How Can I Find My Ancestor’s Military Records?

This week, we decided to tackle a common question that we get from people researching their roots:

What are the best resources for finding records on African-American veterans of the 19th and 20th centuries? 

Military draft, enrollment and service records can provide a gold mine of information about an ancestor. In the case of African-American forebears, the segregation of troops prior to 1948 may complicate your search, but there are resources you can turn to that may hold the answers you seek. Our advice below starts with records holding the most recent information, and works backward through to the early 19th century.

Personnel Records

You can request military personnel files for the U.S. Air Force, Army, Marine Corps, Navy and Coast Guard through the National Archives’ National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis by usingStandard Form 180. The last page of the form includes a list of addresses to where the request should be mailed based on the current status of the serviceman or servicewoman. Keep in mind when searching for military personnel files for service in either world war that a fire in 1973 at the National Personnel Record Center destroyed 80 percent of personnel files for those discharged from the Army between Nov. 1, 1912, and Jan. 1, 1960, and 75 percent of those discharged from the Air Force between Sept. 25, 1947, and Jan. 1, 1964.

Access to modern records is more restricted for privacy reasons, since the service member may still be alive. For records of individuals who were discharged, retired or died in service less than 62 years ago, only the serviceman or servicewoman can request copies of his or her military personnel file. Others requesting the records must have a signature of the service member to authorize the release of the record. If the service member is deceased, a next of kin may submit a request with proof of death, such as a death certificate or obituary.

Personnel records can include information such as the individual’s enlistment, post and assignments, awards and medals, insurance and emergency information, training and performance reviews, discharge and retirement, and other personal information.

National Archives Records

The National Archives holds a wealth of archival military records, but they can be difficult to navigate. Reference information papers published through the National Archives and Records Administration provide descriptions of collections and how they are organized.

One such paper is particularly useful for researching African-American veterans: “Records of Military Agencies Relating to African Americans From the Post-World War I Period to the Korean War” (pdf), by Lisha B. Penn, focuses on records of African-American participation in World War I, World War II and the Korean War that are held at the National Archives facility in Washington, D.C. It includes information on 145 series of records that contain data on African-American servicemen and women.

Each section of the document provides a history of the agency or program and a historic overview of the contents in the records, before describing each series. The document also provides the finding-aid number and a note about how the series is arranged to make searching through the collection a bit easier. This is a very helpful source when you’re trying to locate records at the National Archives, particularly during the period of segregation in the armed forces through the end of World War II, when African-American troop records were often recorded separately from other military records.

20th-Century Online Resources

Websites such as Ancestry.com (subscription required) and FamilySearch have collections that can aid you in your search for African-American ancestors that served in the 20th century. These collections are particularly helpful in piecing together the service of an ancestor if his or her personnel file was destroyed in the 1973 fire at the National Personnel Record Center.

World War I draft-registration cards are available to search through both Ancestry.com and FamilySearch. There are also some World War II draft-registration cards available to the public, though they are only for the fourth registration because of privacy laws. This draft is referred to as the “old man’s registration” because it included men who were between the ages of 45 and 64 at the time, born between April 28, 1877, and Feb. 16, 1897. These records include the race and physical description of the registrant and can sometimes contain information about next of kin and residence.

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