One of the most frequent questions we receive is the general "can you tell me what my relative did in the service". Unfortunately, most of the time we have to say "no" we are not familiar with him or her but if you are interested we can give you a roadmap to follow and possibly help you along the way. Following is an outline of the roadmap that will help you get started. So get ready to put on your detective hat and let's get going.
In the beginning you might be dealing with a forest of information so large that it is overwhelming, so we need to start a process of elimination. The first thing to do is gather any and all papers and photographs that you may possess. These can provide a lot of information and offer clues. Papers may contain service serial number, time in service, awards and much more. Pictures may contain names, places and dates. Within the photos may be clues as to locations and units.
For decades the US Government housed individual servicemen/women personal-personnel records at the NPRC in St. Louis Missouri. These types of records are also referred to as the service jacket or 201 file. These would contain copies of all documents pertaining to the individual who would possess their own copies. Contained therein could include orders, assignments, awards and discharge papers. Like with many documents regarding our lives, many people get rid of a lot of excess items so you may only have a few items if any.
If you have been researching for some time, you may have heard the story of a fire in the St. Louis National Personnel Record Center (NPRC) that destroyed all records. The fire did happen in 1973 and according to the National Archives, the custodian of this material, it destroyed approximately 16-18 million records of Army and Air Force personnel. It did not touch Navy/Marine records. Not all of the records were destroyed-burned, many were water damaged . You can and you should request to see what they have and if you have made a request in the past with no success, make another one now because there has been an effort to recover and re-compile records using a variety of sources. Don't get your hopes too high but make another effort especially if your first request was before 2012.
Official Fire Story: Read
Instructions for requesting records: Read
Even if you have a discharge paper also known as a form DD-214, it only contains the last assignment; if the veteran served overseas in a conflict, it's likely that when returned to the states, they were assigned to another organization before they were discharged, so this document will not provide everything you are looking for. However, the last set of discharge papers have a multitude of other items such as awards, time overseas, etc.
The primary repository for organizational records is the US National Archives (NARA) and contained at their location in College Park, Maryland. There are all types of materials at NARA including morning reports, photos, maps and much more. Any serious researcher needs to make a trip, likely multiple trips, to the National Archives.
If you make a trip to College Park plan to spend a few days for research, you might have to make a return trip if you cannot find everything you are looking for or find so many items you just cannot get through the material. Make a big trip out of it and do some sightseeing in our nation's capital including a visit to Arlington National Cemetery.
Organizational records will not contain specific individual personnel documents, but they will contain items about the group, missions, war diaries, orders and possibly more and in them you find mentions of the personnel. Orders may contain the names of many servicemen as do mission reports. So for instance you may be looking for material concerning the 4th Infantry Division in World War II. NARA is the place to go.
There are also a variety of websites that provide a lot of material; do a search to see what you may find.
You can help out the Sons of Liberty Museum if you get items from NARA. We are looking for documents containing awards and rosters. For example, a group may have received a Presidential Unit Citation (PUC) for a particular action. When this occurred an award-roster document was created listing all personnel assigned to that organization on that particular date. These veterans are eligible to wear the PUC ribbon above their left breast pocket on their uniform. These documents are invaluable to our organization and help us further our mission.
It is possible that you may find thousands of documents to review; others may only encounter sparse information. Either way the documents are not indexed, searchable or contain tables of contents so you will need to work your way through them all.
Along your journey we would be happy to assist you in interpreting the material you may encounter. We may even be able to identify some items for you. We wish you great success with your search and let us know how much you find out.
Do you have items such as papers, photos, uniforms, gear, guns, weapons and other artifacts? Read more and Support Us.
If you have any data on units and those who served we would be interested in adding it to our digital project-library; please Contact Us
One way we promote public education of military history is through our exhibits. View some pictures of recent Exhibits.