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Overheard in GenForum: How Do I Get WW1 Records?
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

February 03, 2000
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: All I know about my grandfather is that he served in the Army in W.W. I. Where do I go to get records of his service? Thanks for any help. -- Ron

A: Military records can be a useful resource to genealogical researchers. In some cases the records are easily accessible and there may even be indexes to them. This is especially true of those earlier service records and pension records that societies have gone to great efforts to transcribe or index.

When working with the military records of the twentieth century, there are times when it is necessary to know more about your ancestor than the simple fact that he was in the military. Sometimes such information can be found on the gravestone.

When searching for twentieth century military records, you need to know more than the name of your ancestor.

Determining Where Your Ancestor Was

When looking for military records of any kind it is important to know where your ancestor was from. Most of our ancestors would have registered or joined the Army through local draft boards. As such, you will need to begin your research from the local level. The best way to do this is through the census records.

For determining the location of your ancestor prior to the War, you will want to use the 1910 census. While this is about seven years prior to the war, it at least gives you a place to start.

From there you may want to investigate city directories. Also a search of the 1920 census may be useful as well, especially in perhaps verifying that the rest of the family had remained in the area.

World War I Draft Cards

Once you have determined where your ancestor was living at the time, then you can turn your attention to the Draft Cards. These cards have been microfilmed and are available on microfilm through the Family History Library.

While the first conscription act was passed during the Civil War, to say that it was welcomed would be an overstatement. In fact it was denounced as being un-American. However, by the time World War I broke out, it was accepted as a manner in which to raise an army. It is important to point out that only the Army had the draft. Those of our ancestors who were in the Navy or the Marines in the United States had volunteered to that branch of military service.

There were actually three draft registrations in 1917 and 1918:

  • 5 June 1917 - Men between the ages 21 and 31.
  • 5 June 1918 - Men who had reached the age of 21 since the registration 5 June 1917.
  • 12 Sept 1918 - Men between the ages 18 and 45.

In all there are some 24 million cards for men who registered for the draft. Keep in mind that if your ancestor voluntarily joined the Army, he will not be listed in the draft cards.

Fire Destroys Records

While the draft cards are available on microfilm, the service records for many of the men who were enlisted during World War I have been destroyed by fire. By 1918, there were over two million draftees and almost two hundred thousand volunteers who had served in the U.S. Army.

The records of officers after 1917 and enlisted men who were discharged after 1912 were housed in the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in Saint Louis, Missouri. It was at this repository that a fire in 1973 destroyed many of the service records for enlisted men covering the years 1912 to 1956 and officers covering the years 1917 to 1956.

In Conclusion

Unfortunately it is possible that even if you do determine when your ancestor fought and with what unit, that you may never be able to get service records because of this destruction. However, perhaps the answers that you are seeking can be found in the resources mentioned above.

In addition you may want to read the section on the United States found in Christina K. Schaefer's The Great War, A Guide to the Service Records of All the World's Fighting Men and Volunteers published in 1998 by Genealogical Publishing Company, Inc. This resource may have some other records that might be of use to you or may offer an alternate to the destroyed service records.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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