Conducting World War II research for several years, speaking with researchers and family members around the world, and observing what information others tell people, I’d like to provide a few pieces of information to help you in your journey to discover your soldier, sailor, or Marine’s service story. This article will briefly explain the Research Process, and some Myths and Traps researchers fall into.
An article can only cover so much. To learn more, please pick up a copy of one of my research books. I explain the process in-depth for all military branches, in over 700 pages in my two books, Stories from the World War II Battlefield.
The Research Process
World War II research has a process which I encourage people to follow. It is one I have used and honed to more easily navigate the military record spider web.
Two of the most important pieces of information you should locate are the Service/Serial Number and Unit of a soldier – down to the lowest level (Company in some cases) the soldier was in. This will help you navigate other records beyond their Official Military Personnel File (OMPF.)
Important! Most of the records you can use to research military service are not available online. However, there are online resources you can use to move research forward. There are some records, specifically the OMPF, which are not available online. Many company and unit level records, maps, photographs, and other documents are only available in paper format in a repository in the U.S.
World War II documents are not located solely in the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis or the National Archives in College Park. They exist at Presidential Libraries, University Libraries, museums, libraries, private collections, and institutions like the Army War College or Naval Heritage and History Command. This list is by no means the full list of available repositories in the U.S. You may also find records in overseas libraries, archives, and museums.
Military research is often best begun after you have written down what you know, by searching for information online to add to the questionnaire. It also allows you to see what records do exist in digital format and what exists in paper format in various archives. Fold3.com has digitized many unit-level records from the National Archives in College Park, but it is small amount compared to what actually exists there.
Create a Timeline of Service
Everyone should create a timeline of service based on what you know about your soldier’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. A timeline of service may look like the following. Note, Adam Jones is a fictional name.
- January 1942 – Adam Jones joins the 1st Infantry Division
- November 1942 – North Africa Campaign
- July 1943 – Sicily Campaign
- 30 July 1943 – Wounded in the Sicily Campaign
- February 1944 – Hospitalized in England
- June 1944 – Normandy – D-Day Campaign
Start the Military Records Requests
Learn more about the military records you should be requesting when you start your research in this article, WWII Education – The Difference Between the OMPF and IDPF.
Write the Story
I encourage everyone to write the story of their soldier. Once written, please share it with your family, a military reunion association, museum, journal, or other means so the story is not lost.
Research Do’s and Don’ts
As I said, military research is a process. Every new document we find, or idea we use to locate information, shows us the best (and sometimes worst) ways to locate information and pieces it together. A few Do’s and Don’ts for you.
Don’t assume the one or two things you know about your soldier’s service is all there is to the story. Usually it is not.
Do look for all possible leads and records to piece together the timeline of service.
Don’t assume if your soldier died during the war and has an IDPF, that this file contains his entire story.
Do look into other available records because you are only seeing one moment in time for this soldier.
Don’t assume your soldier was only in one unit the entire war, especially if he was in for several years.
Do start with the unit and place and time you have for your soldier and work forward or backward as needed. If you look at the IDPF for my cousin James Privoznik, KIA on 11 January 1945 and buried in Luxembourg, it will tell you he was with the 358th Infantry Regiment 90th Infantry Division. Had I taken that one piece of information and looked for everything I could have on the 358th, I would have had the wrong story for James. Based on other documents, he was only in the infantry 14 days. Patton needed replacement riflemen during the Battle of the Bulge and pulled from the rear echelons. James was in the 790th Ordnance Company the other nine months he was overseas with the 90th Infantry Division. And Ordnance soldier has a different experience of the war than anyone else in his Division.
I’ve also heard people say they have one unit in one moment in time and are going to retrace their father’s steps through Europe based on that one piece of information. I encourage them to do their homework because again, it is very possible he was not with that unit the entire time.
Don’t forget to look up all acronyms and abbreviations for your military records or skip deciphering them.
Do check online or my WWII Toolbox on this website, for dictionaries to explain what you are looking at in the military records. Once you understand the lingo, the records make a lot more sense.
Don’t assume one reporter who wrote a newspaper article has your soldier’s entire story. I’ve had researchers overseas who adopted graves tell me they got the entire story from one newspaper article and a phone call to a reporter. Unless the family and reporter researched the soldier’s service, you do not have the entire story.
Do investigate other records and resources to learn more. Usually a reporter is looking for answers to a few questions to write a short article. As I stated earlier, an article can only contain so much information. There is always more to learn if you seek the information.
Books To Guide Your Research
If you live in Europe and have adopted a soldier’s grave or his name on the Wall of the Missing, pick up my research book, Faces of War: Researching Your Adopted Soldier.
If you live in the U.S. and need assistance researching, check out my books, Volumes 1 and 2 of Stories from the World War II Battlefield, which are the only ones available which teach you step-by-step how to do WWII research.
Need more assistance? Contact us to discuss a project.
Want More Resources?
Visit the WWII Education Website and grab your military research worksheet pack. This pack comes with 14 pages of questions, checklists, and resources to help you start your military research (WWI – Vietnam).
Also explore my military research books.
© 2016 World War II Research and Writing Center
Bill O'Hara says
This will most likely sound far-fetched but here goes: are there maps or map books that follow a unit’s progress throughout WW II? For example, if the XYZ Infantry Division fought across Europe from D-Day until war’s end, is there a corresponding map to show their route of travel in general? Also, is there a site or publication that lists a unit’s higher HQ’s? For example, if the 123 Mess Kit Repair Company traveled through Europe throughout the war, where may I find its higher HQ’s? I have done a monstrous amount of reading and the printed word is “okay” but without an illustrated map I cannot completely follow a soldier’s “path of duty”….hope this makes some sense. No rush on the reply….I have been researching family members participation in the war for five years and have had pretty good success. Maps to illustrate their travels would greatly enhance my efforts. Thank you for listening! Regards, Bill O’Hara
Jennifer Holik says
I sent you an email regarding this, but answering it here will be helpful for others also.
The unit records at NARA College Park, often (but not always) contain maps. These may be specific battle maps, overlays, routes traveled, etc. The best place to start a search (in general) is to look at the unit level records for your soldier. For example, my cousin James Privoznik fought with the 358th Infantry Regiment 90th Infantry Division before he was KIA. Looking at both the 358th IR and 90th Division records and maps would be important. If a unit was attached to another division, looking at their maps is also important.
Good luck with your research!