WWII Military Unit Records at the National Archives - An Introduction
This post provides a brief overview of some of the predominant series of World War II operational unit records in the custody of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Unit records are useful if you would like to learn more about a unit’s movements and operations. The National Archives does not have custody of unit records for every military unit, and the volume and type of records can vary considerably by unit. We also tend to have more records for higher-echelon units and fewer for lower-level units.
Although there are a few exceptions (e.g. muster rolls and personnel diaries), typically unit records contain little or no information regarding individuals’ service and we do not have a name index to the unit records. If you are researching the military service of a specific individual, we suggest you start by requesting their military personnel records. The locations of military personnel records depend on the branch of service and time period -- NARA’s Locations of Service Records website provides a handy chart, which can help you determine where the personnel records you seek are located and instructions about how to request them.
Each branch of the military kept different types of unit records, and these records are dispersed throughout various record groups and series at NARA. Each record group comprises the records of a major government entity (e.g. a bureau or an independent agency). While Army and Navy records for the World War II period are dispersed across a number of record groups, smaller branches like the Marine Corps, Army Air Forces, and Coast Guard, are generally limited to a single record group each for the WWII period. Within each record group, records are divided into numbered series or “entries,” which are grouped based on the creating office and type of record. Some record groups have thousands of entries, so it can be daunting to try to figure out the best place to start. This post highlights and describes the primary series of World War II unit records in NARA’s custody for each branch of service, with links to the series descriptions in the National Archives Catalog where available. If you have additional questions after reviewing this post, we encourage you to contact the reference staff at the NARA location that has custody of the records you are interested in.
The Textual Reference Archives II Branch at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland, has custody of several series of records related to World War II Army units:
The main series of WWII Army unit records is the World War II Operations Reports, 1940-1948 in Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1917- (Record Group 407). These records consist mostly of unit historical reports, after action reports, unit journals, and general orders. Generally, the files do not include any personnel or medical information. The records are arranged according to an alphanumeric filing system based on military hierarchy. A paper file list index for this series is available at the National Archives. The records are not yet described at the file-unit level in the National Archives Catalog, but you may request a search of the records by e-mailing the reference staff at email@example.com. Be sure to include the unit(s) and date(s) of interest.
Another large series that contains WWII Army unit records is Unit Histories, 1943-1967 in Records of U.S. Army Operational, Tactical, and Support Organizations (World War II and Thereafter) (Record Group 338). This series consists of the files of division-level organic and non-organic US Army units. Division files usually include historical reports, general orders, directives, journals, memos, circulars, bulletins, and policy records. Records of organic units (units that were permanently attached to a division) typically contain unit histories, general orders, and other administrative records. Records of non-organic units (units not permanently attached to a division) generally consist of historical reports and some administrative records. You may search the file titles in this series by clicking on “Search within this series.” The series covers through 1967, so be sure to verify that the dates covered within any particular file unit(s) you locate match the dates you are interested in. The dates covered by an individual file are listed within the file unit’s description under “Details” -- it will note, “This file unit documents the time period,” followed by a date range.
There also two series of records specifically related to engineer units stationed in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) in the Records of the Headquarters, European Theater of Operations, United States Army (World War II) (Record Group 498):
Finally, for medical units, there are additional unit records in the Records of the Office of the Surgeon General (Army) (Record Group 112) series, Records of Historical Unit Medical Detachments (HUMEDS). This series contains copies of reports of Army medical units and facilities, as well as reports from medical components of regular Army units. Reports typically contain narratives about unit activities, descriptions of facilities and locations, and a narrative about organization and administration. Reports may also contain statistics, photographs, or maps. The reports do not contain patient medical records. The files are arranged by type of unit and thereunder numerically by unit designation. A paper file list is available for use at the National Archives at College Park, MD.
Army Air Forces World War II Combat Operations Reports, 1941-1946, also known as “Mission Reports,” are located at the National Archives at College Park, MD in the Records of the Army Air Forces (Record Group 18). This series consists of the original mission reports pertaining to specific targets. These reports were filed by the units and sometimes include encounter reports by pilots, aerial photographs, and loading lists. You may search the file titles in this series by clicking on “Search within this series.”
