Where Do I Find Out About My Ancestor’s Military Service? The OMPF!

(This is Part 1 of the blog post. Part 2 appears on the Twisted Twigs for Genealogy Blog.)

So many people ask me in person, or post in Facebook groups: “Where do I go to find more about my ancestor’s military service?”. The short answer is that the records you need are at branches of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), but how you get access to them can make a difference.

Undoubtedly you have seen the military records offered on Ancestry or Fold3. These may be rosters, muster rolls or ship’s manifests that show where and when an ancestor was associated with a military organization. You might find summaries of a ancestor’s service, which reveal a few more details, like the various ranks he held and when he served overseas. In a few cases, you might find other reports if your ancestor was a downed airmen or was one of the engineers in WWI who wrote an officer experience reports.

As much as we treasure these bits of information, these records are little more than tick marks to put on a timeline of your ancestor’s military life; they really are only the tip of the iceberg. Rather than being a destination, any record we find in online databases we should consider merely our ticket to learning  so much more.

For each WWI, WWII or Korean War service member, there is an Official Military Records File (OMPF). The OMPF contains not just the context but the details of all aspects of an ancestor’s time in the service. It includes the schools, commendations, hospitalization, transfers, transportation and all the details of a military life. Every part of an active duty military life is copied over and incorporated into one file.

The OMPF contains an actual book summarizing your ancestor’s time in the military, a Service Record. The Service Record contains 24 to 28 pages full of information such as immunizations he received, what schools he attended, awards and commendations he received, enlistment information, beneficiary information, records of courts martial (if applicable) , comments about his character and efficiency rating.

In the OMPF, there is also a Report of Separation which is a summary of the whole time an ancestor was in service. There are reports of physical exams prior to discharge (or retirement), medical and dental records including when he visited the dispensary (doctor’s office). The Report of Medical History includes health history about his family. Other highlights of the OMPF are Commissioning documents (for officers), special orders for transfers or promotions, and records of leave that was taken, and the address where he went. If the service member had been a military cadet, there would be an application, birth certificate, school transcripts, letters of recommendation.

There may be a complication in finding these files, but the records that were used to build them still exist!

Were all the OMPFs burned in the 1973 fire in St. Louis?

NO!

No Navy or Marine Corps OMPFs were burned.

Of the 80% of the Army and Air Force OMPFs that were burned, some files are being restored. It is always worth checking with NARA in case your ancestor’s file is one of those.

If the OMPF is truly unavailable, then a researcher has to consult the original records that were used to build the OMPF. These are the records that are held in a variety of NARA record groups that include information about all the service members of an organization. The researcher then needs to pull out information that either names the ancestor or applies to the ancestor’s service.  In future posts, we will cover the record sets at NARA locations that are most useful to researchers learning about their ancestor’s military service history.

Researcher gather the material

Please head over to the Twisted Twigs Blog for the second part of this post. It contains information about your options to get an OMPF, or a reconstructed OMPF.

7th Generation Detroit Family Historian and NARA Records Retrieval Expert, Deidre Erin Denton of Twisted Twigs Genealogy and Margaret McMahon, author of “Researching Your U.S. WWI Army Ancestors, have teamed up for a series of blog posts to show you the path to researching the military records for WWI, WWII and the Korean War at NARA. Because of your connection to your ancestor, you are the best teller of his story, and with these records you can write and share a very personal military history.

Researching Florida WWI Ancestors

Learning the military organization for your ancestor who served in WWI is important. With that information, you can find out what your ancestor did including duties, travels and battles. The State Library & Archives of Florida’s Florida Memory website has a Collection of World War I Service Cards.  This collection includes the cards for Floridians in the Army, Navy, Coast Guard and Marine Corps during WWI.

From this website you can search for a specific service member’s card or browse all the service cards.

As an example, I searched for Frederick G Knowles, of the 51st Pioneer Infantry Regiment, Co. I.

There were no results for “Frederick G Knowles”, so I tried “Frederick Knowles” and got two results. One of those was the record for him.

Clicking on his name brought me to his WWI Service Card

You can search all the services for your ancestor, or you can check a box to limit the search to one branch of service. Alternately, you can use the branch of service, then a colon (Army:) before the name to search. The database appears to be searchable by first names, ranks and place names. I did not have any success with wildcards, so you may need to generate alternate spellings to use if you cannot find your ancestor. Another tactic that worked for me was combining a first name and rank in the search box.

You can learn about the collection, including that the cards were created during a project in 1924 in the Series Description.

There is also a FAQ about the collection.

The website also has an online Exhibit about “Florida in WWI“. The article gives context to the lives of Floridinians who fought over there, over here and post-WWI Florida.

 

Researching Texas WWI Ancestors

Learning the military organization for your ancestor who served in WWI is important. With that information, you can find out what your ancestor did including duties, travels and battles. For

An important fact to know about your ancestor who served in WWI is the military organization. With that information, you can find out what your ancestor did including duties, travels and battles.

