I’ve spent a lot of time on social media and email recently answering the same/similar questions or commenting on posts to clear up misinformation. A lot of people have been posting that their family member served in a long list of campaigns and in many cases, the only proof they have is a unit history that says so. That doesn’t mean your soldier was in that unit the entire time.
In an attempt to help researchers to stop wasting their time and money on World War II research, here are a few tips.
Do your homework and make sure your soldier/airmen/sailor/Marine was in the unit you think he was or he told you he was.
Why is this important? A lot of researchers (family members) have vague information or a few stories with which to begin research. They hear their father/grandfather/uncle (whomever) was in the 82nd Airborne or 1st Infantry Division and they go looking for all the history they can about that Division from a high level. They look for books hoping to catch a glimpse of their family member’s name. Some even go so far as to order unit records from College Park to get the big picture. Yet, they still have no real idea of when and how long their family member was actually in that unit.
Researchers need to start at the beginning – with their soldier and the “small” picture.
For example, I’ve had many clients come to me and tell me their father was in a particular unit and fought in several European Theater Campaigns. Once I conducted research into where they were, what units, and when, the story was not always what the family thought it was. Sometimes a soldier was in a Replacement Depot or Hospital part of the war and missed a lot of campaigns. You cannot assume just because his unit participated in a list of campaigns, that he was present.
How do you find out which units he was actually part of?
Start the research with the “small” picture of the soldier’s service history. You can start this on your own by reading my books, Stories from the World War II Battlefield. These are the ONLY authoritative books on the market that teach you how to do the research.
I give a step-by-step account of how to dig into the records. Volume 1 covers Army, Air Corps, and National Guard Records in 300+ pages. Volume 2 covers Navy, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, and Merchant Marines in 400+ pages. I hold a researcher’s hand and guide them through searching for basic information at home, provide checklists of where to look for information, and then guide them through the record retrieval process and analysis of information. Want to know how to organize your materials and write the stories? Volume 3 is coming out soon!
Another option is to request the service file from the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis. If it didn’t burn and you have a unit down to the company level, you can make an appointment to visit and and search Army Morning Reports (Army, Air Corps, National Guard.) Other service branches have records online at Ancestry.com – Navy or Marine Corps Muster Rolls.
Where can you learn more about World War II research? Have you tried collaboration?
Talk to other researchers, especially professionals, or those who have been working on a particular unit for many years. Contact military museums and libraries and research institutions that hold military records.
Attend a program or lecture series or watch webinars. I speak in both the U.S. and Europe on how to research World War II service and write the stories. The webinars or NARA Genealogy Fair programs which you can view online, give high level all wars overviews of records. They do not tell you how to do the research step by step.
I am available to speak in other locations than Chicago. Please contact me through to discuss program options.
Read blogs and online articles and magazine articles, on World War II for both a view of the big picture and how others have located information. Everyone has their own way of locating information and everyone has a different starting point. All avenues and starting points provide valuable lessons in research and analysis. Many who blog about their research and findings will tell you what when ‘right’ and what went ‘wrong’ in the process. This is a form of collaboration which is so important in research.
When do you need to hire a researcher?
When you cannot or chose not do do the research yourself. Some people hire me because they have no idea what to do, or do not have the time or desire to do the research themselves. Others hire me because I can obtain records in places that require an in-person visit. World War II records are held all over the U.S., not only in St. Louis or College Park.
Professional researchers know the ins and outs of research in various repositories. Researchers know where the records are, how to get them, how to analyze them and where to go next. They are also able to research and copy record that may require an in-person visit. For example, NPRC will allow you to mail in Form 180 and request a search of the Official Military Personnel File (OMPF). They will not then go search Morning Reports and tell you where your soldier was and in which units. Usually, you will receive a letter stating his file burned if he was Army, Air Corps, National Guard.
Professionals are good at connecting the dots and thinking outside the box for research resources. One thing I am VERY good at is piecing together service histories from almost nothing. You can read testimonials here. I also have a vast network of researchers around the world I work with, some of whom are in the Research Collective, others are not listed. No one person knows everything about any topic. Collaboration is key when researching World War II service.
Professional researchers can help clear up misconceptions, questionable photographs and documents a family holds. I had one client provide me with his family story that his father was part of D-Day, and also photographs, one of which stated, ‘June 1944 Normandy, 2nd time around.’ This caption written on the back made no sense because the majority of people who were involved in D-Day kept on fighting and moving out of the area or those who were seriously wounded were shipped to England and didn’t return to France right away.
Upon further research, the only explanation I could give for that photograph was, ‘I have no idea why that caption is there and here is why.’ The explanation was his father was in England with his unit until after the invasion happened. His unit was a new one formed in April 1944 and had no amphibious training. Therefore, they were not part of D-Day. I proved this through several military documents. Also, this unti departed England after D-Day and sat in the Channel for many days because of the bad storm that ripped through there mid-June. This unit disembarked 27 June through Utah and Omaha Beaches. From there, the unit began moving out of Normandy. There was no way, based on the records, he was in Normandy twice in June 1944, as the photo suggested.
I offer fully cited, detailed reports of service with the option to write a book about your soldier. A lot of people have trouble deciphering the military language and abbreviations. Professional researchers are skilled in this and can provide a more detailed accounting of a soldier’s service. All of my reports are fully cited with all the sources from which the information came so anyone can re-create my steps. I also provide copies of all records obtained, a bibliography of other materials and research suggestions.
The other thing I do, which many researchers do not, is write and publish a book about your soldier’s life. My background is in history and genealogy. I have written countless books for clients on their family’s history and military ancestors.
The main point here is to do your homework before investing a lot of time and money in the big picture of the war. Research on your own or with a professional. Both are valuable options to consider.
© 2015 Jennifer Holik