A great resource is World War II Research and Writing Center.
1. Order his military service records
It's difficult to proceed with your research unless you know in which unit your ancestor served. The first thing I recommend doing is to order his or her military records. You can make your request for those records if you are next of kin of a deceased veteran here. If available, the information you will receive will include his DD 214, or separation papers; personnel records; replacement ribbons or medals; and medical records. The unit listed on this form includes the unit he was with when he was discharged. It may not be all of the units in which he served. Company morning reports housed at the National Personnel Records Center will include the transfers of soldiers to and from different units.
|Page 1 of my father-in-law's DD 214 form; personal collection|
- 80 percent loss of Army records for personnel discharged between 1 November 1912 and 1 January 1960
- 75 percent loss of Air Force records for personnel discharged between 25 September 1947 and 1 January 1964 (names after Hubbard, James E. alphabetically)
Even if your veteran ancestor's records were burned, you will likely receive his or her DD 214 form if your are next of kin. This form contains enough information about the specific unit in which your ancestor served, military induction and discharge dates, special qualifications or schools attended, ribbons and medals received, and so on.
2. Learn about the specific unit in which he served
Now that you have your veteran ancestors military records, you can begin to research the unit in which he served. Every branch of military service has an organization hierarchy. In the U.S. Army it is:
Company >> Battalion >> Regiment >> Division >> Corps >> Army >> Army Group
Another necessary resource is the Order of Battle of the U.S. Army, European Theater, World War II.
These resources are invaluable when reading Army histories to better understand if your ancestors were involved.
3. Understand the role he played in his unit
Two factors will help you understand the role your ancestor played within his unit -- his rank and his MOS, or Military Operational Specialty.
There are two types of soldiers in the Army, officers and enlisted personnel. Each have their own levels of ranks. To learn them and the general responsibilities of each rank, I have found these links extremely helpful:
link includes the list of current Army MOSs, but many from World War II still exist though they may have been renamed. I have found it's possible to find a similar MOS and at least get in the neighborhood of what duties my ancestor performed. For example, in Korea my father was a mechanic for wheeled and tracked vehicles. Those MOSs still exist.
4. Record the awards and decorations he earned
Your ancestor's DD 214 form will include the awards and decoration he earned during his Army service. If he won an award for meritorious conduct or bravery, you will likely receive a copy of the original citation if you order a replacement medal. Other awards can provide clues to the dates on which he or she served if they are not provided elsewhere. If your ancestors received the American Defense medal, he enlisted or was drafted before Pearl Harbor, 7 December 1941, as did my father-in-law. If he or she received the Victory medal, they served in the Army sometime between 7 December 1941 and 31 December 1946. I will be writing about this topic in detail on Tangled Roots and Trees in June. However, you will likely find these sources helpful:
- Army Regulation 600-8-22, Military Awards
- Awards and Decorations of the United States Armed Forces, which includes links to explanations about individuals awards and decorations
- Badges of the United States Army
|My father-in-law's ribbon "rack;" built using EZ Rack Builder|
Your ancestor's DD 214 form will include any campaigns in which your ancestor participated. Campaigns are a series of large-scale, long-term operations or battles which required significant military planning and form part of a larger conflict. For example, during World War II, the U.S. Army fought in 38 campaigns. Knowing in which campaigns your ancestor participated will allow you to read the appropriate sections of the Army "Green" Books. These military histories are now online. When I began my research I had to order them from the General Printing Office.
|My Army "Green" Books; personal collection|
They are the very best, detailed history, often to the company level of the U.S. Army in World War II.
If you are not a history buff, at least read the relevant campaigns or skim the index for his army, corp. division, and regiment (sometimes part of a combat team with the same numerical designation as the regiment).
6. Use unit societies' websites and books about units
Websites for Division Societies such as the Society of the 5th Infantry Division are plentiful on the Internet. These societies will have a wide variety of information, personal photographs, and first-hand accounts from soldiers who served with the unit. Many include pamphlets and other propaganda published by the unit. Simply Google to find them online. Some will have the names of books that can be purchased about the unit. If the book is out of print, I have had great success finding them on Internet Archive, ABEBooks, Google Play, Amazon, or eBay. If none of those sources have the book available, I can usually find it on World Cat and either go to a nearby library or have it loaned to my local library.
7. Don't forget your women ancestors
Many women served in various women-only military organization during the war. Don't forget about them in your research. General Douglas McArthur called the Women's Army Corps (WACs) "his best soldiers" and said they worked harder, complained less, and were better disciplined then men. General Dwight Eisenhower said their contributions were immeasurable.
I hoped I've sparked your interest in digging deeper into your World War II ancestor's military service. Many in that generation would not talk about their experiences. This is your chance to find out about them.
Women's Army Corps (WACs) in World War Two
Understanding the U.S. Army World War II Infantry Division
Army Campaign Streamers