Research Twentieth-Century Conflicts
If you're new to tracing your family tree, you may not yet have gone back far enough to explore the rich records generated by the Civil War and American Revolution. That doesn't mean you can't benefit from military records, however. World Wars I and II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War all generated records that are useful for genealogical research.
Was He Drafted?
Almost every male U.S. resident between the ages of eighteen and forty-five completed a World War I Draft Registration Card in one of three separate draft registrations conducted in 1917 and 1918. These records include vital information on more than 24 million men — whether native-born, naturalized, or alien — born between about 1873 and 1900. More than 80 percent of the men who registered for the draft never actually ended up serving in the military, so they can be a valuable resource for learning about your non-military ancestors as well.
Each of the registrations used a different form with a slight variation in the questions asked. All three include the individual's full name, home address, date of birth, age in years, and occupation; the name and address of his employer, his citizenship status, a physical description, the city/county and state of the local draft board, the date of registration, and the signature of the applicant. The three registrations also included the following additional information:
June 5, 1917 (all men between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-one): Additional information included exact place of birth (usually including town), number of dependents, marital status, previous military service, and grounds for exemption.
June 5, 1918 (men who reached the age of twenty-one between June 5, 1917, and August 24, 1918): Additional information included exact place of birth, nearest relative's name and address, and father's birthplace.
September 12, 1918 (all men aged eighteen to forty-five who hadn't previously registered): No birthplace this time, but did ask for the name and address of the nearest relative. The original WWI draft registration records are housed at the National Archives-Southeast Region near Atlanta, Georgia. The records have also been microfilmed and can be accessed through the Family History Library. Fully indexed, digitized copies of the original World War I draft registration cards can be accessed online as part of the subscription-based offerings at
Ancestry.com. Alternatively, you can request scanned reproductions of the World War I draft registration cards online through the National Archives Order Online service ( www.archives.gov/research/order/orderonline.html).
World War II draft records also exist, but registration cards from the fourth registration are the only ones currently available to the public due to privacy restrictions. This fourth registration, often referred to as the “old man's registration,” was conducted on April 27, 1942, and registered men who were born on or between April 28, 1877, and February 16, 1897 (ages forty-five to sixty-four), and not already in the military. The original draft cards are held by each state's National Archives regional branch, and are also available on microfilm from NARA and/or the Family History Library.
Soldiers, sailors, and marines aren't the only ones with wartime memories. Your family history should also consider the ancestors who lived through the wars as well, not just those who fought. Talk to your living relatives, read firsthand accounts and memoirs, and research the area where your ancestors lived for a firsthand perspective of life during wartime.
As useful as they are for locating information about ancestors who may have served in the military, World War I and World War II draft registration cards do not include any details of actual military service. For those men who did enlist in the military following their registration in either draft, you should turn to military service records for further information.
Request Your Ancestor's Military Service Record
Service records consist of the information that the government collects and keeps on any military personnel. This might include the soldier's enlistment/appointment, duty stations and assignments, training, performance, awards and medals, disciplinary actions, separation, discharge, and retirement. Military service records are available for enlisted men who served in the regular army throughout America's history, as well as discharged and deceased veterans of all services during the twentieth century.
Military records from just before World War I to the present are held in the National Military Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, Missouri. Access to many of these records is limited by privacy laws and, as such, they are not available online. Military veterans and the next of kin of deceased military veterans can order copies of these records through EvetRecs (
Unfortunately, a disastrous fire at the NPRC on July 12, 1973, destroyed an estimated 16 to 18 million of these military personnel files. This includes approximately 80 percent of the U.S. Army personnel records for persons discharged between November 1, 1912, and January 1, 1960, and 75 percent of U.S. Air Force personnel records for persons discharged between September 25, 1947, and January 1, 1964, alphabetically through Hubbard, James E. These records were never duplicated or microfilmed prior to the fire, so there are no surviving copies. The NPRC will attempt to reconstruct a destroyed service record upon the request of a veteran or surviving family member.
Don't overlook the most obvious source for twentieth-century military information — the memories of your living relatives. Collect those one-of-a-kind war stories and memories from the people who lived them before it's too late. If your military ancestor is already deceased, talk to his sibling, spouse, or children.
Search Conflict-Specific Databases
A number of databases are available online for researching veterans of World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and other twentieth-century conflicts. One of the largest is the World War II Army Enlistment Records File in NARA's Access to Archival Databases (