Before you start exploring any of the World War II collections that I'm about to highlight, ask yourself if you know any living World War II veterans. If so, go interview them now. Don't wait. Get their story if they're willing to open up. Even if it's just describing a photo of him or her while in the service. Do it now. You won't regret it.
World War II Research in General
Like researching veterans of other wars, knowing the person's unit is going to help you. Not only will it help you distinguish between people with the same name, it will also help you tap into other resources, like unit histories and even reunion organizations. Unit information is often found on tombstones, in obituaries, and in memorabilia that might be with the family.
There is some bad new for WWII researchers. A major fire in the National Archives facility in St. Louis, Missouri in 1973 destroyed many of the records for Army personnel discharged between 1912 and 1960 and Air Force personnel discharged between 1947 and 1964. Records for the Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard were not affected. (For more information about this fire and exactly what was lost, be sure to read "The 1973 Fire, National Personnel Records Center" on the NARA website.)
Fortunately, there are records that survived. Here are some that you should explore on Ancestry.
Major WWII Collections on Ancestry
There are numerous WWII collections on Ancestry. These are just a few. Check out the Card Catalog for more. Filtering the catalog by "Military" is a good way to start exploring the available collections.
U.S. World War II Draft Registration Cards, 1942. These are the records from the Fourth Registration, sometimes called "the Old Man's Draft." Men required to register in the Fourth Registration were those who born on or between 28 April 1877 and 16 February 1897 - men who were between 45 and 64 years old - and who were not already in the military. Information includes the man's name, age, birth date, birth place, residence, employment information, physical description, and the name and address of a person who would always know his whereabouts.
Two notes about this collection: First, the cards have information on both sides. Be sure to use the browse feature at the bottom of the image viewer and go to the next image to see the back. Second, don't skip this collection just because you think you already know everything that's going to be on it. I discovered that my great-grandfather had a tattoo. Even my dad didn't know that.
Back of Robert Young's WWII draft registration card, showing his physical description, including the fact that he had a tattoo on his left forearm.
U.S. WWII Draft Cards Young Men, 1940-1947. This draft registration included men aged 18-44. The collection currently includes draft cards from Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, and North Carolina. Like the Old Man's Draft, these cards have information on front and back; use the browse in the image viewer to see the back of the card.
U.S. World War II Navy Muster Rolls, 1938-1949. This collection includes both muster rolls and monthly reports of changes (significant status changes such as transfer, promotion, demotion, or arriving or departing on leave). Muster rolls can also contain the names of passengers onboard, including members of the Army and Navy Nurses Corps and sometimes the wives and families of Navy personnel.
World War II Prisoners of the Japanese, 1941-1945. This collection contains records of almost 30,000 military prisoners held by the Japanese and is one of the most comprehensive lists of American prisoners that is available.
U.S. Rosters of World War II Dead, 1939-1945. This collection contains the names of those who died in WWII from all U.S. armed services. Information available in this includes the person's name, name of permanent interment site, rank, service number, temporary interment site, religion, race, and disposition.
U.S. Veterans Gravesites, ca. 1775-2006. These records provide information on the burials of U.S. veterans and their dependents who were buried in the various Veterans Affairs (VA) National Cemeteries, state veterans cemeteries, or other military cemeteries.
U.S., Headstone and Interment Records for U.S. Military Cemeteries on Foreign Soil, 1942-1949. The American Battle Monuments Commission is responsible for 24 American cemeteries located in foreign countries. This collection includes burial cards for veterans buried in overseas cemeteries during and after World War II through 1949. The cards include the headstone inscription, which typically includes the name of the deceased, rank, military unit, state of residence, and date of death. Other information provided is the service number, name of the cemetery and grave number, gender, race, creed, decorations, temporary cemetery information, and the name and address of the next of kin.
Context is important when researching any of our ancestors. Read the news they were reading in Stars and Stripes, Pacific Edition and Stars and Stripes, Europe, Mediterranean, and North Africa Editions. You can search these newspapers or browse by date. Just be aware -- once you start reading these, you'll probably have a hard time stopping!
Stars and Stripes, London edition, 11 December 1944, page. 1.
This post is part of our Veterans Day series highlighting American service members that helped shape our great country. Follow the series each day from November 5-11, 2014.