Research hints and tips

How do I go about researching a...

 


Person

Getting started

A person’s date of birth and place of birth can be useful starting points, as they help you locate them in census records.

The US government has made its population censuses for 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930 and 1940 available online via Familysearch.org and Ancestry.com (£/$) The 1950 census is available at The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) 

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 a large number of official military records. NARA’s Access to Archival Databases contain a large number of 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.

Service Records

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

Missing Air Crew Reports (MACR) list flying personnel who were lost on missions. MACRS can be accessed via NARA’s Microfilm Catalog or at Fold3(£/$)

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 our website. IDPFs can be  also 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.

African Americans

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 long list of resources for researching evaders and their helpers.

Prisoners of War

NARA’s Access to Archival Database lists basic details of Americans who were taken prisoner of war (POW) during the Second World War, Korean War and in Vietnam. Their 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 general 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.

Civilians and war brides

You may find our guide to tracing your Second World War Home Front Family History helpful

Americans in RAF service

Check out our 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 (£)

Personal recollections

IWM’s collections tell the story of modern war and conflict. The 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.   Our 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 our website.

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.

Tracing American relatives

GI Trace provides resources and information to assist people trying to find their American fathers or families.  

 


Aircraft

Getting started

The serial number is often the most important piece of information you need to research any American aircraft.  

In full, US aircraft serial numbers take the format XX-XXXXX. The first two digits indicate the year the aircraft was ordered, though often the first digit is not displayed on the aircraft’s tail.

Joe Baugher lists aircraft serial numbers used by the US Air Force and its predecessors from 1908 to date, along with detailed information about changes in numbering conventions. Specific aircraft can be found via the search engine.

Single military aircraft histories are detailed in Individual Aircraft Record Cards (sometimes called Aircraft History Cards). Copies for aircraft from 1920- 1953 are held at the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) and the Air Force Historical Research Agency (AFHRA), and cover the life of an aircraft from its acceptance by the armed forces to its removal from the inventory.

An aircraft serial number can also be helpful in tracing people’s stories, especially if they were part of an aircrew.

Aircraft types

Biographies of every B-17 Flying Fortress built are available on our website.

For other aircraft types we recommend:

Technical manuals can be viewed freely at AviationShoppe

Crashes and accidents

Missing Air Crew Reports (MACRs) list details of aircraft lost on combat missions, MACRs can be accessed via NARA’s Microfilm Catalog or at Fold3(£/$). They often include the type, model, and serial number of the aircraft and its engines, the unit to which it was assigned, the place of departure and destination of the flight plan, and cause of crash.

Aircraft accident reports and be searched or ordered from Aviation Archaeology ($)

Aircraft crashes were recorded in daily listings of mishaps, or in weekly or monthly intelligence summaries compiled at Squadron or Group level. Information about losses was sometimes recorded on Individual Aircraft Record Cards too. All of these sources should be obtainable on microfilm from AFHRA or NASM.

In the UK, aircraft crashes and accidents were also recorded by Air Raid Precautions (ARP). Many records are held in county record offices, The National Archives (TNA) search can help you to locate one local to you. Local newspapers may also contain information about aircraft crashes too.

Well documented aircraft crash sites are often commemorated with memorials, you can find details of many of these on our website or at IWM’s War Memorial’s Register.

In the UK, the remains of all aircraft which crashed while in military service, whether on land or at sea, are protected by the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986, interference is considered a criminal offence.

Many European countries have similar legislation in place to protect military aircraft crash sites. If you believe you have located a crash site, report it to the local authorities or the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA)

Colours and markings

Our ever-growing media section features thousands of images of aircraft from a range of USAAF units, and is a rich resource for determining an aircraft’s appearance.

The US Army Center for Military History outlines colour guides for combat aircraft from 1940 to date. US Air Force colour guides from 1919 to date are listed at theworldwars.net

The Battle Colours series by Robert Watkins are a useful reference for US aircraft liveries during the Second World War

 


Places

Getting started

Historic England protect and record England’s historic environment, holding extensive collections relating to buildings and archaeological sites. The National Heritage List for England (NHLE) provides details of all nationally protected historic sites. Historic Environment Records can be searched at Heritage Gateway.

Scottish historic sites are documented by Historic Environment Scotland. Protected sites are listed at Canmore, and further insights into Scottish places can be found at Pastmap.  

