Last week’s 75th anniversary of D-Day was a reminder to many of the kids and grandkids of World War II veterans that we still don’t know the details of so many of their stories. Any description about their experiences in the war that were passed down were often vague outlines of what had actually happened-the full truth being too difficult to talk about by either the veteran or the spouses they left behind.
As reporter Dave Philipps writes for The New York Times, most of these veterans are now dead, leaving behind family members who want to fill in the gaps.
Many of the Americans who fought to crush the Axis in World War II came home feeling the same way-so many, in fact, that those lauded as the Greatest Generation might just as easily be called the Quietest.
Where did they serve? What did they do and see? Spouses and children often learned not to ask. And by now, most no longer have the chance: Fewer than 3 percent of the 16 million American veterans of the war are still alive, and all are in their 90s or beyond.
In some cases, recreating a veteran’s story is no easy feat. Army records in particular were largely damaged or destroyed in a 1973 fire at the St. Louis records center where they were stored. But Navy and Marine Corps records were unharmed, and even some of the damaged Army records can offer previously unknown details.
“Sometimes, everything was destroyed but a name on a payroll,” said Dan Olmsted, a researcher at the World War II museum. “But fire is funny. Sometimes files that were in the middle of the fire were spared.”
That makes file requests on Army veterans something of a dice roll. But Mr. Olmsted said he has often pored over pages half-eaten by flames and rumpled by water damage and still been able to make out the vital details of a soldier’s life.
If you want to track down details of your loved one’s experiences in WWII, you have a few options:
Take a look yourself
This is the cheapest (it’s free) but most challenging option. Anyone can look through the WWII military personnel records in St. Louis, but the prevalence of military jargon and abbreviations might leave you more confused than when you started. You might also not know exactly what types of records-including records kept by a unit’s commander-will be useful.
Hire a researcher
At a starting cost of $99, a researcher from the National WWII Museum in New Orleans will pull and read the service member’s file from the national archives. Depending on how many records are available to the researcher, the fee can go up to $399 to produce all the documents and provide a summary.
Go all out
For $2,499, the museum’s website says researchers will create a book based on your veteran’s experiences-assuming enough records are available to warrant it:
This volume will include all the documents featured in the PLUS package as well as a detailed military biography including enlistment, basic and specialized training, unit history, areas of deployment, and summary of relevant battles or campaigns during the war. Supplemental material may include maps, pictures, charts, etc.
In general, military personnel records are archived and open to the public 62 years after the service member’s separation from the military. Records with a discharge date within the past 62 years are subject to access restrictions. You can find more details about how to request all types of military records here.
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