Researching a 20th-century Military Ancestor Without a Service Record–Part 2

In a previous post, I presented a number of ideas for pursuing alternative sources of information on the twentieth-century military service of an ancestor whose service record may have been destroyed in the 1973 National Personnel Records Center Fire–seeing whether a service record has been reconstructed or survived in the custody of another agency, ordering last pay bouchers, locating discharge records, investigating records in state war bonus programs, and searching newspapers.

In this post, I’ll give you some ideas you can pursue once you identify your ancestor’s rank and unit, by researching the military units he or she was part of. Each individual unit forms part of a hierarchy of units, so you’ll want to create a list. For example, one World War II veteran served in Company B, 394th Infantry Regiment.1 The 394th was part of the 99th Infantry Division, V Corps, First Army.2 Information about his experiences during his time in service, in decreasing level of detail, can be gleaned from the records of his company, his regiment, his division, his corps, and First Army.

Google and Wikipedia are great places to get a general overview of your ancestor’s unit. For more specific information, go to the history/heritage center for your ancestor’s service.

  • For the Army, be sure to look for the Army Center of Military History, located at Fort McNair, in Washington, DC. Their website’s Resources/Research and Unit History tabs lead to a wealth of information. Don’t overlook their FAQs or their collection of photographs. Also check out the <ahref=”http://www.carlisle.army.mil/ahec/index.cfm”>Army Heritage and Education Center (USAHEC), located at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The center’s a wonderful library and archives has a online catalog.
  • To research Air Force units, start with the Air Force History and Museums website. On the website, go to the Air Force Historical Research Agency’s Organization, Lineage, Honors, Heraldry link to find a guide to Air Force lineage, acronyms and abbreviations, and information on your ancestor’s unit.
  • Your ancestor’s Navy or Marine Corps record should not have been affected by the fire, but you should still learn about the units in which he or she served. The Naval History and Heritage Command, located in the Washington Navy Yard in Washington, DC, has a great website, with tabs for finding ship histories, researching archival records, and viewing historic photos. The Marine Corps History Division is located in Quantico, Virginia. Don’t miss their website’s Frequently Requested, Photo Galleries, and Information for Units sections.

Once you’ve found general information about the unit, where it served, and what it did, you can dive deeper by looking for Air Force and Army morning reports and unit rosters, available from the National Archives in St. Louis. Army morning reports and unit rosters for the period 1912-1959 and all Air Force morning reports are archival records (accessible to anyone), while Army morning reports and unit rosters for the period 1960-1974 are federal records, accessible to individuals by written request. The National Archives provides more information about accessing these records here. Morning reports are daily records of changes in the personnel assigned to a unit, so be prepared to spend plenty of time researching them. (You may even wish to get help from a professional.) For an idea of what these records are like, you can see a sample World War II morning report from the 29th Infantry Division here, or click here for another example of a World War II Army morning report and an Air Force World War II enlisted roster.

In additional to the morning reports and unit rosters, which are records of the lowest-level organizational units (e.g., Army companies), you may be interested in finding operational records of the higher-level units (e.g., Army regiments, divisions, corps, and armies). The service history and heritage centers, as well as the U.S. National Archives, provide guidance for finding the original records of these higher-level units.

In addition, googling the unit may help you locate groups of veterans or historians associated with the unit–reunion groups, websites, and social media sites. For example, there is a historical society for the 99th Infantry Division, and a Facebook page for the historical society.

While your ancestor may have left little information on his or her military service, others associated with his unit may have left diaries, written memoirs, or contributed oral histories. To find them, you’ll need to use a multi-pronged search strategy. Start with a Google search for “diaries,” “memoirs,” or “oral history” plus the name of the military unit or the war. Next, check the service heritage sites. Check the Library of Congress American Folklife Center’s Veterans History Project. Check state and local historical societies for memoirs, diaries, and oral history projects. Keep track of where you have searched and what you have located.

And don’t forget to include photos in your search–you might find these in the collections of the National Archives, on the service historical sites, in the collections of state or local historical societies, or in private hands. Even if you can’t find labeled images of your ancestor, you can most likely find group shots of his or her unit and its operations that can give you an idea of what he or she experienced.

Researching the units in which your ancestor served leads naturally to researching the wars in which the unit participated, either on the Internet through Google searches and the websites of the service historical sites, or in books you can purchase or borrow from your local library. As you research, create maps and timelines to trace your ancestor’s service through space and time. Michael Lacopo’s Hoosier Daddy? blog has a series of great entries documenting the World War II service of Frank Strukel.3

NOTE: Michael Lacopo is one of the featured speakers at this year’s 9th Annual North Star Conference, sponsored by the Minnesota Genealogical Society September 29 through October 1 in Edina, Minnesota. I will be a breakout speaker. Conference information is here on the MGS website.

  1. Minnesota, Department of Veterans’ Affairs, World War II Bonus Records, entry for Russell Hugo Knudson, claim number 182827, SAM 232, reel 103; Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.
  2. “394th Infantry Regiment (United States),” Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/394th_Infantry_Regiment_(United_States) : accessed 7 June 2016) and “99th Infantry Division (United States),” Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/99th_Infantry_Division_(United_States) : accessed 7 June 2016).
  3. Start with Michael Lacopo, “Frank, Part III: Marching to War,” Hoosier Daddy? (http://roots4u.blogspot.com/2014/03/frank-part-iii-marching-to-war.html : accessed 7 June 2016), and be sure to read “A Momentary Interlude,” Hoosier Daddy? (http://roots4u.blogspot.com/2014/03/a-momentary-interlude.html : accessed 7 June 2016) about Michael’s sources.
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