county courthouse records of the home county of the veteran.
WWII Navy separation records were a bit different. A handwritten record may be found in the seaman’s Naval Reserve Service Record booklet. The Navy Notice of Separation from the U.S. Naval Service form is NAVPERS-553. WWII Navy separation papers listed rate and class, Navy service number, place and date of separation from active service, and length of foreign or sea service in WWII.
Keep in mind, though, if you are researching a relative killed in WWII, there won’t be a separation document, and all of its detailed information in one place, for that serviceman/woman.
What kind of information is available through the National Archives?
For an overview and answers to general questions regarding Research Using Military Records, visit https://www.archives.gov/veterans, or specifically,
Obtaining Military Service Records from the National Archives’ National Personnel Records Center (NPRC)
You can search for military personnel records stored at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri by mail or in person. I have done both.
Alternately, you could hire an independent researcher at the NPRC. A list of researchers is available on the website.
You may or may not find the records you seek at the St. Louis NPRC. A fire in 1973 destroyed the majority of Army and Air Force personnel records, so no or very few documents could still be available for your search. Navy records were not affected by the fire.
If you opt to visit the NPRC in St. Louis, you can make your own copies by photographing available records for free. You must schedule an appointment and request records well in advance, though, so records can be made ready for your visit.
Camera stands are available for your use and the research staff at the center is very helpful. The quality of photographic images can be much better than copy machine copies if you have a good camera to use for the task. Even cell phone cameras can record high quality images, but I found the cell phone stands the NPRC had available at the time not to work very well. I would take a cell phone camera tripod mount attachment if I were to return to gather more records, although it may not be allowed in the records room.
Other than a personal visit to the NPRC in St. Louis, records may be requested online, by mail, or by fax. Available records are separation documents, personnel records, replacement medals, and medical/health records.
The online process of requesting records is accomplished using the eVetRecs process and is not completely digital. Once you request records through eVetRecs, you must either mail or fax your written signature. From
begin by clicking “Start Form Online (then Print and Mail).” If you prefer to completely fill out a paper form by hand to mail or fax, click “Mail or Fax Form.” The link will direct you to a page to print out the SF-180 Form. Or you can order the form through the mail by sending a request to National Personnel Records Center, 1 Archives Drive, St. Louis, MO 63138.
Generally, archival records of military personnel are open to the public 62 years after the serviceperson has left the military, which includes most WWII veterans unless they pursued military careers after the war. But if the person you’re researching did have a long military career and/or separated from the military less than 62 years ago, their non-archival records are only open to the veteran and the veteran’s next-of-kin. See this further explanation from the NPRC.
While most requests from the NPRC are for only a copy of the separation documents, about ten percent request a copy of the entire file, as I did. Since the 1970’s the center’s standard procedure for requests for entire files has been to provide only copies of key documents and vital information. However, for files more than sixty-two years old – as are the archival files of WWII veterans – all documents are provided if requested.
Some of the information contained in a personnel file could include separation documents, military service dates, character of service, promotions and reductions, duty stations and assignments, foreign or sea service, military schooling and training, awards and letters of commendation, disciplinary actions, lost time, enlistment contract, entry and separation physical exams, immunizations, dental examinations, and clinical summaries.
I already had a copy of my dad’s separation documents. My interest in obtaining his entire file was mainly to see medical records and his physical condition after his liberation as a prisoner of war. I had read that the prisoners that were liberated on the Black March were not weighed or their deteriorated conditions recorded in their medical records. I had some unanswered questions and hoped to find some of those answers in his service record.
I started, like many others, with an online request through eVetRecs for my dad’s entire service file.
My Personal Experience Obtaining Military Records
I requested my dad’s records online through eVetRecs and mailed the signature verification on September 10, 2014. Maximum wait time was supposed to be ninety days, by December 9, 2014.
