Genealogy: World War II 1941-1945, Researching and finding military records

Soldier 4By Barry J. Ewell
The following categories and additional resources are provided to aid your research and finding of military records for World War II 1941-1945:

  • World War II Overview
  • Researching World War II military records
    • Build a search profile for each male
    • Where to find the personal information
    • Sample World War II male search profile
  • Search World War II Records
    • World War II Draft
    • Service records
    • Pension records
  • Military history
  • Search the cemetery
  • Search Home

World War II Overview
Fought between the years o1939-1945, World War II began in September 1939 when Germany, under the leadership of Adolf Hitler, invaded Poland.  Britain and France responded by declaring war on Germany. German expanded its aggression in 1940 by attacking Denmark, Norway followed by Belgium, Netherlands, and France on the ground and Britain through an air war. The United States joined the war on December 7, 1941 with Japan launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.  By the end of 1941, the Soviet Union joined the war on the side of the Britain and United States with Germany invaded Russia.

The primary players in World War II were the Axis nations (Nazi Germany, Facists Italy, Imperial Japan and smaller allies and the Allied nations lead by Britian (and its Commonwealth nations), the Soviet Socialists Republics, and the United States.

United States along with allied forces were engaged in combat against Japan in the Pacific and Germany/Italy in Northern Africa and Europe.  In June of 1944 United States was part of the Normandy Invasion (D-day) in German occupied France. The German army was forced to retreat from the West and from the East by Russia. Germany surrounded in May 1945. Japan surrounded in August 1945.

During the War over 50 million service personnel and civilians were killed.  The nations suffering the most loss were as follows:

  • USSR 42,000,000
  • Germany 9,000,000
  • China 4,000,000
  • Japan 3,000,000

The profile of U.S. servicemen during World War II are as follows:

  • 38.8% (6,332,000) of U.S. servicemen and all servicewomen were volunteers
  • 61.2% (11,535,000) were draftees
  • Average duration of service: 33 months
  • Overseas service: 73% served overseas, with an average of 16 months abroad
  • Combat survivability (out of 1,000): 8.6 were killed in action, 3 died from other causes, and 17.7 received non-fatal combat wounds
  • Non-combat jobs: 38.8% of enlisted personnel had rear echelon assignments—administrative, support, or manual labor
  • 407,316 servicemen were killed with 671,278 wounded

Researching World War II military records
I have made it a practice to search World War II records for males and females that I have found in the 1920-1940 U.S. Federal censuses that were between the ages of 16 to 60 years of age between 1941-1945.There is a good chance they served or registered for service in WW II.  With the online availability of records, searching for military records should be part of your research process for males who were born between the years of 1891 and 1927.

Build a search profile for each male and female. Begin by developing a short profile for each male and female (who was in military) you will be researching. You will use the list as a reference for your search.  Include the following

  • Name of male and variations
  • Approximate age at the beginning and end of the World War II
  • Approximate birth year or birth date
  • Approximate death year or death date
  • Name of the wife/husband and children during their life time
  • State (include county if possible) where male lived before, during and after WW II

With the online availability of records, searching for military records should be part of your research process for males who were born between the years of 1891 and 1927.  WWII
Where to find the personal information
I would begin to build my search profile viewing the information on the 1920 to 1940 U.S. Federal census.

Check the 1920 U. S. Federal census to identify

  • Living males between the ages of 0/12 and 29
  • Place of birth for the male
  • If married, name of spouse and children and their ages
  • Place of residence (state and county) at the time of the census

Check the 1930 U.S. Federal Census

  • Living males between the ages of 2 and 48
  • If married, name of spouse and children and their ages
  • Place of residence (state and county) at the time of the census

Check the 1940 U.S. Federal Census

  • Living males between the ages of 12 and 58
  • If married, name of spouse and children and their ages
  • Place of residence (state and county) at the time of the census

Start with at least the 1930 and 1940 census and expand to the 1920 censuses as needed. A sample search profile is as follows:

Sample World War II male search profile
Census yearNameAge and apprx birth year/DateFamilyLocationPlace of birth
1920 CensusJay Stewart3 (11917)Living with father James Isaac StewartBlackfoot, Bingham, IdahoNebraska
1930 CensusThomas J. Stewart13 (1917)Living with father James Isaac StewartBlackfoot, Bingham, IdahoNebraska
1940 CensusJ. Stewart23 (1917)(F) Mary Elizabeth 22
(F) Mary 3/12
(F) Robert 2
Blackfoot, Bingham, IdahoNebraska

Search World War II Records
Once you have developed a World War II search profile for the males you want to research with available information, you are now ready to search multiple online databases, websites and microfilm.

World War II Draft. Once the United States entered World War II, the local draft boards of the Selective Service were required to register all men ages 18-64 for the draft. The focus of the draft was to give the United States an inventory of the manpower resources and skills that would be available for military, industrial, and national service.

