Prologue Magazine

TOP SECRET: Recovering and Breaking the U.S. Army and Army Air Force, Part 2 Order of Battle Codes, 1941-1945, Part 2

Fall 2000, Vol. 32, No. 3

By Lee A. Gladwin

punch card for Lt. Gen. Jonathan Wainwright
IBM punch card for Lt. Gen. Jonathan Wainwright, captured commander of the Philippine Division. (Records of the Office of the Provost Marshal General, 1941 - , RG 389)

The World War II Prisoner of War Codes

Throughout the war, the International Red Cross Committee in Bern, Switzerland, routinely sent lists of POWs to the Office of the Provost Marshal General. The office then sent a letter to the next of kin and a copy of the casualty report to the Office of the Adjutant General, Machine Records Branch. A telegram was also sent to the next of kin by the Office of the Adjutant General while the Machine Records Branch punched the POW card.

We owe a great deal to those who preserved these cards and transferred them to the National Archives in 1959. Much is owed also to William H. Cunliffe, assistant chief for reference, National Archives Modern Military Branch, 1975 - 1980. He found the first set of documentation that matched most of the observed fields in the War Department Adjutant General's Office Form No. 0326, Prisoner of War punch card.

In the 1970s, when former POWs requested documentation of their incarceration, National Archives staff copied the POW card and Red Cross reports for the camps in question. According to Cunliffe, "We were all aware that the punch holes in the cards represented information beyond what was printed out along the top of the card." Trying to find the key to this information, Cunliffe, "worked out allotment of the columns all across the card (assigned to name-rank serial #, etc.). This activity identified the columns where codes were being used." He then searched a variety of records and reference materials for files, issuances, and regulations that covered codes for military units, personnel, stations, and geographic locations.

Cunliffe discovered eleven-by-fourteen-inch goldenrod coding sheets that included a sheet titled "Wounds, Amputations and Diseases." The codes, both alpha and numeric, could be combined to form three-character combinations, e.g., S54. Since the sheet of codes was included with the other code sheets and the codes matched some of what we later discovered were the Type of Organization codes found in the cards, the sheet was believed to contain codes for a possible field, Wounds, Amputations and Diseases. It was not until 1989, when one of the cards was copied onto a transparency for a presentation, that the previously obscured field names could be read. In mid-sentence, Margaret Adams, Center for Electronic Records, turned to the enlarged image on the screen and realized that the field layout for the cards had been preprinted on each of the punch cards. At that point, she realized that rather than information on "Wounds, Amputations and Diseases," columns 56 - 58 in each card recorded "Type of Organization," "Parent Unit Number," and "Parent Unit Type."

In 1994, when I was looking for codebooks in connection with documenting another series of records, the World War II army serial enlistment file, the first codebooks for Type of Organization, Parent Unit Number, and Parent Unit Type came to light. These codebooks contained alphanumeric codes that consisted of three numbers followed by a letter (e.g., 522P for armored infantry regiment). Though codebooks for 1944 and 1945 were now in hand, no effort was made at that time to decode the Type of Organization and Parent Unit Number and Type fields in the POW records. It was not until several years later, after the Center for Electronic Records began creating search, retrieval, and reporting systems for its Korean Conflict and Vietnam Conflict casualty and POW records, that interest turned to creating a similar system for the World War II POW records.18

Following a question from another archivist concerning the meanings of the uninterpreted Types of Organization codes in a POW's record, I began a search in June 1999 for additional technical manuals, codebooks, or correspondence pertaining to the creation and use of these codes and the three coding systems.

Discovering Code Books and Breaking Type of Organization Codes

The earliest known systems for encoding Type of Organization are numeric and alphanumeric. Both were in use between 1942 and 1945. A mimeographed copy of the numeric system codes was found, but no printed version was discovered. In the "Army Ground Force Units" version (March 8, 1943), Type of Organization and Parent Unit Type are given in parallel columns. Spaces were left for adding new organization types. A defect of this system was that there was no way to identify higher-level parent organizations, such as division. This system was somewhat limited, therefore, in its descriptive power.

