Here are some simple research tips for seeking information on an individual soldier or a unit from World War II…
If you are researching the military service of a WWII veteran and don’t know where to begin, there is an excellent book available called: Finding Your Father’s War by Jonathan Gawne. You can purchase it here at Amazon.com. It’s a treasure trove of information.
If you like to surf the Internet, try the website Dad’s War. This site contains a wonderful collection of links and advice on how to obtain the information you seek. Other helpful websites are Cyndi’s List and Rootsweb. Spend a little time exploring all of these websites and you will be a research pro in no time!
If you are trying to locate the individual military file of a loved one who served in the U.S. Army in World War II, you have an extremely remote chance of ever getting it. The U.S. Government did a very poor job protecting those files by unwisely housing tons of old dry paper in an ancient warehouse without modern fire controls. In 1973, the building burned down. Nearly ALL the individual military files of every single WWII veteran of the U.S. Army and U.S. Army Air Corps were lost, and the records of many other service men before and after WWII are gone as well. The files were not backed up on microfilm or in any other way. They were one-of-a-kind and are lost forever. Still, a shot in the dark is better than no shot at all. Take a few minutes of time and fill out a Standard Form 180 (downloadable) slap a 1st Class postage stamp onto an envelope and take your shot. Click on the blue for the official website to the National Personnel Records Center and follow their instructions. Don’t put your research on hold while you wait to hear back from them…it can take a number of months to get an answer.
You may have some success reconstructing a portion of an individual’s record by obtaining his Veteran Affairs file. In order to do this, the veteran must be deceased and (I believe) you must be a close relation. Try digging
around the Veteran Affairs website if you wish to go this route. It has been nearly 10 years since I requested my grandfather’s VA file so the rules may have changed. I am glad I did obtain his file. Though much of it was superfluous paperwork, I was able to reconstruct a portion of his service record.
If your soldier was killed in action during World War II and is buried overseas, you can locate his gravesite at the American Battle Monuments Commission website. If the soldier was brought home for burial or passed away in the years after the war you may try finding him at the Veterans Administration Gravesite Locator. If his was a battle death, you can also order his IDPF (Individual Deceased Personnel File) from the U.S. Army Human Resources Command. The Dad’s War website mentioned above contains details on how to go about ordering an IDPF file. You will find the address and some tips partway down the home page. Remember again that you are dealing with a government agency. Do not expect to get your file copy immediately. It can take several months.
If the soldier was a Prisoner of War, the National Archives has a Prisoner of War Database that you can search by name, serial number, and in other ways. You will need to work with it awhile and learn some of the value codes, but you may come up with some key information in your research.
The National Archives in College Park, Maryland. holds the surviving files of World War II U.S. Army units. Yes, surviving files. An army may march on its stomach, but it leaves behind paperwork. The larger the army, the more paperwork it produces. The U.S. Army in World War II produced tons and tons of documents–most of which were downright mundane–such as jeep maintenance journals or sock counts at a quartermaster depot. Much of that stuff was not preserved. In the 1950s, the Army set up a program whereby only the “historically significant” material was kept and the rest destroyed. Eventually this material was passed to the National Archives. For some reason, the Army did not consider company-level material to be “historically significant.” Today, you can locate such items as unit journals, general orders, intelligence reports, and after action reports for specific Battalions, Regiments, Divisions, Corps, and Armies, but rarely for Companies. The National Archives keeps an extensive in-house cataloging system of these records but much of it has yet to be put online. Try browsing the National Archives Research Room to get an idea of what National Archives research is all about. In short, if you have a specific item that you would like to have copied, the National Archives staff can probably do it for you for a fee. (They are generally quick. You request is usually handled in six to eight weeks.) However, if your research is more extensive and requires milling through boxes of material you will have to either go there yourself or hire a professional researcher who lives near Washington D.C.
To give you an idea of what a catalog page looks like, and what the National Archives has specifically for the 756th Tank Battalion, see the below photocopy. All that the National Archives has for this particular unit is contained in four 12″ x 9″ x 6″ boxes of documents:
You will NOT find individual military files at the National Archives. In fact, you will find very little material about individuals at the National Archives unless your subject was an important General OR your subject was given some award for valor (Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, etc.) In which case, you may be able to locate the General Order conferring the honor and read the citation language to an individual’s award. In other words, if your family always wondered how “Uncle Jim” got his Silver Star, you may be in some luck. The quickest and surest way to locate the General Order is to check your subject’s Discharge Papers–specifically line 33 labeled “Decorations and Citations.” The medal, GO number, and issuing headquarters will be listed there. You can ask the National Archives to locate and copy that General Order for you. If you don’t have the GO number and issuing headquarters, you will have a tougher road. The National Archives staff cannot help you with a broad search. You will need to either go to there yourself or hire a professional researcher. You still have to determine what Division and Army “Uncle Jim” served in (knowing his Battalion or Regiment may also be helpful), and what honor he received. If “Uncle Jim” received the Bronze Star or Silver Star then you will probably need to check through stacks of orders in the Division-level boxes. A Distinguished Service Cross was issued at the Army level. If “Uncle Jim” received the Medal of Honor (the
nations highest award) then you will need to go to a special War Department file to obtain a copy or you can just read the text of his Medal of Honor citation online at the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.
The National Archives does retain one type of Company-level document. These are the “Morning Reports,” and are housed at the National Personnel Records Center facility in St. Louis Missouri. “Morning Reports” were filed each day to record any change of duty status for Company members. Depending on the fancy of the Company Clerk or 1st Sergeant, other details might be added–such as the activities of the Company for a particular day. You cannot put in a general request for all the Morning Reports where your “Uncle Jim” is mentioned, so do don’t waste your time. There is no possible way for an archivist search every single microfilm image for a name. You need to request certain dates and you must give a particular company, battalion or regiment, and division. You can’t ask for too much either, otherwise you will be asked to visit the St. Louis facility yourself or to hire a local professional researcher. Request a “Morning Report” the same way you would an individual military file–through Standard Form 180 (downloadable at their website.) Again, you must allow a few months for processing. Before you do, ask yourself what you hope to accomplish by ordering the reports. If
you are simply collecting mementos of “Uncle Jim” and his war service, it is probably not worth the effort. If you are trying to reconstruct the circumstances around a particular battle and wish to learn the identities of soldiers killed or wounded at the time, then the “Morning Reports” are an indispensable resource.
The following image is an example of a “Morning Report.” This is the Company B, 756th Tank Battalion, report for 27 August 1944 where the battle deaths of my grandfather and two of his tank mates are recorded.
A fourth man, Pvt. Buisset transferred out with an illness. Some action details follow as well as a head count of officers and enlisted men in the company:
If you are more interested in general information such as Campaign histories, there is no better resource than the U.S. Army Center of Military History. U.S. Army historians may have already done your work for you! Browse the U.S. Army CMH bookstore for titles that may interest you.
The United States Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania has an extensive library and a searchable catalog that might also be of interest to you.
You may find some information posted on a particular veteran in the World War II registry at the National World War II Memorial website. Any soldier killed, missing, or died of wounds should already be listed by the U.S. government and would include name, rank, serial number, and hometown. The registry also includes the names and brief biographies of other veterans who served and survived the war. This information was placed there by family and friends. If you have a family member who is not listed, be sure and do so for them.