World War II

World War II Records:
A Guide to Our Collections

Learn how to find the untold stories in your family’s past with this brief introduction to the wide variety of World War II resources available on Ancestry®.

By Ancestry®

Published May 20, 2020

With the approach of the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, we are reminded of a country that came together for a common purpose during those difficult years, something that resonates now more than ever. Tough times tend to bring out the best in people, and whether your ancestors served on the homefront or in the battlefields, they were committed to sticking together—and helping one another.

Here are a variety of interesting ways to gain real insights into your family’s World War II experiences.

Getting Started

1940 Census
Taken one year before the United States entered the war, the 1940 Census gives you a snapshot of your family just before the conflict to come. You can go ahead and record the names, ages, locations, and other details in your family tree. Take special note of the young men around the ages of 12-30 who might find soon themselves serving or registering for the draft. Check out the occupations of everyone in the household and consider whether their occupation would have been essential for the war effort. Search for your family in the 1940 Census.

The Parkin family in 1940 Census
The Parkin family of Fairfield, Iowa in the 1940 U.S. Federal Census.
Note the two teenaged boys, William and Robert, living in the household.

World War II Draft Cards
Ancestry recently finished a multi-year project with the U.S. National Archives & Records Administration to digitize all 36 million of the nation’s available WWII young men’s draft cards. A single card can be a very helpful starting point for new users beginning to build a family tree. It can lead to more impactful discoveries due to the rich and unique details the cards often include, such as physical description, eye color, employer, next of kin, and even why someone was exempt from the draft. Be sure to check out the front and back of each card you find. Learn more about this amazing World War II resource.

Draft registration card of Robert Darrell Parkin
The draft registration card of Robert Darrell Parkin, younger brother of William Lowell Parkin.
Both registered for the draft and both ended up serving in the United States Navy.

Adding Historical Context

World War II ‘United News’ Newsreels, 1942-1946
Clearly aimed at bolstering the war effort, the U.S. Office of War Information (OWI) promoted patriotism by creating 10-minute films to distribute around the world. The films vary in content, featuring stories about celebrities like Jimmy Stewart, Joe Louis, and Tyrone Power enlisting for duty as well as footage of iconic moments during the war.

The efforts of women were also praised as Army nurses were shown receiving medals in the company of Eleanor Roosevelt. On the homefront, other women were shown working in lumber mills, and on Army proving grounds, testing tanks and anti-aircraft guns.

Well-known films in the collection include the following clips:

  • Marines Raise Flag over Iwo Jima
  • D-Day
  • Japanese Sign Final Surrender
  • Invasion of Sicily
  • MacArthur Returns to the Philippines

You’ll find the films are browseable by year, and keyword searchable with the option to specify a particular year. Explore this fascinating collection of newsreel films.

Stars and Stripes Newspaper

The Stars and Stripes Newspaper—Europe, North Africa, Pacific Editions
Beginning as a one-page paper for Union troops during the Civil War, the “Stars and Stripes” newspaper reappeared in World War I, and again at the start of World War II. The newspaper has remained in publication since then, with reporters close to the action covering the news for servicemen and women.

Like other newspapers that are part of Ancestry’s Historical Newspaper Collection, “Stars and Stripes” is searchable and browseable by date. Date searches can be especially insightful, particularly if you know a family member was involved in a major military engagement. For example, a search of the papers following D-Day found this eyewitness account of the landing:

[Bert] Brandt, who was with the U.S. units, told me how some of the first assault troops which stormed the beaches went down under a withering German cross-fire, but more and more men climbed ashore over their bodies until a foothold was established. . . .

American assault boats went in at high tide over huge iron obstacles, some of which were mined. When the tide receded, many boats were stuck on top of the obstacles. A fair number of mines went off in the water and on the beaches. The whole thing was an unbelievable sight. Planes criss-crossed overhead constantly. You never could look up without seeing formation planes somewhere. Lightnings and Thunderbolts zoomed right over our heads all the time, blasting German defenses.

First-hand accounts like this one, and detailed reports of the fighting are abundant. You might find yourself spending a lot of time browsing through the pages of this historic journal.

Browse the Europe, Mediterranean and North Africa Editions, 1942-1964

Browse the Pacific Editions, 1945-1963

Stars and Stripes Newspaper. Beaches Clear of Enemy.

Additional Resources

Depending on which branch your family member served in, or how your family contributed on the homefront, these collections can offer many more details about their experience:

Be sure to check out the complete list of WWII resources available on Ancestry.

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