For Texas WWI ancestors, you can access Texas, World War I Records, 1917-1920 here.

 

This collection includes service cards and other military records

For an example, I entered just a surname. This type of search is good to find other family members who served.

The search results are below.

Click on the camera for the result to view the record.

This database also contains applications for the Victory Medal that all WWI veterans were entitled to wear.

A comprehensive list of the Texas State Library & Archives WWI Resources can be found here.

This list included links to the material that is online.

The history of the 359th Infantry can be found here

This is a remarkable resource. It contains an index for the names of those who served, complete with county. Follow the link to photos and internment records (if available).

Interview with Historian and Author Alexander F. Barnes

Recently, I had a chance to ask WWI Historian Alexander F. Barnes about his latest book, “Forgotten Soldiers of World War I: America’s Immigrant Doughboys” written with Peter Belmonte. In it, he discusses the impact our immigrant ancestors made by fighting in WWI.

 

1) What inspired you to write this book?  

In 2014 I wrote a book called “To Hell with the Kaiser: America Prepares for War 1916-1918” in which I described how the American Army was organized, trained, and deployed to fight in France. I spent a lot of time researching each of the thirty-two main training camps and a lot of the smaller specialty camps. It was an eye-opening experience as I learned about the methods used to raise the Army and exactly how the conscription process was designed. There was so much to tell about this story that it ultimately took two volumes to contain all of the information Along with the story of the camps and draft boards, I found I needed to tell the story of the conscription of African-American and foreign-born soldiers as well as the impact of Spanish Flu on the training soldiers and units. When all was said and done, the books were published and almost all of the comments and letters I received were about the chapter on the foreign-born soldiers. It turned out that darn near everybody had a foreign-born or immigrant Doughboy in their family tree.  In the chapter, I had included my wife’s grandfather (born in Italy and serving in the Depot Brigade at Camp Upton) and my daughter-in-law’s great-grandfather (born in Ireland and serving in the 80th Division) and everywhere I went I heard similar stories.  I work as the Command Historian for the Virginia National Guard and one of the officers in the Headquarters brought me into his office to show me a picture of his grandfather from Norway who served as a machine gunner in the 89th Division.  I quickly realized that this was a story that deserved much more than a chapter. I had met Pete Belmonte electronically when he helped me and another writer, Kevin Born, when we were working on our book about the US Military’s Desert uniforms, patches and insignia. Pete had served in the Air Force during Desert Storm and he shared images of some of his uniform patches for our book. I also knew of Pete as being the author of a fantastic book about the Meuse-Argonne that was published by Schiffer Publishing, the same outfit that publishes my books. So I sent Pete a message and asked him if he would be interested in teaming up to do a book on the foreign-born immigrants in the American Army in WWI.  After he agreed, we sent a letter to the publisher and a received a contract to do it.

 

2) What about these soldiers was “forgotten”?

That’s a great question. The forgotten aspect of these soldiers is the very fact of their service. During my presentations about WWI for the Virginia National Guard and for the Virginia WWI Commission I always include a bar-chart slide that contains my self-invented scale of “Unknownness.”  I start out with the 153 Virginians that served as the MP Company in the Rainbow Division, then move to the 400 “Hello Girls” telephone operators in the AEF, and then to 230,000 Doughboys of the US Third Army who served in the occupation of Germany after WWI, and then the 367,000 African-Americans who served in the Army and then the final bar is for the 800,000 foreign-born men and women who served.  The point I try to make is that over the last few years books have been written and well received about all of the other previously little-known soldiers. And that all together, their total doesn’t equal the total number of foreign-born soldiers. Equally importantly, there were foreign-born soldiers included in all of those other “unknown” groups.

The final statistical report for the American forces in WWI estimate that at least 20% of all of the soldiers were born in another country. You would think that 20% of a force of 4 million men would earn some significant notice and yet, except for anecdotal references, these soldiers remain fairly invisible. One exception to that is the diary of Alvin York. York’s diary includes numerous references to the struggles and triumphs of the foreign-born soldiers in his unit. So if America’s most famous Doughboy could see that there was a story that needed to be told, who were we to ignore it?

 

3) What was the most surprising discovery you made while researching this book?

There were many things that surprised me. I don’t know what surprised Pete the most because he had already been walking this path by researching Italian-Americans in the Army in WWI but for me it was the numbers of men and, in some cases, women who were of foreign birth and originating from countries you don’t usually think of. Everybody could probably guess that there would be a lot of Italians, Irish, Poles, Scandinavians, and Germans because those have always been significant number of immigrants from those countries. But I never expect to find so many Greek, Dutch, Latin American, Canadian, Indian, Albanian, Armenian, and even Australian men serving in the Army. Perhaps the single most telling statistic we found was that of the 609 men and women from the Rochester, New York, area that died from all causes during the war, 56 had been born in Italy- a total of 12 percent. There were many others also foreign-born who died but to find 12 percent for one group (and of that number, 41 were killed in combat) was just eye-opening.

