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.)

How to Find U.S. Digital Libraries and Archives

Ever wish there was a really easy directory for U.S. digital libraries and archives, organized by state with great commentary about the content? There is. But it’s not in a place most genealogists would look.

Open Education Database.org has a blog post called “250+ Killer Digital Libraries and Archives.”  The post is a LONG annotated list of digital libraries and archives that don’t require library memberships, subscriptions, etc. to access. (In other words, open access.) It’s organized by U.S. state, so you can scroll down to the states of most interest to your research.

Digital archives and libraries give us remote, fingertip access to original and published materials we might never otherwise know about or be able to access. Look here for books, government documents, photographs, manuscript items, memorabilia, audio recordings and more. This is a great resource for genealogists. Click the link above to get all the info.

NEW Evernote for Genealogy Video Series

Using Evernote for genealogy yet?  I hear from people all over the world who are harnessing this free software to finally organize their family history research FOR GOOD!

Evernote users can easily import online research finds–along with the URL and other important source information. Many people are bringing their family history papers (original documents and paper-based research) into Evernote, too. All their research materials together, keyword and OCR-searchable, in one space, accessible from and fully-synched across all your devices. Sigh! It’s wonderful!

There’s so much demand in the genealogy community for learning to use Evernote for genealogy that I’ve started a YouTube series: Evernote for Genealogy. Two videos are posted so far:

These videos are absolutely free to watch, and they’ll get anyone started using Evernote for genealogy. And of course all the Evernote applications are free too! Who do you know who would benefit from getting organized? I hope you’ll share these videos with your friends and relatives! How about the students in your life? Or your co-workers? We may be using genealogy, but note-taking and organization are important to everyone.

Ultimate Evernote Education abbreviatedReady to take your Evernote learning a little further? Become a Genealogy Gems Premium member. Members have a full-year’s access to the ultimate Evernote education: my in-depth video series! Full-length classes for Premium members include:

Premium members also get access to my “Get Started with Evernote”  mini video series:

Episode 1 – Signing Up for Your Free Evernote Account & Downloading the Desktop App
Episode 2 – Getting the Web Clipper
Episode 3 – How to Clip Using Evernote’s Desktop Clipper
Episode 4 – How to Clip Content Using Evernote’s Browser Web Clipper
Episode 5 – How to Use Evernote’s Web Clipper for Chrome

Click here to find even more resources for using Evernote for genealogy! And thanks for sharing this post with others who would benefit from using Evernote to organize their genealogy research.

5 Reason You MUST Look at Original Records

Show Notes: When you find family history information online you MUST make every effort to find the original genealogy record so that your family tree will be accurate! There are 5 reasons to find original records. I’ll explain what they are, and what to look for so that you get the most information possible for your family tree.

If you’re a genealogy beginner, this video will help you avoid a lot of problems. And if you’re an advanced genealogist, now is the time to fix things. 

Watch the Video

Show Notes

Downloadable ad-free Show Notes handout for Premium Members

#1 Many online records are simply way too vague.

Records come in many forms. Many genealogy websites consider that each name that appears on a document is a “record” when they’re counting records. So, when you hear that 10 million records have been added to a website, it doesn’t necessarily mean that 10 million genealogical documents have been added. It oftentimes means that that’s the number of names that they’ve added.

One document could have a lot of names. In the case of a death certificate, it could have the name of the deceased, the name of the spouse, the name of the informant, and the names of the parents. Each one of those gets counted as a record.

Recently, MyHeritage announced they’ve added 78 million new records to their website. However, many of these records are simply transcriptions, they’re extracting the information from whatever the original source was. That information becomes searchable, and that’s terrific because they are great clues. So, sometimes when you go and look at the records themselves, it turns out that record really is just a transcription. There is no digital record to look at.

Sometimes the website doesn’t even tell you what the original record was. There will be clues, though. You can use those clues and run a search on those words. So, if it talks about a particular location, or type of record, or the name of the record, you could start searching online and find out where are those original records are actually held. Sometimes they are on another genealogy website. But a lot of times, and I’ve seen this more recently, they are publicly available records, oftentimes from governmental agencies. Very recently, we’ve been seeing more recent records that are just selected text. They may be records for people who just passed away a year or two ago.

There are a wide range of places where these types of records can come from. But if that genealogy website got its hands on the record, chances are you could too. And it’s really important to do that.

#2 What’s important to you might not have been prioritized for indexing.

The indexer is a person, or perhaps even an artificial intelligence machine, who has gone through the documents and extracted information and provided it in text form. Sometimes when you search on a genealogy website, all you’re getting is just that typed text, that transcription, of some of the key data from the original document.

