Yesterday I wrote an article about Key Questions European Researchers Have about soldiers they are researching. Today we are going to look at the same questions, but provide answers American genealogists and researchers can use to locate information.
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.
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.
Start by using online resources and then move to offline repositories.
- Census records
- Vital records (birth, marriage, death)
- Military records (Army enlistment, burial applications, Muster Rolls and Deck Logs)
- Unit records digitized on Fold3.
- Online family trees. Be sure to check the sources!
- 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?
- Local genealogical and historical society records.
- Local biographical history books.
- Probate records often contain information on soldiers who were Killed In Action – either as part of the Proof of Heirship or a soldier’s own probate file.
- National Archives (includes National Personnel Records Center (NPRC), Library of Congress, Army War College, Pritzker Military Museum and Library.
- University library special collections.
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. You can also talk to the local genealogical and historical societies to see if they have information.
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. If you live in the community of the soldier and know of family members, attempt to contact them.
Search local histories for the area in books, newspapers, church bulletins, and other paper sources to learn what life was like in the community.
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.
The OMPF and IDPF may also contain clues as to what happened to family members after hostilities ceased. Look for family letters or official letters requesting overseas visits.
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.
Do you know family members? Ask them if they or someone they know has visited the soldier’s grave overseas.
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.
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. You can also Google the soldier to see if he turns up in any websites where lists are published or there are digitized materials that contain a unit.
Request his OMPF from the NPRC or hire a researcher to pull the OMPF and other reports at NPRC to reconstruct service history.
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.
Caution! Please do your homework and never assume a soldier was in one unit the entire war, or that he was involved in everything family stories say he was. Stories can be elaborated and memories fade and jumble. Check family stories against military records to piece together the story.
What military records does the family have?
If you are able to connect with the family, ask what they still have. Families have more resources than they often think.
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. Also read newspaper articles published during the war. Sometimes you will find letters from soldiers to family members, which were published. Related to this, look for letters, postcards, newsletter, and magazine articles at companies where soldiers worked prior to enlistment. The same idea applies to colleges and universities, which often kept records, photographs, and letters. Sometimes these are in special collections at their libraries but look for digitized collections.
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.
Search online for the training camps/bases/forts where you soldier was based while stateside. You may run across digitized photos of the men in training or posted by family members. Many of these camps also have digitized books available on Internet Archive, which were given to soldiers during training. Many do not contain group photos but you may get lucky.
Stop by tomorrow to meet Sebastiaan Vonk, a Dutch researcher building amazing programs with his foundation, which honor our soldiers buried overseas.
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