One aspect of collecting militaria is the discovery that the item you’ve just purchased has a veteran’s name associated with it. Quite often, U.S. military-related pieces are marked with a soldier, airman, marine or sailor’s last name, initials and/or service number. In some cases, while not possessing a name, uniform items can have a laundry number inscribed in them. This information can provide the collector with a means of researching the veteran to determine where and when he or she served, as well as awards and decorations earned.
In one of my earlier posts, I described how collectors should buy the item as opposed to buying the story. With these named items, we have the potential to provide the actual story to accompany the item in order to explain where the particular item may have been used or worn. At the very least, the piece’s original ownership can be established.
For many collectors, the potential for owning an item that is named to a veteran who has significantly contributed to historically important military events or battles is akin to striking gold. To discover that the uniform you just purchased was worn by a Valor Award recipient (Medal of Honor, Navy Cross, Distinguished Service Cross, etc.) is exciting and very rewarding as they are relatively rare. Proving with iron-clad documentation that the name stenciled into your uniform is THE person who you believe them to be can be a challenge.
Researching a U.S. veteran can be difficult and time consuming, and you have to be committed to the end-goal if you are seeking definitive results. There can be considerable costs associated with research as well. These factors will lead many collectors to be content with an un-researched piece remaining in their collection.
Before you can begin the research of the veteran’s name, you need to determine several basics about it.
- What period is this piece from? Look at the construction. Pay attention to the details.
- How was it made?
- For WWII and earlier uniform pieces, determine what materials it was constructed from. Does the fabric or stitching glow during a black-light test?
If you can determine the veracity of the item for the suspected time frame, you can move on to researching the veteran’s name with a measure of confidence.
There are a few decent online research resources to conduct searches for your veteran’s name. Some sites, such as the National Archives (NARA), are free to use. However, they aren’t complete and just because the veteran’s name doesn’t appear in the results, it doesn’t mean that you’ve hit a dead end. Below are a few of the resources I use.
Individual Veterans Research
- National Archives Access to Archival Databases (AAD): http://aad.archives.gov
- Ancestry: http://www.ancestry.com (paid subscription only)
- Fold3: http://www.fold3.com (paid subscription only)
Branch and Unit History
- Air Force Historical Research Agency: http://www.afhra.af.mil
- Naval Historical and Heritage Command: http://www.history.navy.mil
- US Marine Corps History Division: http://www.tecom.usmc.mil/HD/
- US Army Center of Military History: http://www.history.army.mil
- Army Historical Foundation: http://www.armyhistory.org
- Defense Military Imagery: http://www.dodmedia.osd.mil
When it comes to researching an individual veteran, Ancestry.com is invaluable as they seem to have the most comprehensive amount of available data online. In order to obtain access to that data, you will need to pay for a subscription. The military-specific results found in Ancestry will provide you with some basic information such as draft cards, muster rolls (which contain service numbers) and pension records. These details can give you solid direction to take for submitting requests via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for more detailed information from the National Archives such as:
- Separation Documents
- Service Records
- Medical Records
If a veteran’s name is more unique, researching can become easier. Surnames such as Smith, Jones or Johnson can be extremely difficult to pinpoint with research. Having a service number to associate with the veteran can truly help solidify your results, although there have been instances where the service number cannot be located within NARA. This could be the result of the 1973 fire where 16-18 million records were destroyed. Slowly, the records are being restored and there is a chance that with time, your veteran’s records may be available.
Two of my uniforms (that I have selected to demo in this post) are named. The first is a set of World War II dress blues for an Aviation Radioman 3/c that are tailor made (the sailor had them made especially for himself) with his name and initials embroidered into both the jumper top and the pants. The blues feature a side zipper and a very slim cut to make the uniform more form-fitting. Also in this tailored set are secret pockets to conceal money or identification from pickpockets or con artists. This jumper also features the aircraft gunner distinguishing mark and ruptured duck discharge patches (the ribbons and aircrew insignia pin were added by me for display purposes).
First up, Aviation Radioman Third Class (aerial gunner, aircrew), P.D.S. Leahy:
A search on Ancestry produced a single record that more than likely is the veteran that owned this uniform – the name Philip D. S. Leahy is very unique. Unfortunately, there isn’t any more information which means that I will have to take this information and turn to other resources to find out more about this sailor.
The next named WWII navy uniform, a Pharmacist’s Mate Second Class dress blue jumper, is named to a C. A. Erickson.
After an exhaustive search in the navy muster rolls, I have come up empty handed. While there are several names that match or come close, none align with this uniform.
Again I will have to turn to other resources to see if I can find the name. I have less to go on than the first example.
In a future post, I will tackle the next level of researching veterans and submitting FOIA requests.