 

4) How were enemy aliens treated in the U.S. military? Why were some discharged while others served?

Now that is a complex topic. The honest answer is that the response by the US military and its unit leaders was mixed and situationally-dependent. National Guard units in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and the Dakotas were representative of their local populations and therefore contained large numbers of German-born men and sons of German-born men. The 32nd Division was even nicknamed the “Gemuchlicheit Boys” (Fun-loving boys) because of this fact. When it came time to select units to serve in the American Occupation of the German Rhineland after the war, the 32nd was chosen to be one of the lead units, possibly due to the fact that so many of the men were able to speak German.

Men from the Austro-Hungarian Empire were also drafted and while many of these were not trusted and so ended up being discharged, enough remained in the ranks to serve well. Well enough in fact that the Army was organizing a Slavic Legion for service overseas when the war ended.

What makes this a hard topic to get a handle on is the fact that parts of the Ottoman and the Austro-Hungarian empires were so little known to the average American Draft board that often large numbers of men were lumped together: an Armenian might be considered Greek by one draft board and a Turk by another. Similarly, men from Albania or Bulgaria might be lumped together with Greeks, Macedonians, or Turks.  Ultimately, it was the luck of the cards and some men who wished to serve in the US Army were discharged and others, desperately wanting to be anywhere other than in the US Army, were kept. The overwhelming job of building a four million man Army in 17 months was bound to cause a lot of mistakes and, as usual, when mistakes are made in a military organization, it’s the guy on the bottom of the ladder that pays for it.

 

5) What is your next project?

We have another Barnes and Belmonte project we are putting the finishing touches on, also for Schiffer Publishing. We have written “Play Ball! America’s Doughboys and the National Pastime.” It is evenly split in telling the story of the Major League ball players who served in the Army during the war and the baseball-crazy non-professional ballplaying Doughboys who played everywhere they stopped for the evening.  Some of America’s greatest Major Leaguers served in the Army and Navy, some paying the ultimate price for their service. The regular Doughboys indulged their love for the game by playing right behind the front lines. It’s a great story that uses mainly primary sources and a number of never-before published photographs.

 

Alexander Barnes was born in Niagara Falls, New York, and grew up in an Air Force family. He enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1974 and then joined the Army National Guard in 1977, retiring as a Virginia Army National Guard chief warrant officer in 2004. He retired from US Army CASCOM at Fort Lee in July 2015 after 30 years of service as an Army Civilian.  He has a master’s degree in Anthropology and authored “In a Strange Land: The American Occupation of Germany 1918-1923,” “Let’s Go! The History of 29th Infantry Division,” and “To Hell with the Kaiser: America Prepares for War,” a two-volume set describing America’s entry into WWI.    His latest book, co-authored with Pete Belmonte, is “Forgotten Soldiers of WWI: America’s Immigrant Doughboys has just been released.  He is currently serving as the Command Historian for the Virginia National Guard.

“Forgotten Soldiers of World War I: America’s Immigrant Doughboys” is available from Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, and other bookstores as well as online stores.

Genealogy at the Movies

There are many movies about families, and while they naturally put us in mind of genealogy, there are some movies where genealogists, or genealogy plays a major role.

Recently, I watched “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”. In that movie, James Bond posed as a genealogist to infiltrate the lair of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the head of SPECTRE. Blofield had been communicating with a London College of Arms’ genealogist Sir Hilary Bray in an attempt to establish his claim to the title of ‘Comte Balthazar de Bleuchamp’. James Bond poses as a knowledgeable and irresistible genealogist, with beautiful ladies more interested in seeing his genealogy book that we usually experience. Although there are many camps about who is the best Bond, this one starred George Lazenby as Bond.

“Murder on The Orient Express” always makes me think of genealogy. The connections between the passengers definitely needed a family tree as well as a chart of the Friends, Associates and Neighbors (FAN) Club. The connections to the child and the family were intertwined to the plot. Even people who connected to the family after the event became entwined with the plot.
The Star Wars movies are the ultimate genealogical movies. They encompass a truly large FAN Club, of a multitude of beings. For those family members who do not yet know they are interested in genealogy, teach them about family trees by sketching out Luke and Leia’s genealogy. Perhaps they will want to know how their own genealogy compares.

“Who Do You Think You Are?” is back

Season 9 of “Who Do You Think You Are?” is here! The episodes are airing Monday night on TLC.

Last Monday had two strong episodes with Jon Cryer and Laverne Cox. Discussions with genealogists and interpretation of DNA results were a part of both episodes.

If you would like to stop by and comment during (or after) the episode you can stop by our Facebook page: A Week of Genealogy Facebook Page

Full episodes from this season and Season 8 can be viewed online at:
https://www.tlc.com/tv-shows/who-do-you-think-you-are/full-episodes/courteney-cox
Scroll down to find the links to the other episodes.