The creation of these alphanumeric codes begins in mystery and ends in enigmatic uncertainty. No codebooks were ever found for this system, though some of the earliest POW records, including that of Lt. Gen. Jonathan Mayhew Wainwright, commander of the Philippine Division, who surrendered his forces to the Japanese after the fall of Bataan and Corregidor, were encoded using this system (J32 in his case). The system was used simultaneously with the numeric system and, in some ways, supplements it. Only by analyzing the records themselves and trying to identify unit numbers with those given in the Analysis of the Present Status of the War Department Troop Basis and cross-checking with online biographies at various private POW web sites can this coding system be broken.

Analysis revealed large percentages of Type of Organization codes beginning with certain letters clustered around specific arm or service codes. For example, code C associated with the Chemical Warfare Service, code D with the Quartermaster Corps, and code E with the Corps of Engineers. The next step was to link unit numbers with specific Type of Organization codes. For this purpose, great reliance was placed on two sources: Analysis of the Present Status of the War Department Troop Basis and Shelby L. Stanton's World War II Order of Battle. Breaking the codes begins with finding the arm or service associated with the given unit number. Consider the example of William E. Harman's World War II POW record. His record gives the Type of Organization as K15, the Parent Unit Number as 0092, and the Parent Unit Type as 06. In the Analysis of the Present Status we find 92 BOMB HV [92nd Bombardment, Heavy]. The parent unit type 06 means Group, giving us the complete title, 92nd Heavy Bombardment Group. To confirm the interpretations of these alphanumeric codes, I consulted various private World War II POW and army air force - related web sites.19 I then compared hundreds of records in these online collections and cross-referenced them with the information in the World War II POW punch card records to confirm the interpretations of Type of Organization and Parent Unit Type codes (see sidebar: "Meanings of Type of Organization Codes"). By this method, I am confident that I have broken 25 of 235 alphanumeric codes. In time, hopefully, the same codebreaking methods may be successfully applied to the remaining unbroken codes.

In order to interpret the Type of Organization codes found in the World War II POW punch cards, it was necessary to discover additional codebooks or find some way to break the codes. Three coding systems were identified: a three-digit numeric system (e.g., 215) and two alphanumeric systems (e.g., S53 and 401A). The first two coding systems were used as early as May 1942. After the third coding system was introduced in 1944, all three systems were used simultaneously.

All three systems were based on two common sources: the table of organization and equipment (TOE) and troop basis reports. The TOE provided a numeric system of hierarchical organization for the U.S. Army and Army Air Forces together with brief "titles" or organization identifiers.20 TOE numbers and units were printed in small pamphlets issued on a regular basis as new numbers and organizations were added or old ones changed. They did not contain all numbers and organization names. Much more extensive and inclusive were the monthly troop basis reports, which specified organization strength in officers and enlisted men. They were based on the numbers and titles found in the TOE but were briefer in their "type unit" descriptions.21

More voluminous still, and more useful for identifying specific organizations and their component units, is the Analysis of the Present Status of the War Department Troop Basis (December 1, 1944). This monthly statistical report was based upon the troop basis, which specified authorized unit strength, but it also identifies all organizations and their units in the hierarchical order laid down in the TOE. These analyses revealed both authorized and actual strength and were the basis for making decisions about where to send troops and how many more men would need to be drafted, trained, and supplied; i.e., it was the staffing plan for the U.S. armed forces. In format, the Analysis of the Present Status of the War Department Troop Basis is a step closer to the surviving codes so far discovered. The TOE number remains constant, and the "type unit" descriptions are similar to those found in the troop basis. What is different is that the Analysis identifies specific units and their positions in the TOE hierarchy (e.g., 43 TROOP CARR designates the Forty-third Troop Carrier).22

To track changes in unit strength and compute differences between authorized and actual numbers, the AGO created codebooks that set up a one-to-one correspondence between the TOE numbers and troop basis type unit descriptions and the codes punched into the Type of Organization and Parent Unit Type fields.

