Are you ready to start your Vietnam war research but are unsure where to begin? I have a few tips for you.
Many people have a general idea of which battles their relative participated in or where they served. Often a Division or Unit is known. Rarely do they have a timeline of service created or know specifically when the soldier was in each unit and where he was. Too often, people assume their service member was with a particular unit the entire war. Unfortunately this is usually not the case. Service members for all branches, were often transferred and therefore may not be in only one unit their entire service.
Heading straight into unit records based on limited knowledge, like a unit on a discharge paper (DD-214), may cause you a lot of wasted time and potentially money if you request records or hire a researcher, without first knowing for sure where your service member was and in which unit.
Before you pursue research or hire a researcher like myself, do as much of the following as possible.
1. Create a Timeline of Service
The first thing you should do is create a timeline of service based on what you know about your service member’s service history. A timeline should list the date (either full or a year) and the event which happened. Noting where you found that information, even if it was a family story, is important. Being able to refer to the source of the fact will help you throughout the research process. There may be other clues you did not notice, or that a professional researcher will notice. Even if you are unsure if all facts are correct, list them. You can sort out what is truly accurate later. A timeline of service may look like the following:
September 1965 – Enlisted in the USMC
1966 – Father/Grandfather served in Okinawa
November 1966 – DaNang, Vietnam with 2nd Marine Division. Remained there until time to go home.
September 1971 – Discharged from the USMC
2. Do your homework
After you create a general timeline, search your home and ask your family to look for documents and photographs that provide clues. EVERY clue you find may help, even if it conflicts with another piece of information you have. Write it all down and cite the source. Also ask for family stories and inquire about how things were after the veteran returned home. This information is important in understanding the veteran’s trauma and what was passed through the family.
3. Obtain the OMPF and Morning Reports or Muster Rolls
Next, order the Official Military Personnel File (OMPF) from the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, MO. You need several pieces of information, if possible, when submitting a request. Please see current NPRC requirements when requesting information for Vietnam. Privacy rules may apply and you may need to be the veteran or next of-kin to request, unless the service member is deceased.
- Service Member’s full name
- Date and place of birth
- Service Number (this is not the individual’s Social Security Number)
- Branch of service
- Dates of service (enlistment, discharge or death)
- Theater(s) of war
- Unit(s) in which he or she served
The least expensive way to begin a search is to fill out Form 180 on the NPRC website (http://www.archives.gov/research/order/standard-form-180.pdf) and see if the file survived. If records are discovered, NPRC will send you a letter indicating such, as well as your fee for copies. Form 180 will ONLY search personnel records.
Another option is to hire a researcher, such as myself, who is able to obtain and analyze the records available. There are many more valuable records at the NPRC besides the service files, such as Morning Reports, that Form 180 will not search for you.
As of April 2022, while NPRC is open, access records is difficult. Sending in Form 180, due to their two year backlog due to being closed from Covid, it will be faster and easier to hire a researcher to obtain information. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss a project.
4. Analyze the Information & Start Writing the Story
One of the most important parts of the research process is writing the story. Writing does not necessarily mean you need to publish a book. Writing the story allows you to see where there are errors or gaps in your research. It allows you to formulate new research questions and therefore search for new materials.
When you obtain new information, add it to your timeline of service. Analyze the information and go through all your previously obtained records with a fine tooth comb. Make sure you understand what information is presented, especially if any of it conflicts. People made mistakes in records then just as we do today. No one is perfect.
5. Look for Unit Records
Finally, once you have a firm understanding of which units your soldier was in and when, you can begin looking for unit records. These records will provide a greater context of battles and additional training your soldier received. You may not locate your soldier’s name in many of these records but you will understand the battles and overall context of the war. These records are held at NARA College Park, MD, but also exist in other archives and university libraries/archives. As of April 2022, NARA is open but hiring a researcher will allow you to access records faster.
One example is the Vietnam Center & Sam Johnson Vietnam Archive in Texas.
These are the basic steps in starting research. If you need assistance with your research, I do take clients. Please contact me for details.
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