Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Requesting US Army WWII Operations Reports

Are you researching your you father's (or grandfather's) WWII service? Well, if you're lucky he served in a famous unit like the 101st Airborne, Patton's 3rd Army, or the 90th Infantry Division. There are many trade books published on these front-line troops, so all you need to do is go to the bookstore to learn more. Some have an official unit history published by the Army. You can search for these at the US Army Military History Institute website.

If you are studying a lesser-known unit, then you'll need to do make a bit more effort. The US National Archives is a great resource. This institution holds historical data / operations reports for Army units in WWII (see my post on WWII Air Force unit records). These reports were internal documents written to educate war planners. After the war ended many were declassified, and are now made available to the public. You can visit the College Park, MD archives in person, or submit a request for photocopies.

The records for my grandfather's 519th Port Bn. included an 8 page history of the unit written in paragraph form, a 2 page time line listing where & when they were, a few issues of a unit newsletter, and about 50 pages of monthly reports from their time in Antwerp. This is all valuable primary information written at the time, or shortly after. Recently, I made another request for 1st Engineer Special Brigade documents. You can use this as an example to follow if you would like to order documents for your own research.

Step 1: Determine the unit
I was fortunate in that my grandfather told me the name of his unit, and he gave me a copy of his discharge papers. If you not sure what unit your dad served in, then you too will want to find his discharge papers. A family member might have them somewhere, sometimes veterans filed copies with the local Veterans Affairs office. You can also request copies from the National Archives website here. An Army unit will appear with the soldier's name. Sometimes a GI was transferred to a different unit other than the one he served with for most of the war. Only the most recent unit was listed on the discharge papers, so it's a good idea to try to find another document or personal account to confirm the. If a soldier died, the next of kin was sent a Individual Personal Death file, which also listed the unit.

Step 2: Email request
Email the National Archives your request for the historical data report or operations report for your chosen unit: You may also mail a written request to: National Archives and Records Administration, Textual Archives Services Division, 8601 Adelphi Rd, College Park, MD 20740-6001 USA.

Provide as much information on the unit hierarchy as possible. So, if you want info on your dad's company, also provide the parent battalion, regiment, division, etc. The Archives prefers to communicate through the US mail, so make sure to include your mailing address. Here is my email I sent on January 11, 2010:

National Archives,

I would like photocopies of the historical reports for two different Army units from WWII:

1. The 1st Engineer Special Brigade, part of the US Army Transportation Corp.
I need only their records from June to November 1944 at Utah Beach, Normandy, France.

2. The 13th Major Port Group, part of US Army Transportation Corp.
October 1944 to January 1946 at the port of Antwerp, Belgium.

Thank You,
Mailing Address

Step 3: Response letter
The Archives will send you a response letter in the mail. In my case, there were numerous possible files, so they wanted me to refine my request. On February 22, 2010 they mailed me a letter which included a list of 40 different file categories corresponding to the 1st Engineer Special Brigade. There were operations plans, orders, monthly reports, histories, even a telephone directory. I was only interested in the unit's time in Normandy, so I requested that single file. The 13th Major Port had only one file. I hand-wrote these two file names/numbers on a piece of paper and mailed back a request for those photocopies on February 26th.

Step 4: Order form
On March 6, 2010 I received a second letter from the Archives. There was a reproduction order form filled out for the 1st ESB records. It explained that there were 75 pages available, it cost $0.75 per page, coming to a total of $56.25. I filled in my credit card info, and faxed it the same day.

As for the other unit the Archives wrote, "The 13th Major Port has several boxes of records. Each box contains approximately 1,000 pages of documents." Obviously, I wasn't going to pay to have them copy 1,000s and 1,000s of pages. If I lived nearby I would visit and go through these boxes myself, but I had to give up on this unit. There wasn't anything specific I needed to find out, I was just curious what the 13th papers might say about their work in Antwerp.

Step 5: Receive records
Last Friday, March 27, 2010 I received a package from UPS. It contained the stack of papers seen in the above photo. There is a list of units that served under the 1st ESB, discussions of the work on the beach, equipment used, challenges, recommendations for future amphibious landings, records of ships unloaded, maps detailing Utah Beach supply dumps, and more. I haven't read through it all yet, but I have already found lots of useful info for my book.

As you can see, this can be a months' long process. The reproduction fee is more than one would pay for a new history book, but the details found in these reports are really worth the price. There was no book about my grandfather's battalion (that will change soon) or the 1st ESB, so I really appreciated the information made available through the National Archives.

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