I received a letter on January 21, 2015 from an NPRC archives technician. Unfortunately,
The complete Official Military Personnel File for the veteran named above is not in our files. If the record were here on July 12, 1973, it would have been in the area that suffered the most damage in the fire on that date and may have been destroyed.
However, the letter stated that the NPRC had reconstructed some of my dad’s service record which I could obtain for $70. I only had thirty days to decide and opted to order the reconstructed records.
To read more detail about my personal experience obtaining military records, read this previous post.
Military Records Received
I received fifteen pages of copies from the NPRC shortly after they mailed them on February 18, 2015, in addition to a letter noting that “the copy quality is the best that can be obtained.”
The documents included copies of:
- Informal Information Reply (a reply for information requested by my mother, dated October 31, 1994)
- A copy of the envelope in which my mother mailed a request for records on September 28, 1994 (exactly 50 years after my dad’s mid-air collision).
- Request Pertaining to Military Records (filled out by my mother, her request for my father’s “Military history, where trained and where sent overseas, also record of being a Prisoner of War in Germany, dates and camps, and what battles.” She noted her purpose for the request was “Since he is deceased, we would like to have the Military history to include in our Family history and for the benefit of me and our children. Also what medals issued.”)
- Two National Archives and Records Administration MPR Finding Aid Reports (one noted NOT Found and the other noted some unexplained codes regarding an SGO Hospital List)
- Army of the United States Honorable Discharge certificate and Enlisted Record and Report of Separation, Honorable Discharge form (copies of Dad’s original separation documents provided by my mother)
- Army of the United States Separation Qualification Record (copies of Dad’s original separation documents provided by my mother)
- 2 Transmittal of and/or Entitlement to Awards forms (one noting approval of the Prisoner of War medal, the other unreadable)
- Veteran Identification Screen printout
- National Archives and Records Administration – National Personnel Records Center (Military Personnel Records), dated 8/23/88 (the same information as on the National Archives and Records Administration MPR Finding Aid Report)
- Prisoner of War (POW) Medal Application/Information form (my mother’s 1988 application for a posthumous POW medal for my dad)
To read more detail about the military records I received from the NPRC, read this previous post.
A Visit to the NPRC
In 2016, my husband and I attended the 8th Air Force Historical Society’s reunion in St. Louis. We arrived a couple of days early and I spent two days in the NPRC’s records room copying the service files of thirty-four WWII servicemen. In my dad’s file, I found a few documents that weren’t included in the records I received from my previous request by mail.
- Final Payment Worksheet (when my dad received his final pay at discharge)
- US Army SGO Hospitalization File Listing 1945
- Information from Hospitalization Admission Cards Created 8/30/2016 … Information for the Year 1945.
The last form (according to the document’s date, apparently created after I had requested records by mail) was a good find and told me that after Dad’s liberation (which was May 2, 1945), he was treated in a field hospital, and then was admitted on May 14, 1945 to an unidentified hospital for ten days. His type of case was classified as “Disease” and his initial diagnosis was “Acute Tonsillitis.” I consider this an incredible diagnosis for a man who had been forced to march over 500 miles in 86 days with very little food. And no, there was no mention of his weight or further description of his condition.
I would have liked to have found much, much more information on my dad’s years of service in the Army Air Forces, but this is all that is left of his official military personnel record.
Finding Separation Documents at the County Courthouse
If you do not have your relative’s separation documents and it is unavailable through the NPRC because of the 1973 fire, the only alternate method of obtaining it that I know of is to check with the county courthouse of the county in which he/she returned from WWII.
My dad followed orders and had his separation documents recorded at the courthouse of his county upon his return home. This stamp appears at the bottom of his Honorable Discharge certificate.
A note about the Army Serial Number (ASN). At the time of enlistment, an 8-digit ASN was assigned. However, if your relative became an officer, he/she would have been reassigned a new ASN beginning with O- and followed by 6 digits.
To be continued with Military Research Part 3…
© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2019