World War II veterans are almost a lost generation, as many die each day. Stories of their military service can be captured through oral history, family records and military service records. Finding service records, however, can be tricky or impossible in some cases. The National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, the repository of military service records, lost more than 80 percent of its Army records and more than 75 percent of its Air Force records in a fire in 1973. There are no duplicates of those records. The Navy and Marine records, however, were barely touched. If the records you want turn out to be among those destroyed, you'll have to seek alternate sources.
Collect as much information about the family member as possible, including the full name, serial number (assigned to each member of the military, men and women), unit information and theatre of war, if known.
Request a search of military service records from the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis. This is a branch of the National Archives. Send a request online or through the mail, using form SF-180.
Request a search for the Individual Deceased Personnel File (IDPF) if the soldier died during the war. The National Archives in College Park, Md., handles these requests. The documents in the file vary by soldier but may include a description of death, overseas gravesite, unit and serial number, family correspondence to the government, disinterment directives and reburial directives. These documents are free.
Search online for unit histories. Many WWII groups or historians have created unit websites. These websites may feature unit rosters, battle history, old and current photographs of soldiers and additional service information.
Search for books about a unit. Some units have not published information online, but books have been written about them. Many soldiers kept diaries, several of which have been published. Such material may provide an idea of what your relative's wartime experience may have been like.
Search morning reports. These were completed by each company in the Army. They are available on microfilm from the National Personnel Records Center. You must know the name of the soldier's company and the dates of his service. Morning reports are not indexed, so finding them is hit or miss.
Items you will need
- Soldier's name
- Serial number
- Unit information
- War theatre
- Many sources of WWII records are available. If you strike out with one source, try another.
- Talk to others who are researching the unit in which your family member served. They may have specific information on your family member.
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