Did My Ancestor Serve in WWI?

New Blog Post

In the past, I answered that question by recommending searching for information at home, searching through the U.S. Army Transport Records that documented a veteran’s trip overseas, consulting state service abstracts or contacting the National Personnel Records Center.

Now, one of the most helpful sets of records to answer that question has come online. It is the U.S. Veterans Administration Master Index from NARA’s Records of the Veterans Administration [VA] (Record Group 15).

So, gather up the list of possible candidates. Having a residence and a birth date may help you narrow down the search for ancestors with common names.

You will need a free account on FamilySearch to access these records. If you do not already use FamilySearch, you will be glad to find out about what it has to offer. The link to search the collection is United States, Veterans Administration Master Index, 1917-1940.

Family Search search page for U.S. Veterans Administration Master Index

Enter your ancestor’s name.

Searching example

Look through the search results to look for your ancestor. (Pay attention to the residence; the military service location (St. Louis) is related to where the records were stored.)

result for example search

The small document icon is used to “view the record details.”

The small camera icon on the right means that you can view an image of the record.

Search result

Clicking on “view the original document takes you to the image viewer, you can view and download it.

The image viewer screen

From this image, I know the first military organization in which Joseph F. McMahon served. An important piece of information is his military service number, which is helpful when the veteran has a common name.- His birth and death dates, as well as his enlistment and discharge dates.

C is the Claim Number assigned when an application was made for a service connected disability, pension, and education and training.

An “A” number shows that this veteran was eligible for the Adjusted Compensation paid to veterans based on their WWI service.

T Indicates that the veteran had War Risk Insurance during WWI.

CT  Shows the certificate number assigned by service departments with the World War I Bonus.

Learn more about these records at Family Search search page for U.S. Veterans Administration Master Index.

Learn more about the letter codes at NARA’s Key to Codes & Prefixes.

When you find an ancestor who served in WWI, you can begin to research his service. Check out our other WWI blog posts by using the Search Box and entering WWI.

Learn more about our book on this website or at Amazon Researching Your U.S. WWI Army Ancestors.

The U.S. Military Records That Never Burned

No, NOT all the WWI and WWII military records for your ancestor were burned!

We often hear the misinformation and read many posts on Facebook claiming that all the military records burned. This post will help shed light on just a few of the records about your ancestor’s service that are still available.

We have already blogged about the Official Military Personnel Files OMPFs beginning here, and hope you had a chance to read about them. From that post you will have learned that Navy and Marine Corps personnel files from WWI and WWII were not burned in the NPRC fire.

It is important to know there were original records that were never in the OMPFs, and so, they were NEVER BURNED. These records were part of the paperwork generated by military organizations, and were kept separately from the individual personnel records. The individual personnel records were actually constructed by using these original records.

This blog post covers some great examples of records that could help you understand your ancestor’s military experience: Rosters/Musters and Morning Reports. For military ancestors who died while in service, there are WWI Death Files and WWII Individual Death Personnel Files (IDPF).

Muster Rolls and Rosters

These records contain information about service members who were in an organization, so you can place your ancestor with an organization at a specific time. These are lists of the members of an organization during a specific time period (or at a specified time such as the last day of the month). They shows who was sick in hospital, who was “lost” to the organization by transfer, and to where they were transferred, who was “gained” by the organization through transfer, and who was attached. By piecing these together, a service member can be tracked.

Browsable images of WWI muster rolls and rosters are available online at the FamilySearch website. You need to know the military organization for the service member because these are not searchable. United States, World War I, military muster rolls and rosters, 1916-1939 (The filmstrips are available at the National Personnel Record Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, MO.)

Morning Reports

These reports cover the day-by-day details of an Army organization, giving a brief summary of the status of the men and animals in the organization.

The front of the morning reports contain columns that record the counts of officers, enlisted men and animals. On the back, brief notations were made naming the soldiers who transferred in, transferred out, transferred to a hospital or were sick. Notes were made of soldiers who were loaned out to other organizations, who were promoted, where and how far they traveled, courts martial, and disciplinary actions.