I’ll tell you about one example in my family. I was looking at a 2x great grandmother back in Germany. Her name was Louise Leckzyk. She’s listed as Louise Nikolowski in the Ancestry record hint. Technically, that’s true, she was Louise Nikolowski at the time of the birth of her child. But if you pull up the original record, what you discover is she’s not listed as Louise Nikolowski on the record. She’s listed with her maiden name, which was usually the case in those old German church records. So that’s huge. We’ve talked about how challenging it can be to find maiden names here on the Genealogy Gems channel. So, we don’t want to miss any opportunity to get one. But if we had taken this record hint at face value, and just extracted that information, put it in our database, or attached it to our online family tree, and never looked at the original document, we would have completely missed her maiden name. And that maiden name is the key to finding the next generation, her parents.

#3 Not all information on a record is indexed.

It’s very common for large portions of information on a document not to be indexed. Here’s the reason for that: Indexing costs money. When a genealogy company takes a look at a new record collection they have some hard decisions to make. They have to decide which fields of information will be included in the indexing. Oftentimes, there will be several columns, as in a church record or a census record. The 1950 census was an example of this. There’s so much data that the company has to look at that and say, what do we think would be of the most value to our users? They then index those fields. They’ve got to pay to not only have them indexed, but potentially also reviewed human eyes, or AI. That all costs money.

So, there will inevitably be information that gets left off the index. That means that when you search the website you’re going to see the record result, and it can give you the impression that that is the complete record. But very often, it’s not the complete record. Tracking down and taking a look at the original digital scan of the record is the only way to know.

It’s possible that the records have not been digitally scanned. In the case of public government records, that information may have been typed into a database, not extracted from a digital image. There may not be a digital scanned image. It may be very possible that the only original is sitting in a courthouse or church basement somewhere. It’s also possible that the digital images are only available on a subscription website that you don’t subscribe to.

We need to do our best to try to track down the original document and take a look at it to see if there’s anything else that’s of value to us in our research that the indexers or the company just didn’t pick up on or didn’t spend the money to index.

#4 Different websites potentially have different digital scans of the same record.

Websites sometimes collaborate on acquiring and indexing records. In those cases, they might be working with the same digital images. But oftentimes, they create their own digital scans. That means that a record may be darker or lighter, or sharper or blurrier from one website to the next. So while you found the record on one website, another might have a copy that’s much easier to read.

Digital scanning has also come a long way over the years. Many genealogy sites now are looking at some of the earlier scans they did. They’re realizing that some are pretty low quality by today’s standards. They might determine that it’s worth going back and rescanning the record collection. This happened with some of the earliest census records that were digitized many years ago. It makes a lot of sense, because a lot of time has passed, and technology has certainly changed.

So even though you found information many years ago, it might be worth taking a second look if you have any questions about what’s on that document. You may find that that record is actually a newly digitized image on the same website, or you might find that it’s also available somewhere else.

A lot of the partnerships out there are with FamilySearch which is free. So, while you may have a paid subscription to a site like Ancestry or MyHeritage, if there’s anything that you’re questionable on, or you didn’t actually see the original document from one of those paid websites, head to FamilySearch.org. Run a search and see if they happen to have the digitized images. There’s a good chance they might, and it’s worth taking a look.

Sometimes the genealogy website will have tools that allow you to get a better look at the digitized document. Ancestry is a great example of this. On the digitized image page click the tool icon to open the Tools menu. One of my favorite tools is “Invert colors”. Click that button, and it will turn it into a negative image. Sometimes this allows words to pop out in a way that they were not as clearly visible in the normal view.

I downloaded a digital scan from a website several years ago, and it was hard to decipher. I did some searching and was able to find  a clearer copy on another website.

#5 You can verify that the words were indexed accurately.

Reviewing a scan of the entire document provides you with a lot of examples of the handwriting of the person who made the entry. If you have any doubt about words or spelling, making comparisons with other entries can be extremely helpful.

When I first looked at a baptismal record of my 2x great grandmother’s son, I thought her surname was Lekcyzk. However, after seeing a different digital scan, I started to question that. Having the original record allows me to review the handwriting of the person who wrote these records. Comparing the handwriting of other entries on the page helped me determine that the swish at the top is the dotting of an eye that just had a bit more flourish. I also reconfirmed that the Z in the name is definitely a Z by comparing it to other Zs on the page.  

Bonus Reason: You may have missed the second page.

Some records have more than one page, and it’s easy to miss them. If the indexer took information primarily off of the first page, it may not be obvious when you look at that page, that in fact, it’s a two-page (or more) document. More pages potentially means more valuable information!

It’s also possible that if you downloaded a document years ago when you first started doing genealogy, you might have missed the additional pages. Now that you’re a more experienced researcher, it would be worth going back and looking at particular types of records that are prone to having second pages. Examples of this are:

  • census records,
  • passenger list,
  • passport records,
  • criminal records,
  • and probate records.

If you have single page records that fall in one of these categories saved to your computer, you might want to go back and do another search for them and check the images that come before and after that page to see if there are more gems to be found.

I hope I’ve convinced you to always make the effort to obtain and review original records for the information that you find while doing genealogy research online.

I’ll bet there’s even more reasons to do this, so I’m counting on you. Please leave a comment and let me know what you’ve found following these 5 reasons, and any additional reasons that you have.

Resources

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