Finding Aids: Reference Information Paper 82 Introduction

Reference Information Paper 82

A Finding Aid to Records Relating to Personal Participation in World War II: American Military Casualties and Burials

Table of Contents


Scope and Content of this Paper

This reference information paper covers records pertaining to individuals serving in the U.S. military services, or contracted by the services as civilian employees, who were casualties of World War II. The term "casualty" herein refers to those persons who were wounded and recovered, as well as to those who lost their lives. It also includes noncombat casualties. It does not include civilian victims of the war. In the context of this paper, a casualty is treated as an event, not as part of a process. That is to say, records regarding the extended treatment and recovery process of the wounded have not been dealt with. Any decision to do so would have led to a far less manageable number of records to describe. Those records of medical units that are covered in this paper are nearly all concerned with the immediate treatment and handling of a casualty, and the few hospital records mentioned are almost invariably from field units or shipboard hospitals in war zones.

This paper does not describe or list every record that provides information on World War II American military casualties but rather offers a well-considered approach to finding information on a given individual or class of individuals. While an informed estimation of the needs and desires of "21st century" genealogists has guided the effort, it is hoped that the paper will serve other purposes as well. For example, it could be used by veterans or their families to seek records that would verify status, fill in unremembered details of experiences, learn the fate of wartime friends and acquaintances, or supplement information in family histories. It is also hoped that historians interested in studying war and other social phenomena "from the bottom up" will find some assistance herein. For them, and for any others who may benefit, a few descriptions are included of records that, although they yield few or no names of individual casualties, contain descriptions of experiences that are typical or generic.

Federal recordkeeping is so complex that accounting for every record containing information about individuals who were casualties in World War II is virtually impossible. Warnings herein about potential disappointments in seeking individual names in certain series of records should be taken seriously. However, it is worthwhile to describe the records that are easiest to use and most productive in terms of quantity of names and information.

This reference information paper is part of a series describing "Records Relating to Personal Participation in World War II." It has been preceded by two similar papers: "Records Relating to Personal Participation in World War II: 'The American Soldier' Surveys" (Reference Information Paper 78), and "Records Relating to Personal Participation in World War II: American Prisoners of War and Civilian Internees" (Reference Information Paper 80).

Military Casualty Reporting Systems in World War II

Systems and practices for keeping track of and reporting American military casualties during World War II, like many other administrative wartime concerns, were inherited from World War I experience and modified according to contemporary needs. Such adjustments in practice, whether abrupt or gradual, were dictated by technological advances as well as by the exigencies of a truly global war effort and a greater number of casualties than had ever before been experienced. Some aspects of the system were dictated by the needs and rights of the American public to receive timely, accurate information about friends and family members who served in the military. The casualty reporting system extended far beyond the end of the war, both because of the practice of overseas burials in wartime and because of the grim and difficult task of locating missing persons and identifying remains. Again, the truly global nature of the American war effort served to make this task unique--no previous American experience, nor the experience of any other nation, served as a comprehensive "blueprint" for the effort.

One way in which World War I experience was largely followed was the ultimate decision that the U.S. Army would be the leading service in accounting for all casualties and in handling the remains of all war dead. The U.S. Navy maintained separate records before and after the war, as did the U.S. Marine Corps and other services; but as the war progressed the decision was made for all services to provide full information on their personnel to the Army's Casualty Branch and Graves Registration Service (GRS) and leave the postwar management of overseas cemeteries, the search for the missing, and the identification and disposition of remains centralized in the Army. Indeed, the experience of World War I had already served to assure that non-Army records on military casualties throughout the war were compatible to those of the Army in terms of thoroughness and format.

This reference information paper seeks to conform to the concept that the records themselves will "inform" the researcher, as well as the archivist, of how best to approach them. In that spirit, the remaining introductory material provides an overview of World War II military casualty accounting and reporting systems and their evolution. The body of the paper presents the most relevant and accessible records in numerical order by record group. A summation and discussion of casualty statistics is offered in the Appendix (see p. 44) and in 3 (see p. 47) to provide a sense of the scope of the wartime and postwar task and for the convenience of those researchers who are interested in some detail about the methodological premises that influenced the content of the records.

