A few people have expressed interested in Living History over the past few months. Between two History MAs and a few tricks I’ve discovered along the way, I’ve been able to figure out how to learn about individual soldiers’ service in the war with only a little bit of information to go off of. I wanted to provide a “behind the scenes” look into one of my latest deep dives so you research a WWII soldier’s service record yourself.
I received the Four Pocket Service “Class A“ Jacket of Private First Class Joseph T Deegan (Army Service Number 32448107) who served in Company C of the 1st Engineer Combat Battalion during the Second World War. This is what I know of his story.
Born 21 April 1911, Deegan had graduated from Grammar School and worked as a semiskilled laborer in the fabrication of metal products. After receiving his draft notice, he left his wife and home in Hartford County, CT to enlist in Albany, NY on 12 August 1942. He was probably sent overseas after completing training in late 1942/early 1943. After serving with the 1st Engineer Combat Battalion during the Sicilian campaign, Deegan returned to England in October 1943 as the First Engineers began training for D-Day. In May 1944, less than a month before his unit would land in the first waves assaulting Omaha Beach, Deegan was hospitalized for injuries sustained in the line of duty and remained in the hospital until November 1944. My guess is that at this point, he returned to the United States and was honorably discharged (not only does he have the “ruptured duck” patch sewn above his right pocket on his Class A signifying his honorable discharge, but he received the Good Conduct Medal, which “is awarded for exemplary behavior, efficiency, and fidelity in active Federal military service. It is awarded on a selective basis to each Soldier who distinguishes himself or herself from among his or her fellow Soldiers by their exemplary conduct, efficiency, and fidelity throughout a specified period of continuous enlisted active Federal military service”). Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find his discharge records, but from what I’ve found, he served 18-23 months overseas and a total of 3-5 years with the Army. He returned home to Hartford County and lived there until his death on 7 October 1987.
Tracking down a soldier’s records from WWII can be tricky and frustrating, but between my Masters in WWII program via ASU, some skills learned at an internship with the Wisconsin Veterans Museum, my personal research, and getting lucky with certain digitized records, you can find out a lot about soldiers through their Army Serial Number (ASN). Here’s how I generally approach this research:
1a) Find any identifying information about the soldier you can. In this case, I was lucky enough to find both Deegan’s full name and his full ASN inside his Class A jacket (see picture below). During the war, soldiers marked all of their uniforms and some their equipment with the first letter of their last name and the last four digits of their ASN (for example, with my reenactment ASN 16771647, I mark my gear with P-1647). The unique ASN followed throughout the war, so you should be able to find their official records through it. The first two digits of the ASN will also tell you how they enlisted (whether they were drafted, volunteered, or were in the National Guard) and where they enlisted from.
1b) Determine which unit they served with. Most soldiers were organized into divisions (with some exceptions). Each soldier wore shoulder patches to identify which division they belonged to. You can search “WWII Division Patches” on Google to figure out which unit they belonged to. Sometimes, various elements were attached to a division, so you should also pay attention to the symbols on the lapels. On Deegan’s jacket, you can see a Big Red One patch, signifying that he served with the First Infantry Division, and a castle on the left lapel, meaning that he was part of the Engineers. By digging around the US Army Order of Battle, you can determine that he served with the 1st Engineer Combat Battalion.
2) Use the ASN and unit in steps 1a and 1b to find any digitized service records. I have a subscription to Fold3.com, which has a ton of digitized military service records. I was able to find Deegan’s enlistment records and an overview of his hospital records on Fold3.
3) Search findagrave.com with any information you have about the soldier (full name, birth date, death date). Using this website, I discovered that Deegan died in 1987 and likely remained in Hartford County, CT until his death.
4) Find and search any unit-specific archives. The First Division Museum at Cantigny has an amazing selection of online records which I used to find that Deegan served with C Company of the 1st ECB during the war. 
5) Google the soldier or search any online databases you can get free trials to. I got a free week to newspapers.com and found Deegan’s obit. If you’re lucky, you can find old interviews with the soldiers or letters that they wrote to their local newspapers/veteran organizations. To become a “Master Googler” you can use search operators to expand or limit your search. These can be crucial, especially if your soldier has a common name (for example, I used “Deegan” OR “32448107” AND “Army”. While I didn’t find anything, I’ve found some really useful sources for previous soldiers I’ve researched).
I really love doing this sort of research, so if you want my help guiding you through the process or recommending sources/databases, let me know and I’d be more than happy to help out. However, please note that I do not have access to the National Archives and can only provide recommendations on how to start your own research, but, at the moment, cannot do the research for you.
 Enlistment records, https://aad.archives.gov/aad/record-detail.jsp?dt=893&mtch=1&cat=WR26&tf=F&sc=24994,24995,24996,24998,24997,24993,24981,24983&bc=,sl,fd&txt_24994=32448107&op_24994=0&nfo_24994=V,8,1900&rpp=10&pg=1&rid=3062158; Gravestone, https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/60631497/joseph-t.-deegan
 Enlistment records, Army Service Number https://www.amyjohnsoncrow.com/how-to-decode-a-wwii-army-serial-number/
 The 1st Engineer Combat Battalion shipped out for England in July 1942 and landed in North Africa as part of Operation Torch in November 1942. It’s very unlikely that Deegan would have made it through the 6-8 week training and made it to England before the 1st ECB shipped out for North Africa. I found this by reading the 1st ECB’s unit history, Eight Stars to Victory: Operations of the First Engineers’ Combat Battalion in World War II.
 Hospitalization Record https://www.fold3.com/record/704794658-deegan-joseph-t
 Based on jacket insignia—see attached photos for more information. Since he enlisted in August 1942 and training takes at least 8 weeks, plus another week or two to be sent overseas, he wouldn’t have joined the 1st ECB until ~December 1942 at the earliest. However, we know that he was in the European Theater of Operations May-November 1944, meaning that Deegan either served ~1 year before or ~1 year after his stint in the hospital. Since he served at least three years in the military (i.e. August 1942-at least August 1945), I think it’s most likely that he was overseas ~July 1943 – ~December 1944 at bare minimum, meaning served in Sicily and then was sent back to the US after he was discharged from the hospital or returned to the 1st ECB until the end of the war.
 Here’s a good summary of what soldiers marked and where they marked it: http://www.hardscrabblefarm.com/ww2/marking_clothing.htm
 Here’s a good guide to the ASN: https://www.amyjohnsoncrow.com/how-to-decode-a-wwii-army-serial-number/
 First Infantry Division Order of Battle in WWII: https://history.army.mil/documents/ETO-OB/1ID-eto-ob.htm
 Cantigny’s Online Archive: https://www.fdmuseum.org/researchers/digital-archives/