By: Carolyn L. Barkley
I recently worked with a client’s manuscript in which his father’s letters home during World War II played a prominent part. That project was followed almost immediately by my discovery of two long letters written by my father during the war, the first including details of his troop train ride between Miami, Florida, and Oklahoma after basic training; the second including details of his travels across France in 1946 to board the ship that would take him home. Both experiences led me to think about how to identify and locate service-related records for members of the “greatest generation.” Since members of this age group are leaving us more quickly now that they are entering their 90s, learning about their wartime experiences has become more imperative. This article provides a brief introduction to World War II records research – enough to get you started.
- A good first step (as with many genealogical endeavors) is to learn the stories and discover the documents and artifacts that exist within our families. In my case, I have the two letters (my mother having apparently discarded the others), some photographs (not always identified), some uniform patches, separation qualification record, enlistment record and report of separation, honorable discharge papers, and honorable discharge certificate.
- Identify the unit in which the individual served and request copies of military records. Because my father was buried in a Massachusetts Veterans’ Memorial Cemetery, his military records were easily found in family files. If they had not been, I would have requested them from the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri. This request requires a Standard Form 180. Alternatively, if the veteran applied for veteran’s benefits after the war, you might be able to obtain information from the Veteran’s Administration (VA), or discharge papers may be on record in the local county clerk’s office. These records document the major elements of an individual’s service. My father’s records document his enlistment in the Army Air Corps on 23 September 1942, in Boston, Massachusetts, and his entry into active service on 20 February 1943. He attended an eight-week course in the maintenance of aircraft records at the Edmond Oklahoma Engineering and Operating Clerical School, took a civil service examination to qualify as an interpreter in Portuguese, and “served overseas in England and France for about 28 months with the 370th Air Service Group” where he was “in charge of all correspondence coming through headquarters for correction and submission to [the] adjutant for signature…Typed 30 words per minute. Performed duties of personnel clerk for 22 months handling the work records of 400 men in an aircraft instrument hangar in England.” He was discharged as a Staff Sergeant, received a Good Conduct Medal, the American Defense Service Medal, Victory Medal, and the European/African/Middle Eastern Theatre Campaign Ribbon, and was separated from service at Ft. Devens, Massachusetts, on 9 February 1946. This information has added context to my father’s stories about his wartime experiences (largely stories about bicycle rides around the English countryside with a buddy, and less about his day-to-day work).
If the soldier died during the war, you may be able to identify his branch of the service (but not necessarily unit), rank, service number, home, and manner of death (killed in action, died of wounds, died non-battle) in the World War II Registry of the National World War II Memorial or the World War II Honor Roll of the American Battle Monuments Commission. A Barkley surname search in the Honor Roll identified a John W. Barkley Jr., of Ohio, who served in the 547th Bomber Squadron, 384th Bomber Group, Heavy, as a First Lieutenant in the U. S. Army Air Forces. He died 29 February 1944 and is buried in the Cambridge American Cemetery, Cambridge, England. He was awarded the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters. A similar Barkley surname search in the World War II Registry provided an entry for a Bernard W. Barkley of Canton, Illinois, who served in the U. S. Army Air Forces. It provides further information stating that he “served as a B-25D ‘Mitchell’ medium bomber student co-pilot,”
and was killed October 12, 1944 “along with the student pilot during a nighttime navigation training mission…northeast of the La Junta Army Air Field, La Junta, Colorado.”
An additional source of information is the World War II collection on Ancestry.com. I located my father’s enlistment record in a database entitled U.S. Army Enlistment Records 1938-1946. All of the information matches that contained in my copies of his separation and discharge documents – with the odd exception of the statement of his civil occupation as “actors and actresses” (he was an undergraduate student in English)! This collection includes several databases such as U.S. Navy Muster Rolls, 1938-1949, World War II Draft Registration Cards , and World War II Missing in Action or Lost at Sea. The army enlistment records database filters by birth date; unfortunately this filter is not available for the naval muster rolls database, so I have not yet located the record for my uncle, Robert C. Smith, among the 43,000+ entries that are identified by a search on his name alone. (While I do have his military record in my files, it will take some time to locate it and that will have to be a future project.