As early as 1941, an effort was made to encode unit type information:

Subunit   Parent Unit
No. Type   No. Type
A 09   12 06

In this early version of subunit codes, "09" means "company," and "A" is its designation. In the parent unit pair, "06" means "regiment," and "12" designates this as the Twelfth Infantry Regiment. Even at this early stage, Parent Unit Number was the actual number of the unit, not a code, and the unit type was already encoded.23

Changing the Type of Organization and Parent Unit Type Codes (1944)

Late in 1944, the Type of Organization field was expanded from three to four characters consisting of three numbers and a letter. The Parent Unit Number henceforth was the "actual division number." This change appears to have been made in order to identify units within the larger divisional hierarchy, not just as types of units, as was previously the case. The first character indicates the type of division. The second and third characters specified the sequence for sorting and printing the units in the same order in which they appeared in the Troop Basis. The fourth, alphabetical, character denotes the arm or service of the organization.

The two-character Parent Unit Type field identified all units except divisions with regard to size and importance in the chain of command. It no longer was used to specify whether a unit was a regiment, battalion, or some other type of unit.

How to Punch a Four-Character Code into a Three-Character Field

The new set of coding instructions posed a dilemma. Keypunch operators now had to squeeze a four-character Type of Organization code into a three-character field. The record for POW Staff Sgt. William T. Reyenga illustrates how operators solved this problem. Reyenga was attached to the infantry, which was coded 722P. The last three characters, 22P, also match two other infantry organization types:


Since the first character, 7, indicated "type of division," or infantry, and this was already indicated by the arm or service code, the first digit was apparently stripped away to create the three-character code 22P. In order to compute the actual versus authorized strength of specific units, the Type of Organization, Parent Unit Number, and Parent Unit Type fields had to be completed. Such information was not provided by the Office of the Provost Marshal General. The information may have been taken from the status or report of change cards that identified the individual's organization. Once the card was found, the keypunch operator punched the codes using one of the available codebooks.


The three coding systems used by the World War II POW punch cards for the Type of Organization and Parent Unit Type fields can now be broken with a great deal of effort and a little luck. More of both will be necessary if we are to complete the task. Still, we are far ahead of where we were in understanding these coding systems and can make the resultant code interpretations available to researchers, while explaining which code values come directly from extant War Department documentation and which are interpretations. At the same time, however, enigmas remain. Why were three systems developed and used simultaneously? What guided the selection of any coding system? Hopefully, additional codebooks or correspondence will be found that will answer these questions.

For whatever reasons, these early coding systems, and the data fields themselves, were abandoned by the time of the outbreak of the Korean conflict. The concept, however, remained in the form of the troop sequence number (TPSN) codes found in the Records of the Office of the [Army] Adjutant General, RG 407, Korean War Casualty File, 1950 - 53.24 It uses an eleven-character number, providing the flexibility and power sought by the codemakers of World War II.

The value of IBM machines to the war effort was clearly proven each and every time the troop basis or analysis was printed. These machines allowed the Office of the Chiefs of Staff to plan and to direct men and material where they were needed, when they were needed. The Machine Records Units and their machines won the logistical battles that helped win World War II.

Top Secret, Part 1

Meanings of Type of Organization Codes


1 Confidential Report to Mr. L. H. La Motte, "Our Dealing with War Ministries in Europe," May 16, 1940, p.1; Modernization of Army Administrative Methods Through Use of Business Machines Reorganization of Army Personnel System Initiation of Machine Records System, box 1629, 310 Business Methods and Procedures From (5-21-40) (1) Section 1 To Section 1A, Army Adjutant General's Decimal File 1940 - 1945, Records of the Adjutant General's Office 1917 - , Record Group (RG) 407, National Archives at College Park, MD (NACP). Hereinafter referred to as Modernization of Army Administrative Methods.