Each card was filled out by the Selective Service registrar who asked the applicant the questions and then recorded the answers.  The applicant the reviewed and signed the card. The information on the cards is as follows:

  • Name
  • Residence
  • Birth Place (Tow or city, county, state or country)
  • Serial number
  • Age
  • Mailing address
  • Name and address of a person who will always know the applicants address
  • Employer’s name and address
  • Race

There were six draft registrations during the war of which only the fourth is available.  The other registrations are accessible to the public 62 years after discharge.  If the veteran separated from the service before 1953, which is most of the WWII soldiers, you can access their Official Military Personnel File through NARA “Official Military Personnell Files (OMPF), Archival Holdings.”

For the veterans who separated from the service after 1952, only he/she or an authorized person can access their Official Military Personnel File through NARA “Official Military Personnell Files (OMPF), Archival Holdings.”

The fourth draft concluded on April 27, 1942 by the Selective Service is currently available to research.  The “World War II Selective Service Draft Cards: Fourth Registration, 1942,” is often referred to as the “Old man’s draft” or “Old man’s registration.” These men were not expected to serve. The age group was to include men between the ages of 45 and 64 where were not already in the service.  They were to have been born on or between April 28, 1877 and February 16, 1897.  There is an overlap of the WWI and WWII registrants who were born between 1877 and 1900, thus some men are registered twice.  A complete set of fourth registration cards are available for 40 states and Puerto Rico. Only the boroughs of New York City are available for New York. The following states registration cards were destroyed.

  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Kentucky
  • Mississippi
  • North Carolina
  • South Carolina
  • Tennessee

The following are fourth draft registration cards for the World War II for the Stewart brothers who served in WWI.  See their WWI registrations in the the article, “Genealogy: World War I 1917-1919, Researching Draft Registration cards.”

WWII Card 3 WWII Card 2 WWII Card 1You can access these records through FamilySearch (Free) (Image view only) (Image view with partial index) and Ancestry.com and Fold3 (Subscription).

Carefully record the information you gain from the cards to give you clues of other records to search. I have used the information on the cards to:

  • Learn the birth date and place of the individual. Use the information to birth records (e.g., birth certificate) and more information about immediate family, parents, and siblings.
  • Learn the names of spouse, dependents and residence.  Use the information to look for additional records about the family such as census, church and land records.
  • Occupation which as lead to occupation records
  • Land ownership used to help find land records

Service records. Service records cover the time an ancestor was actually in the service. These records almost always include a name, dates of enlistment, attendance and discharge, beginning and ending rank, and military unit.

Use service records to learn about the following:

  • An ancestor’s military service
  • The necessary details to locate a pension file or military history
  • Place or date of birth (secondary source for this information)
  • Other details such as residence, occupation or citizenship
  • A physical description
  • Death or burial information
  • Medical information
  • Insights into the ancestor’s personality and performance (promotions, notations, and so on)
  • See if and where the ancestor was held as a prisoner of war

Service records are available from before World War I and are located in the National Personnel Records Center, Military Personnel Records (NPRC-MPR), St. Louis Missouri.  The repository holds millions of military personnel, health, and medical records of discharged and deceased veterans of all services during the 20th century.  Access to the records is usually to limited veteran or next of kin.  The next of kin is defined as the un-remarried widow or widower, son, daughter, father, mother, brother or sister of the deceased veteran must provide proof of death of the veteran, such as a copy of the death certificate, a letter from the funeral home or a published obituary.

You may now use vetrecs.archives.gov to order a copy of your military records. For all others, your request is best made using a Standard Form 180. It includes complete instructions for preparing and submitting requests. Please Note: All requests must be in writing, signed and mailed to us at the address shown below.

Special note: On July 12, 1973, a disastrous fire at the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) destroyed approximately 16-18 million Official Military Personnel Files (OMPF). The records affected:

BranchPersonnel and Period AffectedEstimated Loss
ArmyPersonnel discharged November 1, 1912 to January 1, 196080%
Air ForcePersonnel discharged September 25, 1947 to January 1, 1964 (with names alphabetically after Hubbard, James E.)75%

No duplicate copies of these records were ever maintained, nor were microfilm copies produced. Neither were any indexes created prior to the fire. In addition, millions of documents had been lent to the Department of Veterans Affairs before the fire occurred. Therefore, a complete listing of the records that were lost is not available. However, in the years following the fire, the NPRC collected numerous series of records (referred to as Auxiliary Records) that are used to reconstruct basic service information.

If you desire the service record of your ancestor, do not assume they were burned.  Go through the procedures that were outlined above.

Pension records. Pension records cover the post-service period when your ancestor (or his or her next-of-kin) may have received benefits. They usually include a name, dates of enlistment and discharge, beginning and ending rank, and military unit.

