The Ultimate Guide To World War 2 Records

UPDATED October 2020

With World War 2 records, you can learn about your family and their service, and we can help you find those records online.

The Ultimate Guide to World War 2 Records

Welcome to OurPublicRecords, your leading source for World War II records on the web. 

Also known as World War 2, it was the last major war that involved many countries from around the world. Depending on your age, the chances are good that your father, grandfather or another family member fought in that war. The United States government implemented the draft as a way to make sure that it had enough enlisted men. Some women also served during this era and worked in different groups as well as nurses. You can easily trace your genealogy and find details about family members who served.

Trying to find the right records on the web is hard and often confusing. Many branches of the government require that you submit an official request form to get a copy of a record and that you show proof that you are related to that individual. It can then take months until you get a response. At OurPublicRecords, we make it easy to find the records that you need and track down your loved ones. Not only can you check out the type of records that are helpful to you, but you can find out what those records show and how to find them on the internet.

The Ultimate Guide to World War 2 Records

You can find records and information about anyone who served in World War 2 when you know where to look.

World War 2 History

World War II broke out in part because of the problems facing Europe after the First World War. Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany and as the leader of the Nazi Party. He convinced his followers that the Jewish people and others were bad and managed to convince others to follow him too. Hitler created concentration camps that he sent them to as his troops invaded other countries. Not only did they face harsh work and long days without food, but they also risked being sent to the gas chamber or having one of his doctors experiment on them.

Those living in England, France and other parts of Europe faced near-daily bombings that rocked them to the core and left them wondering if they would survive. Hitler’s power grew even more when he partnered with Japan and Italy to create the axis powers. When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, the United States decided to finally join the war. Working with the United Kingdom, China and the Soviet Union, the nations formed the allied powers. World War 2 ended on September 2, 1945, when Japan surrendered after the US dropped two atomic bombs on the country. It was one of the deadliest and longest wars in history.

What are World War 2 Records?

The United States government kept detailed records about every person who served in any branch of the armed forces. Those branches include

  • Army
  • Navy
  • Marine Corps
  • Coast Guard
  • Air Force

One thing you may discover is that Air Force records do not date back to World War II. This is because that branch was originally part of the US Army. It opened in 1907 as the Aeronautical Division and became the Aviation Section in 1914. Members would serve under the US Army from 1918 to 1926 and then become the US Army Air Corps and US Army Air Forces. If you ever saw the film Pearl Harbor before, you might remember seeing Ben Affleck volunteer to work with the aviators in the United Kingdom and fly planes for them. This program brought male pilots from the US and sent them to the front lines of the war.

As the US Army Air Forces, pilots handled a variety of jobs. Those on duty in Pearl Harbor tried to find their way to planes to shoot down Japanese fighter pilots. They also took to the ground to fire guns and other weapons at those men. It wasn’t until 1947 that the Army split this division into a separate branch called the Air Force.

What are World War 2 Records

If you had family who later served in the Air Force, you may find some of their older military records in the Army archives.

One of the more confusing things about tracking down military records is that each branch has divisions and archives that keep track of those files. It becomes even more confusing if you think your grandfather served in one branch when he was in a different one. This may result in you filling out some long forms only to get a letter six months from now that tells you the division found nothing on him. We highly recommend talking to your loved ones and making sure that you know a few details before you search. It’s helpful to have the full name of the person you want information about as well as a date of birth. Having a social security number is also helpful.

Military records fall into several possible categories:

  • Service records
  • Payroll records
  • Draft records
  • Unit histories
  • Soldier home documents
  • Veterans’ organization records

Service records are among the easiest to find. Most military departments have those records safely stored and can make copies for you. The files that you get may have information redacted or marked out, which occurs when someone served in a specific unit or took part in missions that are not known to the general public. Not only can you see where the person served, but you can see how long they were in the military and where they were stationed.

What are World War 2 Records

Military service records are the easiest way to find general information about someone who served.

Payroll records are also available from the government. With payroll records, you can see how much an ancestor earned while in the military. You might get a laugh when you see how little they received for putting their lives on the line every day. Draft records also come from the military or government. Sometimes called Selective Service records, the files contain detailed reports about how and why the individual enlisted.

Though other records generally aren’t available on the web, you can still find them. One example is a unit history, which is a history written by those who served in a specific unit. Many organizations and museums have access to unit histories from World War 2 that include detailed reports about the time they spent in Europe and even their thoughts about finding concentration camps. Both soldiers’ homes and veterans’ organizations often have records that you can look through too.

What are World War 2 Records

You can also find military records online for those who served in other countries.

Where to Find World War 2 Records

When you search the web for a specific person’s name, you’ll come across many people search sites. They charge you a low fee and show you all the information they have, which usually includes the person’s current or last known address, name, date of birth and family members. While those sites are a good starting point when you’re looking for a missing person, they aren’t as helpful if you want to view military records. Those records are often a little harder to find. We’ll go over some of the best ways to find the records that you want.

