I’ve spent more than 20 years in the genealogy community and have observed many shifts in the way we research our family’s histories. Often the shifts have come in the way records have become accessible. Primarily through online subscription websites. There are many researchers who believe those records should be free and you can do it all yourself without ever hiring a professional researcher. This is not always possible.
For the last several years, the accessibility of World War II records has changed significantly where the Official Military Personnel Files (OMPF) or service files are concerned. No longer do you have to be the next-of-kin to receive these records if the soldier died or was discharged by 1953.
There has also been a slight increase in those researching these records. Ancestry.com and Fold3.com have digitized many record sets from the unit records at the National Archives in College Park, MD. And with the advent of so much more becoming digitally available through those websites and libraries and other research institutions, people complain even more that what they want is not online and it is not free. And many see no value in hiring a researcher.
So why isn’t World War II research free and why sometimes do you need to hire a researcher?
Most of What You Need is NOT Online
The majority of records you need to begin your research and verify your soldier was really where you think he was, are not online. They are at the NPRC in St. Louis in the form of OMPFs and Morning Reports (Army, Air Corps, National Guard.) This is your starting point after you exhaust your home sources. Sending in Form 180 won’t even touch the surface of what is available there. So you can go there or hire a researcher to pull records. The same applies for unit-level records at National Archives in College Park, MD.
Ease or Difficulty of Record Access and Privacy
The primary repository that comes to mind when we talk about difficulty in obtaining records is the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis where the OMPFs are held. Yes you can mail in Form 180 or request records online through their system, but more often than not, if your soldier was Army, Air Corps, or National Guard, you are going to get a letter that says ‘All the records burned.‘ Yet, this isn’t always the case.
It is a good idea to hire a researcher there, like Norm Richards, to request not only the OMPF but search for Morning Reports, Air Force Award Cards, Monthly Rosters, Payroll records, Hospital Admission Cards, and other records housed at this facility. He will stay on top of the process of whether or not a file actually exists. Sometimes they tell him it does not and a week later, they give him the file they said was gone. Norm can also submit FOIA requests for records of those who were discharged after 1953 or for those who want medical records.
The OMPFs are not online for many reasons like privacy and the time and cost of digitizing those records.
It Is Expensive To Digitize and Store Records
National Archives has partnerships with companies like Ancestry.com and Fold3.com to help them digitize their unit-level records and place them on subscription websites. It is expensive to hire staff to pull the records, sort them, scan them, enhance them, upload them, index them, and also store the files and back them up. That cost has to be disbursed to subscribers. I doubt it will be within my children or grandchildrens lifetimes that all the WWII records are digitized. There are just too many to deal with.
Then why, you might ask, do some Division Associations and Reunion Groups have records on their websites and offer them for free? These groups have often been collaborating and pulling records for decades. It is a project borne out of great passion and the deep need to never forget. The groups that offer a large amount of records online are far and few between. Many have paper records and will do some research for those who request it, sometimes free and sometimes for a fee.
Help Is Needed To Decipher Records
Military lingo can be confusing and some people just need help. There are abbreviation guides and dictionaries online and in research institutions to help you sort reports out, but sometimes having someone who really understands this can shed new light onto the history.
One Person Is Not All-Knowing
We all have different research and writing skills and one person does not know everything. One researcher also does not have access to every single record available either. This is why I collaborate with a network of researchers around the world. Each one of them has a different area of research, whether it is a unit or battle or theater of war. And many of them have a stash of records.
Researchers who have taken the steps to start a business often have different skills than those who perform research as a hobby. They may have education, networks, and experience behind them that others do not. Those skills deserve to be compensated especially because these researchers often offer things others cannot.
When you collaborate with researchers, through paid or unpaid avenues, they each contribute to the bigger picture of your soldier’s story. Isn’t that the most important piece of the puzzle? The soldier’s story?
So, How Do I Proceed?
There are many times when you can do research on your own. I wrote books to teach people how to do this because not everyone has it in their budget to hire someone to research for them. The records are available, but what has not been until now, is the “how to do it” information.
Read articles on WWII research. I offer many on this website and I write for The In-Depth Genealogists magazine “Going In-Depth”, Internet Genealogy, Your Genealogy Today, and Ancestry.com’s blog. Other avenues will be added in the future.
You can attend an educational program on WWII research. These are far and few between, but in 2016 I will be offering courses through my website. I also lecture in the U.S. and Europe. National Archives offers a Virtual Genealogy Fair each fall where you can learn about the high-level perspective of some WWII records. These are helpful to learn about other things available, but not as helpful if you want the research details. These have been made available on YouTube so if you miss one or want to refresh your knowledge, you can.
Change the Perspective on Research
I encourage you to change the lens through which you view WWII research and remember there is always a cost. For those men and women who served, it was often their lives whether they were Killed In Action or came home with some issue. For us, it is time, money, and the desire to preserve their memories, sometimes at our emotional cost.
How will you preserve your family’s military history?
© 2015 Jennifer Holik