Using Military Service Records to Research Your Family History


Most of us have relatives who served in the military at some point in the past. For those of us wanting to pursue genealogical research, the military records created during our ancestors’ time in the service can provide a wealth of information.  This includes not only documentation of the individual veteran’s military service but also a number of records that can be useful for understanding one’s family history from a non-military perspective.  These documents are incredibly helpful for piecing together the past and trying to understand exactly what our ancestors were like. Inevitably, due to the wide range of material within your veteran’s service record you are virtually guaranteed to discover unknown details about your family history that have until now remained tucked away on a dusty shelf at the National Archives. Let’s take a broad look at different military service records and what they offer in the way of genealogy research. In the coming weeks and months I will be taking a closer look at the military service records of each branch of the U.S. Military to help you better understand the possibilities of researching your family history using military service records. This article deals primarily with archival service records, meaning those records of veteran’s who were discharged from the U.S. Military OVER 62 years ago from today’s date.


Navy and Marine Corps Military Service RecordsMarine Corps and Navy service records  are complete and they provide us with excellent documentation of the veteran’s military career as well as numerous other records which can be vital for genealogical research. U.S.M.C. and Navy service records include a service record book which details the units, duties, qualifications, stations, awards and campaigns that a veteran was involved in. These service record books almost always include a period photograph of the veteran.


WWII USN Military Service Record Photo


The military service record will usually contain the veteran’s discharge, enlistment application, medical records, documents describing what he did to win military awards or commendations, jobs he held, service schools he attended and promotions that he qualified for.


WWII Navy military service record-officer promotion order


Similar to Army service records, any correspondence between the family and the U.S.M.C./Navy was retained in the service record. This includes documents like handwritten letters, or copies of the telegrams that were sent to inform the family that a loved one was wounded or killed in action.


WWI Navy military service record killed in action letter


Other kinds of correspondence that may appear in the personnel file include reference letters from people in the veteran’s local community commenting on his character and recommending him for service. Additionally, it is common to find birth certificates, marriage licenses, financial reports, information on civilian occupations, documentation on the veteran’s dependents, college/high school transcripts, hobbies and much more.


WWII Navy service record-veteran education college transcript


Service records of officers will often have efficiency reports which were written by superiors who comment on their character and work ethic. These can be a great resource for learning more about the character of your ancestor and a valuable tool for understanding your family history.


WWII Navy service record-officer efficiency report


Army/Air Corps Military Service RecordsArmy and Air Corps service records can present quite a challenge for those wishing to carry out genealogical research.. The National Archives claim that nearly 85 percent of these records from WWI through Vietnam were destroyed in the 1973 fire that swept through the St Louis location. Still, a number of extant records can be used to reconstruct the service history of individual veterans. These include auxiliary files such as medical records, pay vouchers, and surviving records from the Office of Veterans Affairs. Additionally, daily unit records and unit rosters can allow for an even deeper reconstruction of the individual veteran’s service history. Morning reports, rosters, flight records, and award cards actually make it possible to trace the steps of individual men day by day in order to see where they were and what they did during wartime.


WWII morning reports KIA Army veteran


If you manage to get lucky and find that your veteran’s records are part of the 15 percent which have pages that survived the 1973 fire- then you will find a great deal of exciting information is available for genealogical research. Complete military service records include information such as duties the veteran performed, units he served, locations he visited, details regarding wounds received in action, and citations for the awards he received.


WWII Army military service record-medal citation


Any correspondence received or sent by the Army/Air Corps was retained in the veteran’s military service record. So, for example: If a family wrote to the Army attempting to find out how their son was killed in action, both their letter and the response from the Army, his commanding officer (or perhaps the unit chaplain) would have been placed in the soldier’s military service record.


WWII Army military service record-killed in action-report of death


Other examples of genealogical documents that may be found inside of Army/Army Air Corps service records include medical/dental records, enlistment application forms, marriage licenses, birth certificates, newspaper clippings referencing the veteran, photos, education records and much more.