Microfilmed Unit Histories:
There are additional unit histories and supporting documents of Army Air Force and Air Force units that are still in the custody of the Air Force at the Air Force Historical Research Agency (AFHRA), Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. The National Archives has custody of accessioned microfilm copies of some of AFHRA’s records in the Records of U.S. Air Force Commands, Activities, and Organizations (Record Group 342), Entry (UD) 1006-B1. These microfilmed records are available to view at the National Archives at College Park, MD. Although we do not have an official index to the records, there is a private website, Air Force History Index, which can serve as a finding aid to the records. If the IRISREF number in the “Document Detail” page begins with an A, B, or C, the National Archives may have the document on our accessioned microfilm. All of the reels are not available, so please be sure to contact the reference staff (email: firstname.lastname@example.org), if you locate a document of interest.
Army and Army Air Forces Morning Reports and Unit Rosters:
We frequently get requests for unit rosters from World War II. Unfortunately, rosters for units serving in World War II from 1944-46 were destroyed in accordance with Army records disposition authorities after the war. There are copies of most of the monthly rosters from 1912-43 and 1947-59 for Army units (including Army Air Corps) in the custody of the National Archives in St. Louis, MO. For information on how to request rosters, please visit the website Access to Morning Reports and Unit Rosters.
Unit Morning Reports:
Morning reports list daily personnel changes. They are “exception based” reports, meaning that a soldier’s name will on appear on the report only if his status has changed from the previous report (e.g. from present for duty to ordinary leave, or from present for duty to sick in quarters, etc.). The entries show the name of service member, service number/SSN, and rank. Also shown are unit strength, the location of the unit, and sometimes a Record of Events. Morning reports for Army units from November 1, 1912 to 1959 and Air Force units from September 1947 to June 30, 1966 are in the custody of the National Archives at St. Louis, MO. For information on how to access morning reports, please visit the website Access to Morning Reports and Unit Rosters.
There are several records groups containing WWII Navy records in the custody of the Textual Reference Archives II Branch at the National Archives at College Park, MD. The two primary record groups are the Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel (Record Group 24), which includes World War II-era deck logs and muster rolls and the Records of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, 1875 - 2006 (Record Group 38), which includes War Diaries and Action Reports.
Deck logs comprise the series, Logbooks of U.S. Navy Ships and Stations, 1941-1983. A number of deck logs have been digitized and are now available online in the National Archives Catalog. Deck logs consist of journal-style entries of the ship’s administrative activities; location and course of travel; disciplinary procedures; and any unusual events. The logs sometimes include information related to operational activities, although the level of content and detail can vary. More detailed information about deck logs is available on NARA’s The Text Message Blog, Know Your Records: U.S. Navy Deck Logs and 1941-1959 Deck Logs, including World War II and the Korean War.
Muster Rolls and Personnel Diaries:
WWII Navy muster rolls and personnel diaries comprise the series, Muster Rolls of U.S. Navy Ships, Stations, and Other Naval Activities, 1/1/1939 - 1/1/1949. Muster rolls are lists of naval personnel attached to a ship, station, or other activity. The muster rolls for WWII only include enlisted sailors - officers of ships are listed in the deck logs. There are also gaps in the muster rolls - we sometimes lack muster rolls, particularly for smaller units and advance bases. Personnel diaries provide compiled monthly and list significant personnel status changes, including transfers, promotions, leave, or temporary duty. More detailed information about muster rolls and personnel diaries is available on NARA’s Text Message Blog’s Know Your Records: U.S. Navy Muster Rolls and Personnel Diaries. The WWII muster rolls have been digitized through NARA’s partnership with Ancestry, and are available to search and view on Ancestry’s website at US World War II Navy Muster Rolls, 1938-1949.
The series World War II Command Files, 1918-1945, includes a variety of records, including select action reports, war diaries, rosters of officers, unpublished histories, correspondence, and more. The series is arranged by organization and includes records of naval commands, and select naval units and ships, as well as records of other non-Navy agencies, including Marine Corps, Coast Guard, and Army Air Force, among others.
