How to Find U.S. Merchant Marine Records for Genealogy

If one of your ancestors served in the United States Merchant Marine, then you’ll be especially interested in the conversation that our recent blog post on the topic of the Merchant Marine has generated about the records that may be available for your genealogy research.

United States Merchant Marine Records Genealogy

Captain and crew of a new Liberty Ship SS Booker T. Washington just after it completed its maiden voyage to England. (L-R) C. Lastic, Second Mate; T. J. Young, Midshipman; E. B. Hlubik, Midshipman; C. Blackman, Radio Operator; T. A. Smith, Chief Engineer; Hugh Mulzac, Captain of the ship; Adolphus Fokes, Chief Mate; Lt. H. Kruley; E. P. Rutland, Second Engineer; and H. E. Larson, Third Engineer.” Captain Hugh Mulzac is fourth from the left on the first row. February 8, 1943.

The article was on how to find military service records. Military Minutes contributor Michael Strauss made this comment about the United States Merchant Marine:

“Although not officially a branch of the military, the Merchant Marines sacrificed and lost lives since the days of the Revolutionary War, carrying out their missions of supply and logistics during times of war.”

A reader named Steve endorsed that brief remark in the article’s comments section, and expressed a desire to hear more on the Merchant Marine. He says:

“Although not considered to be a military arm of the United States, the Merchant Marines were an integral part of the war efforts in WWI and WWII and should be considered in genealogy. Many lives were lost in service of USA.”

Merchant Marine in Newspapers and Death Records

In a beautiful expression of genealogy serendipity, a Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast listener has written in with a specific question about researching relatives in the Merchant Marine. Vicki writes:

“I have a distant relative who was a Merchant Marine during WWII. Raymond Ralph Burkholder was a Merchant Marine Able Seaman killed when his ship the Standard Oil tanker W. L. Steed was torpedoed by a German sub off New Jersey Feb. 2, 1942. Following is a newspaper article about the incident:”

SS W. L. Steed Merchant Marine ship

SS W. L. Steed (public domain image)

Vicki sent the following article from the Lebanon Daily News, Thursday, February 12, 1942:

NAZI SUBS BOOST TOLL OF SHIPS SUNK TO 25

New York, Today – (AP) The toll of ships officially announced as sunk or attacked off the United States and Canada thus far in the war stood today at 25, after the navy reported the 6,182-ton Standard Oil tanker W. L. Steed was sent to the bottom by an enemy submarine off New Jersey Feb. 2.

The announcement of the W. L. Steed’s fate was made yesterday with the arrival of three survivors, who had been picked up semi-conscious after drifting for two icy days in an open boat. No word has come from the remainder of the crew of 38 as three of the tanker’s four lifeboats still are missing.

A Williamsport, Pa., man was listed as a member of the crew. He is Raymond R. Burkholder, able seaman.

Able-bodied seaman Louis Bartz, 38, of Philadelphia, and Ralph Mazzucco, 23, and Joaquim R. Vrea, 39, both of New York, said the submarine torpedoed the tanker at 12:45 p. m. and that after the crew got off in lifeboats the enemy craft fired 17 shells into the sinking ship.

Last night the third naval district reported that a South American steamship sighted a lifeboat containing a number of bodies off the Atlantic coast yesterday, but was forced to flee when a submarine popped up in the vicinity.”

Vicki’s question is this: Where do you think I would look for a death certificate? New Jersey?

Before we jump into answering that questions, let’s learn more about Merchant Marines so we better understand where to search.

About the U.S. Merchant Marines

The Merchant Marine actually served in a military capacity before the U.S. Navy OR the Coast Guard ever existed.

According to the website, American Merchant Marine at War, the Merchant Marine can trace its history to 1775, when “a party of Maine mariners, armed with pitchforks and axes, inspired by the news of the recent victory at Lexington, Massachusetts, used an unarmed lumber schooner to surprise and capture a fully armed British warship, HMS Margaretta, off the coast of Machias, Maine. The men used the captured guns and ammunition from the ship to bring in additional British ships as prizes. American privateers soon disrupted British shipping all along the Atlantic coast.”

