April 6 marked the one hundredth anniversary of the United States declaring war on Germany and the Balkan states of Austria and Hungary, as President Woodrow’s months-long attempts to avoid war collapsed. In early 1917 a series of events, along with mounting evidence of German anarchy on American soil and against American interests, forced Wilson’s hand.
Since early 1916 the Wilson administration had focused its attention on the southern border with Mexico and revolutionary leader Pancho Villa. Wilson abruptly recalled his expeditionary force on February 7, 1917 after learning of a sinister plot via British intelligence. Germany had been lobbying the Mexican government to join the Central Powers in exchange for Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.
Since the war’s beginning in 1914 United States interests had been under attack as German submarines sank numerous American ships carrying American passengers across the Atlantic. American newspapers made the “Zimmerman telegram” the top news story for weeks to come. The citizenry was convinced war was inevitable.
Inevitable as it might have been, the United States was largely unprepared for war. The Selective Service Act of 1917 was enacted on May 18, authorizing the government to raise an army. Wilson was calling for a force of least one million — a far cry from the force in place at the time.
Twenty-four million men would register and of that number 2.7 million were drafted and another three hundred thousand volunteered. Between June 1917 and September 1918 the draft took place in three phases:
- June 5, 1917: all men between the ages of 21 and 31;
- June 5, 1918: all men who turned 21 following the first draft. A supplemental run took place on August 24 for those who had turned 21 after June 5;
- September 12, 1918: a third registration was held for men between the ages of 18 and 45.
A mere two months before the war’s end the number of registrants expanded — and unknowingly assisted future genealogists in the pursuit of ancestor birth dates, residency, spousal information and more.
By the third registration every male born between 1872 and 1900 was required to fill out a card. It didn’t matter whether the registrant was native born, naturalized or an alien. For instance, Russian immigrant Irving Berlin had only declared his intention to become a citizen when he signed up on the first draft registration day in 1917. The following February he became a citizen and was drafted.
The original World War I draft registration cards are stored at the National Archives facility near Atlanta, Georgia. Between 1987 and 1995 those records were microfilmed, resulting in well over four thousand rolls of film. Today those records are available online at various sites like Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org, FindMyPast.com and Fold3.com.
Actual service records, however, are not as easy or convenient to locate. Ironically, you are more likely to find out more about the service of your Civil War ancestor than your World War I ancestor who served during what is regarded as the first “modern war”.
Just after midnight in the early morning hours of July 12, 1973 fire broke out in the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri. The fire burned out of control for twenty-two hours and it was two additional days before firefighters could enter the building to mop up various hot spots. On July 16 the fire was officially out.
The aftermath was devastating in terms of records loss. Most notably thousands of Army service records were damaged or destroyed. Millions of gallons of water had been used to quell the flames and the removal of water and fire damaged records was the first priority. Among these records were Army (1912-1959) and Air Force (1947-1959) morning reports.
Almost 6.5 million burned and water damaged records were eventually recovered. Mold was the primary concern and measures were taken to forestall its spread throughout the building.
Reconstruction began as records were marked “B” (“Burned File”) and indexed. By the following spring an “R” designation (“Reconstructed File”) was created. While you may now request surviving Army records and records of the Navy and Marine Corps (see this link for instructions: archives.gov/veterans), other resources are available.
The National Personnel Records Center (NRPC) used a variety of sources to reconstruct service files such as “Veterans Administration (VA) claims files, individual state records, Multiple Name Pay Vouchers (MPV) from the Adjutant General’s Office, Selective Service System (SSS) registration records, pay records from the Government Accounting Office (GAO), as well as medical records from military hospitals, entrance and separation x-rays and organizational records.”
Fold3 has more than 82 million World War I-related records. That’s a massive number, yet you can narrow your search by selecting only certain databases. For instance, if your ancestor was an officer search in the subcategories of “Army Registers, 1798-1969” or the “Navy and Marine Corps Officer Registers”.
The records discussed above are some of the most common used by genealogists. There are, however, other records from that time period which might also yield valuable information. More on these “thinking outside-the-box” records in Part 2.
“The 1973 Fire, National Personnel Records Center”. Accessed on March 23, 2017. https://www.archives.gov/st-louis/military-personnel/fire-1973.html.
“Pancho Villa and the German Connection”, by Marius Tecoanta. Accessed on March 24, 2017. http://www.militarysuccessnetwork.com/2012/06/pancho-villa-and-the-german-connection/.