Attempting to research a WWII Army veteran who was killed in action can be challenging due to the fact that the vast majority of WWII Army military service records were completely lost in the devastating fire of 1973. What this means in many cases is that there is absolutely nothing maintained in the military service record folder of the Army KIA veteran at the National Archives. For Army veterans who survived the conflict, the National Archives can often put together a ‘reconstructed’ packet which normally consists of a final pay voucher or some other auxiliary material. This is not possible for Army veterans who were killed in action since they died in the service and never received a final pay voucher. For this reason there is often nothing that the archives can use to ‘reconstruct’ their file.
The good news is that there are alternative options for finding out what happened to WWII Army veterans who were killed in action. The process for researching killed in action WWII Army veterans which I outline in this article will introduce you to options available for discovering where, when, and possibly how your Army veteran was killed in action. This is a four part research process which mines available resources at the National Archives in order to piece together the puzzle of exactly what happened to your veteran. The details uncovered in this process can often reveal more information than the family would have received when they were notified about the death of their veteran in the 1940’s (or that would be inside of the veteran’s actual military service record if it had survived the 1973 fire). This is an incredibly fascinating process that is not very well know, understood or taken advantage of. It is vital for understanding the experiences of veterans who died in the service during WWII and I think it is also an essential tool for preserving the memory of the sacrifices that these brave veterans made for our freedom.
Step One: A search for medical documents(probably best described as’ medical extracts’) from the hospital admission cards data file. The medical extracts are not original medical documents. Rather, the hospital admission cards are samples taken from medical records of WWII and Korean War Veterans for the purpose of making statistical analyses regarding the medical treatment provided to service members in each conflict. The hospital admission data files cover the period 1942-1945 and 1950-1954 and detail information such as diagnosis, dates of hospitalization, arm of service, and treatment of over 5 million veterans. Your veteran’s name will be omitted from the medical extract with the medical information being associated with the serial number instead. So, it is vital to know the serial number of the veteran you are researching if you are going to be requesting his medical extracts. Many times these records can show us the exact cause of death for veterans who were killed in action. This can be a major breakthrough for genealogical researchers especially after hitting the wall at the National Archives when requesting fire related military service records. Below is an example of a medical extract showing a diagnosis for wounds received in action.
The National Archives will redact personal information on veterans such as psychological conditions or treatment for sexually transmitted diseases. This makes sense to protect the privacy of veterans in the case of venereal disease treatment. However, it is a shame that, for example, details about post-traumatic stress disorder are being withheld from family members who are trying to learn more about the experience of their veteran during the war.
War is a nasty business. The destructive firepower of modern weaponry sometimes made the recovery of bodies impossible. In the chaos and confusion of battle, many veterans were initially listed as MIA and their bodies may not have been recovered until a great deal of time had passed. This would make a medical diagnosis impossible and in such cases the medical extract may not provide useful information on the wounds suffered by the veteran(as in the case below).
Step Two: A search for the military service record. Yes, it is probable (about a 90 percent chance) that your Army veteran’s military service record was lost in the 1973 fire. However, there are a number of military service records which have pages that survived the fire. These surviving pages can be crucial in uncovering unknown facts about your veteran’s military service as well as what happened when he was killed in action. Surviving pages from WWII Army military service records often show signs of having been present during the fire and most of them will have to go to the preservation lab for mold treatment before being viewed at the National Archives. It can take several months before the record is prepared for viewing.
The most likely scenario will be that your veteran’s Army military service record was completely lost in the 1973 fire. In cases such as this the National Archives will attempt to locate auxiliary material as a way to ‘reconstruct’ information from your veteran’s time in the service. There is usually very little that can be done since, as I explained above, most ‘reconstructed’ personnel files are nothing more than a final pay voucher or statement. If this is the situation that you find yourself in during your genealogical research journey, don’t lose heart. It is time for the final step in this process and the one which can often be the most rewarding.
