Researching a 20th-Century Military Ancestor Without a Service Record, Part 1

In 1973 fire ravaged the National Personnel Records Center in the suburbs of St. Louis. Stored in the facility were millions of service records belonging to men and women who served in the armed forces of the United States. The fire destroyed an estimated 80 percent of the records of Army personnel discharged between November 1912 and January 1960–that’s 80 percent of the records of those who served in the U.S. Army during the first and second world wars! In addition, about 75 percent of Air Force records for personnel discharged between September 1947 and January 1964 with names occurring alphabetically after James E. Hubbard were lost.1 The loss of these records affected millions of veterans and family history researchers.

What if your family was one of the families affected by this loss? Should you give up on discovering your ancestors’ twentieth-century military service?
Not at all! There are lots of alternatives available to you.

If your ancestor’s service and discharge fall into the time periods affected by the 1973 fire, a number of conditions may apply. First, the record may survive because it may not have been in the custody of the National Personnel Records center when the fire broke out. An undetermined number of files were outside the facility, in the custody of the Veterans Administration. These files were not affected by the fire and may have been returned to the NPRC or turned over to the National Archives. They may even remain with the VA. Second, many files damaged by the fire have been reconstructed, either from painstaking conservation of burned records, or from alternative record sources.2 Ordering the service record, even if you think it may have been burned, should always be your first step.

When you order a record, you will be asked for the name the veteran used during service, Social Security number, date and place of birth, details of service (branch, dates of entry/release, whether the service was officer or enlisted, service number), whether the veteran is deceased or retired. On the order form, be sure to check the items you want–DD 214 or equivalent, medical records, or other (e.g., complete personnel file, last/final pay voucher). You will also need to identify yourself and your relationship to the veteran. Anyone can order Official Military Personnel Files (OMPF) for veterans with discharge dates up to and including 1954. These are considered archival records and are available to the general public. If the veteran whose record you wish to order was discharged in 1955 or after, you will need to show that you are the veteran or next of kin (un-remarried spouse, child, parent, or sibling) of a deceased veteran. You will be required to show proof of death for a deceased veteran whose non-archival record you are requesting.3

If the response to your request shows that the veteran’s OMPF was indeed destroyed, you can search for substitute records: DD 214 and equivalents, last/final pay vouchers, or VA records.

  • DD 214 and equivalent records can often be found in family papers. Also check county courthouses. Discharged veterans often placed copies of their discharge records with county clerks to guard against loss or destruction, either in the county from which they entered the service, or in the county to which they moved after their discharge. If your veteran is deceased, check funeral home records for copies of discharge records. (The name of the undertaker should be listed on the veteran’s death certificate.) Many states offered bonus programs for veterans of the two world wars and subsequent conflicts. To obtain the bonuses, veterans had to provide specifics of their military service, often including discharge papers. Records of these bonus programs should be available in state archives; for some states, records are being digitized and may appear online.4
  • Last pay vouchers are often available for veterans from the NPRC or National Archives St. Louis. These vouchers often provide service numbers, enlistment dates and places, rank, military units/duty stations, decorations, and discharge information.5
  • To determine whether the Department of Veterans Affairs has information on your ancestor’s military service, contact your local VA office or county Veterans Affairs officer for help.

Don’t forget to search for newspaper references to your ancestor. Newspapers reported enlistments, leaves, transfers from one unit to another, discharges, even letters written to family members, in addition to battle wounds or deaths during service. Obituaries can also provide information on military service.

Once you know your veteran’s service, unit(s), rank, and dates of service, you can search for information in the records of the unit, a topic we’ll cover in our next blog post.

  1. The 1973 Fire, National Personnel Records Center,” National Archives at St. Louis (http://www.archives.gov/st-louis/military-personnel/fire-1973.html : accessed 25 May 2016).
  2. Ibid. See also “Burned Records,” National Archives at St. Louis (http://www.archives.gov/st-louis/archival-programs/preservation-program/burned-records.html#bfile : accessed 25 May 2016).
  3. Request Your Military Service Records, Online, by Mail, or by Fax,” National Archives (http://www.archives.gov/veterans/military-service-records/ : accessed 25 May 2016).
  4. See, for example, “Pennsylvania, Veteran Compensation Application Files, WWII, 1960-1966,” Ancestry (http://search.ancestry.com/search/db.aspx?dbid=3147 : accessed 25 May 2016).
  5. See Kathleen Brandt, “Your Ancestor’s Military Records were Destroyed? What to Do?,” blog entry dated 4 August 2011, Archives.com (http://www.archives.com/experts/brandt-kathleen/military-records-destroyed.html : accessed 25 May 2016), for an illustration of a pay voucher.
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