Cadw safeguards the historic environment of Wales, and lists historic assets. Welsh Historic Environment Records are available at Archwilio

The Historic Environment Record of Northern Ireland’s (HERoNI) Buildings database lists buildings of architectural and historic importance, other sites are recorded in their Monuments database

Airfields and military sites

Details of USAAF stations in Britain can be found in Army Air Force Stations, airfields in Europe are listed in US Army Air Forces Continental Airfields

Airfields used by the USAF from 1947 to c.1990 are listed in Air Force Bases Vol II

Airfield technical drawings and plans from 1905-1999 can be viewed at  The National Archives (TNA) and the RAF Museum. Many from the 1940s pertaining to airfields used by the Eighth Air Force have been made available on our website by Eighth in the East

Aerial photography of many USAAF airfields has been made available on our website by Historic England

Airfield Research Group hold a large archive pertaining to airfield architecture and infrastructure

Crash sites

In the UK, many military aircraft crash sites are documented in Historic Environment Records.

Local newspapers may also have reported on incidents and crashes, many are available at libraries and archives, or can be accessed via Newspapers.com (£/$)

In the UK, the remains of all aircraft which crashed while in military service, whether on land or at sea, are protected by the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986, interference is considered a criminal offence.

Many European countries have similar legislation in place to protect military aircraft crash sites. If you believe you have located a crash site, report it to the local authorities or the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA)

Memorials

Many USAAF sites are commemorated with memorials, you can find details of many of them on the American Air Museum website or at IWM’s War Memorial’s Register.

Cemeteries

The National Cemetery Administration provides information on US National cemeteries, and Veteran’s cemeteries

Cemeteries for US Armed forces outside of the US are administrated by American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC)


Units

Details of many of the USAAF units which served in the UK during the Second World War are listed on our website.

Official histories

Official publications covering many aspects of the history of the US Air Force and its predecessors are available to download from the Air Force Historical Support Division

Other Official histories relating to services and aspects of the Second World War have been transcribed at Hyperwar

Official Air Force, Command, Division, Wing and Group histories from 1920- 1950 are outlined in Air Force Combat Units of World War II, Squadron histories can be found in Combat Squadrons of the Air Force, World War II

Histories of USAF units post 1947 can be found in Air Force Combat Wings: Lineage, Honors and Histories

The Air Force Historical Research Agency (AFHRA) hold further information about unit histories, many active USAF units also list their lineage on their websites.

Unofficial histories

Many USAAF units produced an unofficial unit history in the months after the war ended. These often provide tongue-in-cheek record of war, and include photo montages showing different aspects of base life. Our collection is available to download.

Further unit histories can be found at Bangor Public Library

USAAF historical organisations and associations

Many units – especially the combat groups will have at least one website dedicated to them online, A quick internet search should reveal this. Airfield museums also exist across the UK to perpetuate the history of US air power in their area.

Websites dedicated to units may carry detailed histories of the group and its squadrons, a roster of personnel, photographs, contacts and copies of their association’s newsletter. These are brilliant sources for finding out new details.

Airfield Research Group houses collections from many Eighth Air Force Bomb and Fighter Groups, along with an archive on the First Air Division Headquarters

The American Library  is dedicated to preserving the history of the Second Air Division, many of their original documents are available online


Missions

Getting started

Summaries of all combat missions flown by the USAAF during the Second World War can be found in the USAAF Combat Chronology. More detailed narratives of some of these missions can be found in The Army Air Forces in World War II series, which can be downloaded from the Air Force Historical Support Division and is searchable at Hyperwar

Orders and reports for many operations can be found online at the Combined Arms Research Library

The Army Air Forces Statistical Digest provides a statistical outline of the disposition of the USAAF throughout the Second World War

Official documents

Information on USAAF missions including narratives, summaries, loading lists and intelligence are recorded in Combat Operations Reports (also known as Mission Reports) available at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).  

You may be able to find information taken from these sources on many of the individual bomb group and fighter group websites.

Eighth Air Force

A summary of all Eighth Air Force combat missions can be found in The Mighty Eighth War Diary by Roger Freeman (1981)

The Eighth Air Force Historical Society also provides information on Eighth Air Force missions and targets.

Ninth Air Force

Overviews of Ninth Air Force missions can be found in operational documents at the Combined Arms Research Library

A detailed overview of IX Troop Carrier Command on Operation Overlord can be found on 6 Juin 1944

Twelfth Air Force

Monthly operations bulletins for the Mediterranean Allied Tactical Air Force- the integrated command which oversaw the Twelfth Air Force and the RAF Desert Air Force are available at the Combined Arms Research Library

Fifteenth Air Force

Fifteenth Air Force against the Axis by Kevin Mahoney (2013) provides a month-by-month narrative of most missions from November 1943-May 1945.