World War II

(United States)

over 130 million records

World War II

World War II began in September 1939 when Germany attacked Poland and began a campaign to occupy much of Central Europe. The US maintained neutrality in the war until the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941. One day later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war on Japan, after which Germany and Italy declared war on the United States. The war would continue in Europe and the Pacific for four more years, ending with Japan’s surrender in September 1945. Before the Allies declared victory, nearly 420,000 US military and civilian lives were lost.

When the United States declared war on Japan after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the first item of business was to raise an army. In September 1940, President Roosevelt initiated the nation’s first peacetime draft. Millions of young men answered the call, registering for the draft, and older men between the ages of 45-64 registered to report labor skills that could be used in the war effort. Before the war was over, more than 16 million Americans would serve in the various branches of the Armed Forces, fighting on land, in the air, and at sea on multiple fronts, including Europe and the Pacific. More than 130,000 Americans became prisoners of war.

In the Pacific Theater, the US and Allies sought to thwart Japanese aggression with a counterattack, bombing Japanese-held territory. The Battles of Coral Sea and Midway served as a turning point for the US in the Pacific, and the Guadalcanal and Aleutians Campaigns led to the Pacific being largely under Allied Control by 1944.

On the home front, Americans rallied behind the military by raising money through sales of war bonds, rationing, and a steady stream of women stepping into war industry jobs traditionally held by men. Women also joined organizations like the Red Cross, the WAC or the WWII Cadet Nursing Corps.

Plans for an allied invasion of Germany-occupied France began to take shape in 1943. America started building up troops and supplies in England. On June 6, 1944, D-Day arrived. After months of planning for an operation codenamed Operation Overlord, US, British, and Canadian forces stormed five beaches along the heavily fortified coast of Normandy, France. Forces moved across Normandy and arrived in Paris by late August 1944. The tides of the war were turning, and the Battle of the Bulge pushed US troops further into Nazi territory. By the Spring of 1945, Allied forces liberated the concentration camps. On April 30, 1945, Hitler committed suicide, and the Nazis unconditionally surrendered to the Allies on May 8, 1945.

Although their allies had surrendered, the Japanese did not wave the white flag, and the conflict continued in the Pacific. The Allies called for Japan’s unconditional surrender with the Potsdam Declaration on July 26, 1945, warning that the alternative was prompt and utter destruction. When the Japanese refused, the US detonated two atomic bombs in the country within three days of each other, one at Hiroshima and the other at Nagasaki. Japan announced its surrender on August 15, 1945, officially surrendering on the deck of the USS Missouri in the presence of the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, General Douglas MacArthur, on September 2nd.

When the war was over, the United States counted nearly 420,000 military and civilian deaths. The war also pushed the US to abandon the strategy of isolationism and move towards a strategy of involvement in world affairs, including the creation of the United Nations.

Researching a veteran who fought in WWII can be complicated. In 1973, a massive fire broke out at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri. The fire destroyed 16-18 million military files including 80% of Army files for Personnel discharged between November 1912 – January 1960; and 75% of Air Force files for Personnel discharged between September 1947 – January 1964. No duplicate copies of these records were ever maintained. However, record collections like WWII War Diaries, WWII Submarine Patrol Reports, unit histories, the Holocaust Collection, division records and photos, and WWII US Air Force photos can help with WWII military research.