Use pension records to learn about the following:

  • An ancestor’s military service
  • The necessary details to locate a military history
  • Place or date of birth (secondary source for this information)
  • Dates and places of other life events
  • Names of spouse or children (and sometimes their birth dates)
  • Other details (such as residence, occupation, or citizenship)
  • A physical description
  • Death or burial information
  • Medical information
  • Insights into ancestor’s personality and performance (through his or her letters, affidavits filed by others who knew him or her, and so on)
  • Learn of an ancestor’s literacy, see ancestor’s signature
  • Learn more about ancestor’s post-war years and life.

The Department of Veteran Affairs all the applications for pension files.  Veteran files are located in regional offices.  I would suggest that you start with the regional offices in your area.  Ask the staff in these offices to guide you through the request process and what relationship you need to be to obtain copies of the papers in the pension files.

Military history
Military histories (often referred to as regimental or unit histories) can add historical background to help you understand the conflict and your ancestor’s participation in it. They usually include a roster of those who served in the unit and dates of major engagements.

Use military history records to more fully appreciate the military experience of your ancestor, learn who he or she served with, learn which engagements he or she was involved in, and see what he or she looked like. Clues to where the soldier served be provided both serviceman, insignias on uniforms, headstones and other resources.UniformIf you have the company, division, squadron of your ancestor you can search the internet for available information that can include histories and lists to detailed records about individuals and units they belonged.  Example of Google search query could be:

  • 12th  Army Group
  • Allied Armies in Italy
  • B 17 Flying Fortress Units
  • 124th Cavalry Regiment
  • 8th Infantry Division
  • 2nd Armored Division
  • 101st Airborne Division
  • Seebees
  • Task Force 31
  • USS Picket
  • Naval Air Station Port Lyautey
  • 2nd Battalion, 312th Field Artillery
  • 111th Observation Squadron
  • Women in WWII

Also check with U.S. military resources regarding official military unit histories.  The following are few resources on the internet:

Many county and state genealogical/historical societies, university archives and libraries and museums have extensive projects to record and preserve the record of WWII among veterans and community involvement.  Start your search by doing Google searches such as

  • New york WWII
  • New york WWII OR World War II
  • New york historical Society WWII
  • Tacoma Historical Society WWII Memorial
  • University of Missouri WWII

Search the cemetery
The following are resources I have used to locate cemetery records of soldiers from World War II:

Department of Veterans Affairs National Gravesite Locator. Search for burial locations of veterans and their family members in VA National Cemeteries, state veterans cemeteries, various other military and Department of Interior cemeteries, and for veterans buried in private cemeteries when the grave is marked with a government grave marker using the Gravesite Locator.  The following are variations of military headstones/markers:

Headstone 5headstone 2Headstone 4Arlington National Cemetery provides information on service members buried there.

ArlingtonThe American Battle Monuments Commission provides information on service members buried in overseas cemeteries.
Europe Military Cemeter
Search Home
Home is great place to begin your search for learning about the military service of family and ancestors. For example:

SoldeierService Ribbons

  • Military records and artifacts. This can include disability records, discharge records, National Guard records, pension records, selective service records, service medals or ribbons, sword or firearms, uniform.
  • Photographs.  Photographs are great resource because you able to see clues such as branch of service, unit numbers, specific war or time of service, service ribbons and medals, rank,  patches and pins related to skills and training. Photographs exist from as early as the Civil War.Writings.  As you research ancestor writings (e.g., post cards, letters, and notes) look carefully at the time periods covering the various wars and conflicts.  These communications are among the most saved and treasured in families.  In our family we have the WWI letters between grandpa and grandma which share their inner most thoughts of being parted, activities, experiences, hopes and dreams. Look at clues such as post marks, stamps, and inscriptions on post cards to see if they will give you any indications of where to look for information/records.
  • Scrapbooks and momentous. Look for collections of artifacts that include scrapbooks that are often organized by topic or timeline. I found a family trunk that was loaded with military images, letters, newspapers, postcards and much more from a WW I soldier.
  • Journals, written and oral family histories.  Check to see if journals exist for family members. Has any member of your family written their memoirs about their military service? Is there an oral history or written history related to military service.   I’ve been fortunate to record the military experiences of my dad and his brothers for WWII and Korean War.  If you haven’t already, take the time to record the history of family from the WWII era.  This should include both the soldier and those at home.
  • Newspapers.  Take the time to search microfilm or online collections of newspapers from the hometown of where family lived during the times of War/conflicts.  The newspapers were filled with stories about soldiers such as enlistments, graduations, letters from the front being published, promotions, images and deaths. Search every issue carefully; most stories about soldiers were on the front page of hometown papers.   In our family we have articles showing grandpas enlistment in WWI and series of articles about an uncle in WWII 1) June of 1943 his plane was shot down in WWII and was missing in action 2) July of 1943 he is in a prisoner of war in Germany and 3) April 1945 he is freed.  Your best chance of finding articles will be from 1890’s forward.
  • Death event records.  As I have search for death event records, I have been able to identify references that have helped me research military records.  For example, obituaries will often mention branch of military service and related details.  Headstones can mention service and rank or even have markers related to branch of service.