Researching your US forces family history
Many records are only available online, sometimes on more than one site. We have listed the main sources but there may be others. Some records are free to view but others may entail a fee for access (£/$).
You can research the experiences of an individual by looking at:
- Service records – administrative files may record dates and places of enlistment and demobilisation, postings and units, injuries or disciplinary action
- Casualty information – sources recording those wounded or taken prisoner of war as well as the burial and commemoration of those who died.
- Medal records – medal entitlements can indicate involvement in specific campaigns as well as awards for service or gallantry.
- Unit and operational histories – resources describing the day-to-day operational activities of units.
- Social and local history – church records, local newspapers, school and workplace registers may mention an individual.
Start by gathering information from mementoes, medals, letters and documents that you or other family members may still have. Look for clues about which units the person served with, what ranks they held and their service number, to help you find and search the right records.
A person’s date of birth and place of birth can be useful starting points, as they help you locate them in census records.
UK censuses up to 1921 are also available online at Ancestry.com (£/$), and Findmypast (£). You can view censuses from 1841 to 1921 free of charge on site at The National Archives (TNA) and at many libraries and record offices.
Official military records
The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) holds many official military records. NARA’s Access to Archival Databases contain many searchable records from the Second World War to Vietnam
Fold3 (£/$) carries military records and census records from NARA, Missing Air Crew Reports and photographs from the Army Air Forces, many records are free of charge. The search function encourages you to search by full name.
The National Personnel Records Center in St Louis, Missouri, holds service records for all members of the US military who served in the 20th Century.
Members of the public can request records ($) pertaining to any US veteran who separated from the military 62 (or more) years ago including:
- DD 214/ Separation Documents
- Official Military Personnel File (OMPF)
- Replacement Medals
- Medical and Health Records
- Burials and Emergency Requests
- Natural Disaster Requests
Unless you are the veteran or their next-of-kin, records of individuals who left the military less than 62 years ago are subject to access restrictions.
Awards and medals
Eligibility for campaign and service medals is based on set criteria, usually being present in a particular theatre of war within given dates or carrying out a set number of operational sorties.
NARA has digitised Air Force Award Cards for medals issued between 1942 and 1963.
Check the official description of eligibility for each medal. The locations and dates of service recorded on an individual’s service record will indicate if they are entitled to a particular medal.
Award of the Purple Heart was not commonly recorded in service records, as it was regularly awarded on the spot during the Second World War, Korean War and in Vietnam.
For some but not all awards, there may also be a separate citation, which describes the action for which the award was made. Operational records or a published squadron/unit history might provide some details, although the individual may not be named.
Local newspapers often listed awards and achievements of local individuals, many are available at local libraries and archives, or can be accessed via Newspapers.com (£/$)
Casualties, deaths, and burials
American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) lists the names of those who died in conflict and are buried or commemorated overseas. The Fields of Honor database currently contains online memorials for 34,000 American servicemen of all the forces buried or commemorated at Ardennes, Epinal, Henri-Chapelle, Lorraine, Luxembourg, and Netherlands American Cemeteries.
The Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Cemetery Administration’s Gravesite locator provides information on the burial location of veterans interred in National, State, and military cemeteries and for those buried with a US government grave marker.
Find a Grave is an online database of grave sites, it will sometimes yield obituaries as well as date of death and burial details.
Local newspapers often provide obituaries and notices of death, many are available at local libraries and archives, or can be accessed via Newspapers.com (£/$)
Individual Deceased Personnel Files (IDPF) document the circumstances surrounding an individual’s death, and the disposition of their remains (if known). A small collection is available on the American Air Museum website. IDPFs can be requested from NARA, or with the assistance of independent specialist researchers like Bill Beigel ($)
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), provides information about servicemen and women who are missing in action from past conflicts, and undertakes to provide the fullest possible accounting for them.
Many of the resources above can be used to trace information about African American troops who served in the US Army Air Forces.
You can filter NARA’s Access to Archival Database search often using the code 2 ('Negro') in the race/ citizen field to return records relating to African Americans
Black newspapers, like the Pittsburgh Courier often reported about the African American experience of war. Some titles have been digitised and can be found on Newspapers.com (£/$)
For an overview of Black experiences in Britain during the Second World War we recommend:
- Black and British: A Forgotten History, David Olusoga (2016)
- Rich Relations: The American Occupation of Britain 1942-1945, David Reynolds (2000)
Escape, evasion, and helpers
Escape and Evasion Reports are available to download from NARA
The Comète Network, provides an online database of Allied airmen assisted by French and Belgian Helpers during the Second World War. The primary language is French, but is easily navigated with the support of online translation tools.
The Air Forces Escape and Evasion Society also have a lengthy list of resources for researching evaders and their helpers.
Prisoners of War
NARA’s Access to Archival Databases lists basic about Americans who were taken prisoner of war (POW) during the Second World War, Korean War and in Vietnam.
NARA’s captured document collections, also contain Downed Allied Aircraft Kampfflugzeug Unterlagen (KU) Reports relating to combat aircraft shot down in occupied Europe, and usually mention air crew captured.
Records of POWS were compiled by each country and are now held centrally by the Archives Division and Research Service of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Switzerland. Because of their personal nature, these records are not available to the public. Prisoner of War Records for the First World War have been digitised
Sources at IWM include personal papers and diaries, autobiographies, camp journals, photographs, artworks, and recorded interviews, although inevitably some locations and periods are better documented than others. These can be extremely helpful for contextualising life as a prisoner of war.
Victims of atrocities
The Jewish Virtual Library hold digital transcripts of many of the major trials brought against Nazi Germany following the Second World War. Many of the charges concerning atrocities committed against Allied prisoners of war were trialled at Dachau from 1945 to 1947.
MACRs and KU Reports, both available from NARA may also provide details on atrocities committed against downed allied fliers.
IWM’s collections tell the story of modern war and conflict. IWM’s sound archive contains the largest oral history collection of its type in the world, and features many first-hand accounts of American servicemen and women since 1914. IWM’s documents cover a wealth of personal experience and testimony, both British and American, as well as official records.
You can also search and add information about American servicemen and women who served in Britain during the Second World War on the American Air Museum’s archive.
The Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project preserves memories and oral histories of veterans who served in conflicts from the First World War to date.
Many Bomb Group and Fighter Group associations have their own websites, which contain newsletters, memories, and personal stories.
Americans in Royal Air Force service
Check out IWM’s guide to tracing your Royal Flying Corps and Royal Air Force Family History
Operational Record Books (ORB) for the RAF Eagle Squadrons can be downloaded from TNA (£)
Volunteers, civilians, and war brides
Check out IWM’s guide to tracing your Second World War Home Front Family History
Tracing American relatives
GI Trace provides resources and information to assist people trying to find their American fathers or families.