As it gets closer to Veterans’ Day, we are reminded of our ancestors who sacrificed so much to serve in our Armed Forces. Sadly, the World War II generation is rapidly shrinking as they reach their nineties, and there are no combat veterans living who served in World War I.
I hope that when you research your family, you try to go beyond just names and dates and attempt to create a story of their lives. Part of what we do is to supplement the lack of autobiographical narrative by finding genealogical items our ancestors left behind, and to reconstruct the story ourselves. Unlike famous people, who saved their correspondence, our ancestors rarely kept their letters (and frequently couldn’t read or write). So we use genealogy records to do what little we can to add to their story.
It may be safe to say that military service, especially combat, is the central event in the lives of our veterans. Yes, they got married and had their children, accomplished a lot in their work, but nothing compares to the unique experience of joining the military and leaving the safety and comfort of home and family, and especially, Mama’s cooking!
So how do we find out what it was like for our ancestors? What kind of data is out there that can help us find out about our ancestor’s military service? Sadly, not a lot.
For years, the draft registration cards for World War I were available, but not indexed. Therefore it was almost impossible to find what you needed. Specifically, in Chicago, there were 80 draft boards, and you had to know which draft board your ancestor went to before you could try to find his draft card. Thankfully, Ancestry.com has indexed the draft cards for both World War I and II, nationwide. The bad news is that we have to deal with misspelled names on these handwritten forms. But the good news is that we get a snapshot of their lives at the time of the draft. A typical draft card lists the name of course, where they lived, and the date and place of birth. (Sorry but many of these just say “Italy” or “Naples” rather than the town.) The draft card will also show the citizenship status, and information about employment. Finally it lists dependents, but rarely their names. This was mostly for those who needed to claim hardship exemption from the draft. On the back of the card, there is usually a physical description. No height and weight, because that would be too easy. “Tall, Medium or Short.” “Slender, Medium or Stout,” eye color, hair color. “Bald?” Seriously, does this tell them to draft the guy because they save money on the army haircut???
Not all cards are this detailed. In World War II, they used a simple card for men who were born between 1877 and 1887, because it was highly unlikely those men would ever be drafted in the 1940s. Basically it lists the name, race, occupation, and the same physical description questions as in World War I.
Ancestry.com also has enlistment records for World War II, covering those who joined up before being drafted. However, the actual paperwork is not viewable. We can see the index of these records and there is quite a bit. Their enlistment date and city (but not home address), branch of service they joined (frequently this was left to the discretion of the country), and a general summary of their education, civil occupation and marital status. This time, they list the height and weight as numbers.
So far all we know is that they filled out a draft card or enlisted. What happened after that? There are unfortunately very few records describing the rank and unit the veteran served in. Frequently this can be found on a military gravestone. But the stone shows the discharge rank, not the promotions and transfers. There is a database of enlistment and release dates called the Beneficiary Identification Records Locator Subsystem (BIRLS) Death File. None of this gives us any more details about their unit and the action that unit was involved in, but it does list dates of birth and death and service number, which we might need later.
Not every veteran is buried with a military headstone, but the application form has a lot of information. It shows the enlistment date, discharge date, branch of service and unit, and the cemetery name. It doesn’t have to be in a military “National” cemetery.
There are Navy and Marine muster roll databases on Ancestry as well, which at least list the enlistment and muster dates but not much else.
If your family was in America during the Civil War, there are a lot of private web sites that list the soldiers by the unit they were in, and other sites with regimental histories. These describe where that unit fought and major events that happened to it. Whether your ancestor fought for the Union or the Confederate army, there is a lot of information about where he fought, even if there isn’t much on his personal heroism.
There are also a lot of personal web sites about Viet Nam veterans and casualties. Since many veterans from this war are still living, there are a lot of memorial sites to their comrades who never came home. These sites frequently describe specific battles as remembered by those who survived. It is unfortunate that there are not many sites dedicated to Korea, WWI and WWII vets, mostly because they are far less involved with the internet then their younger counterparts.
If you do find the name of your ancestor’s unit, you might want to search the internet for that unit to see if anyone has published a history. There might be oral histories that were later transcribed and self-published.
By now, the loaded question is: Why can’t I just contact the US military and get a complete service record for my grandpa? You certainly can, but don’t be surprised if the records do not exist. In 1973, the National Personnel Records Center had a catastrophic fire that destroyed a large number of military records that were never duplicated or microfilmed. This includes Army service records for veterans discharged between 1912 and 1960, and Air Force records for veterans discharged between 1947 and 1964. About 80% of those records are gone forever. The only way to find out if your ancestor has records or not, is to request them. The details on what records you can ask for as a next-of-kin and what you can ask for if you are not, is explained on the following web pages.
Due to this very spotty list of seemingly random sources, my conclusion to all this is to urge you to interview your surviving veterans. Even if your father is no longer living, find a veteran who was in his unit, if possible, and interview him. My experience has been that some veterans do not want to talk about the painful experiences of war, but they do want to talk about their service to our country. You should probably record the interview because you’ll need a dictionary for all the military terms they will “drop” during the interview. My dad was in the National Guard in the 1950s on reserve duty, and never served in combat, but after an hour of stories, my head spins!
Write to Dan at firstname.lastname@example.org and please put “Fra Noi” in the subject and let me know what kind of luck you have had with military records and interviews.