November 24, 2017

Find Your Family History in World War II: WWII Yearbooks

Many of us are interested in learning about our relatives’ World War II military service. One important–but little-known–resource may be a military yearbook.

WWII yearbooks

Several years ago, my husband was given several mementos of his grandfather’s service in World War II. Among them was his 1942 yearbook of the 302nd Engineer’s Battalion at Fort Jackson, S.C.

WWII yearbook coverI had never seen anything like this. Its opening pages state, “This is a pictorial record of military engineers preparing for war. As such, it will be cherished by this command in the years to come.” Pages are filled with photos of military exercises, particularly building and blowing things up. There are pages with a brief history of the battalion, group photos with individual names by company, the unit fight song, and behind-the-scenes photographs of inspection, off-hours entertainment, eating and a mock battle.

“All branches of the [U.S.] military generate yearbooks, and have done so since before World War II,” writes military historian and genealogist Eric Johnson in a 2014 issue of Ohio Genealogy News (45:3, pages 20-21, quoted here with permission). “Types of yearbooks include: training centers (boot camps), service schools, academies (U.S. and private), ROTC summer camps, senior officers’ schools, overseas deployments to a war zone or for a naval cruise to foreign ports.”

Eric says the first step to locating WWII yearbooks relevant to an ancestor’s service is to learn the “dates of service, when and where a person attended boot camp and service schools, and where a person was stationed (land or sea).” You can learn this from their military discharge papers or (beginning in 1950) their DD Form 214.

Three places to look online for WWII yearbooks are:

1. Google. A search for “302nd Engineer Battalion” brings up several websites, organizations and lists that may point me to a yearbook and teach me more of the battalion’s history and activities.

2. WorldCat, an enormous multi-library card catalog, with the name of a battalion or regiment and the phrase “military yearbook.” If you don’t find anything, search the unit name a little differently or more broadly. If you find a yearbook at a library, see if you can borrow it through interlibrary loan or (more likely) get copies from its pages.

3. eBay. This huge online auction site specializes in rare items like military yearbooks. Set up an eBay alert so if the yearbook is posted in the future, you’ll find out about it. Learn more about eBay alerts in the free Genealogy Gems Podcast Episode 140.

Here are five more tips from Eric:

1. Look for military yearbooks in local, private and genealogy libraries, or from other veterans who served with an ancestor.

2. Military associations and reunion committees may have produced yearbooks, and they will likely know what yearbooks exist and perhaps where to find copies. Many of these have good websites.

3. Before purchasing a yearbook sight unseen (these can be pricy), compare a yearbook’s date to your ancestor’s service record. Make sure your ancestor was actually in that unit, boot camp, etc. during that time.

4. Check to see if your relative served on multiple ships or in more than one regiment, base, or posts. You may be looking for multiple yearbooks!

5. It’s possible you won’t find a relevant yearbook or cruise book. While searching, look for histories, living veterans or other resources to help you understand your relative’s military service experience.

More WWII Resources

The Bombing of London in WWII: Interactive Map of The Blitz

Find Your WWII Ancestors with These Military Gems

WWII Ghost Army Marches into Genealogy Gems Podcast

Here at Genealogy Gems, we {heart} veterans and honor their service. Veterans Day in the U.S. is coming up. How can you honor the veterans in your family or community? #CountdownToVeteransDay How many days until Veterans Day?

About Sunny

Sunny Morton is a genealogy writer whose work is read by thousands in magazines and online. As a Contributing Editor at Lisa Louise Cooke's Genealogy Gems, she frequently posts on the news, but also loves to share quick research tips, reveal little-known resources or take genealogists for an exhilarating dive into deeper research topics and techniques. She's also the author of My Life & Times: A Guided Journal for Collecting Your Stories.