Wednesday, 25 May 2016

7 Tips When Researching U.S. Army World War II Soldiers

After nearly 30 years of researching my father-in-law's WWII military service, which began on 7 April 1941 and ended on 18 June 1945, I now know where he was on almost every day of that time. My husband and I have taken many terrific trips visiting those places and learning more about where he served. So it's no surprise I like to write about the war experiences of my ancestors. From skirmishes with Native Americans prior to the Revolutionary War right through the Global War on Terrorism. However, I write most frequently about my Civil War, World War I and World War II veteran ancestors' experiences. Today, I'd like to share with you what I've learned about researching U.S. Army World War II veteran ancestors -- one of the millions of citizen soldiers Tom Brokaw called the "Greatest Generation."

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

Those military records are housed at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri. There was a fire at that location in 1973, which destroyed approximately 16 to 18 million records, including:
  • 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

The division is the smallest unit that is capable of fighting completely independently. To understand more about how Army divisions were organized during World War II, I suggest reading a post I wrote on this topic on my Tangled Roots and Trees blog.

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:
Your ancestors military records will include their rank upon discharge and any military operational specialties, or special skills they acquired, on their DD 214 form. This 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:
My father-in-law's ribbon "rack;" built using EZ Rack Builder[1]

5. Learn about the campaigns in which he served

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 ArchiveABEBooksGoogle PlayAmazon, 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.

Good luck!

Women's Army Corps (WACs) in World War Two
Understanding the U.S. Army World War II Infantry Division
Army Campaign Streamers


  1. I read your post and am happy to see others writing about WWII research. I do have a couple clarifications. I'm an international WWII researcher, speaker and author and have done extensive research and written books on how to conduct research. As long as a soldier, sailor, or Marine died or was discharged by this date 62 years ago (so as I write this 25 May 1954) the records are available to anyone. You only have to be next of kin if the individual was discharged after this date. Now, if you want Navy, Coast Guard, or Marine Corps medical records - you still have to be NOK. This does not apply for Army or Air Force at this time.

    It should also be mentioned the final unit on a soldier's Separation and Discharge is the final unit in which they served. It is usually not the only unit. A lot of people assume that's it for a soldier and spend a lot of time and money researching only to sometimes later discover they went down a wrong path for too much of the war. Sometimes the soldier never saw combat in that unit, but was placed there solely to be moved out of Europe for discharge.

    To accurately trace a soldier's daily whereabouts, company Morning Reports should be used and are available at NPRC. You have to go there or hire a researcher to get copies of these. I have information on these on an article on my website Morning Reports allow you to trace a soldier's comings and goings and changes in status as long as the clerk recorded it. You have to have a company at any point in time to search these. Please feel free to contact me if you have any other questions.

  2. Great post with just the specific details we need! It really makes me want to see what I can find for my Grandfather's service!

  3. Thanks for this informative article.

  4. Excellent post. Can't wait to pull out my dad's DD214 and get to work.

    1. Nancy, many times a soldier was transferred to another unit just before he was discharged. It's important to be sure you have the morning reports which are not online unfortunately. It's the really tricky part of researching an Army veteran. Luckily, it's easier with the Marine Corps and Navy as their monthly muster rolls are online.

  5. My County of Research Union Springs kept a daily account of ALL it's County Residents in a book and my Dad was in it. It told of all the going on about the War from the County perspective and their War Experience. It also listed all their Draft Card numbers. Its a goldmine of information. The book is called: In Freedom's Name The War Years 1941-1945 World War 2 Bullock County Veterans. It was written by the Tourism Council in 1996. Thanks for sharing this information. I will keep this post as a resource.

    1. What a wonderful resource Bullock County provided. I'm envious!

  6. What a great post and so informative in giving the links. I need to get busy

  7. Great step by step instruction! Thank you!

  8. Great article. I will tag it as a reference on my page,, LLC on Facebook.

  9. Two of my uncles who served had no children. Can I qualify as their next of kin? They are both deceased, as are their wives. Family knows of no other relatives that would be closer than I am. How would I go about getting those records?

  10. What a wonderful post! I'm going to see if my mother-in-law and father-in-law will order their records for their fathers. Then, I can get busy doing the rest of the research! One of them served in the navy, though. I do have his yearbook, so I have a head start on his service. Weren't many/most of the navy records burned?

  11. Thank you for sharing such helpful information.

  12. Schalene,

    I'd like to let you know that your wonderful blog post is listed in today's Fab Finds post at

    Have a wonderful weekend!

  13. Another good resource is the IDPF (Individual Deseased Personnel File) if your ancestor died during the war. With the help of his personnel file and his IDPF I've been able to piece together most of his nearly 4 years of captivity at the hands of the Japanese, though there are still large holes to fill.

  14. Thanks for sharing this helpful information!


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