Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Genealogical Disaster: Part — 2. Working Around the 1973 Fire at the U.S. National Personal Records Center

Pershing's Future Warriors Reporting for Duty

If you haven't done so yet, I would suggest reading our previous posting, Part 1 on the 1973 fire that destroyed the military records of so many American veterans. Here in Part 2 I'm going to share a dozen workarounds  to that disaster I've discovered over the years to help genealogical researchers.  

Since I started our website on the AEF, the Doughboy Center, nearly 20 years ago,  I have had several thousand genealogical inquiries. Many of them were from discouraged families who were frustrated due to this fire. Almost without exception, though, their interests were way beyond filling in their family trees. They wanted to know what their relative had actually DONE in the war. So, these suggestions I'm listing below are for people interested in the details of military service, which is part of the history of the war.  One thing I won't be getting into here are draft registration cards. These are vital and incredibly valuable for you family histories, but they tell nothing about the individual's service after he was called up. One thing you will need to do if you intend to pursue this seriously, however, is to learn about the American military effort in the war, even if your relative was in a non-combat role such as with the YMCA or one of the many hospitals. The most valuable resource book is available free online as a PDF download here:

American Armies and Battlefields in Europe

New Marines in Training

A Dozen Workarounds for the AEF Genealogical Researcher

1. If you are interested in what your relative did in the war, the most important piece of information is what unit he served in.  If you know that, you can determine or access:

a. If the unit went overseas
b. Where it served
c. Official histories of the unit, memoirs of its members, holdings in local libraries, history societies, and so forth
d. If your relative was a casualty or received a decoration
e. What the battles were like or what his duties involved
 f. If he was killed in action and the family is eligible to receive his Purple Heart.

2. Despite the fact that 80 percent of the World War I personnel records were lost in 1973, this, of course, means 20 percent were not lost. Therefore, you should request a search of personnel records in the National Personnel Records Center. To do so, you will need a Standard Form 180, "Request Pertaining to Military Records." Copies of the form are available from the center at 8600 Page Boulevard, St. Louis, MO 63132, or from their website:

National Personnel Records Center Website

3.  In parallel with this effort, which is time-consuming, there are a number of indirect ways to track down the individual's service information.  There are clues you might not recognize in the family archives or planted in the memories of the living memories.  You might not recognize these as relevant, but you should talk to everyone and ask them if they remember anything they were told about serving in the war.  Ask to see personal items like letters from overseas and diaries, can seem invasive and privacy must always be respected.  My suggestion is that you ask the holder of the material to become your ally in the investigation and review what they have to look for specific WWI references.

4. Who disposed of the veteran's personal effects when he died. A relative? An executor? Find them and see what happened to his personal effects and check to see if there were any military papers, medals, a  list of where he went to training camp,  movements overseas, places visited, and so forth.

5. What was his home state at the time of the war? Many states published summary volumes listing the military service of every citizen during the war. Check at his state governmental library and archives.

Wounded and Gassed at the Marne

6. When and where did he die? Was there an obituary? Is there any one left who knew him after the war that he might have spoken to about his military experience?

7. Where is he buried? Check the records at the cemetery. If you are not sure, the VA has an online listing of burials in their stateside cemeteries, and the American Battle Monuments Commission has a similar resource covering overseas cemeteries.

8. Did he belong to any veterans organizations? They usually keep information on the affiliations and military service of members.

9. Photos in uniform are gold.  They usually allow you to determine the service, and the branch like artillery or engineers.  And, depending on when it was taken, you might find unit insignia, wound or service stripes, and decorations.  Check all the family photo albums you can track down. 

10. This sounds like a long shot, but just type the veteran's name into your search engine with any detail you might remember about his service, such as artillery.  I have actually found the first clue for families, who have run into a dead end this way.

11.  Of course, there are many online sources today to help you. They have proliferated with the coming of the Centennial. The World War I Centennial Commission has a great compilation site, and they were kind enough to include our work at

Online Genealogical Resources

Welcome Home

12.  Sleuthing 101: Sooner or later, you are going to start getting some clues. Now, you need to put on your deerstalker hat, connect the dots, construct some working theories to test, and start tracking down some possibilities.

For instance, you might learn that your grandfather was from Pennsylvania and a member of the National Guard.  That makes it probable (not certain by any means, but this is a good indicator) that he was with the 28th Pennsylvania National Guard Division. Since the National Guard is organized by states you might be able to confirm this with the Pennsylvania Adjutant General.

Or, you might piece together some details about your great aunt. Say you learned from talking to the family that she was a nurse in France in the Loire Valley at town called Allerey and that all the doctors came from the university in her home state, Minnesota. Well, with minimal further checking online, you will discover that she probably worked at AEF Base Hospital #26 that was organized by the University of Minnesota. In that case you next inquiries would be to that university's library and archives. Surely, they have information on Base Hospital #26. 

With your diligence and a little luck, you will be able to determine that your relative served, say, in the 363rd Infantry of the 91st Wild West Division. With minimal work online you will be able to tell that this was the draftee division from the West Coast and the 363rd had men from Northern California,  that they went over the top the first day of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, and after consulting the divisional history that your relative was wounded on 29 September 1918. Now you can really start to dig on what happened to him a century ago by reading accounts of the fighting in the sector that day.

A last bit of advice:  throughout your researching effort, think like a journalist writing a mini-biography and keep asking : who, how, what, when, where, and why, about your subject.  That way you will come to a fuller understanding of your family's World War One Doughboy, Marine,  Nurse, Volunteer, Flyer, Sailor.

Best of luck to you.


  1. As stated above, state agencies have WWI veteran service information. To access a veteran's service information for the appropriate state agency (the state of residence when entering the service), contact the Research Center at The National WWI Museum and Memorial in Kansas City to obtain the name and phone number for each state.

  2. Excellent suggestions! Also, there are many national and local newspapers from WWI that have been digitized recently and they are searchable on the internet. Some like ProQuest are only accessible from library computers but others can be accessed from home via or Searches by name or unit can unearth some fascinating stories.

  3. I got lucky and found an autobiographical book by a guy named Triplet who was in my great Uncle's sister regiment, the 140th of the 35th Div, my Uncle was in the 138th. It was a first hand account of his war from training camp at Nevada, Missouri to coming home. One of the things he talked about that I remember my Uncle talking about was the swarms of flies at the training camp. Great advice in this post, "American Armies and Battlefields in Europe" is a must read for anyone interested in AEF.

  4. Don't neglect state archives and/or national guard records, I don't know why they are rarely mentioned. Normally what you will receive is a summary of service card which will provide the unit and note any wounds or decorations.

  5. I remember the attack on National Personnel Records Center. I was in AFROTC at Saint Louis University. The bombers bombed the AFROTC headquarters, including leaving a time delayed bomb that injured a fireman. It was a decoy to divert police, etc. from the Records Center