- Identify further information about his military unit to create a chronology. The most useful records are found in After Action Reports that provide narratives of the unit’s monthly progress throughout the war. These records are located at National Archives II in College Park, Maryland. While NARA staff will not do the research for you, they will assist you in identifying what unit-specific records are available and will do the copying for you. You will also want to obtain Morning Reports for the soldier’s company or squadron, which you will have identified from his separation papers. These records (which were not lost in the 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center) will include information about location of the unit as of 2400 hours on a specific date, any men with personnel status changes, a daily record of events for the company, and the strength count of the company for a specific day. These reports may be obtained from the Military Organizational Records Unit of the National Personnel Records Center at 1 Archives Drive, St. Louis, MO 63138. You will want to make it clear in your letter that you are not asking for individual personnel records, but that you are requesting copies of all Morning Reports, including all attached documents, for the specific unit within a specific time frame.)
If the individual was in the U.S. Navy, several online databases will provide interesting details. Fold3’s World War II collection includes deck log books (found under the subheading of “World War II Diaries”), which provide interesting background information. In the deck log book for the USS Bar Harbor Section Base for 2 April 1943, among the notations of visits by Brigadier General Thomas H. Jones USA and Major Wertenberger USA from Fort Williams, Portland, Maine, and the departure of IX66 (Migrant) from the harbor, is the detailed record of the receipt from the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Co. (A&P, for those of us who grew up in New England) of 16 lbs. cabbage, 50 lbs. turnips, 50 lbs. carrots, 24 lbs. lettuce, [and] 20 lbs. tomatoes; from Douglas Bakery, 40 lbs. bread; from Mt. Desert Island Dairies, Inc., 18 gallons milk; from Navy Supply Pier, Casco Bay, Portland, Maine, 255 lbs. apples, 267 lbs. catsup, 76 lbs. coconut, 150 lbs. crackers, 100 lbs. cereals, 255 lbs. figs, 200 lbs. flour, 300 lbs. jam, 248 lbs. lard, 1100 lbs. evaporated milk, 350 lbs. peaches, 260 lbs. pears, 255 lbs. pineapple, 300 lbs. prunes, 240 lbs. cranberry sauce, [and] 1000 lbs. granulated sugar. These food stuffs were inspected as to quality for Lt. A. W. Mandelstam (MC) USNR, and inspected as to quantity by Ensign J. C. Rynd (S.C.) USNR. The log entry was signed by John A. MacDonald Jr., Ensign, USNR.
The Library of Congress American Memory collection, World War II Military Situation Maps, provides online access to maps showing troop positions from D-Day through 25 July 1945. In addition, the Veterans’ History Project is collecting oral histories and documents from several wars including World War II. Other pertinent information can be found at the Naval History and Heritage Command and the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center.
- Locate veterans and reunion groups for specific units. My husband, who served in Vietnam, belonged to a Charlie Company veterans group and, although he did not attend its national conventions, he did receive and read the group’s regular newsletter. Similar organizations exist for World War II units. Perhaps the best source for identifying a specific organization is Ben Myers Associations and Alumni Database, which lists veterans’ groups by military categories (Adjutant General, Cavalry, Engineers, JAG, Military Police, USAAC/USAAF/USAF, USN Ships, and many more). I have qualified this statement with “perhaps” as I have been unable to look at any of the entries due to a consistent “OBDC error code” (I have no idea what that means). Please try the site to see if you have better luck. Another site for this type of information is the Military Reunions Center where you can browse reunions by military branch.
Finally, there are several sources that you will want to consult as you begin and pursue World War II research.
Finding Information on Personal Participation in World War II, a pamphlet from the National Archives and Records Administration.
Finding Your Father’s War: a Practical Guide to Researching and Understanding Service in the World War II US Army, by Jonathan Gawne (Casemate, 2006).
How to Locate Anyone Who is or Has Been in the Military, by Richard Johnson and Deborah Johnson Know (MIE Publishing, 1999).
World War II Military Records: a Family Historian’s Guide by Debra Johnson Knox (MIE Publishing, 2003)