Monday, November 28, 2016

Military Monday: Finding Military Records at NARA

Editor's Note  this is the first of multiple posts about  re-creating my father's WWII military history beginning with my visit to the National Archives in College Park, Maryland in May 2016

Researching has been a lot more fun the last couple of years because I joined forces (pun intended) with my brother Dean, an Air Force guy.  We have some Army records related to our father’s World War II (WWII) service.  Dean knew the purpose of the records and deciphered the military lingo on them faster than me such as unit name and alpha/numeric abbreviations.  He was particularly interested our father’s unit history – the 417th Military Police Escort Guard Company stationed mostly in the European Theater. Dean’s internet search yielded scant results which meant that we needed to tap into repositories that held military records.

I knew that the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) was one key resource for WWII records.  Luckily, my husband and I were going to Washington, D.C. in May 2016 for a vacation so naturally we made time to go to NARA.

Pre-Visit Planning
I cannot over-emphasize the importance of reading the NARA D.C. website thoroughly.  Read it to learn whether the records you seek are at NARA D.C. or one of its regional offices, to find your Record Group(s) for your topic and read it to learn what to expect as a visitor.

I must admit I got lost in the sea of links on the NARA website in my search for WWII unit history records.  I did learn however, that military records were housed at Archives II in College Park, Maryland, about a 45-minute ride from Archives I (D.C.) via the free shuttle.  The records could only be viewed at Archives II, not loaned elsewhere.

Did NARA have any records related to my subject?  Fortunately, in the months leading up to our D.C. vacation, I met two NARA archivists who suggested I send an email to with my father’s name, the designation of his unit, the dates of service, and indicate my interest in doing onsite research.  I was told that the response should verify whether records existed and if so, the citations for record retrieval.  Following is my email inquiry:

Dear Archivist,
I'm interested in researching my father's unit records.  I will be visiting DC beginning May 24th and can come to the College Park office via the Archives I/II shuttle.  Following is his information:

Name: Robert Martin Hibsch
Unit: 417th Military Police Escort Company
Rank/occupation:  Pfc/Military Policeman
Date of Active Service Start:  8 Feb 1943
Date of Separation:  4 Feb 1946
Date of departure for Europe: 19 Jan 1944
Date of departure for US:  8 Jan 1946

Texas:  he also guarded Italian prisoners of war (POWs) held in Texas after he returned to the US in 1946.   I don’t have dates or a location though but would like to research these records also.

I would be most grateful if you could tell me what records are available and how to access them.

Thank you.

Eleven calendar days later a thorough response by email arrived.  Records existed – yeah!  I now had the Record Group numbers for the 417th Military Police Escort Guard Company and a referral for finding aids for the POW camp near Hereford, Texas. I printed the email and put it in my carry-on bag.

Lessons Learned –  contact NARA well in advance of your visit so the archivists have plenty of time to respond to your request.  Bring a printed copy of the response with you to show the onsite archivist and to make notes on.

Arrival at NARA D.C.
Photo by Denise Hibsch Richmond from pedicab ride
(Click on any image to enlarge)
We took a taxi from our hotel to NARA D.C.  Taxis can only drop passengers on one side of the building for the public tours entrance.  Researchers enter on the other side so we walked around the block.  We passed through security and went to the reception desk to ask about catching the shuttle to Archives II.  It turned out that we already walked past the shuttle stop and we didn’t need any badge or other identification to board.

Lesson Learned – check with NARA in advance about boarding the shuttle as the policies may change.  Had I thought to do so, we could have saved about a half hour.

Arrival at Archives II
We went through security…again.  Did I mention that the process rivals TSA?  But leave your shoes on.  Then we were directed to a registration office where we each completed forms, showed our picture ID, had our pictures taken and then received our official NARA ID badge to wear at any NARA location.

I also had to present the materials I wanted to take into the research room.  These consisted of my initial inquiry, the email response and the POW camp information. The receptionist stamped each piece of paper on the back.  I intentionally brought very little paper with me although I generally bring more hardcopy materials on research visits.  If other documents related to my father’s service were needed, I could access them from Dropbox on my phone.

