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Overheard in GenForum: Finding Military 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.

August 26, 1999
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: I had an uncle who died in Belgium in 1944. He was buried in a military cemetery near Elmira, New York. I can't find his name in military records or in the Social Security index. Does anyone know how to trace these records? His name was George William SHAMPOE. -- Jackie

A: There is much misunderstanding about what the Social Security Death Index includes and about the years that are covered in the database. There is also some misunderstanding as to where and what military records are and how best to access them.

Twentieth century research brings its own unique research problems. Because of privacy issues and the laws generated to help protect the living, researchers are often met with frustrations when researching their family of the 1900s. Because of the unique nature of the record availability and limitations due to the laws, the how-to for researching in this century is sometimes different from that of the earlier centuries.

Researchers find themselves up against privacy laws when researching their families that lived in the 1900s.

Limitations of the SSDI

Social Security is a contemporary resource. It was not begun until the 1930s. In fact, the first payment wasn't made until the end of September, 1937. However, entries in the SSDI are even more current than this. The Social Security Administration didn't computerize their records until the end of 1961. What this means for the genealogical researcher is that generally, you will not find information on people who died before 1962.

Oh sure, there are a few exceptions to this rule. I have seen one or two entries back to the 1930s and even one for someone who died in 1928. However, the majority of entries in the SSDI are from the last thirty years.

There are other reasons that an individual may not show up in the SSDI. One of the most frequent for our ancestors who did live into the 1960s would be employment in the railroads. And this has been discussed in one of the earlier articles.

However, because your ancestor died during World War II, while he may have had a Social Security Number, it is not surprising that you have not found him in the SSDI.

There are many different military records, and one of them may have the information you are looking for.

Military Service Records

While we tend to concentrate on the pension records when dealing with our ancestors who served during the American Revolution and the Civil War, for a soldier in World War II, it is important to get the service records.

Service records for military personnel who served in World War II are most likely to be housed at the National Personnel Records Center. Unfortunately a fire that broke out in 1973 destroyed a large number of these records. It has been estimated that about eighty percent of Army personnel records for individuals discharged between 1 Nov 1912 and 1 Jan 1960 were destroyed. For those researching Air Force personnel about seventy-five percent of those with surnames from H to Z who were discharged from 25 Sep 1947 and 1 Jan 1964 were destroyed as well.

If you haven't done so already, you will want to contact the National Personnel Records Center and request the service records on your uncle. The records that did survive are now falling apart from water damage. There is no telling how much longer the records will survive. You can contact them at

National Personnel Records Center
9700 Page Ave.
St. Louis, MO 63132-5100

While it is no longer necessary, you may want to get the National Archives Standard Form 180. This is the form used when requesting records from the National Personnel Records Center. And the good news is that you can request it be sent to you via e-mail. Visit the National Archives web site at their Order Forms page.

Military Burials in the U.S.

You mentioned the cemetery in which your uncle is buried. However, you didn't say whether or not you had tried to access records on this burial.

First you will need to determine what type of a cemetery your uncle is buried in. There are some National Cemeteries and other cemeteries that fall under some type of Federal jurisdiction. If the cemetery where your uncle is buried turns out to be one of these, then it is likely you can get some information on him from:

Director
Executive Communications and Administration Service (402B)
National Cemetery System
Department of Veteran Affairs Central Office
810 Vermont Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20422

If your uncle was not buried in a National cemetery, but his grave has a government headstone, then there may still be records of interest to you. The National Archives has the original applications for headstones. These applications will include such information as their enlistment date,their serial number, their discharge date, name, rank, company, and other information. To request a copy of this application, write to:

The National Archives at College Park
Archives II Textual Reference Branch NNR2
8601 Adelphi Rd.
College Park, MD 20740-6001.

Also, since your uncle is buried in a cemetery in New York, you don't want to overlook the city and county historians in New York. To find out more about them, select New York from the USGenWeb web site. The historians may have some valuable information for you. And don't overlook the New York State Archives.

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 rhondagen@thegenealogist.com.

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