How can I find my relative's military service records if I don't actually know very much about it?
July 31, 2011 7:43 PM   Subscribe

I know where to get my great grandfather's military service records. But I don't have a lot of information to even start from. I need your suggestions.

My great grandfather was stationed with an American Expeditionary Force in the Phillippines during World War I. I know he was in the Army. I know his birthdate. But the records request form wants to know his rank, whether and when he enlisted or was drafted, when he was discharged, etc., and I know none of these things. The only person who might know would be his last living daughter, my great aunt, who is in her 90s, frail, and unlikely to remember this stuff now, even if she did know at one time.

Is there another, super-secret way to get at this kind of information? Databases, specialized libraries, anything at all? Has anyone had success getting a relative's service records without knowing all of the data requested on the form?

(FWIW, I do have an account but have never found a WWI Draft Registration Card for him, which suggests to me that he enlisted, rather than was drafted, but I don't even know if that's right.)

I do see from this prior question that some service records were lost in a fire. So it's possible that his records don't exist any more. I'd still like to give it a shot though.
posted by That's Numberwang! to Society & Culture (8 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Was there an obituary published when he died? That might be a good starting point, as some of this information (rank, years served) tends to be included in obits.
posted by brina at 8:10 PM on July 31, 2011

I have heard a bit about Historical Investigators and professional Genealogists. I really don't know anything about them, actually, but try a web search.
posted by Brocktoon at 8:46 PM on July 31, 2011

Ancestry has enlistment records from the World War I era. (Basically, a long name index with one row per name.) That record, if available, will include enlistment data, place of enlistment, branch, and usually a few other useful facts. It may not get you all the way to what you need, however.

Obituary is a good choice. Local newspapers are usually available on microfilm at local libraries (or state archives), and it's usually a matter of searching a week or two after the death date. Post-1980s obituaries are occasionally on Google News (click "Archives") or on subscription-services like ProQuest Archiver (which some libraries, particularly university libraries, subscribe to).
posted by zvs at 9:16 PM on July 31, 2011

Oh, also, if he is buried in a national cemetery, the burial records on Ancestry will include branch and rank. (Gravestones often have this information, even outside of national cemeteries.)
posted by zvs at 9:18 PM on July 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

They REQUEST any & all info you have, but you can do it with what you already have: don't worry about it, fill in the info you DO have, and send it in. Unless he had a really common name ("John Johnson" or the like) they'll be able to pull his records. You've got lots of specific data, you're good. Assuming his isn't one of the records that fire 40 years ago destroyed, they'll be able to tell you all the rest.

I've done it for several relatives, with no more than their names, birth info, branch of service and era served ('Uncle Bill, born xx/yy/zz in Pennsylvania, served in the Army during WWII'), and gotten back lots of stuff.
posted by easily confused at 3:59 AM on August 1, 2011

If he was buried in a National cemetery then his records were reconstructed to verify eligibility for the burial. Even if he wasn't, there is still a good chance that they were -- my father's records were burned in the fire, and they sent out a mass-mailing asking people to submit whatever records they had (such as discharge papers). I suppose you saw this page: Other Methods to Obtain Military Service Records.
posted by Houstonian at 6:15 AM on August 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

If there was a way to look all of that up without his service file, why would you need to request the service file? Seconding easily confused, they ask you to fill out everything you know on the form, but what you have is plenty.
posted by donajo at 6:54 AM on August 1, 2011

Like easily confused says, they are asking for whatever you can tell them. Honestly, fill in what little you can, and then insert a cover letter explaining that you just don't know any more.
posted by wenestvedt at 8:16 AM on August 1, 2011

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