Several people have contacted me asking how to get information about a family member who served in the military in World War II. I do not profess to be an expert on researching individual veteran’s records but since I have done some research I can provide a little guidance.
I have been immensely fortunate that I have records directly from the veteran for my most immediate family members who served in WWII. I have a copy of my father’s discharge paper and a box of letters he wrote to my mother during the war. We have my father-in-law’s copy of his unit history from the 276th Armored Field Artillery Battalion. These histories were published right after the war and I have learned that they are both rare and valuable. The family also has his discharge paper. These can be very helpful as a starting place in searching for records.
On the other hand, last year when I was searching for information about my father’s cousin, Herman Connell Jr., who was killed in Europe in 1945, I found out just how difficult it was when you had very little specific information about the soldier. All I had was his name and the unit he served in which was on his gravestone. I was able to compile a story about his unit and the action they were in at the date of his death but I couldn’t get any specific information about his individual experiences.
The inquiries I received prompted me to look for some guide to searching for records. What I found was an excellent book which contains an enormous amount of information. “Finding Your Father’s War” by Jonathan Gawne is a must-have book for anyone looking for information on someone who served in the U.S. Army during World War II. I would even go so far as to say that it is a must-have book for anyone writing about World War II. It deals with the Army only, no Navy or Marines. It does include information about the Army Air Corp since during WWII the fly boys were part of the Army. It wasn’t until after the war that the Air Force became its own branch of the service.
One of the main reasons Gawne focused on the Army was that a fire in 1973 destroyed much of the individual service records as well as the company level records. The Navy, Marine and Coast Guard records were not burned and are available through those branches.
Some things discussed in “Finding Your Father’s War” I had already figured out from various sources. If I’d had this book it would have been so much easier and faster. There are other useful tidbits in Gawne’s book that I did not know. If you are trying to put together the pieces of someone’s military service these little details can yield a wealth of understanding.
I’ll give you some examples just to give you a feel for what I am talking about.
One of the things that I had already figured out from the many memoirs I’ve read was the structure of an Army Infantry Division. Each division had three infantry regiments thus it is referred to as a triangular organization. A division also had division artillery and division headquarters where all the support units were attached. Continuing with the triangular organization each infantry regiment was divided into three battalions plus headquarters. Although each infantry regiment had a unique number (the 30th Infantry Division consisted of the 117th, 119th and 120th Infantry Regiments), the battalions were simply numbered 1st, 2nd and 3rd (so the 117th Infantry Regiment had a 1st Battalion, a 2nd Battalion and a 3rd Battalion plus Headquarters). Each Battalion was made up of three rifle companies and a heavy weapons company. A letter designated each company but the letter designation wasn’t the same in each battalion. Instead it went like this: 1st Battalion consisted of Company A, Company B, Company C and Company D, the last being the heavy weapons company; 2nd Battalion consisted of Company E, Company F, Company G and Company H, again with the fourth one being heavy weapons; 3rd Battalion consisted of Company I, Company K, Company L and Company M, again Company M was heavy weapons and the letter J was skipped. So if you know your Army veteran was in Company H, he would have been in the heavy weapons company of the 2nd Battalion. This can be helpful since many historical accounts of battles refer to the battalion.
Something I learned from “Finding Your Father’s War” is that the soldier’s serial number isn’t just a random number assigned when he entered the service. The number will tell you something about the soldier. Serial numbers with no letter prefix means the soldier was an enlisted man. The prefix “O” indicates he was an officer. Others with letter prefixes included nurses, warrant officers, WAC’s and others. If the first number was a “1” the soldier was an enlistee. If it was a “2,” he was in the National Guard. A “3” meant he was drafted. Late in the war some draftees were given serial numbers starting with a “4.” The second digit in the serial number tells the geographic region of the country the soldier was in when he entered the service. These numbers correspond to the service commands within the United States. A map is included in the book.
In addition to this book there are numerous resources online that can help you. The National Archives, the Center for Military History, division organizations websites and Facebook pages, and even sites like Ancestry.com and Fold3.com. Local historic societies and local newspapers may be a source since many servicemen had articles written about them during the war. Family stories and even old pictures can provide clues especially if you know what to look for.
Good luck in searching for your WWII veteran’s records. It is always fascinating to learn about an individual’s service during the war when millions were in uniform and had such a variety of experiences.