US Department of Veterans' Affairs

One of the first places to start is the US Department of Veterans Affairs. Those honorably and dishonorably discharged from any branch will receive a record that shows the reason for the discharge, which is usually called the DD214. You need to visit the official website and fill out a form to request your record. If you need information about someone else, the site will ask for proof of your relationship to the individual. Until you provide that evidence, you cannot view any of the records maintained by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

Dishonorable vs. Honorable Discharge

An honorable discharge is a type of discharge given to someone who leaves before fulfilling their full military commitment. This can include those who leave because of mental health issues or physical conditions that kept them from finishing their tour of service. A dishonorable discharge is when someone does something that goes against the military conduct. It can include those convicted of crimes such as robbery and assault.

National Personnel Records Center

Also known as the NPRC, the National Personnel Records Center is a department in St. Louis, Missouri that can send you copies of official military records. It houses all military records from World War I through the present day. Keep in mind that some records are missing due to a fire that broke out in the old storage facility. You will need to fill out a form and send it to:

National Personnel Records Center
1 Archives Drive
St. Louis, MO 63138

You also have the option of calling the NPRC at (314) 801-8000 during standard business hours. The department can supply copies of health and service records for anyone who enlisted before or after World War 2.

Online

Another place where you can find military records is online. Here at OurPublicRecords, we only ask for the full name of the person and give you the option of entering just a last name. This is helpful if your loved one changed names or enlisted under a different name. You can view everyone with that last name who has records on the web. If you know the name of the individual’s unit, search for the web for that unit. This helps you find histories written by those in the unit that may mention your loved one. We recommend starting your search on our site and then expanding to other sites.

The Freedom of Information Act Basics

The Freedom of Information Act or FOIA is what allows people to request service records belonging to their loved ones. It states that any information detrimental to the nation or the government is not available to the general public, which is why you may receive files with sections or lines redacted.

National Archives

One way to get military records is through the National Archives. When you visit this website, you’ll find that you can view some documents and photos online. Searching by a person’s name, the place served or unit can help you find photos of a loved one in his uniform in the field. This is a good place to find general genealogy records too such as passenger lists that show the names of everyone who arrived in the US on a specific ship. We recommend browsing the website and searching by your last name to see what is available to you before you submit an official request.

Rush Requests

Don’t forget that you can submit a rush request through the National Archives or NPRC. Both organizations offer this service to those who need military records quickly and cannot wait for the usual processing time. You need to explain your reasons for the request. A common reason that many use is that they want to replace medals and awards that someone who served lost to use at his or her funeral. You can also issue a request if you have a loved one in the hospital or with a serious medical condition who once served.

Where to Find World War 2 Records

To find records of those who served in other countries, you can contact similar organizations in those regions.

World War 2 Records and What They Reveal

Now comes the time when you can start your research. We recommend using OurPublicRecords to get an idea of what you want to find and using our resources before branching out. You’ll find help searching for obituaries and other types of records such as death and birth records. To help you narrow down your search, we’ll use this section to cover some of the different types of records that can help you in addition to official military records.

Obituaries

Obituaries are essentially short biographies published after a person dies. You’ll usually find these records in a newspaper. The family and loved ones often work with the funeral home to create the piece that appears in the paper. Obituaries often include the person’s name as well as:

  • Dates of birth and death
  • Details about the service and/or funeral
  • The names of surviving family members
  • Any family members who passed away first

Looking at obituary records is a good way to learn about a deceased individual. If that person served in the military, it should include at least one line about the branch and may include the awards that the person won. You might find out where the individual worked and any hobbies or interests that he or she had too.

World War 2 Records and What They Reveal

Newspaper archives on the web can help you view obituaries when you live far away from the publishing area. You can also view obituaries published in papers that no longer exist.

Death Records

You may find that a loved one did not have an obituary, which makes it hard to find the information that you need. This often occurs if the individual passed away and did not want a funeral or if the person did not have loved ones living close by. You have the option of tracking down death records rather than obituaries. Death records typically leave out some of the “fun” details found in obituaries such as the individual’s hobbies or place of work. These certificates give you clear data that helps expand your search though. It should list the date and location of the person’s birth and location and date of death. The certificates often include one or more causes of death too.

Ancestry Records

Using ancestry records is another convenient way to find information about someone who served in the military. Some of the more popular records that you’ll find on the web include:

  • Court documents
  • Probate and other court records
  • Marriage certificates
  • Birth and death certificates
  • Military records

Let’s say that your uncle served in World War 2 but no one is sure what happened to him later because he never came home. You can do a simple search that lets you see if he settled down overseas or moved to a new city when he returned to the States. Death and marriage certificates can help you prove his connection to your family too.

World War 2 Records and What They Reveal

Ancestry records are easy to find while you're sitting at home or relaxing in your favorite coffee shop.

