Do you have a box full of World War II (WWII) medals, patches, and written materials that you would like to know more about? My spouse, David, and I each have one. Even after taking our European World War II memorial tour several years ago we wanted to learn more about the United States military, especially my father-in-law’s service in Europe and my father’s in Asia. I was fortunate to find a guide that is full of sources, Finding Your Father’s War: A practical Guide to Researching and Understanding Service in the World War II Army, by Jonathan Gawne. The book is also a valuable resource for history or historical fiction authors.
It is difficult to summarize a book like this when each of its 357 pages is full of information—facts, charts, and images with descriptions. According to Robert Dalessandro, former Director, U.S. Army Center of Military History, and others, Gawne’s detailed descriptions of topics from unit organization to historical records “is a must for anyone attempting to understand service during WWII.” Gawne says that many of us are interested in a relative’s military history, and he personally wrote the book because of his desire “to gain an understanding of what they went through…horror, boredom or endless frustration that is war.”
The book is especially valuable given that, on July 12, 1973, a fire at the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) destroyed sixteen to eighteen million Military Personnel Files of the Army and Air Force dating back to November 1912. Gawne identifies ways to close these information gaps.
An Author Approaches All of This Information
Gawne begins with the history of events leading up to America’s entry into WWII on December 7, 1941. The developments during the 1930s were in many ways the result of decisions made in Versailles during the decade following The Great War. I read in awe of the monumental tasks confronting the government regarding the scale of issues and logistics that had to be addressed prior to, during, and at the end of WWII when it had to get our men and women home. Among the many issues discussed are: How people enlisted and were drafted under the 1940 Selective Training and Service Act; how the U.S. raised an Army of 17,000 to 227,000 in 1939 and then to four million by 1942; how men and women were selected, assigned, and trained; how units were organized; and how points were used near the end of the war to determine when a soldier got to go home.
How was this massive Army organized? By units in a table of organization (TO) outlined in detail. By 1943 the TO was extended to include equipment. Following the formal TO could be challenging due to temporary designations such as task forces. An example is the 5307th Composite Unit (a.k.a. Galahad or Merrill’s Marauders), a temporary task force in the Burma campaign whose mission was to protect India and China from the Japanese. By 1944 the war priority in Europe and the Pacific led to resource shortages in Asia. Men such as my father and others not trained in combat were brought from other assignments to join Stilwell in the fight. After they succeeded in their mission, primarily capturing Myitkyina and completing the Ledo Road from India to China, the Task Force was disbanded. The soldiers were sent to other assignments—in dad’s case, to India and then driving transport along the mountainous Ledo Road.
So what did I find out about my father? I learned to read serial numbers from Army ‘dog tags’ that you can now trace through a database. From dad’s I know that he was drafted into the service and that he reported to the 5th Corp at Fort Hayes, Ohio. I learned to read his separation letter and discharge papers more effectively. Another section on Army mail helped me understand the many types of letters my mother received—APO (Army Post Office) addresses, micro-sized V-mail, and the censor stamps.
Interesting parts of the book for me are the ones describing the insignia, badges, and ‘patches,’ as dad referred to them, of the various units. Photos of most of these can be found throughout the book. Dad’s collection includes several China-Burma-India patches, some from the Ledo/Stilwell Road and the 97th Division, and some of his Tech 4 patches (Fourth Grade Technician – Sergeant equivalent). Some are machine made of cotton. Others are embroidered in cotton, others more elaborately in beautiful metallic threads. A variety of styles are also used to for Merrill’s Marauders and MARS Taskforce patches.
Badges and pins identify him as a mechanic and driver. I did not realize that after receiving medals, soldiers were given small pin ribbons in colors representing the medal to wear on their uniforms. Among dad’s are those for: good conduct, the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, the U.S. Asiatic-Pacific Campaign; the U.S. Army Presidential Unit Citation Bar; and two that appear to be the Combat Infantryman’s Badge. The Infantry Badge resembles the Sharpshooter badge, and I know he won two—one at the platoon level and a second at the battalion.
If there is one that you can’t find, Gawne suggests other books and websites. I found some on my own. I bought an October 1943 National Geographic magazine at the annual Ohio Civil War Show in Mansfield, which has expanded to include other military exhibits and offerings. The magazine includes the first complete color reproductions of three hundred and seventy-six approved decorations, medals, service ribbons, badges, and women’s insignia. Of course many of dad’s came after 1943, such as those for the 1944 Asia-Burma campaigns. Details of the army uniform include the fact that the three bars on the arm of dad’s uniform jacket indicate that he served for three years. I have acquired material at similar shows around Ohio, such as the annual D-Day reenactment in Conneaut, a town leading to a beach resembling those where American’s landed in Normandy.
Other Ways I Found Information
I learned about the Center for Military History and that one can read official WWII histories in the government’s The Green Books. Other sources mentioned throughout the book and in the Appendices are too extensive to mention in this post. I encourage you to peruse these, which include various Army divisions (infantry, airborne, armored, and calvary), Army Air Forces, campaigns, official abbreviations, and minor lists, such as vehicle markings and concentration camp “liberator” units.
On a trip to New York, a chance visit to the town of New Windsor led us to the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor. I was subsequently able to enroll my father into the Hall of Fame, and you can get the forms to nominate your Purple Heart recipient at the website. Fortunately, my father kept every piece of paper he received from his draft notice to his discharge papers. David’s father did not want to remember the war. We have German souvenirs but haven’t been able to identify the necessary paperwork to enroll my father-in-law. If we want to search further, we can use Gawne’s suggestions on when and how to hire a knowledgeable researcher, including questions to ask potential candidates.
Gawne suggests that you find a unit veteran’s group and let them know you are looking for information. I tried our local WWII-Korean War Roundtable. It is nearly defunct even though they have extended their programs to topics of the Vietnam era and more general military topics. All they could provide was a nearly twenty-year-old video of a program given by two veterans of the Burma campaign at a meeting. One served with the air corps and the other with the cavalry that was responsible for the mule and horse transports so important in the mountains. Interesting, but not pertinent to dad’s service. Except for films, TV and video games, the interest in our former wars seems to be waning.
Am I finished looking? Probably never. As I read World War II history or historical fiction, a light will go off in my head, a connection to something in my father’s box or photos, or a comment he made. For instance, in following his letters home, he was in hospitals and recovery sites more than I would think necessary for the one bullet wound at Myitkyina airfield, a later hospitalization to have varicose veins removed from his legs, and pre-ware back and foot issues which I am sure were exacerbated.
But he also had night sweats throughout his life related to his time in the Burma campaign. He never mentioned this—my mother told me about them—but a couple of times he mentioned some of the horrible things he experienced. I have seen photos and read personal accounts others wrote of those experiences in graphic detail. I often wonder if some of his “R and R” was for battle fatigue, now known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Instructions on how to contact Veteran’s Affairs about your relative’s military health records are in the book. Maybe that will be the next step in my search.
Note: If you have military stories or want to share research you have used, please add to this story.
Ann Otto writes fiction based on factual as well as oral history. Her debut novel, Yours in a Hurry, about Ohioans relocating to California in the 1910’s, is available online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kindle. Her academic background is in history, English, and behavioral science, and she has published in academic and professional journals. She enjoys speaking with groups about all things history, writing, and the events, locations, and characters from Yours in a Hurry and her current projects, which include research about Ohio’s Appalachia in the 1920’s and a compilation of her father’s World War 2 letters. She blogs on history and writing and can be reached through the website, https://www.ann-otto.com/ , or at Facebook@Annottoauthor and www.Goodreads.com