Like any other diary, this will give context to your military ancestor’s service even when his name is not mentioned.

These records are available at the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC). The U.S. Navy has Ship’s Logs, which rarely mention individuals. Learn more about Ship’s Logs here.

WWI Death Files / WWII Individual Death Personnel Files (IDPF)

For service members who died while in service, a death file will exist. In WWI, these are Death Files; in WWII they were called Individual Death Personnel Files (IDPF). These files are truly individual, as the contents will vary for each case. Each should contain the circumstances of the service member’s death. If the ancestor died in combat, there will generally be a description of how he died, compiled from available witnesses.

For an ancestor who went overseas, the file will contain correspondence with the next-of-kin to establish whether to ship the service member’s remains back to the United States, or bury him in an overseas military cemetery. In the file for a WWI service member who was buried overseas, there may be information about a Gold Star trip sponsored by the government to allow mothers and wives to visit the grave of their fallen soldier in Europe. If the service member was originally classified as missing in action, the file may contain information about how the remains were identified.

Although these files exist for those who died during service stateside, typically these files contain less information that for those who died in combat.

These records can be requested from the NPRC, however, NARA is prioritizing the digitization of WWI files and making them online. Record Group 92, Series: Correspondence, Reports, Telegrams, Applications, and Other Papers Relating to Burials of Service Personnel, 1/1/1915 – 12/31/1939 are searchable here.

Burial Cards

For service members who died while in service, a burial card will exist. The burial card contains information about where the service member was interred, and where the remains had been relocated. (To learn more, read the blog post Researching Soldiers Who Died During World War I.)

The family of the soldier below chose to have his remains stay in Europe, in the American Battle Monuments Commission Meuse-Argonne Cemetery. NARA Archivists have reported not yet finding where the photographs are stored that are referenced on the cards.

Record Group 92, Series: Card Register of Burials of Deceased American Soldiers, 1917 – 1922. The 104 sets of digitized cards can be browsed from here.

Know that only the personnel records for Army and Air Force service members were involved in the fire, and that even those ancestors still live in the unburned pages of the military records.

Researching Alabama WWI Ancestors

WWI service summaries are incredibly useful when researching our military ancestors. For Alabama, we have two choices to access these online: The Alabama Department of Archives and History and FamilySearch.

For the centennial of WWI, the Alabama Department of Archives and History conducted a crowdsourcing effort to transcribe the records of Alabamians who served in the military during WWI. These records can be browsed by county here.

Click on a county to view the list of WWI service cards in alphabetical order.

From the page for the county results, you can enter a name in the Search box, and click on the Search button, to see that name in all the counties in Alabama. (Also note the checkbox for Alabama Active Military Service Reports if you are searching for more recent military ancestors.)

Below is a list of all the Smith results for all counties.

There is a separate series for members of the 167th Infantry Regiment. Enter the name in the Search box and click on the Search Button.

This is a summary of service transcribed from the original personnel records that may have been burned at the NPRC. Remember, even though the files may have burned, the data compiled in them still exists. Read our blog post Where Do I Find Out About My Ancestor’s Military Service? The OMPF!.

As promised, there is one other resource for the Alabama service summaries. FamilySearch has them online and indexed. It was a little easier to search on this website, but you do have to sign up for a free account to use it.

Search the Alabama, World War I Service Cards, 1917-1919 here. The birth date might be helpful to enter.

Searching for Frank B Williams brought me to these search results. When you see the camera icon on its own that means you can view an image on the FamilySearch website.

The first result was the WWI soldier who I was researching.

Thank you to John Milam for bringing the research question to me that resulted in this post.

Researching Washington WWI Ancestors

As you may know from my lectures and book, it is important to find your WWI ancestor’s military organization to unlock learning about his military service. An online way to find out about your Washington WWI Ancestors is to search the Washington State Archives – Digital Archives website.

If you have Washington ancestors, check out all the online collections. In the Search by Name box, look at the dropdown menu for Collections dropdown menu on the left.

You can certainly search from the homepage, but I wanted to narrow down my search to military records. To narrow in on military records, I clicked on Search in the menubar across the top of the webpage.