The Revenue Cutter Service, the forerunner of the Coast Guard, wasn’t founded until 15 years later, in 1790, to prevent smuggling.

Seal_of_the_United_States_Revenue_Cutter_Service

Seal of the U S Revenue Cutter Service

There was a Continental Navy in 1775, but it ended with the Revolutionary War. The US Navy didn’t come into being until 1797.

The Merchant Marine, as an umbrella term, refers to a body of civilian mariners and government-owned merchant vessels: those who typically run commercial shipping in and out of the country. During wartime, merchant mariners can be called on by the Navy for military transport.

And that’s what happened during World War II. Our Military Minutes contributor, Michael Strauss, says that “On February 28, 1942 President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the transfer (Under Executive Order #9083) of all maritime agencies to the United States Coast Guard. This order was a redistribution of maritime functions and included the United States Merchant Marine.”

Training Merchant Marine officers

Training Officers of the Merchant Marine on the Government Training Ship at New Bedford, Mass. Making an afternoon time sight (NARA, Public Domain)

Where to Look First for Merchant Marine Information

According to the American Merchant Marine at War website, over 1500 merchant ships were sunk during the War, and hundreds of others were damaged by enemy attacks and mines. That brings us to Vicki’s question about her relative.

As I discuss in my Premium eLearning video class Google Books: The Tool I Use Every Day, Google Books is a treasure trove of genealogical information.

A search of Standard Oil tanker W. L. Steed “Burkholder” in Google Books leads to the book Ships of the Esso Fleet in World War II (Standard Oil Company, 1946).

World War II ships Merchant Marin

A genealogy gem found at Google Books!

This book is an invaluable resource that actually provides a detailed, eyewitness account of Raymond Ralph Burkholder’s final acts on the ship before having to abandon it. It even details his last torturous hours in the lifeboat before he became delirious and died, only hours before the other survivors were rescued!

Burkholder on the W. L. Steed

In Search of Raymond Burkholder’s Death Record

Here’s where I put my head together with Michael. I suggested checking the death certificates of the county of his last residence, which may now be held at the state level. He liked that idea and said it’s worth the effort.

From what I’ve learned, the Master of the vessel would have reported the deaths of his crew to the vessel owners, who would have reported to the Coast Guard, and I asked Michael whether following Coast Guard records through the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots would be a good route to a death record for Raymond.

He said that instead, he would go directly to the Records of the Merchant Marines. Michael writes that these records during World War II “can be somewhat confusing, but not impossible to search. The records for your sailor during the war can be located at several different locations.”

Even if you don’t have relatives who served in the Merchant Marine, keep reading because you may get some ideas about records to discover for other family members who may have served in the military in other capacities.

6 Places to Look for Merchant Marine Records for WWII:

Where can you find Merchant Marine records for World War II? Here are six excellent places to look.

#1: Official Military Personnel Files

Official Military Personnel Files (known as OMPFs) are maintained by the National Personnel Record Center in St. Louis, MO. Since these records are considered Archival 62 years after the date of separation, these are open for Merchant Mariners and others who served during World War II who were discharged by the end of the war. Click here to learn more about ordering OMPFs.

Michael adds this note:

“You can also access the files by mailing in (Standard Form #180, downloadable here), and fill in the information requested about your Mariner. Note that the service record is likely to be under the heading of the United States Coast Guard when filling out the form—check that box. Don’t send any money; the Archives will notify you if the file is located.”

#2: Individual Deceased Personnel Files

If your Merchant Mariner was killed during World War II, request the Individual Deceased Personnel File (IDPF). This file is separate from the OMPF file and is also at the National Personnel Record Center.