WWII Army military service record-education grades transcript


Coast Guard Military Service Records.  Coast Guard military service records are an excellent resource for researching on’s family history. Many Coast Guard military service records contain a photograph of the Coast Guard veteran.


WWII Coast Guard military service record photo


Like Navy and Marine Corps records, U.S. Coast Guard service records are complete. These personnel files contain the usual military documentation such as units, stations, ships assignments, a discharge record, service schools and efficiency reports.


WWII Coast Guard military service record-qualifications


You will also find citations for awards that the veteran received along with a description of what exactly he did to win the award. Correspondence written in the veterans own hand as well as telegrams are also maintained in the service record.


WWII Coast Guard military service record-correspondence example letter


It is not unusual to find a birth certificate, enlistment records showing civilian jobs and schools, marriage certificates, financial records, reports on dependents, and reference letters.


WWII Coast Guard military service record-immigration reference letter


Because Coast Guard service records are complete and were not damaged as a result of the 1973 fire, these service files provide an exciting avenue for researching one’s family history. The possibilities for discovering unknown information about your family history are pretty varied within Coast Guard military service records and they are well worth exploring.


W.A.V.E.S, W.A.A.C.S. and W.A.S.P.S. Women played an important role in the U.S. Military during the 20th Century, and the National Archives maintains archival military service records which detail their participation.


WWII Navy W.A.V.E. official military service record photo


Unfortunately, many of the records of women who served in the Army as nurses or in the Army Air Corps as service pilots are among those  which were impacted by the 1973 fire. In spite of this, there are ways to recover information regarding the service of women whose army records were destroyed in the 1973 fire. For women who served in the Navy (W.A.V.E.S.) the service records are complete and these provide a very exciting look at the participation of women in the U.S. Military during the Twentieth Century. Complete military service records of female veterans include information such as units they were assigned to, locations they visited, duties they performed, ships aboard which they sailed, service schools, qualifications, and awards received.


WWII Navy W.A.V.E. military service record qualification card


Correspondence, often hand written by the veteran or veteran’s family, can be found in the service record along with telegrams and official responses from the military. In addition, you may find information about civilian occupations, as well as marriage or divorce records.


WWII Navy W.A.V.E. military service record-marriage license genealogy records


You may also come across application forms describing hobbies and volunteer work, education, jobs, birth certificates, reference letters, a photo of the veteran, documents on the veteran’s children, and much more. 


WWII W.A.V.E. Navy woman veteran service record-vocational records


Merchant Marine and Federal Personnel FilesMerchant Marine training jackets are maintained at the National Archives. These records can be a valuable resource for researching one’s family history. Some Merchant Marine files contain photo negatives and identification cards for members of the Maritime service.


WWII Merchant Marine Service Record photo-identification card


In addition to military service records, the National Archives also holds records of civilians who were federal employees or served in the Merchant Marines. Federal personnel files can be just as informative as military service records and can offer genealogy researchers some exciting possibilities for discovering hidden gems about their family history. Similar to military service records, civilian personnel records can provide information about duties, locations that the federal worker was stationed, promotions, transfers, correspondence, telegrams, reference letters, records on civilian occupation and schools, birth certificates, marriage records, records on children, photos and more.


Federal employee official personnel file duties and jobs


Now that we have taken a broad look at the ways that military service records can be used in researching your family history, you may find it beneficial to explore these specific records in more detail. You can find additional posts on this site that will give you an example of how these records are organized, what they look like, and how you can use them to research your family history. For more information on how to order military service records refer to my post on: How to Obtain a Military Service Record.


Author: Geoff

Geoff Gentilini is the lead researcher at Golden Arrow Research. He specializes in the research of military service records from all branches of the U.S. Military. For help obtaining military service records you can fill out a request form here: Research a Military Service Record

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