Step Three: Locate the daily unit records, also known as morning reports, for the unit that the veteran was assigned to at the time he was killed in action. Today, the daily unit records are stored on microfiche at the National Archives and are open to the public. During WWII these records were used as a way to maintain a daily record of personnel changes within each Army unit. If a veteran was killed while assigned to an Army unit, this would have been recorded in his company’s daily unit records. I work with these records at the National Archives almost every day of the week and I can tell you that they are some of the most exciting as well as the most frustrating records that are maintained at the National Archives.
Part of the excitement of working with these records is that each day includes not only a list of personnel changes in the company but also a ‘record of events’ section. Researching the daily unit records can be especially rewarding when the company clerks were thorough enough to detail the unit’s combat experiences on the day your veteran was killed in action.
The daily unit records can provide us with a great deal of information that might not be completely obvious on first glance. As I noted above, the ‘record of events’ section can be useful in determining what kind of combat was taking place on the day your veteran was killed. I want to be clear that there is not necessarily going to be a detailed description of combat taking place on the day your veteran was killed. The level of detail is going to depend a great deal on how thorough the clerk was as well as a number of other factors. For instance, at the time your veteran was killed in action, the unit may have been involved in extensive combat operations making it difficult for detailed, coherent personnel reports to make it back to the company HQ or command post. The daily unit record below is an example of a more detailed report.
Initially, the daily unit records can seem rather technical. You will see a lot of military abbreviations and codes. Think of the abbreviations as if they were a variation of short-hand script. In most cases the abbreviations are just a way to fit more information on the small cards so that the word ‘battalion’ is changed to ‘Bn’, ‘weapons’ becomes ‘wpns’, ‘duty’ becomes ‘dy’, and so forth. There are keys available for translating these abbreviations and I will be putting together one for this website in due time, as well as a key for the numerical codes that appear in the daily unit records.
At times there will be a notation that just flat out describes exactly how your individual veteran was killed. Other times there will simply be a notation showing that he was killed in action with no further explanation. Additionally, you will often see a three digit code next to your veteran’s name. This code represents his military occupational specialty (MOS) or his assigned duty in the military. The military occupational specialty code gives us a great idea of exactly what the veteran was doing when he was killed in action. The men who were killed in action below show a military occupational specialty code of 745. The code 745 stands for ‘rifleman’ so we know that the men below were killed in action most likely while acting as a part a rifle platoon.
At the top of the card you can see that there is a station listed. This shows the location of the unit HQ on the date that you veteran was killed in action. In addition to providing the name of the town where the company HQ was located, these reports often contain grid coordinates which can be translated into GPS coordinates. By translating the grid coordinates you can actually pinpoint the exact location of the Company HQ when your veteran was killed in action. I will be exploring the use of the Cassini grid system and process for tracing the steps of individual men during WWII at a later time.
Working with the daily unit records is a fairly specialized process which requires time, experience and a lot of patience. While you can place orders for specific dates in the daily unit records with the National Archives, I recommend against this. The National Archives does not have the resources to devote special attention to your requests and these records are extremely complicated to navigate (it is a fact that the daily unit records are not very well understood even by the vast majority of the good folks at the National Archives who maintain them). I have navigated and worked with these records on a daily basis for several years now, and I still am very frequently presented with new challenges and obstacles. Quite simply, I recommend having a professional help you to acquire the daily unit records. This way you can not only order the records detailing how your veteran was killed in action, but you can also tap into the knowledge of an expert who understands the intricacies of the sometimes technical and complex daily unit records. If you are interested in requesting morning reports you can do that here: Obtain Army and Air Force Morning Reports
Step four: Lastly, I recommend accessing the WWII Individual Deceased Personnel File of your WWII veteran. The WWII I.D.P.F.’s have recently been transferred to the National Archives and are now available to the public. The WWII I.D.P.F. is an instrumental tool for researching WWII K.I.A. veterans. The WWII I.D.P.F. will include information regarding the death and disposition of the individual veteran’s remains. These files also include information which can be used for genealogical research such as correspondence to and from famaily members of the veteran. I have included a separate post which details the kinds of records you will find in a WWII I.D.P.F. here: Understanding the military service records that are found in a WWII I.D.P.F.
Good luck on your research journey!