United States Army Casualty Systems and Reporting 1

Casualty Reports and Notification Telegrams

In peacetime the Army had no activity that was designated "Casualty Reporting" and assigned to a dedicated unit. Occurrences such as deaths, accidents, and illnesses were reported by the service commands directly to the emergency addressee or next of kin of the serviceman involved. With the advent of war, however, it became necessary to set up a reporting system to furnish complete and accurate information on all casualties in the shortest possible time. The U.S. Army's system grew and changed as the result of experience and trial and error. The problem of reporting casualties was not new, but it was made more complicated and exacting by the exigencies of global warfare. From a modest beginning in 1941, the system was refined and improved with the constant objectives of accuracy, speed, and sympathetic handling.

At the beginning of the war, reports from theater headquarters to the War Department were made by radiogram or cablegram and covered the following:

Battle Casualties Nonbattle Casualties
  • Killed in action
  • Missing
  • Missing in action
  • Deaths from accidents, diseases,
    and other causes
  • Wounded in action
  • Hospitalized persons whose lives
    were endangered
  • Captured or interned

  • By 1943 it was clear that large-scale invasion operations against the continent of Europe were to become a part of the Allied strategy. It was also clear that during such an effort the system by which casualty report lists were submitted by radio and cable from overseas theaters and then typed manually onto individual fanfold forms for distribution would overburden communications facilities. At best, serious delays would occur in such casualty reporting; at worst, there was the real danger of a complete breakdown of the communications system. Furthermore, a survey of reports received by radio and cable revealed that errors occurred in transmission so that at least 25 percent of the names and serial numbers did not correspond with War Department records. These incorrect items had to be reconciled by a special identification unit.

    A punchcard system of reporting was instituted February 1, 1944, in the North African Theater of Operations and soon thereafter in all other theaters where active combat operations were in progress. This system required the preparation of a card for each individual casualty. Cards were made by the Machine Records Unit servicing the Army or similar headquarters, checked by theater headquarters, and dispatched to the War Department by air officer courier. Casualty reports were then produced automatically by machine from the punchcards.

    The resulting increase in efficiency in the production of reports relieved the War Department of the need it would have had for at least 200 more clerks and 175 additional bookkeeping machines had the "fanfold method" been continued. The new machine records system also cut the error rate from 25 percent to less than 3 percent. The system was so effective that in March 1944 it was adopted to handle follow-up reports on the condition or progress of all wounded, injured, or seriously ill Army personnel hospitalized overseas. The soundness of the system was further demonstrated after the invasion of Europe, when the large numbers of casualties were reported and processed in Washington without any serious delay due to the increased volume.

    Theresponse time in casualty reporting and in notification of the emergency addressee was always an important factor to the Army. From the beginning of the war until early in 1945, the completed casualty reports were the basis from which notification telegrams were later prepared. As the system matured it was realized that combining operations would save time, improve efficiency, and reduce response time, as long as the work of the Casualty Branch was not disrupted. To that end, simultaneous completion of as many various casualty forms as possible along with the original casualty report was instituted.

    This was done by using a combination form that produced the casualty report and the casualty notification telegram in one operation by printing the constant information on the IBM machine from the machine records punchcard; only the variable information had to be typed onto telegrams by hand. The combination form not only prevented timelags in the dispatch of notices to emergency addressees but also permitted the increased production of the forms made necessary by the heavier casualties in the European Theater late in the war and, after V-E Day, by the receipt of reports of the liberation of American military personnel from German POW camps. (For instance, on May 27, 1945, the number of casualty telegrams dispatched in one day reached 7,278.)

    Letters of Condolence and Progress Reports

    In the interest of timely reporting of casualties to both the War Department and emergency addressees, it was necessary to sacrifice some reporting of details surrounding the occurrence of each death, wound, or other type of casualty. Requests for such information--received from families responding to casualty notices and desiring to obtain all available information on soldiers who had died or were wounded--increased appreciably after D-Day in Europe.

