Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Centennial Good Time to Research Your Great War Ancestor's Military Service

Statement of Service Cards for my World War I
ancestors from Jasper and Jones counties, Mississippi.
Above, John H. Poore. Below Alonzo W. Geiger. 
In 2014, European nations will begin marking the centennial of the Great War. The war began in Europe on July 28, 1914, but the United States didn’t enter what was supposed to be “The War to End All Wars” until April 17, 1917.

This centennial observance is a good time to begin research into the service of your World War I doughboy ancestor.

More than 4.7 million American men and women served in the regular U.S. Armed Services, National Guard units or were drafted into other units. The war resulted in 53,402 American soldiers killed in battle, another 63,114 dead from disease and other causes and about 205,000 wounded.

As with almost all family history research, start with records that your family may hold such as discharge papers or an obituary.

Fortunately, Mississippi researchers have some excellent resources online. The Mississippi Department of Archives and History and FamilySearch worked together to create the Mississippi World War I Statement of Service Cards and Indices.

These include records listing Mississippi veterans along with statement of service cards providing details
about their service. You can search an alphabetical list of veterans or search names by county.
Final pay voucher for Alonzo W. Geiger,
the "A.W.G." in the second entry.

You need the basic information about your ancestor’s service that these indices provide for a successful search of national records. You need to know, for example, if your doughboy served in the cavalry, infantry, field artillery, machine gun battalion, engineers and so on. Try to find out the company, troop or battery to which your ancestor was assigned.

After you have some basic facts you can request your ancestor’s military service records online, by mail or by fax from the National Archives.

But be aware that you are likely to run into the same problem as with getting most other military records—the 1973 fire that destroyed U.S. Army personnel records created from 1912 to 1963. But the fire didn’t damage U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps personnel files.

The fire left a big gap in service records, but National Archives has other records that may help in your research. Such alternative records include, for example, final pay vouchers. These can include such information as:
  • Name
  • Service number
  • Date when last paid
  • Rank at discharge
  • Overseas service
For a fuller discussion of the other records available at the National Archives, read They Answered the Call Military Service in the United States Army During World War I, 1917-1919 by Mitchell Yockelson available online.
Construction of troop quarters at Camp Shelby near Hattiesburg, Mississippi, in 1917. Note the pre-fabricated hut structures on the trucks. Camp Shelby opened July 1917. Photo from Mississippi Armed Forces Museum, Camp Shelby.

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