Learning About Your WW1 Relative
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Is it true that almost all World War I military records kept at the St. Louis National Personnel Record center were lost in a fire?
A: The 1973 fire destroyed [many but not all] U.S. Army personnel records created from 1912 to 1963, but it did not damage U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps personnel files. See NARA article for details.
Q: Despite the fire at the National Personnel Records Center, I want to see if they have any information on my grandfather. How can I start this process?
A: To request a search of personnel records in the National Personnel Records Center, 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 Web site [on the right]:
Of course, any governmental form is going to have some tricky parts. In ordering a file from St. Louis that you MUST include the military service number. If you do NOT include the military service number, you will wait 6-9 months and St. Louis will return the request telling you they cannot process the request without the military service number, no exceptions.
An alternative approach is suggested by Genealogist Lynna Kay Shuffield [See the last question below for information on her Web site.] In her article on “WWI Statement of Service Cards”, records of service that were sent to the Adjutant General of every state, she lists where to write for this resource in every state. You don’t have to have the military service number to get this record. Once you have this card, and it will have service number on it, you can then write to St. Louis.
Q: I’ve had no luck with official records on my WWI relative. I want to learn what his experience was like. How can I get started to do my own research with published sources?
A: The key to getting started is to learn your relative’s unit.
If the official approach has failed you, there are other ways, some unofficial, to dig up his unit. Here is a list of places to check:
- 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.
- Who disposed of his 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, letters home, a diary he kept overseas, information about where he went to training camp, and so forth.
- Where is he buried? Check the records at the cemetery.
- When 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?
- Did he belong to any veterans organizations? They usually keep information on the affiliations of members.
- Does any one have a photo of him in uniform or a some souvenirs from the war (example below).
Q: How can I learn the details of how my grandfather was wounded in World War I?
A: The National Archives holds reports on most of the 300,000 men wounded in the war. These include reports on Casualties, or Wound Chevron special orders, which can provide valuable military service information, including types of injuries and location of service. (NARA, Records of the U.S. Regular Army Mobile Units, 1821-1942, RG 391)
If he was killed in action, Lynna Kay Shuffield has also written an excellent online article on researching World War I Burial Case Files.
Q: What were the Gold Star Mothers. Did they make a trip to Europe to visit their son’s graves?
Gold star mothers are women who lost a son or daughter in the United States armed forces during wartime. The term came into use during World War I through the use of service flags (or service banners) on which families would display a blue star shown for each family member serving in the military. If a family member died in the nation’s service, the blue star on the service flag that represented that individual would be covered with a gold star.
Mothers of WWI military casualties (soldiers, nurses, etc.) whose child or children were buried in Europe rather than being returned home for burial became eligible for the Gold Star Pilgrimage of Mothers and Widows (widows of World War I casualties buried in Europe were only eligible if they had not remarried during the time between the war and the Pilgrimages). The pilgrimages were held from 1930-1933 during the spring and summer to take advantage of the best weather for traveling overseas. Approximately 6,800 women participated in the pilgrimages during those four years. All expenses were paid by the United States government; the Army Quartermaster Corps coordinated the trips and escorted the pilgrims on the journey.
A free searchable database of the government’s preliminary list of those WWI mothers and widows eligible for the trip can be found at: http://search.ancestry.com/search/db.aspx?dbid=4224
Learn more about this program at article: “World War I Gold Star Mothers Pilgrimages” by Constance Potter and at “America and the Akins Family Lose a Son” from Marty Beatty (link on right).
Q: How do I learn about the military experience of my relative in the Great War without getting involved with government archives?
A: Depending on how deeply you wish to study and research published and generally available Sources we suggest three levels of inquiry.
1. For a general introduction to the operations of the American Expeditionary Forces:
THE WAR TO END ALL WARS, E.M. Coffman
A top-down look at the AEF.
OVER THERE, Frank Freidel
Best photo album of the AEF, supplemented by firsthand experiences from the Doughboys.
THE DOUGHBOYS, Gary Meade
An updated account modeled on Lawrence Stalling’s classic of the same title [also recommended].
2. For detailed information on every AEF unit and operation:
AMERICAN ARMIES AND BATTLEFIELDS IN FRANCE, GPO
A unique combination battlefield tour guide, history, atlas, photo album and statistical abstract.
ORDER OF BATTLE OF UNITED STATES LAND FORCES IN THE WORLD WAR, 1917-1919, U.S. Army, 3 volumes.