    On October 3, 1944, all theater commanders were directed to take whatever action was necessary to ensure that in every case of death an appropriate letter of condolence was sent to the next of kin or emergency addressee by air mail direct. This letter was to relate the circumstances surrounding the death, including the specific cause and place, and give grave location, details about the burial service, and any other information of a personal or sentimental nature that might be of comfort to the family. Such letters were to be written by designated unit or hospital personnel or chaplains, and a copy of each letter was to be sent to the Casualty Branch.

    In the first three years of the war, progress reports on hospitalized Army personnel were required to be submitted from theater headquarters to Washington once every 15 days. The handling of these progress reports and letters to next of kin and emergency addressees evolved, as part of the casualty reporting system, from radio and cablegrams to punchcard forms. As with letters of condolence, a change came in late 1944, when it was directed that progress reports be written by hospital clerical personnel and sent in the form of postal cards to the emergency addressees or next of kin of all seriously ill persons admitted to numbered general or station hospitals. The Chief of the Casualty Branch, the Chief of Chaplains, and the Surgeon General collaborated to see that such postal cards were sent regularly as long as the person remained on the seriously ill list. These cards were also used to report release from the hospital.

    These letters and cards described the nature of the wound or injury and the diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment being given. Progress-report postal cards were sent semimonthly from the hospitals directly to the families, with a duplicate card going to the Casualty Branch. This procedure was later modified to require the use of V-Mail forms rather than postal cards. This "direct from the hospital" system of reporting progress relieved the Casualty Branch of an extra burden and cut the timelag between dispatch from the hospital and transmittal to the emergency addressee from 18 days average time under the old system to between 6 and 8 days under the new system.

    Messages of Cheer

    Early in the war those persons who had received casualty telegrams regarding a wounded or injured relative in the Army were invited by the War Department to send a 5-word "message of cheer" to Washington to be transmitted by radio to the casualty. This invitation accompanied the first progress report sent out by the War Department. In the interest of troop morale the War Department provided for one "message of cheer" per month during the serviceman's recovery.

    "Missing Air Crew Reports" and Follow-up Letters

    For each air crew reported missing, theater headquarters and Headquarters Army Air Forces received a report detailing the supposed fate of the crews and including a list of all persons aboard the lost aircraft. These lists were invaluable in identifying persons reported by the German Government as "unidentified dead." When the time and location of an air crash was reported by the Germans, information about an unidentified person was checked against the names of other crew members, either living or dead, who were identifiable. A similar report was used for members of ground forces missing in action.

    Beginning in November 1943, follow-up letters concerning personnel listed as missing or missing in action were issued by the Casualty Branch at 90-day intervals after the date of determination. These letters often contained no additional information but were continued to assure recipients that the War Department had not forgotten the missing.

    Status Determination

    The War Department had a wide-ranging notification responsibility concerning personnel who were reported to be missing, missing in action, interned, or deceased. The department had to inform the next of kin, several offices within the War Department itself, and other government agencies. Whenever a change in status occurred, additional notification was required. As the war expanded and the number of casualties rose, the notification function became increasingly time-consuming. A system called "Systemat," "Duplimat," or "Documat" was developed to make the process more efficient (see p. 7).

    U.S. Navy and Marine Corps Casualty Accounting and Inter-Service Cooperation

    During the summer of 1944 communications among the responsible offices of the several armed services led to a conference on August 25 in which efforts to locate, account for, and return all American dead from World War II were discussed. The meeting was sponsored by the Office of the Quartermaster General, Army Service Forces, on the assumption that "after the cessation of hostilities the responsibility for the disinterring, preparing, casketing, and returning of the remains of all American dead will be placed upon the Quartermaster General as was done after the last World War."2 The centralization of responsibility was in the interest of assuring accountability, minimizing confusion concerning identification of remains, and preventing competition for the labor, supplies, and equipment necessary to carry out the task.3

