The torrent of books published about World War II seems endless. Of course, it’s impossible to keep up—but that doesn’t stop me from trying. As I dive into each new title, I usually skip over the author’s acknowledgments. I think I’ll go back to them later, but I seldom do. Any wise historian or author will tell you, though, that without the tireless work of archivists, historians and researchers behind the scenes, the flood of new books about the war would slow to a trickle.
The hardworking people who make all this possible are not members of an elite club or society, but an extraordinary resource available to everyone—welcome news to those of you who have written to us over the years with questions you’d like answered. The pace of our publishing schedule prevents our staff from responding to such requests. So I’m taking this opportunity to mention some of the institutions where your inquiries will get the attention they deserve.
No matter what you’re looking for, start at your local library, where reference librarians are available to help researchers of all stripes. These highly skilled people will know best where to begin your search. Chances are that one suggestion will be to contact the National Archives (NA). If you want a copy of your own service record, or you are an immediate family member trying to find more about a loved one, contact the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC). Located in St. Louis, this branch of the National Archives maintains the personnel records of individuals who served in the armed forces during World War II. Genealogists will want to get a copy of a serviceman’s DD-214, which is a record of a person’s separation from service. The form will include date and place of enlistment, campaigns the individual was involved in, and decorations and awards received. If you are not an immediate family member, you may fill out a Freedom of Information Act request for the information. The NPRC can be reached at 9700 Page Ave., St. Louis, MO 63132-5100; phone 314-801- 0800; or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more general historical information, an archivist at the NA facility in College Park, Md., can help you access the archives’ vast holdings of photographs, film, maps and posters as well as textual records pertaining to specific military units, commands and campaigns. The archivists are happy to help even the most inexperienced researcher. The National Archives also regularly offers classes on conducting historical research and genealogical projects. If you can’t go there yourself, your library can help you obtain copies of any of the many useful guides and how-to manuals the archives publishes. Check out the Web site at www.nara.gov. College Park facility archivists can be contacted at 8601 Adelphi Rd., College Park, MD 20740; phone 301-837-3510.
Once your search is narrowed, go next to the historical offices maintained by each of the uniformed services. Please be aware that these hardworking people are there to support our men and women in uniform first, and the general public second. They all maintain very helpful Web sites and information desks and are eager to help as time allows. You can visit their facilities, but it’s important to call first.
For information on Army units or their campaigns, start with the U.S. Army Center of Military History (CMH). At the Web site, www.army.mil/CMH, you will find thumbnail histories of select units and a detailed “frequently asked questions” page, links to other useful sources of information and instructions on how to conduct your own research. Send written queries to Collins Hall, 103 Third Ave., Fort Lesley J. McNair, Washington, DC 20319. To schedule your own visit to the center, call 202-685-4042.
If your interest is naval matters, go to the Naval Historical Foundation. The foundation’s Web site (www.history.navy.mil) is extensive and includes photographs, historical articles, instructions on how to conduct an oral history or prepare your own personal memoir, and points of contact for Navy veterans’ organizations. You can also visit the center at 805 Kidder Breese St., S.E., Washington Navy Yard, Washington, DC 20374. The phone number at the foundation is 202-433-3224.
Our leatherneck readers will be interested to know about the Marine Corps Historical Center, recently relocated to a new facility at Quantico, Va. The USMCHC’s home on the Web is located at the main USMC site (www.usmc.mil). Once you are there, click on the “History and Museums” link. The center encourages the curious to write them at Marine Corps History Division, 3079 Moreell Ave., Quantico, VA 22134. Visits can be arranged by calling 703-432-4872.
Air Force historians can be reached at www.airforce history.hq.af.mil or at the Air Force History Office, AF/HQ, 1190 Air Force, Pentagon, Washington, DC 20330. To arrange a visit, call 202-404-2661. Another helpful resource is the Air Force Historical Research Agency, which, among other things, can provide copies of all the missing-aircrew reports from the war. This office is located at 600 Chennault Circle, Bldg. 1405, Maxwell AFB, AL 36112 or by calling 334-953-2395.
The Coast Guard maintains an office dedicated to preserving its own rich history. Contact the Historians Office, USCQ Headquarters, 2100 Second St., S.W., Washington, DC 20593. Speak to a historian by calling 202-267-1394. Useful information can also be found on the Web at www.uscg.mil/hq/g-cp/history/collect.html.
Doing your own historical research can be immensely rewarding. Not only will you get your questions answered, you will also have the great good fortune to work with the unsung heroes of the profession.
Originally published in the June 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.