Family Tree Records

Family tree records can also help you find out more about someone who served in World War 2. Many people found hidden surprises over the years when they learned that a grandfather or uncle had a second family that they never knew about. A large number of men married or had relationships with women while stationed overseas, some of which resulted in kids. It’s possible that a loved one died without knowing about that person. Family tree records not only help you trace your family tree, but those records can help you find people you didn’t even know belonged to your tree.

Genealogy Records

The Jesus Christ Church of the Later-Day Saints maintains one of the largest databases of family trees and genealogy in the world. Also known as the Mormon Church or LDS Church, it gives access to those records to the general public, even if your family has no connection to that Church. Looking through genealogy records is the best way to find out if other people who served in the military have connections to your family. You might find that your grandfather had a brother who passed away in World War 2 that he never talked about or that some of your distant relatives were victims of the Holocaust.

World War 2 Records and What They Reveal

Ancestry records can help you find details about loved ones who served in World War 2 that you can share with future generations.

Military Records

Do you have a name and a general idea of where you want to search? If so, you’re only seconds away from launching a search on OurPublicRecords that can help you find military records. We give you the option of adding a state with the person’s name or using just a name and searching all 50 states. As many of those who served in World War 2 passed away, many of these records include death certificates and obituaries. Some of the military records that you might find online include:

  • Draft reports
  • Pension records
  • Service documents
  • Payroll records
  • Discharge reports

Army Records

As we pointed out in another section, the Air Force was once part of the Army. That means that you can use army records to view records of those who served in either branch. That comes in handy if you had an ancestor who served in the Air Force after 1947 but enlisted in the army to fight in the war. Army records often let you view draft cards to see if your ancestor was married when he enlisted as well as what he looked like and when he entered the military. You’ll often find pension records if your ancestor retired from either branch.

Navy Records

The Navy is among the oldest branches of the American military, which is why many people use navy records when tracing their family lines. Some of these records date back to the founding of the Navy in the 1700s, but you’ll also find loads of records dating to World War 2 and modern years. Those records show you the names of any ships the person was stationed on as well as where those ships went and the jobs the individual held. Most records also include details about when the person left the Navy, the reason for his discharge and if the individual drew a pension.

World War 2 Records and What They Reveal

Track any person who served in the Navy and find out more about them through Navy records.

How Does World War 2 Records Search Work?

The way that a World War 2 records search works depend heavily on what you want to find out. We recommend that you start here at OurPublicRecords. If you scroll to the top of this page, you’ll see our free people search. Enter the last name and first name of your ancestor if you know it. You don’t necessarily need a first name though because you can narrow down your search later. Once you search, you can choose one of the public records sites that we ranked to find out even more information. Those sites charge different rates based on factors such as how many people you want to look up and how much data you have. Finding someone when you only know the last name may cost extra and take more time.

Most records search websites ask you to do several things. You’ll start with the name and as much information as you know, including full name or nickname, date of birth, branch or unit served and enlistment date. It’s helpful if you have a rough idea of when your ancestor left the military too. The more you know, the easier you can weed out people with similar names to find records relating to your ancestor.

The information that you’ll get depends on the type of records that you view. While pension records show how much the person earned based on their service, payroll records show you what they earned while in the military. Draft records let you see if your ancestor had a wife and children back home and both when and where they enlisted. Looking at all the available World War 2 records will help you get a well-rounded look at that soldier.

How Does World War 2 Records Search Work

World War 2 records can help you find out if an ancestor received any military awards.

Where to Look for Online Resources

There are dozens and maybe even hundreds of online sites where you can look for World War 2 records or continue your search, including all of the following.

  • Ancestry forums: Ancestry forums are a great source of information, especially for those confused about some of the records they found. You can get help from experts and maybe even find a few relatives who have all the information that you need.
  • National Archives: Even if you don’t want to submit an official request, you should still check out the National Archives on your search. The National Archives is home to millions of documents, photos and videos, some of which may let you see your ancestor in full military dress or working in the field.
  • Military history websites: Military history enthusiasts love to talk about World War 2 and the men and women who fought overseas. Though they may not know about your family member, they often have access to histories and records that help you learn more about what they went through during the Second World War.
  • Veterans’ organizations: You should check with veterans’ organizations near where your loved one once lived. You might find younger members who spent time with him or photos that show your ancestor. They may let you come in for a visit, even though most are only open to members who served in the military.

Start Your Research Today

World War 2 ranks as the deadliest war that the US every fought and the worst in history. More than 85 million people died, including more than 400,000 from the United States and at least 4.4 million from Germany. Those casualties include those who died on the battlefield and in concentration camps and represents roughly 3% of the world’s total population at the time. That might be why a loved one didn’t want to talk about his or her experiences in the War.

Also known as WWII, it is one of the most studied wars around the world. With so many people studying what happened, it’s easy to see why you can find military records from every branch. Those records can help you find missing family members and learn more about those who passed away. OurPublicRecords helps you find the best websites to use for your research and where to look for more information.