2 Ibid.

3 Margaret O. Adams, "Punch Card Records: Precursors of Electronic Records," American Archivist 58 (Spring 1995): 182 - 201.

4 Lt. Col. Carl G. Allen, "The Use of Machine Records by the Army," p. 7, IBM War History Files, copy provided from collection of Adjutant General Corps Museum, Fort Jackson, SC.

5 Ibid., p. 10.

6 Memorandum for the Administrative Assistant, AGO, Subject: Contingent Expenses, War Department, 1942, from Maj. H. G. Holdridge, AGD War Plans Officer, Apr. 23, 1940, Modernization of Army Administrative Methods, RG 407, NACP.

7 Memorandum for the Chief of Staff, through the Assistant Chief of Staff, G-1, Subject: Modernization of Army Administrative Methods through use of Business Machines, from Maj. Gen. E. S. Adams, Adjutant General, May 25, 1940, Modernization of Army Administrative Methods, RG 407, NACP.

8 "Possible Uses For President's Contingency Fund (Personnel)," May 18, 1940, Modernization of Army Administrative Methods, RG 407, NACP.

9 Memorandum for the Assistant Chief of Staff, G-1, Subject: Reestablishment of Post and Regimental Personnel Sections, ca. October 1940, pp. 2 - 4, Modernization of Army Administrative Methods, RG 407, NACP.

10 Ibid., p. 5.

11 Ibid., pp. 11 - 12.

12 Ibid., pp. 6 - 9.

13 Memorandum to Chief of the Budget and Legislative Planning Branch, War Department, General Staff, Attention Colonel Brown, from Lt. Col. R. E. Cummings, Adjutant General, Jan. 24, 1941, p. 2, Modernization of Army Administrative Methods, RG 407, NACP.

14 Allen, "The Use of Machine Records by the Army," p. 8.

15 Cable from Presidio of San Francisco 455P, Dec. 15, 1941, to the Adjutant General, Army Adjutant General Decimal File 1940 - 1945, box 1626, 310 Business Methods and Procedures (10-6-41) to (12-31-41), RG 407, NACP.

16 Memorandum from Brig. Gen. H. B. Lewis, Acting Adjutant General, to Commanding Generals, Subject: Machine records unit personnel, July 31, 1942, box 1628, 310 Business Methods and Procedures (10-6-41) to (12-31-41), RG 407, NACP.

17 Allen, "The Use of Machine Records by the Army," p. 11.

18 See Ted Hull "Electronic Records of Korean and Vietnam Conflict Casualties," Prologue: Quarterly of the National Archives and Records Administration 32 (Spring 2000): 54 - 61.

19 See (formerly for POW biographies; for lists of bomber groups based in the European Theater and photographs of aircraft; for an extensive lists of the 20th, 55th, 78th, and 364th Fighter Groups' aircraft, pilots, casualties, and POWs; and

20 Table of Organization and Equipment (1943 - 1945), Table of Organization and Equipment (TAGO Series TOE) Beginning TOE Index, Ending: TOE 1-167T, box TOE1, Publications of the U.S. Government, U.S. Army, 1941 - , RG 287, NACP.

21 The War Department Troop Basis (Apr. 1, 1945), box 63, DRB Reference Collection, Document No. 214, War Department Troop Basis (December to May 1945), RG 407, NACP.

22 Analysis of the Present Status of the War Department Troop Basis (Dec. 1, 1944), box 117, Office of the Comptroller of the Army, Program Review and Analysis Division Statistics Branch, Records of the Army Staff, RG 319, NACP.

23 Army Regulations No. 330-63, Machine Records Codes, Code 63— Unit and Installation Code— Types of Units and Installations, Army Adjutant General Decimal File 1940 - 45, box 1626, 310 Business Methods and Procedures 10-6-41 to 12-31-41, RG 407, NACP.

24 [U.S. Army] Korean War Casualty File (TAGOKOR), RG 407, NACP.

Lee A. Gladwin is an archivist with the Electronic and Special Media Records Services Division of the National Archives and Records Administration.


Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.