Tips for WW2 Family Research
To get some advice for people who want to research a family member's involvement in World War 2 we went to an expert: Richard V. Horrell, the proprieter of a small business called WW2 Connections.
- To get started, please tell us what you do at WW2 Connections?
- How do you recommend that someone begin researching a family member's service in WW2?
- Do you have suggestions for how to get a WW2 veteran talking about their service and experiences?
- If someone wanted to create a web page to honor their family member's service, what do you think are the most important things to include?
- How could you go about identifying the other people in a photo of your relative during the war?
- What is the hardest part about researching a veteran's service? Are there common roadblocks? If so, how do you recommend that people get around them?
- Do you think that any particular books, movies or TV series can help someone understand what men and women in WW2 experienced?
To get started, please tell us what you do at WW2 Connections?
I prepare what I call a Profile of the Veteran, for family &/or friends of the Veteran. Depending upon the facts available to me, I include color plates of the insignia worn by the Veteran, bullet-point timeline of their time in the US Military, Order of Battle, Table of Organization, data sheets about weapons used by the Veterans & photographs of the Veteran's unit/ship in action. My goal is to account for every day the Veteran was in the US Military, where they were & what they were doing. I do fall short of my goal, but that is what I shoot for.
How do you recommend that someone begin researching a family member's service in WW2?
Please let me preface all my responses in the context that the Veteran is deceased (sorry to be morbid). If the Veteran served in the US Navy or USMC, obtain their personnel file. The address is:
Military Personnel Records Center
9700 Page Avenue
St. Louis MO 63132
Determine the ship(s) the Navy Veteran served upon, then obtain the facts about the ship(s) from the Ships History Branch.
If they were in the US Marine Corps, then the unit's history. USMC unit histories are easy to obtain. One bit of advice: books contain facts, the internet contains information. You need to make a decision when you begin your research, do you want facts or information.
I start with a timeline, so that way you know where the Veteran was & when. Some researchers feel that is too dry & sterile, so find the method you work best with.
Do you have suggestions for how to get a WW2 veteran talking about their service and experiences?
Yes, do not start with "Grandpa, what did you do in WW2?" Ask specific questions. The National Archives has an EXCELLENT 37 page questionnaire, designed specifically for family members to interview their loved one's role in WW2. But keep in mind, this could stir up old memories that the Veteran has suppressed for decades. WW2 was not a pleasant experience for most Veterans, so proceed carefully.
Some examples: Where did you attend Basic Training? What was barracks life like? What ship did you sail on overseas? What countries were you in while overseas? And write all this down, as the Veteran speaks. Maybe even videotape them. Let them know what they did matters. Ask them about that box of medals, ribbons & insignia that they have in their closet/chest-of-drawers.
If someone wanted to create a web page to honor their family member's service, what do you think are the most important things to include?
Photographs of the Veteran during WW2, if you have access to any. Scan their Discharge Documents, so that others may read facts about the Veteran. Photographs of the ship the Veteran sailed overseas on, & returned to the USA on. Color scans of the insignia they wore. A 3-5 paragraph history of the unit the Veteran was assigned to. Finally, make a clear distinction of what you have as per facts & oral history. There is a place for Oral History, as long as it is in context. These are my ideas, certainly not carved in stone. But most of all, please make no errors. Check your facts with books before you place them on the internet for all to see.
How could you go about identifying the other people in a photo of your relative during the war?
I would not. I know, no one will listen to me, so here goes. One must assume the other people have some significance to the family member in the photograph. I would type 95% of the time they are fellow unit members. Try to obtain a unit roster, look up the rank & match it with the rank being worn by those in the photographs. Other than that, I have no ideas.
What is the hardest part about researching a veteran's service? Are there common roadblocks? If so, how do you recommend that people get around them?
If your Veteran was in the US Navy or USMC, you have it easy. Obtain their personnel file. If your Veteran served in the US Army or US Army Air Force (the USAF did not come into existence until the National Defense Act of September 1947) you have a problem. In July 1973 there was a fire at the Military Personnel Records Center, St. Louis, MO. I will not get into all the conspiracy of it, but approximately 85% of all US Army & US AAF personnel files were destroyed. I always suggest to people to make an application for the file, just in case. I've only seen two intact files, each about 2 inches thick with documents!
My suggestion is to work from the unit records, which are intact & in the Public Domain. To determine the unit, take a look at the Veteran's Discharge Documents (today they are referred to as a DD-214, but that is a POST-WW2 term. Keep in mind, if you ask for a WW2 DD-214, you are asking for something that did/does not exist). Box #6 will provide you with the unit the Veteran was assigned to when they were discharged. However, they may have served with a different unit in combat than the unit they were discharged with. Also, check the dates in Box #36 for an Enlisted Man, Box #32 for an Officer, to see the date they went overseas. I have a database of almost 5,600 ship voyages, many with the units onboard.
Do you think that any particular books, movies or TV series can help someone understand what men and women in WW2 experienced?
No, I do not. The closest one will ever come to learning about WW2 are from books. Movies & TV are meant to entertain. The only movie I have heard Veterans speak of as the closest a viewer can come to the experience of war is the first 30 minutes of "Saving Private Ryan." I know most will disagree with me, & my father gave two fingers at the Battle of Monte Cassino for their right to do so.
What I do recommend is that people interested in WW2 watch the films released during the war, to better understand the propaganda & sentiment during WW2. Films such as "Sahara", "They Were Expendable", "So Proudly We Hail", "A Walk In the Sun", "Mrs. Miniver", "In Which We Serve", "The Way Ahead", "Guadalcanal Diary", "The Story of Dr. Wassell", "The Story of G.I. Joe", & "The Memphis Belle". These are films, along with many others, that shaped the psyche of Americans during WW2. We, as a nation, came together, as never before nor never again, to defeat a common evil, fascism.
Thank you, Mr. Horrell
See WW2 Connections if you're interested in speaking with Mr. Horrell.