Examples of my pull requests
About 45 minutes later (camera problems) we went to store our stuff in a locker. These were the items I couldn’t bring into the research room:  small wired notebook, pocket folder that my papers were in and my purse.  I was permitted to bring the loose, stamped papers, a pen/pencil, my phone and my seat cushion.

Lessons Learned – read the NARA website about planning a visit before visiting your NARA location of choice.  Arrive early.  Re-evaluate the paper you want to bring into the research room.  Paper-stamping takes time and you know you’ll be watching the clock for the pull-times!  Use the locker to retrieve other materials during the day.

Archives II Research Room
Badge, check.  Locker key, check. Papers for the research room, check.

But there was another checkpoint before getting on the elevator.  Before we could pass through the turnstile to get to the elevator, a security guard checked our badges and the papers for the official stamp on each page.  Then we got the go-ahead.

But there was another checkpoint when we entered the research room.  The receptionist repeated what the guard did at the turnstile. Then we got the go-ahead.

Now.  To the Consultation Room.

Archivist Eric greeted us on the Military Records side of the room.  We sat at a table where I briefly described my research goal and showed him my initial inquiry with my father’s service details and the responses.  We chatted for a bit – he said he was thrilled that the response was so detailed that he could immediately write a records pull request for the 11am pull.  (We were too late for the 10am pull.)  Then he looked at a couple binders on the bookshelves in the room, described their content and we concluded the information was worthy of review as was the POW information I brought.  He completed two more pull requests – for the 1pm and 2pm pulls. (One request per pull.)

Example of my pull request attached to the file box
Eric showed me where the records would be delivered and identified a table where we could sit and review the files.  Too bad I didn’t take a picture of the room.  The room was large, mostly filled with square tables literally marked for four workspaces.  No encroaching!  Microfilm readers and computers were at one end.  Happily, room noise was at library-level.

I claimed the first set of files and a staff member stronger than me pushed the cart to my table.  One box at a time, I retrieved the files with single sheets of papers, some handwritten, most typed.  I started scanning with my ScannerPro app on my smartphone.  This continued as each set of files became available.  I was only there for the day so no reading, just scanning.  Until I came to the roster for the 417th Military Police Escort Guard Company, 11 Jan 1944, page 2: Hibsch, Robert M. Sweet since finding my father’s name was not expected!

Yours truly holding the roster with my father's name

I scanned about 50 pages which are still being analyzed. My brother and I have learned more about the unit history and of course, have more questions.  We’ve created a timeline of our father’s service including the dates and locations mentioned in the files.  Key events during WWII will be added as they correspond to the unit’s history providing a greater perspective of his participation in the war.  

Lessons Learned – arrive early. Know the pull times and frequency rules which are followed. If you can return the next day or so, your pulled files can be held for three days, five on request. Bring a charger which I didn’t do.  Outlets are available at each workspace.  A public cafeteria is onsite with reasonable prices and extensive offerings.

Leaving Archives II
I finished scanning all files, returned them and thanked Eric for his assistance.  Before we left the research room, all the papers I brought in were re-inspected for the official stamp.  They were inserted into a bag that was locked.  We were then able to leave the research room.  Downstairs at the turnstile we waited in line with other researchers and employees leaving for the day.  Here, the security guard inspected everybody’s bags; he unlocked our bag, verified the stamped contents, gave them back to me and kept the bag.  No more checkpoints.  We unloaded the locker and headed for the waiting shuttle.

The last shuttle of the day.  Already full of NARA employees.  Whew, we got a seat!  The last seat was taken by someone running from the building.  The shuttle left at 5:05pm.

Lesson Learned – if you’re using the shuttle, beware, the last one fills fast with employees so be early.

This post was written rather humorously and admittedly we rolled our eyes as the security redundancies multiplied.  But NARA holds precious historic documents and more.  Security means that those treasures will be there for us and not leave the building in the hands of an unscrupulous person.  Security is a researcher’s friend and with planning, a negligible annoyance.

Oh, I also sent a thank you email to Eric and the archivist who responded to my initial inquiry.

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