Michael says, “These files are a wealth of genealogical information about veterans who died during World War II and other war periods. Contact the Archives to request this file. If the file is not in their custody, it is possible it is still in the hands of the Army Human Resource Command located at Ft. Knox, KY. The Archives will let you know the exact location.”

#3: National Maritime Center in Martinsburg, WV

The National Maritime Center website has links to records, forms, and general info. Request records with this downloadable form.

#4: National Archives Collections on Merchant Mariners

You will find Merchant Mariners collections at the National Archives cataloged under the records of the United States Coast Guard, Record Group 26.

This collection has 8 boxes of material containing details on Merchant Mariners killed, wounded, and those missing in action as a result of combat during World War II. Other records pertain to medals and other citations, court martials, and miscellaneous records.

#5: Ship Log Books

If you know the name of the vessel that the Merchant Mariner served on, then try a search for the logbooks.

Logs can name assignments for crew members, among other log entries of the day to day activities of the ship. The National Archives website has finding aids for log books.

A Google search for NARA U.S. merchant seaman finds several excellent National Archives resource pages there, including some for Ship’s Logs.

#6: Officer Applications

United States Merchant Marine applications for the licensing of Officers, 1914-1949 is available on Ancestry.com. This collection covers both World Wars. These document applicants who applied to be commissioned officers with the Merchant Marines, including men designated as Masters, Pilots, Engineers, or Vessel Operators.

Related collection: Lists of Merchant Seamen Lost in WWI, 1914-1919.

Crossing the Bar

During my research of the U.S. Merchant Marine for this article, I came across the phrase, “crossing the bar.” You may have heard this yourself. It refers to the death of a mariner.

The history behind this phrase:  a sandbar can be found at the entrance of many rivers and bays, and crossing the bar has come to mean leaving the safety of a harbor for the unknown.

I wish all of you in search of your ancestors who crossed the bar good fortune in your genealogical pursuit.

Podcast Episode Featuring Merchant Marine Records

You can hear more about Merchant Marine records in Genealogy Gems Premium  Podcast Episode #159. (Subscription required.)

Land Entry Case Files in New and Updated Genealogy Records

U.S. land entry case files are now free to browse at FamilySearch. We give you a link to a free index to those–and MORE new and updated records for Argentina, Australia, England, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Scotland, and other U.S. collections (Crimean War photos, Illinois birth certificates, and more).

Featured: U.S. Land Entry Case Files

Over a quarter million record images have been added to the free FamilySearch database of United States, Cancelled, Relinquished, or Rejected Land Entry Case Files, 1861-1932. This collection gives researchers access to browsable images of case files for those who unsuccessfully applied for homesteads (such as the one shown above; click the image to see its citation), mining claims, and land pre-emptions. Even better–the National Archives website hosts a name index to speed along your search of the browsable records at FamilySearch!

According to a National Archives description of the original collection, “A file may contain the original entry application, correspondence between the officials of the Lincoln Land Office and the GLO in Washington, D.C., receipts for fees paid, public notices, affidavits and witness statements, proof of military service, the entryman’s naturalization records, and documents concerning the cancellation or relinquishment of the entry.”

This collection of Land Entry Case Files includes Kansas land offices at Dodge City and Topeka and Nebraska land offices at Alliance, Broken Bow, Lincoln, North Platte, O’Neill, and Valentine. More records will be forthcoming.

Argentina—Church records

Over a quarter million indexed names have been added to a free FamilySearch collection of Catholic church records for Entre Rios, Argentina (1764-1983). Also noteworthy are over 118,000 record images recently added to FamilySearch’s Argentina, Corrientes, Catholic Church Records, 1734-1977.

Australia—Emigrants

Nearly 170,000 indexed names have been added to the free FamilySearch collection, Australia, Victoria, Outward Passenger Lists, 1852-1924.

England—Newspapers and Wiltshire

The British Newspaper Archive recently announced it now has a title online for every county in England. (Click here to learn more.) They’ve also updated several London titles and added two new ones, among them the North London News and West London Observer.