    The U.S. Navy had no organizational equivalent to the Army's Graves Registration Service (GRS). Shortly after the beginning of the war the Secretary of the Navy had prohibited the use of ocean transportation to return naval dead to the United States due to strategic and logistic concerns. Accordingly, the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery (BuMed) issued instructions to conduct burials ashore at selected sites and to provide for careful markers and records identifying remains, graves, and cemeteries. These procedures referred to and were based on those used by GRS. In the field, cooperation among the services was so common that many wartime interments were in "American military cemeteries" rather than in those of the Army or the Navy. All of this was in anticipation that next of kin would in most cases desire the return of remains to the United States and that the U.S. Army, through the GRS, would organize and accomplish that task.4

    The August 25 meeting was attended by representatives of the Quartermaster General, the Army Transportation Service, the Army Chaplain Corps, BuMed, the Marine Corps, the Coast Guard, the State Department, the War Shipping Administration, the Employees Compensation Commission, and the American Red Cross. The participants agreed that records of cemeteries established during the war and still under Navy or Marine Corps control would be transferred to GRS to be processed with those of the 410 similar cemeteries already under Army jurisdiction. The lists turned over to the Army were to include civilians who died while on missions for the Navy. The policy was stated that:

      "If the relatives of seventy percent (70%) of the dead of any given area desire the return of the remains to the United States, all bodies will be returned. In all these instances where the next of kin do not desire the return of the remains, the bodies nevertheless will be disintered (sic), returned to the United States, and re-buried in the National Cemetery nearest the port of debarkation. It is not desired to establish American military cemeteries [abroad]."5

    Arrangements were made for exchanges of forms among the services to determine if existing systems for care of the dead yielded compatible information.

    Subsequent preparation provided the means by which the GRS would be given photostatic copies of "burial cards" from the Marine Corps, the Coast Guard, and the Navy through BuMed. Within weeks the following details of the procedures were worked out as GRS and BuMed exchanged information:

      1. All surveys of next of kin would be completed before exhumation began. Thus, any discrepancies regarding the identification of remains or classification of casualties would have to be resolved.

      2. Isolated burials, burials of POWs who had died while in enemy hands, and burials carried out by Axis personnel during the war would be investigated by the GRS and handled in the same way as for other remains. Again using the experience of World War I as a guide, the GRS stated its determination to return all American war dead.

      3. In cases of mass burials and burials of only fragments of bodies the GRS would make every effort to identify and label remains but would employ the terms "mass burial" and "unknown soldier" when there was no alternative.

      4. The Army promised to revaluate its determination not to establish overseas military cemeteries in the event public opinion favored their establishment. 6

      5. American civilians who died abroad as a result of the war would be treated the same as military personnel, and details regarding reimbursement of the War Department would be worked out according to existing contracts or future legislation.

      6. No steps would be taken to return any American dead until the full cessation of hostilities. (Even though Germany was defeated, transportation resources were to be devoted to the war in the Pacific.)7

    Distribution of Casualty Status Information Outside the Casualty Branch

    The War Department's job reached beyond notifying the next of kin to providing to many offices in the War Department and other government agencies information concerning personnel reported to be deceased, missing, missing in action, or interned. Further reports to the same individuals and agencies were required when any change in status occurred. Originally, extra copies of notification telegrams or of the confirming letters that followed them were distributed for these purposes. As more and more agencies sought information about deceased personnel and those covered by the Missing Persons Act, it became necessary to devise a form that could be reproduced to provide whatever number of copies was required. This was done by adopting a "Systemat," "Duplimat," or "Documat" using multilith machines. The Casualty Branch's Certification Section, within 48 hours after the death notification to family, issued reports to all appropriate government agencies:

      1. Office of Special Settlement Accounts of the Office of the Fiscal Director, War Department
      2. General Accounting Office
      3. Veterans Administration
      4. Office of the Quartermaster General
      5. Decorations and Awards Branch of AGO
      6. Surgeon General's Office
      7. Federal Bureau of Investigation

    The Certification Section of the Casualty Branch issued death certificates to insurance companies and others who legally required them.8

    Note: Compiled by Benjamin L. DeWhitt. Published by the National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC, 1993.

    Web version prepared 1999. Additions and changes incorporated in the Web version are between brackets [] and in italics.