REID SMILEY | 2 JUNE 2021
It can be hard to try to find the service record of someone who fought in the Second World War. This article will guide you through how to do this as easily and cheaply as possible.
To see an example of how I pieced together the story of a veteran using the method I describe below, check out this article.
If you would like me to do this for you, please contact me via email or Facebook for pricing. I cannot guarantee that I’ll find anything, but I have subscriptions and familiarity with each of the websites listed below and am more than happy to help you get started. I only have access to the websites listed below and will not be able to give you a comprehensive history that someone with access to unit archives can. However, if you’re looking just for general information about a US Army soldier who served during WWII, I can hopefully provide at least a little information and some leads for where to continue your search.
Note: I have almost exclusively researched members of the Army, so I’m not sure if the following steps will also be useful when seraching for people who served in the Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, or Merchant Marines. At the time, the Air Force was part of the Army, so this should work for members of the Air Force.
1. Collect the Veteran’s Background Information
The more you know about the veteran you’re looking for, the better the chances are that you’ll find something about them. As over 16,000,000 Americans served during the war, this means that you’ll likely have to sift through a lot of people with the same first and last name as the veteran you’re researching. The more information you find before you start digging, the better chance you’ll have of finding your veteran.
I’ve already described how to glean some information from any uniforms of the veteran you have here. If you don’t have the uniform, ask other members of your family if they have it, or if they have any more information that might be helpful.
Helpful information to know before searching military records:
- First, Middle, and Last Name
- Army Serial Number (ASN).
- Every member of the Army received a unique ASN that would follow them throughout their careers. ASNs were always stamped on dog tags and even on some personal items. You can actually “decipher” this number to learn more about where your veteran enlisted, whether they volunteered, were drafted, or had been in the National Guard, and whether they were an Enlisted Man or Enlisted Woman or an Officer. Click here for more information.
- Laundry Number
- This is the first letter of your last name and the last four digits of your ASN. So if I was looking for Clarence Jones, ASN 37337566, the laundry number would be J-7566. You can often find this number on items of clothing (such as shirts, pants, or hats).
- Year of Birth
- Hometown and State
2. Check out the Digital Archives
With this information, do a search on WWII-Enlistment.com. It’s an amazing free resource that is pretty powerful and should be a good start to finding when your relative enlisted and even determining some of the information you might not have found previously (for example, you can often find their ASN, year of birth, and where they enlisted).
If the veteran has died, check out FindAGrave.com. This is another free resource and will often show the headstone of the veteran, provide their birth date and death date, and give the graveyard where they currently rest. Sometimes, family members or friends have included articles or pictures talking about their service or life.
If they were buried in an American military cemetery, check out the American Battlefield Monuments Commission’s website. This might provide more information as well.
If the veteran served with the First Infantry Division (aka The Big Red One), check out the First Infantry Division Museum at Cantigny Park’s Col. Robert R. McCormick Research Center Digital Archives. I’d recommend narrowing down the search to conflict, then just searching the last name of the veteran.
The following services require a subscription, but typically provide a free trial. Some libraries or schools may also have subscriptions to these resources, so check out if you have access to it through your local public library or through your local high school (if you’re a high school student), college, or university.
Fold3.com often has the digital scans of enlistment records. While sometimes the information is essentially a duplicate of what you find on WWII-Enlistment.com, sometimes you can find records of which ships they served on, and any hospital records from their service.
Newspapers.com can fill in the gaps that you might come across when searching only military records. During World War II, many newspapers wrote about soldiers who had enlisted, been sent overseas, were wounded, or who died. I’ve also found a lot of helpful information from obituaries, that talked about which units they served with, which battles they fought in, and even which branch of service they were in.
Help! I still can’t find anything!
In 1973, a huge fire in the National Personnel Records Center destroyed 16-18 million military personnel records. Sadly, this might mean that your veteran’s records are lost. The good news is that this fire did not destroy unit’s records. Unit “Morning Reports” dictated the comings and goings of people in each unit, where the unit was, what happened that day, whether anyone was wounded or killed, etc. These might have more information about the actual service experience of your veteran, but be warned that it can be quite expensive to hire a researcher to find this information.