WWI and WWII Discharge papers come in many varieties. Each document contains the same basic information but more specific data will vary based on branch. Many people think the information on this document is the end all be all for telling a veteran’s story but this isn’t quite true. The discharge paper is a great place to start your research, especially if your veteran was in the Army or Army Air Forces/Air Force and his service file burned, but it doesn’t provide you with all the answers you seek.
Let’s look at the discharge paper for my great uncle Frank J. Kokoska. This document was obtained from his WWII Veterans Compensation file. It is not in the best condition as far as being able to read everything clearly, although we can make out most of the information.
There is a misconception that the unit on a service member’s discharge is the unit in which they saw combat. This may be true. It may not be true. In Frank’s case, he did serve in combat areas with this unit. On some discharge papers, the unit listed is one in which the veteran was transferred only to be discharged. While that tells us nothing of his combat experience, it is a start point for military research. Never take the one unit on a discharge paper as total truth. You will waste time and money researching the history of a unit that may have nothing to do with your veteran’s service beyond discharge.
I’ve done several military projects, particularly for the Army where the discharge shows a job that isn’t a combat job and they may have been in campaigns that had nothing to do with the unit on the discharge paper. Additionally, I recently helped a client locate information on a family member whose MOS (job) said Cook, yet he had trained and qualified on many weapons and earned the Combat Infantryman Badge (CIB). So when was he a cook and when did he train on all those weapons? More importantly, what campaigns and unit was he in while he earned the CIB?
We have to learn how to read what is and is not on the discharge papers to piece the puzzle together and then search for more information.
In another client case I had a discharge that showed a 2nd Division unit yet the soldier was given credit for an Italian Campaign – Po Valley. The 2nd Division never fought in Italy so he couldn’t have been in that unit for those campaigns. This was a red flag that he was in multiple units and more digging was required.
Question everything you discover on a discharge paper because there may just be some information missing or provide a clue to lead you to further records.
Let’s examine a Naval Separation paper. There is a box on the right side in the middle that says SERVICE. This is where the units/ships/stations in which a sailor served would be listed. In some cases this list is short because the sailor trained and may have been placed on a ship or station to serve. In other cases, there may be information missing due to space to record all the information. The Official Military Personnel File (OMPF) will be able to provide more information on ships and stations. Again, question everything and do your homework to ensure you captured all units/ships/stations, regardless of military branch.
Remember, a discharge paper can provide us with many research starting points but it’s vital you examine it in detail. Create your timeline of service so you document all the details and can clearly see what information is there, what might be missing, and write down questions you have about what is on the document.
Places to locate a discharge paper
Where might you discover the discharge paper for your veteran? Here are a few places. This is not an exhaustive list of possibilities but the most likely places to begin your search.
WWI or WWII Veterans Compensation Files
County Offices (inquire which holds discharge papers. In Cook County, IL it is the Recorder).
Family papers and archives
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