Written by Beth Reuschel
Military records researcher Beth Reuschel wanted to find out what her grandfather did in World War II. She started searching the records. What she discovered became a remarkable gift to her family. Below, Beth walks us through the process so we can learn by example how to find our loved ones in military records. Learn more at reuschelresearch.com.
Today’s case study is my grandfather, Jack Perz.
Grandpa Jack passed away before I was born, so researching him was more than just fact finding. It was my way of getting to know him.
My first step was to ask family members what they knew.
My mom heard from her uncle (Jack’s brother) that Jack was a tail gunner and sometimes a navigator on “a plane” in the Army Air Force.
My grandma shared even less. She told me he’d been stationed in Italy. She gave me a picture of his crew, his original Certificate of Discharge (DD-214), and his ribbon bar.
My grandma said that Jack had discarded his uniform and any memorabilia from his military service. Jack spoke little of the war. It was a black hole in our family history.
But I learned an important lesson: keep asking people, other family members. There’s often someone who knows more than you think.
In my case, that person was my uncle, a Vietnam veteran who he was eager to help. My uncle had a copy of Jack’s Individual Flight Record.
The Individual Flight Record is a gold mine for a military records researcher digging for information on a World War II Army Air Force veteran.
From this single source, I learned that my grandfather, Staff Sergeant Jack Perz, was a B-24 tail gunner in the 766th squadron, the 461st Bomb Group, 15th Army Air Force in Italy. I also learned he’d flown 36 combat missions.
With these flight records, I was able to research the unit (both online and at the National Archives II) and find out exactly what missions my Grandpa Jack was on each time he flew.
Google is Your Friend
Some of my best discoveries have started at Google.com. Sounds simple, and it is. But many overlook the power of a search engine to locate off-the-beaten-path information. Sometimes if you change how you phrase something when you search, you will get a new set of search results, be persistent and think outside of the box.
For example, in the case of my grandpa, I simply googled the 461st Bombardment Group and hit the research jackpot.
Like many WWII units, the 461st BG had its own website. Under the contact tab, I saw an email for the group historian and sent a note. A man named Chuck Parsonson emailed me back.
Chuck knows more about the 15th Air Force, let alone the 461st, than anyone. I sent Grandpa’s crew photo (see above) and asked if he may have any information regarding the people in it.
Chuck responded with the names of Jack’s crew members, some of the specific aircraft Jack flew, and a list of some of their missions — and this was just the beginning.
Each question I asked him yielded answers that led to more questions and more answers, like a series of curtains pulled back to reveal information you didn’t know existed.
With the help of the mission summaries located on their website, I was able to use Jack’s flight records to compile a complete list of every single combat mission my grandfather flew, including the target, mission number, accuracy rating, and, for some, the number of the aircraft the crew flew that day.
The Holy Grail of Military Records
A Holy Grail for any military researcher is the Official Military Personnel File (OMPF). The OMPF is the official administrative records of a service member’s military career. It tracks where they trained, what they qualified to do, where they went, how they performed, what trouble they got into, and most other highlights and lowlights along the way.
You can request the OMPF of a World War II veteran through the National Archives website. But be prepared to be disappointed, especially if you’re researching an Army veteran like my grandpa.
Up to 80% of all Army OMPFs were destroyed in the NPRC 1973 fire.
My grandpa’s file turned out to be an exception to the rule.
It took months for my records request to be filled, but when it came through, I received 60 pages of his file. Many pages were burnt along the edges, but otherwise intact.
These pages revealed something that no one in my family knew about Grandpa Jack: he’d actually wanted to be a pilot.
The OMPF showed that Jack was disqualified from Aviation Cadet Training because of insufficient height, (he was 5’3″). It also notes low aptitude, however the grading of aptitude within his records was listed as satisfactory and high.
Washed out of pilot training, Jack became a tail gunner.
In this journey I was also able to connect with the son of Thomas Sobieski, the pilot of Jack’s crew. He told me a story about the crew making an emergency landing due to the plane being severely disabled. They had to repair it in order to get it back to the base safely. Again, nobody in my family ever heard the story he shared with me.
Following the research trail of Jack R. Perz has been rewarding as a student of history and, especially, as a granddaughter.
Before I started this journey, Jack Perz was a distant stranger to me. But now, I feel as if I know him, or at least a large part of him. I’m the granddaughter he never knew, but I was able to uncover a side of him my family never knew.
I’m proud of my grandfather’s service. Perhaps I flatter myself in thinking he might be a little proud of me, too.