Wednesday, November 25, 2015

What Ship Did Grandpa Serve On? How to Find Your Loved One's Military Records.

By Joseph Miechle 
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator

Your family military records may yield interesting results.
One of the most commonly asked questions at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum is, "How do I find out what ship my family member served on?" This is a wonderful question and one we would be happy to help you with. Since literally millions of U.S. Navy veterans are alive in the United States and millions more have passed away, this is generally a question we cannot quickly answer for you. But fear not! We can point you in the right direction.

If your family member is still alive they should be your first point of contact. Many parents and grandparents that served in the armed forces would be more than happy to share their treasured stories with you, and would likely have much more to tell than a written record could ever provide you. The search gets a bit trickier if your family member has passed away, but it is not unobtainable. Your first action should be to locate some proof of death since in order to request a loved one’s records you must prove they are no longer living. Good examples are an obituary in your local newspaper or a death certificate from a funeral home (if available).

USN Signal School, Norfolk, Virginia, 1918
Your next step is to request the records from the National Archives in St. Louis. They have a well written set of instructions for you to follow at the following web address:

You should generally be able to find your family member's records from the link above if they left the service between 1912 and 1953. For earlier records there is a separate link here:

You may be able to find your family member's records back to the Revolutionary War based on pension requests. Be forewarned though, there was a fire at the National Archives building in 1973 that destroyed a great number of service records. You may hit a dead end, but again fear not, as we offer another avenue of approach.
Basic Training photograph of author's grandfather, Ft. Lewis, Washington, circa 1950.
You may want to check the records of some of the National Veterans Service Organizations such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), American Legion, and Disabled American Veterans. You may even try the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) for Civil War records. These Veteran Service Organizations (VSOs), usually keep a record of membership at the post or local level. You may have to check with several posts in both your family member’s hometown as well as the town or city they resided in when they passed away. Phone numbers and contact information for these VSOs can be found online with a quick Google search. You might also try a local historical society. They often have genealogists on staff or a genealogy club with members who can assist you in your search among the town archives, library and newspapers.

Once you have obtained your family member's service records and know what ship they served on, you can use the internet to your advantage. The U.S. Navy has uploaded brief records of many ships to Wikipedia and also has the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships online at the Naval History and Heritage Command’s website ( You may also try sites such as NavSource ( for photographs of the ship and links to organizations that represent them. Feel free to visit the Hampton Roads Naval Museum with your new information and we would be pleased to assist you in obtaining additional information. Happy hunting!

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