World War II War Diaries, 12/7/1941 - 12/31/1945: this series consists of daily operational journals created by various naval commands, shore installations, ships and other activities throughout the Navy, as well as some Marine Corps and non-Navy commands. Most war diaries provided a day-to-day record of operational activities and sometimes administrative activities as well. They are arranged in several subseries, by command, and then roughly hierarchically.
A separate series of War Diaries, World War II War Diaries, Other Operational Records and Histories, ca. 1/1/1942 - ca. 6/1/1946, has been digitized through our partnership with Fold3 and is available on the Fold3 World War II Diaries website.
Action and Operational Reports:
World War II Action and Operational Reports: this series consists of narrative and form reports, mostly submitted by Navy commands, although documents by other commands are also interspersed. Most of the records relate to incidents of direct combat action with enemy forces during World War II. These records are also arranged in several subseries, generally by command and thereunder roughly hierarchically.
Submarine Patrol Reports:
World War II Marine Corps records are also in the custody of the Textual Reference Archives II Branch, National Archives at College Park, MD in the Records of the U.S. Marine Corps (Record Group 127).
Muster Rolls and Personnel Diaries:
Muster Rolls and Personnel Diaries for the US Marine Corps. These have also been digitized through our partnership with Ancestry, and can be viewed on their website at: U.S. Marine Corps Muster Rolls, 1798-1958. Muster rolls list personnel attached to a unit or command, while personnel diaries list significant personnel status changes, such as transfers, promotions, leave, or temporary duty. The WWII Marine Corps muster rolls list both officers and enlisted.
The series, Records Relating to United States Marine Corps Operations in World War II, 1939 - 1949, also known as “Geographic Files,” consist of records related to the principal amphibious assaults and ground combat operations of the Marine Corps during the World War II era, as well as the occupation of formerly enemy-controlled areas. The files are arranged alphabetically by geographic area.
Many records relating to the Coast Guard’s participation in wartime operations during World War II are dispersed among the Navy records (see above), however, there are additional series of WWII Coast Guard records in the Records of the United States Coast Guard (Record Group 26). Unlike most of NARA’s World War II Unit records, which are are at NARA’s College Park location, the Coast Guard records are located at the National Archives in Washington, DC.
The Muster Rolls of Coast Guard Ships and Shore Establishments, 1941 - 1949 are arranged by type of ship or station, thereunder by year, and consist of printed forms giving, for each person on board, information concerning his enlistment and whether he was entitled to honorable discharge; a personal description; the date he was received on board; and data concerning his transfer, discharge, desertion, or death.
The Coast Guard Logbooks, 1942 - 1947 are arranged by year, thereunder by type of unit or station, thereunder alphabetically. They include logbooks from U.S. Coast Guard cutters, tenders, light ships, lighthouses, lifeboat stations, light ships, and other installations. They document events that occurred and may contain information such as courses steered, distance run, compass variations, sea and weather conditions, ship’s position, principal headlands passed, names of lookouts, and a any unusual occurrences.
The Coast Guard war diaries include Abstracts of War Diaries, 5/1942 - 9/1945, which are arranged by year and thereunder by unit, and include highlights of outstanding activities and operations by Coast Guard ships and shore units during World War II.
The series Ship and Shore Unit War Diaries, 5/1942 - 9/1945 series consists of war diaries submitted by District Coast Guard Officers (DCGO) and ship officers during World War II. The DCGO diaries include a compiled weekly report from memorandums, reports, and meeting minutes on operational, personnel, intelligence, legal, and medical activities. The ship war diaries were maintained on a daily basis and describe the major activities of the day (e.g. repairs, maintenance, encounters with other ships, search and rescue operations).
Merchant Vessel Files:
Also included among the Coast Guard records is a series of Merchant Vessel Information Files, 1939 - 1952, which is arranged alphabetically by name of vessel and contains information about merchant vessels that entered U.S. ports during World War II. The series generally contains information about radio equipment, armament, crew composition, as well as ship movements. Some also include photographs, reported security violations, cargo data, investigations of alleged sabotage or suspicious incidents, and survivors’ accounts of sunken vessels.