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Genealogy: US military records from World War II and earlier can help family historians

By Barry Ewell

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, March 1 2014 5:00 a.m. MST

In this April 27, 2012 photo, a flag and marker are with grave stones for soldiers who died in action or after the Civil War at Albany Rural Cemetery in Menands, N.Y.

Mike Groll, AP

Military records kept by the United States government about soldiers and sailors who served their country can be a major source of information about individuals. The four major wars of interest to genealogists are the following:

  • American Revolution (1775-1783): Approximately one out of every 7 Americans fought in the American Revolution
  • Civil War (1861-1865): Approximately one out of every 10 Americans fought in the Civil War
  • World War I (1918-1919): More than 4.8 million served in World War I
  • World War II (1942-1945): More than 16 million served in World War II

Because of these statistics, it is worthwhile to investigate the possibility that adult males (age 13 and up) who were alive during these wars may have fought in them. Many smaller wars and conflicts have occurred in United States history, and there are records of genealogical value for those conflicts that can be found at the state level. These wars and conflicts include the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish American War and Plains Indian Wars.

Military records provide basic information about a soldier or sailor, including the unit in which he or she served, dates of military service, and sometimes a date of death. There are three types of military records: Service records, pension records, and history records.

Service records

Service records cover the time an ancestor was actually in the service. These records almost always include a name, dates of enlistment, attendance and discharge, beginning and ending rank, and military unit.

Use service records to learn about the following

• An ancestor's military service

• The necessary details to locate a pension file or military history

• Place or date of birth (secondary source for this information)

• Other details such as residence, occupation or citizenship

• A physical description

• Death or burial information

• Medical information

• Insights into the ancestor's personality and performance (promotions, AWOL notations, and so on)

• See if and where the ancestor was held as a prisoner of war

Pension records

Pension records cover the post-service period when your ancestor (or his or her next-of-kin) may have received benefits. They usually include a name, dates of enlistment and discharge, beginning and ending rank, and military unit.

Use pension records to learn about the following:

• An ancestor's military service

• The necessary details to locate a military history

• Place or date of birth (secondary source for this information)

• Dates and places of other life events

• Names of spouse or children (and sometimes their birth dates)

• Other details (such as residence, occupation, or citizenship)

• A physical description

• Death or burial information

• Medical information

• Insights into ancestor's personality and performance (through his or her letters, affidavits filed by others who knew him or her, and so on)

• Learn of an ancestor's literacy, see ancestor's signature

• Learn more about ancestor's post-war years and life.

Military history

Military histories (often referred to as regimental or unit histories) can add historical background to help you understand the conflict and your ancestor's participation in it. They usually include a roster of those who served in the unit and dates of major engagements.

Use military history records to more fully appreciate the military experience of your ancestor, learn who he or she served with, learn which engagements he or she was involved in, and see what he or she looked like.

Barry J. Ewell is author of "Family Treasures: 15 Lessons, Tips and Tricks for Discovering your Family History" and founder of MyGenShare.com, an online educational website for genealogy and family history.

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