What to Know About World War I Burial Files
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Credit Lt. John Warwick Brooke, British Army photographer, via Imperial War Museums A couple of months ago I wrote an article about the Ancestry collection of U.S. Army Transport Service Passenger Lists 1910-1939. If you review that article, near the end I talk about my great-granduncle Michael Kokoska?s ship manifest, on which it shows he is deceased. In that article I mention briefly the World War I Burial File. This file is held at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri. A burial file was created for each service member who died while in service during the war. There are files for those killed in combat and those who died of influenza, or a form of flu or pneumonia, on the transport ships going to France from the U.S. You can view two of those files in the WWI Military Record Examples page on my website. More WWI files will be added as time goes by so check back if you are doing WWI research. Why is it important to have a WWI Burial File? The burial file contains roughly the same information for everyone, yet just as the WWII equivalent?the Individual Deceased Personnel File (IDPF)?contents vary. Some files are short, less than 20 pages, and others are more than 40. You should at least find:
  • Service number, unit in which they served at death
  • Next of kin information
  • Genealogy information and possibly names/units of siblings who served
  • Cause of death
  • Report of temporary burial
  • Disinterment directive
  • Compilation of disposition of remains
  • The ship the remains were to sail to the U.S. on, if repatriated
  • Information and documents on permanent burial overseas or the U.S.
  • Often handwritten letters from family members
  • Funeral information
Are the Burial Files ever incorrect? Yes. I have one file I have not uploaded to my website to share because it requires a lot of explanation. In this particular file, many African American men died of influenza or a respiratory illness, on an Army Transport from the U.S. to France. The file I have contains records for another soldier, whose file has apparently disappeared. Graves Registration mixed up the remains of these two soldiers, which is clear by the papers in the file and their notes. Yet they did nothing to fix their error. No matter what military or genealogical record we look at, errors DO occur. Humans make mistakes which is why we must verify what we discover against other records. What?s Next After I Obtain the Burial File? There are many starting points for World War I research. You can either approach the record search at NPRC on your own and receive only part of what is available (and likely be told the OMPF burned) or visit NPRC and go through all available records or work with a researcher like myself. Whether you are researching WWI, WWII, Korea, or Vietnam, sending in Form 180 will only provide you with the OMPF if it exists and you can request the burial file/IDPF there. All of the other records that would reconstruct service history will not be searched for you. These are important to have if you wish to reconstruct service. A summary of next steps include, but are not limited to:
  • Requesting the OMPF
  • Obtaining copies of payroll and morning reports
  • Pulling unit records
  • Exploring what is available on Fold3, Newspapers.com and other websites
  • Explore the WWI Bonus Applications for your state (some like Illinois are not available for many years due to privacy laws, while others can be found on Ancestry)
  • Read unit histories to gather historical context data for your soldier
Need a refresher on WWI research? It is very similar to WWII ? a combination of online and offline research. You can review the World War II Research Guide Ancestry posted in December 2016 from my articles.