Detailed, important information about every AEF unit.
WORLD WAR I: THE U.S. ARMY OVERSEAS, U.S. Army Center for Military History
Brief summary of the history and operations of the AEF [available online].
3. For very specific information on your relative’s military service.
If, say, you are looking for the specific action in which your relative won his Silver Star, you must go to the detailed unit histories. These are most informative and detailed for divisions and regiments. Here are some tips for finding unit histories [Armies, Corps, Divisions, Regiments]:
The U.S. Army Military History Institute maintains on online library of unit history bibliographies.
Q: But how to find these works?
A: There are many resources, including:
- Military history book dealers, especially specialists in the First World War, are worth a check. Some of the unit histories are now being placed on line. Trying “Googling” using the name of the unit, e.g., “363rd Infantry Regiment.”
- Certain libraries, archives and depositories have very large collections of WWI works. These include the New York Public Library, the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and Cantigny – The First Division Foundation and Museum at Wheaton, Illinois.
- Try the larger local and universities in your area and see if the can order works via interlibrary loan.
- If he was assigned to an Army division, try to find out what states provided the bulk of the manpower for that division. There is a helpful list in Laurence Stalling’s book THE DOUGHBOYS. Check at the big city libraries, state university libraries, historical societies and state library and archives for that state. This approach of course does not work for aviation units or specialized units not assigned to divisions. Also, remember that the U.S. Marines in the Great War fought under the Army’s 2nd Division.
Q: My relative was killed in action during the war. I understand he was entitled to received the Purple Heart, but it was never awarded posthumously. Can the family apply for the award of the medal?
A: Yes, although you will probably have to provide some evidence of his service and his death in the war. Consult the “Purple Heart” and “America and the Akins Family Lose a Son” links on the right for details.
Q: My great grandfather was drafted during the Great War. Is there an online source for his draft registration record?
A: Yes, see the links listed on the right.
Q: My great uncle was in the National Guard of Colorado and served with their National Guard division during the war. Can I check their records of his service?
A: Yes, National Guard unit records are not federal records but are in the custody of state repositories or the Adjutant Generals’ offices. THE GENEALOGIST’S ADDRESS BOOK, by Elizabeth Petty Bently (Genealogical Publishing Company, Inc., 1995) lists many of these repositories. [From NARA]
Q: Are there any databases comprehensive listings of World War I veterans organized by State?
A: Yes, both online and published. Here are a few examples:
- Missourians in the First World War
- Indiana Veterans of World War I
- The Official Roster of OHIO SOLDIERS, SAILORS and MARINES IN THE WORLD WAR 1917-1918. This monumental 23-volume work is gradually being added to the internet at
Q: How can I find out more about my late relative’s disability payments and benefits?
A: Contact a Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) office in your vicinity to determine if a World War I veteran received a pension or other government benefits.
Q: My relative was a mechanic in the Air Service. How do I find his unit?
A: Documentation on personnel serving in the Air Service is normally found among the rosters included in Gorrell’s History of the American Expeditionary Forces Air Service, 1917-1919, entry 644, Record Group 120. This history has been microfilmed by NARA on 58 rolls as publication M990 and is available for examination in the Microfilm Research Room at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., or for purchase from the National Archives Trust Fund. [From NARA]
Online Resources For the Genealogical Researcher
From the United States World War One Centennial Commission
A quick guide on researching United States WW1 military genealogy
From the National Archives:
General Information on Researching Military Records
From the National Archives:
Information on U.S. WWI Records
From the National Archives:
Download Standard Form 180
From the National Archives:
Impact of the 1973 Fire
At Cyndi’s List:
World War I Sites for Genealogical Researchers
By Lynna Kay Shuffield:
World War I Burial Case Files
By Lynna Kay Shuffield:
Statement of Service Cards
World War I Draft Registration Cards at:
Ancestry.com (subscription required)
Familysearch.org (free site)
Record of Service Forms (Discharge Cards) at Order of the First World War
From the American Battle Monuments Commission:
Database of 33,000 U.S. WWI Burials in Europe
From the Department of Veteran Affairs:
VA Cemetery Grave Locator
From the U.S. Army:
World War I: The U.S. Army Overseas
From Marty Beatty:
America and the Akins Family Lose a Son
Comprehensive Information On the Purple Heart, Including Requests by Families for Awards
see the Wikipedia entry for the Purple Heart
By Constance Potter:
The Gold Star Mothers Program