|Was your family one of the hundreds of thousands who lost a loved one in World War II? If you want to discover his or her story, but don't know where to begin, this article by Terry Phillips is for you.|
They were pimple-faced teenagers and grown men with families. Some of them were women. Some of them lied about their age to enlist, and some dreaded the arrival of their draft notice. Millions of them served, and hundreds of thousands never returned. For us, now, the dead of WWII are names on "Roll of Honor" plaques that we might notice while we're waiting for the light to change, or they're dusty old photos hanging on the wall at Grandma's house, maybe a box of letters in the attic.
Even at this late date, there are still many people who mourn the loss of a Dad or husband, a brother, a nice neighbor boy. What happened to him? Sometimes we know, more or less. Often, too often, we know little of this person beyond a name and relationship to us. We want to know more, but how do we start, and how much can we find out?
Being involved in just this sort of research, I was asked by Mr. Dave Allender of WarChronicle.com to share some of what I've learned about the process. I'm happy to help, and will say that in addition to finding out about your relative and his fate, you will learn things about our country and military, your family, and possibly yourself as well.
First, let's assume you're starting with nothing but a name: John Smith. Call your parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents etc. or better yet, go visit them. Ask them about Smith and what they remember about him. Ask them about their lives too. You might be surprised to learn that your old Aunt Sally made wings for B-29's or dated 500 soldiers and sailors in 1944. Take a notebook, and use it. Ask if anyone has any documents, photos, letters. Make several copies of everything.
Photos can be inexpensively copied and enlarged at the little Kodak kiosks at Wal-Mart etc. The quality of the print will be about as good as the original, and brand-new.
Military documents of any kind will have Smith's rank and serial number on them. You'll need those, especially the serial number.
Military serial numbers are not the same as Social Security numbers, and were in use from WWI until the late 1960's. The number itself contains information about Smith, such as whether he was an officer or enlisted, Regular, National Guard or draftee. Try a web search for "U.S. Army World War II Dog Tags" for more info.
Next, go to the website for The American Battle Monuments Commission (www.abmc.gov). This is the government agency responsible for maintaining U.S. military cemeteries overseas, and if Smith is buried overseas or is one of those whose body was never recovered, he will be in the ABMC database. Information found at ABMC will include Name, Rank, Serial #, Unit, Awards, the State from which Smith entered the Service, date of death, and the cemetery where he is buried or memorialized, but only if Smith is buried in an ABMC cemetery. If his body was brought home after the war you're out of luck about him personally, but can use the database to search for and get an idea of his unit's casualties. The ABMC website also explains how you can obtain a photo of Smith's grave, arrange for flowers to be placed, and other services.
You will also want to try to get Smith's Service records. These are kept by the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, or NARA (www.archives.gov). Their website contains information regarding the types of records they keep, and how to request them. Unfortunately the information available to you will be limited by two things. First, a fire at the facility in 1973 destroyed approximately 80% of WWII service records. You can request that Smith's service record be reconstructed but beware that it takes a long time to do this, and you will probably still only receive limited information. Secondly, if you aren't classified as "Next-of-Kin" (parent, sibling, child, or un-remarried spouse) you will only receive a statement of Smith's service with his birth date, service dates, serial number, branch, and awards authorized. You may also request his medical records, but will need his serial number as medical records were not filed under the name, only the number.
I don't mean to suggest that going to NARA is a dead-end. You might find a wealth of information available in your case. Please don't let potential setbacks deter you in your research. In other words, leave no stone unturned!
Next, contact the government agency that maintains information on Smith's death. For Army personnel, write to the U.S. Army Human Resources Command, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) office at 200 Stovall St., Alexandria Virginia 22332-0400. Request, under the "Freedom of Information Act", Smith's "Individual Deceased Personnel File" or IDPF, This file may be a page or two, or it might be a hundred pages long, depending on the circumstances of his death. In most cases there is no charge, but if you're requesting multiple files or the file is very long, there might be a small fee. It takes eight or nine months to receive this file, but the folks at the AHRC-FOIA office are very professional and, well, nice. The file isn't graphic, but might contain some sobering information that will affect you more than you'd think, even if Smith died before you were born.
IDPF's can contain a lot of other information that you might not otherwise ever know. For instance, the file I requested contained several Army Dental Clinic registry entries (can you guess why?) for my "Smith" that showed him belonging to a different unit (16th Infantry, 1st Division) than the one he lost his life serving with (180th Infantry, 45th Division). This led me to WarChronicle.com and now thanks to them I have a copy of his Company roster from 1941.
For further information regarding Army, Naval or Marine Corps deceased personnel information go to the American WWII Orphan's Network (www.awon.org), an excellent site that does a great job explaining how to get military records, since they are, as their name states, an organization for those who lost a parent in service during the war.
Finally, whenever you find out which unit your John Smith belonged to, search out a Veteran's organization for that outfit, if one exists. See if you can attend a reunion. You might find people who knew your family member, and even if you don't you're making contact with guys like him who served and suffered in the same places, men or women who deserve every respect for going through what your family member went through, but were lucky enough to come home.
When you research a family member who was killed in the service of our country, you're doing something for that person and your family, to be sure, but you're also educating yourself in a profound way, connecting with history, family and American, in a manner that simply can't be done with books, classes, websites, or the History Channel. Good luck!