Today’s post is written by Kylene Woods, a processing archivist at the National Archives in College Park.
You are interested in knowing more about the army unit your grandfather served with during World War II. Grandpa Jim served with the 1884th Engineer Aviation Battalion, and you want to know more about the type of work the unit did and where it traveled during the war. Army Unit Records are a potential source for this information.
It is important to gather information about the soldier or army unit you are interested in researching before you visit or write in to the National Archives. In order to use our finding aids, you will need the soldier’s unit designation, and, to narrow your search, the soldier’s approximate dates of service.
If you don’t know Grandpa Jim’s unit, you will want a copy of his military personnel record. Please visit the National Archives at St. Louis webpage for Military Personnel Records. IMPORTANT: please read carefully through the information on the above website in order to understand the steps you need to take to receive copies of these records.
If you know the unit designation (ex: 1884th Engineer Aviation Battalion), below are the ways in which you can access the unit records you are seeking.
Army Unit records at the National Archives
The first record group (RG) to look in for World War II unit records is RG 407, Records of the Adjutant General’s Office. WWII army unit records will vary in terms of content and completeness for each unit. Generally, larger units will have more documentation than smaller ones. Types of records that can be found include: after action reports, general orders, daily journals, staff reports (ex: S-2 reports), unit histories, etc.
If you are researching a specific soldier, it is important to remember that unit records rarely contain personal names. Generally, the only names you will find are in general orders that list the name, rank, and service numbers of soldiers that received awards and decorations. You may find the names of senior officers or soldiers specifically singled out because of some noteworthy happening.
You may find other records of interest in RG 338, Records of the U.S. Army Operational, Tactical, and Support Organizations (WWII and Thereafter), Entry (UD) 37042: Unit Histories, 1943-1967 (National Archives ID 895216). If you are looking for the records of a medical unit, you will also want to check RG 112, Records of the Office of the Surgeon General (Army), Entry (UD) 1012: Medical Unit Annual Reports (National Archives ID 7372670).
Searching the Online Public Access (OPA) system
Every researcher will want to visit our Online Public Access (OPA) system for descriptions of records relevant to their topic. Here is the series description for U.S. Army unit records during World War II: (RG 407, Entry (NM-3) 427: World War II Operations Report, 1940-1948, National Archives ID 305275).
As you can see from the OPA description, these particular records are not available online. To gain access to these records, researchers can visit Archives II in College Park, MD or write in to the appropriate reference unit. Reference unit contact information is under the “Archived Copies” section of the OPA description (below highlighted in green).
Visiting the National Archives (On-Site Research)
You have decided to visit the research room at Archives II in College Park, Maryland. Once you enter the research room and make your way to the consultation area, a reference staff member will direct you to the RG 407 finding aids.
The finding aids for the RG 407 unit records are arranged by type of unit (armor, infantry, engineer, etc.) and then by unit number. Once you find the unit in the appropriate finding aid, you will need to know how to interpret what you are viewing: the first column includes the file number, the second includes a brief description of the file, and the third column contains the date of the file or files.
WWII Army Unit Records – Engineering Battalion
When checking the finding aids, you may not find your unit by type and number. In that case, you will want to check at the division level for that unit. It may be good practice to check the division level finding aid in either case.
Filling out the pull slip for WWII Army Unit Records
The WWII army unit records in RG 407 are very popular and also a semi-special case. The information on the pull slip used to pull the records is actually the file number (first column). We do not possess a box list for these records. The drawback of pulling by file number is that it is difficult to know how many boxes will be returned to you. With a 24 box limit per pull, there is the possibility that you won’t get all the files you requested in one pull.
The above pull slip will get you all the files for the unit, but if you are only interested in the general orders for this unit (file number ENBN-1884-1.13), you would only write that file number on your pull slip. Then, the pull staff will retrieve the box with that particular file. With the RG 407 army unit records, you will always use the same starting location (stack area/row/compartment/shelf) no matter what file you are requesting.
Contacting the National Archives with your Reference Request (Off-site Request)
As noted above, you will find the contact information for the appropriate Reference staff (Textual, Still Pictures, Cartographic, etc.) on the OPA description under the “Archived Copies” section. When you write or email the reference staff, you will want to include the unit designation and the approximate dates you are interested in researching. You will also want to note that type of unit records you are interested in, ex: after action reports, daily journals, general orders, etc.
There are plenty of resources available to begin your search for military records. You may wish to read over NARA’s pamphlet “Finding Information on Personal Participation in World War II.” Additionally, you may want to consult Jonathan Gawne’s Finding Your Father’s War: a Practical Guide to Researching and Understanding Service in the World War II U.S. Army. Philadelphia: Casemate, 2006.