In Europe there are many researchers who seek information on the soldier’s grave they adopted at one of the American Battle Monument Commission (ABMC) Cemeteries. The questions they seek answers to are generally the same. This article focuses on where Europeans can find answers to those questions. Typically, European researchers start with online resources like Ancestry.com, Fold3.com, FindAGrave, and Newspaper databases.
The answers provided in this article are the tip of the iceberg for what is available to researchers. Use it as a starting point to move your research forward.
To help European researchers approach WWII research, please pick up a copy of my book Faces of War: Researching Your Adopted Soldier from one of the Dutch Foundations selling it in Europe. This book was written for ALL European researchers to specifically address how they conduct research from Europe.
Stop by tomorrow to read where Americans can find answers and help European researchers.
If you would like to see more questions relating to soldier and civilian service and life, please see my book Stories from the World War II Battlefield Volume 3: Writing the Stories of War for more writing prompts and ideas.
Soldier’s genealogy information – birth, marriage, death places and dates.
Many researchers in Europe have access to Ancestry.com and Fold3.com. This is the best place to start your research in:
- Census records
- Vital records (birth, marriage, death)
- Military records (Army enlistment, burial applications, Muster Rolls and Deck Logs)
- Unit records digitized on Fold3.
- High school year books may help you narrow down birth date and provide the photograph of the soldier prior to the war.
- FindAGrave – but be careful what you find on there. Often there are multiple entries if someone in the U.S. created an entry for a soldier who is buried at an American Battle Monument Commission (ABMC) cemetery or listed on the Wall of the Missing. ABMC created entries for all those in their database. The trick is understanding where a soldier actually sleeps. Overseas or is he still missing and there is a memorial stone in the U.S. and a name on the Wall of the Missing?
What was his or her life like before the war?
This includes family, kids, education, sports, etc.
Genealogy blogs, groups, and message boards often have short articles or queries about family members. You might stumble across a post a family member wrote seeking information or sharing the information they located.
Where did he live? What was his childhood like?
FindAGrave and newspaper databases often lead researchers to the location the soldier lived prior to the war. In some cases, you can search the local historical societies, genealogy societies, libraries, and archives for information. Some of these organizations and repositories have online finding aids or offers to help researchers.
Many researchers in Europe also contact the local newspaper to place an article about the soldier they seek information on in the hopes that a family member still lives in the area.
What happened to his family after the war?
After WWII, families in Europe attempted to contact American families for the soldiers they met during the war, or whose grave they adopted. Many wanted to know what happened to the soldier they met. Others wanted to let the family know they were watching over their dead soldier. The U.S. government was concerned that some Europeans might try to get money and items they needed from grieving families and restricted access to information. It wasn’t until years later in most cases that Europeans were able to connect with family members. When social media became popular after the internet was born, this allowed and still allows many people to connect who otherwise would not have prior. Facebook is filled with groups on specific units or battles. These groups provide immense information and opportunity to connect.
Does his family want to have contact with the people who adopted the grave?
Important!! Not all families who lost a soldier, sailor, or Marine during the war want contact with European grave adopters and researchers. I read several hundred Individual Deceased Personnel Files (IDPFs) in the course of my research. Some of these had letters from family members telling the government they did not want the soldier’s personal effects or remains or to hear anything every again. The grief was too much to bear and they family let the soldier go, likely to never utter his name again.
I’ve encountered researchers in Europe who are upset that family members do not wish to talk to them after they adopt a soldier’s grave. All researchers, on both sides of the pond, need to remember the grief felt 70+ years ago may still be VERY strong in some families. We should have compassion and not push families to talk to us when they just cannot or will not.
Did the soldier’s family ever visit his overseas grave?
ABMC tracks everyone who visits a soldier’s grave if they stop in the office to inquire. This would be the place to start searching for this information.
What did the soldier’s military service consist of?
The majority of the information you need to piece together a soldier’s military service, including the Official Military Personnel File (OMPF), will not be online. There are many unit associations and researchers like myself, who have obtained and digitized information and you should start looking in those places first. However, the OMPF is a file the NPRC is not likely to ever digitize (at least in my lifetime) and release online. It is best to work with a researcher like myself, to obtain this file with the other records at NPRC. Some researchers will tell you to send in Form 180 from NPRC’s website but that will likely get you a letter that says, “All the records burned.” Working with a researcher, we can pull the other records Form 180 will not and provide a timeline of service on a soldier.
Many Facebook groups also have people who have copies of records. Fold3.com has some donated records from military associations. And libraries like the First Division Museum at Cantigny in Winfield, IL, has digitized all the unit records for the First Division. They are available free on the website.
No matter where you find digitized materials, please keep in mind some records were destroyed during or after the war due to many factors (war, fire, flood, vehicle, ship, or plane carrying records was blown up, etc.) There are often gaps in record sets.
What unit(s) was he in?
If you are researching a soldier buried in an ABMC cemetery, check their database. The unit (without Company) is listed.
What was his path through Europe?
You will need to obtain copies of his OMPF and Morning Reports, Muster Rolls, or other documentation to reconstruct his service to know where he was as he traveled across Europe during the war.
What military records does the family have?
If you are able to connect with the family, ask what they still have. Also ask them if they have any resources listed on the Home Source Checklist that provides clues. Many families have a lot more information than they think they have.
How did the soldier or civilian die?
Obtain a copy of the Individual Deceased Personnel File (IDPF) from Ft. Knox by emailing a FOIA request to: ‘USARMY.KNOX.HRC.MBX.FOIA@MAIL.MIL’
Learn about the differences between the OMPF and IDPF in my article.
If the soldier was awarded a Bronze Star or Silver Star or any other decoration, is it known for which action the medal was awarded? Is there a copy of the General Order issuing the decoration?
Yes there is. I am currently in the process of finding out exactly how researchers can access the index to search for awards for a particular soldier. At the time of this writing, I’m getting the run around from NPRC on the answer to this.
Are there any letters from the soldier still in existence with family members?
Sometimes the families who originally adopted a soldier’s grave will have family letters or letters from the soldier. American families who have done research on their soldier may have also published some of these on a website or blog. Use Google to search for your soldier to see if anything exists.
How did he feel about the war?
If you can connect with family members, there might be letters, journals, or stories passed down through the generations.
Are there any relatives alive?
Start with Ancestry.com or FamilySearch.com family trees to see if you can locate a family member. Search Facebook to see if family members are in any of the unit groups for your soldier. You can also hire a researcher in the U.S. who specializes in locating living people. I do not offer this as a service.
Are there photographs of the soldier throughout his life and service?
There are many yearbooks for high schools, colleges, and training bases/forts/camps available online. Start there and then contact local historical and genealogical societies, newspapers, and libraries in the community where the soldier lived. There may be books available which have not been digitized.
Stop by tomorrow to read where Americans can find answers and help European researchers. Many of the answers will overlap so be sure to read both articles. You may discover a new path to researching your soldier.
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