Findmypast.com has recently added more than 4.5 million records that can help those searching for ancestors in Wiltshire, in southwest England:

France–Census records

New indexes to French censuses for 1876-1906 are now free at FamilySearch:

Germany–Church and Family Tables

Ancestry.com has published two new collections of German Lutheran church records. Note that the time periods overlap, so try searching them both:

Also new on the site is a collection called Baden-Württemberg, Germany, Family Tables, 1550-1985. A tip from the collection description: “Use the browse fields to sort through the images by City or District and Description of records.”

Ireland—Newspapers

Nearly a million new articles have been added to Findmypast’s enormous collection of digitized Irish newspapers. This unique collection now hosts more than 35 million articles.

Netherlands

Over a million indexed records have been added to a miscellaneous archival index for the Netherlands at FamilySearch. If you’ve got Dutch roots, check it out–it’s free.

New Zealand—Probate records

Over a quarter million browsable record images have been added to a free FamilySearch collection of New Zealand probate records.

Scotland—Catholic records

As promised, Findmypast continues to expand its Catholic Heritage Archive. Recent additions include baptisms, congregational records, marriages, and burials for Scotland.

U.S.–Crimean War

A collection of Crimean War photographs from the Library of Congress is free to search online, and is the subject of a recent article on the Library of Congress blog: “Witness to History.”

U.S.—Illinois—Cook Co

Got relatives from Chicago, Illinois? Perhaps they’re among more than a quarter million newly-indexed names in Illinois, Cook County, Birth Certificates, 1871-1940, free to search at FamilySearch.

U.S.—Kentucky

Newspapers.com has added Louisville, Kentucky’s Courier-Journal to its collections of digitized newspapers. Basic subscribers have access to just shy of 100 years’ worth of issues (1830-1922) and Publisher Extra subscribers also may access more recent years (1923-2016).

U.S.—Massachusetts

FamilySearch has added 1.3 million names to its free collection, Massachusetts, Boston Crew Lists, 1917-1943.

U.S.—Michigan

A new online database of The Michigan Daily brings more than 23,000 issues digitally searchable. This is the student newspaper of the University of Michigan. The newspaper archive spans 125 years: 1890-2014. Click here to search it for free.

Google your way to MORE genealogy records like these

Wish you could find similar records for another time or place? Use Google search strategies to target the record types, places and even a specific range of years. You can even search for digitized photographs on Google! Click here to read more about Googling old records online.

Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!

(Free Video Class) Google Earth Helps Genealogist Find Family Business

Gail Rogers in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada recently shared how my presentation on using Google Earth for genealogy helped her find her way to the site of an old family business–and the place where her ancestor died. She’s given me permission to share it with you. I hope you find it as inspiring as I do!

“Just last week, I received an 1879 death certificate for my great-great-great-grandmother.  She ran The Castle Inn in Stafford, Staffordshire, England after the death of her husband in 1863.  To my sorrow and horror, I learned that she hanged herself probably within the establishment where she also lived!

“When I shared this with a group of English and Australian cousins who are also researching this family, one of them sent me a link to a 1960s photo of The Castle Inn, shortly before its demolition:

“Then I remembered your presentation about pinpointing your ancestor’s home in San Francisco.  I’ve had several “family history” maps with icons that I’ve been working on for the past five years at Google Maps, so I went to the one for my Staffordshire ancestors, clicked on my icon for Eastgate Street in Stafford, and used the Street View to wander down the street, looking for the outline of the roofs, as you did with your old family photo. (You can view a video of my Google Earth for Genealogy class for free here on my website that demonstrates this technique.)

“I soon spotted the outline at the extreme left of the photo, “turned around” (virtually) and wham!  There were the double Elizabethan-style timber-framed gables, just as they appeared in the older photo!”Family business photo 2

Gail, I was so glad to read that this helped you. I’ve gotten so much great feedback on that particular example of how to use powerful Google Earth (and Google Maps) tools to find important family landmarks.