From the dropdown menus on the left side of the webpage:
Record Series: select Military Records
County: To search all counties in the whole state leave set to “–Select a County—”
Title: Select “Veterans Affairs, Department of World War I”

In the search box, enter your ancestor’s name. Note that the first box is for last name (surname). You can certainly enter the whole name of your ancestor, but you might consider entering just a last name in the search boxes to find all the family members. One of the neat features is that you can select a checkbox for Soundex so that the search will return names that sound like the name you entered in the search box. This helps you locate records if the last name has been misspelled or misindexed.

The good news is that an image exists for this record, so we click the result and inspect it and see if it is for the correct person.

You are given the option to download a pdf of the record. Although it is doubtful you would ever need a certified copy of this record, you can order one for $6.

The pdf file contains the Service Statement (Summary) Card.

A list of the Authorized Abbreviations for these cards is found here.

I decided to do another search, this time I made a broader search. The only thing I selected from the dropdown menus on the left was Military Records.

From the dropdown menus on the left side of the webpage:
Record Series: select Military Records
County: To search all counties in the whole state leave set to “–Select a County—”
Title: To search all military records, select “—Select a Title—”

The search returned additional records, but they were not for this soldier.

Another idea for researching your Washington ancestors is through the keywords. From the homepage, take a look at the dropdown menu for collections in the Search by Keyword box.

Good luck searching for your Washington WWI ancestors!

Researching Tennessee WWI Ancestors

More than 130,000 Tennesseans served in WWI. If you are researching one of them, then check out the extensive collection of online WWI resources from the Tennessee State Archives. This archive contains items ranging from the compiled service records that are such an important starting place for WWI research, to a very special and personal collection of digitized items shared by descendants. They are hosted by the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC), which is a global library cooperative.

The compiled service records of the WWI soldiers and sailors from Tennessee can be found in the Record of Ex-Soldiers in World War I. You can search for a specific service member from this webpage. Since the records are stored by county, you also have the option to browse them.

On this webpage you will also find links to Gold Star records from Tennessee, the “Over Here, Over There” collection and Alvin York’s record. The Gold Star records should definitely be checked if you are researching someone a Tennessean who died in service. To check the comprehensive list of all Tennesseans who died in WWI, you can email TLSA and they will perform a lookup in the complete listing of the dead in the Court of Honor in the War Memorial Building in Nashville.

To search the records, enter the search term in the search box. Sometimes, I start by searching using just a surname. That way I can avoid missing entries because of spelling errors, or find other family members.

The results will have a list of the counties that have the results. Clicking on one will bring to the results for the whole county.

Use the arrows in the upper right corner of the pdf page that is displayed so that you can expand the view. In the expanded view, you will see the search term highlighted and you can download the page. From this view, you can use the arrows to move forward to the next result.

The Tennessee State Library & Archives launched an exciting project for the WWI Centennial Project called “Over Here, Over There: Tennesseans in the First World War”. Archivists digitally copied and advised individuals on how to preserve their World War I era manuscripts, artifacts, and photographs. The digitized copies of the items then become part of a virtual exhibit commemorating the centenary of the war and its impact on Tennessee.

When searching the database, it is incredibly helpful to know in which county your ancestor lived. Another idea would be to check out the lists that were created by county that are here. Scroll down to the alphabetic listing of counties.

In this example, we are searching Knox County for the surname Turner.

Using the page number listed in the column on the right will help in navigating the correct page from the search results. Using the Age or Date of Birth column can help narrow down to the correct ancestor when multiple soldiers have similar names.

You can learn more about the collection here.

You can browse the items or search this outstanding collection here.

While you are researching your Tennessee service member, consider checking Tennessee World War I Veterans’ Questionnaires. Although these Questionnaires are not digitized, they are indexed by the service member’s name. The county may or may not be listed. Although the 4,453 questionnaires that were collected represent less than 5% of the approximately 100,000 Tennesseans who served in World War I, the service member you are researching might be one of them!

If you find a survey from your ancestor, follow the directions here to order a copy of it.

Tennessee TVSL

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.