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Monday, October 12, 2020

Finding Your Ancestors using Military Records


Photograph of Roof Damage Following the 1973 Fire at the Military Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri

The fire at the Military Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri in 1973 destroyed approximately 80% of the Army personnel records for those discharged from November 1, 1912, through to January 1, 1960, and 75% of the Air Force personnel records for those discharged from September 25, 1947, through January 1, 1964, with names alphabetically after Hubbard, James E. See the National Archives article, "The 1973 Fire, National Personnel Records Center" for additional information. Quoting from the article:

No duplicate copies of these records were ever maintained, nor were microfilm copies produced. Neither were any indexes created prior to the fire. In addition, millions of documents had been lent to the Department of Veterans Affairs before the fire occurred. Therefore, a complete listing of the records that were lost is not available. However, in the years following the fire, the NPRC collected numerous series of records (referred to as Auxiliary Records) that are used to reconstruct basic service information.

This event illustrates a major genealogical research issue: locating records when time or circumstances have made finding the needed information extremely difficult or impossible. This destructive fire is also a lesson in why digitizing records and storing the digitized images in separate locations is so important. 

I have an extensive background in military history. I spent eight years in ROTC or in the Army during the Vietnam War era, although I did not go to Vietnam because of some unusual circumstances. 

Military records in the United States and around the world are scattered around in a variety of repositories. In the United States each state, including Washington, D.C., and each of the U.S. Territories has a National Guard that serves a dual state and federal mission. See "What is the U.S. national guard and when is it called up?" In addition, the United States has the Army, the Marine Corps, the Navy, the Air Force, the Space Force, and the Coast Guard. The Army National Guard and the Air National Guard are reserve components of their services and operate in part under state authority. See "U.S. Department of Defense, Our Forces."

Each country of the world has some sort of national armed forces and the organization and structure of these military units are different for each country and for genealogical record purposes discovering the records kept and whether or not they are available is a major challenge. But it is worth the effort when you find the military records of one or more of your ancestors. As the description of the fire at the Military Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri illustrates, not all of the records will have been preserved. 

To begin to locate military records in any country, including the United States, you first need to do some extensive historical research. Although you might be fortunate enough to know that your ancestor or relative was "in the Army" or whatever, finding further information is a challenge. For example, from some memorabilia from my Grandfather, I knew that he was in the Army. I have photos of him while he served in the "Border War" with Mexico sometime during the years from 1910 to 1919. I also knew from family tradition that he "fought in World War I." Finding the records and the information about his service took considerable research and finally was resolved when it turned out that my father had his military records in a box that I inherited when my father died. It turned out that he didn't really fight in World War I because he enlisted and discharged just as the war ended. 

For example, here is a list of the usually accepted major wars and military actions involving the United States including those that occurred during the colonial era. 

  • King Philip's War
  • King William's War
  • Queen Anne's War (War of Spanish Succession)
  • King George's War (War of Austrian Succession)
  • French and Indian War(Seven Years War)
  • Cherokee War
  • American Revolution
  • Franco-American Naval War
  • Barbary Wars
  • War of 1812
  • Creek War
  • War of Texas Independence
  • Mexican-American War
  • U.S. Civil War
  • Spanish-American War
  • World War I
  • World War II
  • Korean War
  • Vietnam War
  • Bay of Pigs Invasion
  • Grenada
  • US Invasion of Panama
  • Persian Gulf War
  • Intervention in Bosnia and Herzegovina
  • Invasion of Afghanistan
  • Invasion of Iraq
  • War in Northwest Pakistan
  • Somalia and Northeastern Kenya
  • Operation Ocean Shield (Indian Ocean)
  • Intervention in Libya
  • Lord's Resistance Army
  • US-led Intervention in Iraq
  • US-led intervention in Syria
  • Yemeni Civil War
  • US intervention in Libya
What do you know about each of these wars? What records were kept for each conflict and where would you go to find the records? That is basically the challenge of one country's involvement in military action. By the way, the list above is not exhaustive. For example, it does not include the War in Texas usually called the Texas Revolution and it does not include the Mexican Border War. 

Once you identify some military conflict that MIGHT has involved your relative or ancestors, you still need to find the records and see if you can identify your ancestor in those records. Unfortunately, many of the military records in the United States are not digitized and are only available in the original repositories such as the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and its branches. 

The good news is that some military records such as pension records can contain a huge amount of information about not only the military veteran but also his or her entire family. Here is a list of some of the types of military records that you might find in the United States:
  • Bounty awards including land grants
  • Citations
  • Disability
  • Discharges
  • Muster rolls
  • National Guard
  • Pension application and awards
  • Ribbons
  • Selective Service Board (Draft Registration)
  • Service records
  • Veterans records
From time to time, I will be writing more about specific record sets. Stay tuned. 

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