The Genealogist's Google Toolbox Third edition Lisa Louise Cooke

Available in the Genealogy Gems Store

SCGS Jamboree 2014 Lineup Announced!

I’m pleased to return this year to speak at the 45th Annual Southern California Genealogy Jamboree. This popular conference, hosted by The Southern California Genealogical Society, runs June 6 to 8, 2014 in Burbank, California, USA.

The theme of the 2014 Jamboree is Golden Memories: Discovering Your Family History. It promises to pack tons of fun into a long weekend, as it always does. According to the press release, “Our heritage focus will be on European ancestors. Class sessions are scheduled for German, Irish, English/UK, Scotland, Eastern Europe, Italian, Mennonite, Swedish, and Russian, as well as African American and Jewish classes. Jamboree will be the culmination of a year-long celebration of the Society’s 50th Anniversary, and special activities will commemorate the Decade of the 60s.  Dust off your tie dye tees and pillbox hats and take part in our Sunday noon ‘fashion show.’  Winner by popular vote will receive a free registration to the 2015 Jamboree.”

My classes on Friday and Saturday include:

  • “Who Needs Google Reader? Flip Out Over Genealogy Content with Flipboard!” Learn how to use the free Flipboard app to turn your favorite genealogy web content into your own free customized digital magazine. You will flip over how fun and easy they are to create and share. Perfect for genealogists and societies!
  • “Ultimate Google Search Strategies for Genealogists.” Learn Google search techniques, tricks and tips to achieve better genealogical search results, and then elevate your search to a strategic level. Finally, see how all of this applies across the spectrum of free Google Tools.
  • “How to Create an Exciting Interactive Family History Tour with Google Earth.” Learn to tell your ancestor’s story in a captivating multi-media way in Google Earth. Incorporate images, videos, genealogical documents, and historic maps and bring it all together in a virtual family history tour for sharing and research analysis.

SCGS Jamboree 2014 welcomes 55 speakers, over 60 exhibitors, 134 class sessions for a variety of experience levels, and special events. Online registration is open on the Jamboree website, and the Marriott’s website is ready to take your reservation. Hope to see you there!

We Dig These Gems! New Genealogy Records Online

Here’s our weekly roundup of new genealogy records online. Do you see anything you should be searching for your ancestors?

ENGLAND – LAND AND TAX. About a quarter million land tax and valuation records for Plymouth and West Devon (1897-1949) are now searchable for Findmypast.com subscribers. Transcriptions and images can reveal an ancestor’s owner/renter status, property location and size, property use and more.

US – ARIZONA VOTERS. A new database of Arizona voter registrations(1874-1932) is available at Ancestry.com. According to the collection description, “This database consists of Great Registers [lists produced from voter registrations] compiled by county recorders for each county in Arizona, by district. They list the names of eligible voters who registered to vote within the state of Arizona.” In this database you’ll see the state’s transition to female suffrage in 1912.

US – CALIFORNIA PASSENGER ARRIVALS. Over 375,000 names have been added to an existing collection of free FamilySearch.org passenger arrival records for San Francisco, CA (1954-1957). These include inbound passengers, crew lists and changes in crew.

US – DELAWARE WILLS AND PROBATE. Ancestry.com has updated its collection of  Delaware Wills and Probate records(1676-1971). The indexed images now span nearly 300 years and include records from all counties (some locales and time periods are not included). Over 134,000 names are indexed.

US – MASSACHUSETTS VITAL RECORDS. Now available to search for free on FamilySearch.org is a new collection of indexed images of Massachusetts delayed and corrected vital records. Spanning about 150 years (1753-1900), the collection is relatively small (31,710 indexed names) but often delayed and corrected vital records can be brick-wall busters!

Use these Google Gems to Find Records You Need

Google AlertsGoogle Search Tips 101: Keyword Search Tips

2 Mysterious Deaths in the Family? How to Google for Answers

Google Alerts for Genealogy

 

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