Just like the destruction of the infamous 1890 U.S. federal census, some military records were destroyed in a fire at the National Personnel Records Center. This fire destroyed around 18 million military personnel records. According to the letter I received when I requested my great-uncle's military file, "The Official Military Personnel File needed to answer your inquiry is not in our files. If the OMPF was here on July 12, 1973, it would have been in the area that suffered the most damage in the fire on that date and may have been destroyed. The fire destroyed the major portion of records of Army military personnel for the period 1912 through 1959, and records of Air Force personnel with surnames Hubbard through Z for the period 1947 through 1963."
When the record we want doesn't exist or is unavailable we need to seek out other sources. In this case, there is an alternative source available from the Records Center.
Final Pay Voucher
My request for military records for my great-uncle Joseph Chatham was met with a letter that provided another option to the now-lost military file. This alternative record was a Final Pay Voucher. According to the National Personnel Records Center, this Final Pay Voucher would include information such as:
Grade or Rank
Unit assignment at discharge
Place and date of entry
Place and date of discharge
Character of service
Years of service
Signature of Veteran
According to the book, World War II Military Records: A Family Historian's Guide, there are 19 million final pay vouchers that can help you prove the military service of your World War II soldier.
In addition to the letter that I was sent from the Records Center, they included an example of a final pay voucher so I could decide whether or not I wanted to order it. At first glance it appears this document would not be of much help, but in using it as a guide to Joseph's service I realized what a gold mine it really was. Although I found it very helpful, I cannot guarantee that your results will be the same. Since my family knew very little about Joseph's military service and I had wanted anything I could get about his service, I went ahead and paid for a copy of the final pay voucher.
The final pay voucher is one of those great sources that appears at first to provide little about your family member's service but it's really like an onion with layers of information for you to find.
Joseph's military service had been a mystery. He was the bachelor uncle that no one really knew. I had interviewed various family members about what they knew about Joseph and his service in World War II. One cousin told me that he had served in Iwo Jima. (This ended up not being true.) But no one quite knew for sure what he did during his time in World War II. In the end, all we knew was that he had served and we had a picture of him in his uniform. What was known is that the war had taken a lot out of him and that he died eleven years after returning home.
When interviewing family members, it's important to inquire if they have any items from the soldier that may help provide clues to their service. Letters home or souvenirs might provide additional clues. In the case of Joseph, we had nothing.
To begin this research I had accessed Joseph's U.S. World War II Army Enlistment Records from Ancestry.com. This database provides information on over 8 million men and women who enlisted during World War II. From that transcription I knew he had enlisted on 18 May 1942 in San Francisco, California. He had one year of high school and no dependents. Together with the final pay voucher we could see that Joseph served from around May 1942 until December 1945.
In researching Joseph, I also sought out my dad's help. My dad had known Joseph as a child and he himself had been in the military. Sometimes in genealogy, getting the opinions of those who are not genealogists can shed light on facts that you may have skipped over. Non-genealogists might ask questions that are different than the ones you might ask of a document or source. In this case, my dad was able to provide some information that helped me better understand the final pay voucher.
Along with the final pay voucher was a copy of a Soldier's Deposit Book with Joseph's name and his unit Company L, 323 Infantry. This photocopy also showed deposits he had made into this account from July 13, 1942 at Camp Rucker to November 6, 1945. The deposit sheet also gave Joseph's address as APO 81 (APO stands for Army Post Office). APO 81 included addresses in Fort Has, Ohau; Palew Island, New Caledonia; Leyte, Philippines; and Amori, Japan. It appears that Joseph was first receiving mail with APO 81 and then at the end of his service his mail was with APO 703. For a listing of APO's during World War II and their geographical; locations see, Numerical Listing of APO's. Just using those two APO clues and the number of a company and infantry, we now had some possible ideas about where Joseph had been.
Now that we had some clues, we used Google to try to learn more about the company he was attached to. When using Google, don't forget to try the advanced search feature. Also, you can eliminate results that have nothing to do with what you are searching for, by enclosing your search term in quote marks. This indicates to Google that you want to search on an exact phrase. So, for example, you could search for "Palaui Island" instead of simply the words Palaui and Island.
I first looked at some histories of where Joseph received his Army basic training, Camp Rucker. I found this information on his deposit record, and it appears that he was there during the summer of 1942. According to a history of Alabama's Camp Rucker (also known as Fort Rucker), the camp first officially opened on 1 May 1942. The first to train at Camp Rucker were the 81st Wildcat Infantry Division.
One way to research your ancestor is to research those who are associated with them. So I began to research organization commanders whose names were on Joseph's deposit record. A reference in the Milwaukee Magazine for September 1942 to Norton T. Weber, Captain for the 323rd, mentioned that he was at Camp Rucker, Alabama. Further research on these commanders did not provide information that was useful to my research; however, by Googling "323 Infantry," I was able to find web pages devoted to other members of this company and read their stories which helped provide more clues.
While researching Joseph's Company it appeared that he was in the 81st division. Just by Googling the 81st division, I was able to find some small histories including this one at LoneSentry.com. Lone Sentry is a website with photographs and documents from World War II. In addition, I was able to find a website where someone had scanned a booklet detailing the history of the 81st division, that included the battles and activities of the 323rd company. This booklet provide details about the battles this Company participated in. This is the kind of rich detail that can add so much to your understanding of your family.
This is where someone's home source, which they take the time to scan and make available to others, can come in handy. By Googling the name of a military company or division you might find a document like this. Most likely these are posted on personal websites including websites that are hosted by Rootsweb.
is a catalog website of libraries around the world with over 1.5 billion items. You can search WorldCat, just as you would your local public library catalog. To see if any histories had been written about the 323rd Infantry, I conducted a keyword search. Two possible results came back, "3rd Bn. 323 Infantry: Peleliu daily journal" and "Unit history 3-2-3- Infantry Regiment," both of which are at the U.S. Army, Military History Institute. To the right of the latter title there was a link for similar items. Clicking on one of the links, provided more titles having to do with the 323rd, including the Company L Joseph was in. I went over to the link for the U.S. Army, Military History Institute and discovered their website, U. S. Army Heritage and Education Center and was able to search through their resources.
Searching on Google Books, might also provide some additional books that you can use in your research. Because of copyright restrictions, books you find on Google Books about World War II might only be available in a snippet view or not preview at all. But it is a good place to find books and then contact your local library and inquire about interlibrary loan. Google Books will also display online booksellers who have a copy of the book for purchase.
On a trip to an air museum specializing in the World War II era, I talked to the archivist in their library/archive department. When I explained that my research so far shows that my uncle had served in the battle on Palaui Island, he showed me a collection of books that document World War II battles: Ballantine's Illustrated History Of World War II Battles. This series of 156 paperback was later retitled Ballantines's Illustrated History of the Violence Century. You can find these books in libraries and through used books stores.
There are a few genealogy books that deal specifically with researching those who served during World War II: Finding your Father's War: A Practical Guide to Researching and Understanding Service in the World War II U.S. Army by Jonathan Gawne and World War II Military Records: A Family Historian's Guide by Debra Johnson Knox.
Of course nothing beats being able to personally ask a veteran about his experiences. But when there are few clues left, the Final Pay Voucher may just provide enough evidence to help you piece together the puzzle.