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Tracing A Family Member's Military Service

One of the most frequent questions we receive is the general "can you tell me what my relative did in the service". Unfortunately, most of the time we have to say "no" we are not familiar with him or her but if you are interested we can give you a roadmap to follow and possibly help you along the way. Following is an outline of the roadmap that will help you get started. So get ready to put on your detective hat and let's get going.

In the beginning you might be dealing with a forest of information so large that it is overwhelming, so we need to start a process of elimination. The first thing to do is gather any and all papers and photographs that you may possess. These can provide a lot of information and offer clues. Papers may contain service serial number, time in service, awards and much more. Pictures may contain names, places and dates. Within the photos may be clues as to locations and units and if they contain aircraft, tail numbers and nose art. There are a lot of historians that have done exemplary research on aircraft creating invaluable tools.

Personnel Records

For decades the US Government housed individual servicemen/women personal-personnel records at the NPRC in St. Louis Missouri. These types of records are also referred to as the service jacket or 201 file. These would contain copies of all documents pertaining to the individual who would possess their own copies. Contained therein could include orders, assignments, awards and discharge papers. Like with many documents regarding our lives, many people get rid of a lot of excess items so you may only have a few items if any.

If you have been researching for some time, you may have heard the story of a fire in the St. Louis National Personnel Record Center (NPRC) that destroyed all records. The fire did happen in 1973 and according to the National Archives, the custodian of this material, it destroyed approximately 16-18 million records of Army and Air Force personnel. Not all of the records were destroyed-burned, many were water damaged . You can and you should request to see what they have and if you have made a request in the past with no success, make another one now because there has been an effort to recover and re-compile records using a variety of sources. Don't get your hopes too high but make another effort.

Official Fire Story: https://www.archives.gov/st-louis/military-personnel/fire-1973.html

Instructions for requesting records: https://www.archives.gov/veterans/military-service-records

Discharge Documents

Even if you have a discharge paper also known as a form DD-214, it only contains the last assignment; if the veteran served overseas in a conflict, it's likely that when returned to the states, they were assigned to another organization before they were discharged, so this document will not provide everything you are looking for. However, the last set of discharge papers have a multitude of other items such as awards, time overseas, etc.

Group Records

If you know or are successful in determining the group a veteran was assigned then the size of forest for your research has shrunk considerably. Since you are on this website we are going to assume you are looking for Air Service, Army Air Corps, Army Air Forces or US Air Force records. Group or Command level organization records are housed at two places. The US National Archives (NARA) or Air Force Historical Research Agency (AFHRA).

For our discussion let us consider a veteran who served in the 5th Bombardment Group. First, do a web search and find as much as possible on the web about the group. Next you can travel to College Park, Maryland where a campus of the National Archives is located in one of the largest buildings in the US. Here you can find group and squadron records. Depending upon what items have survived and been archived you may find documents and pictures in numerous boxes attributed to the 5th BG. If you make a trip to College Park plan to spend a few days for research, you might have to make a return trip if you cannot find everything you are looking for or find so many items you just cannot get through the material. Make a big trip out of it and do some sightseeing in our nation's capital including a visit to Arlington National Cemetery.

Group records will not contain specific individual personnel documents, but they will contain items about the group, missions, war diaries, orders and possibly more and in them you find mentions of the personnel. These could be considered the history records of a group. Orders may contain the names of many servicemen as do mission reports.

If travel is not in your plans you are not out of luck as many records are available at the Air Force Historical Research Agency (AFHRA). http://www.afhra.af.mil/ according to their website their holdings contain over 70 million pages of records.

Many of AFHRA's holdings can also be ordered on DVD for a nominal fee. On their homepage you will find contact information so you may inquire as to what DVDs might be of interest and to place an order.

You can help out the Army Air Corps Library and Museum if you get items from either NARA or AFHRA, we are looking for documents containing awards and rosters. For example, a group may have received a Presidential Unit Citation (PUC) for a particular action. When this occurred an award-roster document was created listing all personnel assigned to that organization on that particular date. These veterans are eligible to wear the PUC ribbon above their left breast pocket on their uniform. These documents are invaluable to our organization and help us further our mission.

It is possible that you may find thousands of documents to review others may only encounter sparse information. Either way the documents are not indexed, searchable or contain tables of contents so you will need to work your way through them all. But you have started this search and you will see it through to its conclusion. At a minimum you will have great satisfaction in your effort and a greater appreciation for the duty and history of the group and their role in any conflict. Along your journey we would be happy to assist you in interpreting the material you may encounter. We may even be able to identify some items for you.

We wish you success with your search. Keep em' Flying!



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Servicemen Data

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