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.
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 (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 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 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).
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!
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.)
Here are this week’s fabulous list of new genealogy records online. Included are records for Australia, Great Britain, United States, and the Philippines.
AUSTRALIA – REGISTER OF INMATES. The Ballarat Benevolent Society Register of Inmates for 1860-1897 is an ongoing project by Brett Weinberg. This register is a transcription and can be viewed on the Ballarat Historical Society website. The list of inmates from the Ballarat Benevolent Asylum in Victoria, Australia are in alphabetical order. The index provides details of age, birth place, parents names, residence, arrival date in Victoria and any additional remarks.
GREAT BRITAIN – MILITARY. The British Royal Navy & Royal Marines Service and Pension Records 1704-1919 are available at Findmypast. These records include the original service and pension records of those serving in the British Royal Navy and Marines. Information may include name, discharge date, death date, next of kin, and parish.
UNITED STATES – IOWA – MILITARY. Membership records of the Department of Iowa Grand Army of the Republic are now free to search on FamilySearch.org. The records are arranged by county and then by posts within each county. The records include veteran’s name, residence, occupation, date and place of birth, date and place of death, cemetery where buried, war record, dates of enlistment and discharge, names of parents, spouse, and children (if given.)
PHILIPPINES – MANILA – CIVIL REGISTRATION. The Manila Philippines Civil Registration for 1899-1984 at FamilySearch.org includes images of births, marriages, and deaths. This collection is only partially indexed at this time and currently covers birth certificates between the years of 1900 to 1980.
UNITED STATES – INDIANA – BIRTH, DEATH, AND MARRIAGES. Three new databases for Indiana have been recently added to Ancestry. They are Indiana, Birth Certificates, 1907-1940; Indiana, Marriage Certificates, 1958-2005; and Indiana, Death Certificates, 1899-2011. Each database offers digital images of these certificates and are jam packed with great genealogy data for your family tree!
Thank you for sharing this list with your favorite genealogy gurus! We love sharing good news about new genealogy records online.
Published October 29, 2013
Download the Show Notes for this Episode
by Lisa Louise Cooke
Welcome to this step-by-step series for beginning genealogists—and more experienced ones who want to brush up or learn something new. I first ran this series in 2008. So many people have asked about it, I’m bringing it back in weekly segments.
Episode 4: Attending Genealogy Conferences and Vital Records Requests
In our first segment, our guest is the longtime online news anchorman of genealogy, Dick Eastman, the author of Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter. He talks about the changing industry and the benefits of attending genealogy conferences.
Next, you’ll learn the ins and outs of using some “vital” sources for U.S. birth and death information: delayed birth records, Social Security applications (SS-5s) and death certificates.
Genealogy Conferences Conversation: A Few Updates
- Dick and I talk about Footnote.com as a relatively small site. Has that ever changed! Footnote.com is now Fold3.com and it’s a go-to site for millions of online American military records.
- Family History Expos still offers an exciting conference, especially for first-timers. But there are others as well: In the United States, there’s RootsTech, the National Genealogical Society and many state and regional conferences (like one near my home, the Southern California Genealogical Society’s annual Jamboree). Find a nice directory at Cyndi’s List. Many conferences are starting to offer live streaming sessions for people who can’t attend: check websites for details. In addition, Family Tree University offers regular virtual conferences—where sessions and chat are all online! If you live outside the U.S., look for conferences through your own national or regional genealogical societies. If you can get to London, don’t miss Who Do You Think You Are Live.
- Dick now writes all of his Plus content himself. If you haven’t already checked out Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter, you should! Both his free and Plus newsletters are great insider sources on what’s new and great (or not-so-great) in the family history world.
You can order a copy of the application that your ancestor filled out when they applied for a Social Security Number: the SS-5. I have done this, and they really are neat, but they aren’t cheap. So let’s talk about the facts you’re going to find on them so you can determine if it is worth the expense.
The SS-5 has changed slightly over time, but may include the applicant’s name, full address, birth date and place and BOTH parents’ names (the mother’s maiden name is requested). If your ancestor applied prior to 1947 then you will also very likely find the name and address of the company they worked for listed, and possibly even their position title.
Here’s an example of a Social Security application form:
In the 1970s, the Social Security Administration microfilmed all SS-5 application forms, created a computer database of selected information from the forms, and destroyed the originals. So it’s important to order a copy of the microfilmed original, rather than a printout or abstract from the Administration’s database. And luckily now you can request a Social Security Application SS5 Form online under the Freedom of Information Act.
It will help to have your relative’s Social Security Number (SSN) when you apply for a copy of their SS-5. First, it gives you greater confidence that their SS-5 exists. Second, it’s cheaper to order the SS-5 when you have their SSN. Third, the Social Security Death Index, in which you’ll find their SSN, usually has death data that makes your application for their SS-5 stronger. Privacy concerns have caused some genealogy websites to pull the SSDI, but you can still search it (in many instances for free) at the links provided in Episode 3.
Finally, here’s a little background on the Social Security Number itself. The nine-digit SSN is made up of three parts:
The first set of three digits is called the Area Number. This number was assigned geographically. Generally, numbers were assigned beginning in the Northeast and moving westward. So people whose cards were issued in the East Coast states have the lowest numbers and those on the West Coast have the highest numbers.
Prior to 1972, cards were issued in local Social Security offices around the country and the Area Number represented the state in which the card was issued. This wasn’t necessarily the state where the applicant lived, since you could apply for a card at any Social Security office.
Since 1972, when the SSA began assigning social security numbers and issuing cards centrally from Baltimore, Maryland, the area number assigned has been based on the ZIP code of the mailing address provided on the application for the card. And of course, the applicant’s mailing address doesn’t have to be the same as their place of residence. But in general the area number does give you a good lead as where to look for an ancestor.
The next two digits in the number are called the Group Number, and were used to track fraudulent numbers.
The last set of four digits is the Serial Number, and these were randomly assigned.
UPDATE: The website for ordering Social Security applications (SS-5s) has changed since the podcast first aired. For current ordering instructions, including online ordering, click here. The cost is still $27 to order a deceased relative’s SS-5 if you know the Social Security number and $29 if you don’t know it.
Delayed Birth Certificates
After 1937 folks who qualified to apply for social security had to have proof of their age. If they were born prior to official birth certificates being kept in their state, they applied for a delayed birth certificate.
Anytime someone needs a birth certificate for any reason, they have to contact the state—and often the county—in which the birth occurred. If a birth certificate exists, they can simply purchase a certified copy. But if there were no birth certificates issued at the time of the person’s birth, they could have a “delayed birth certificate” issued by that state or county.
In order to obtain a delayed certificate, they had to provide several pieces of evidence of their age. If these are considered satisfactory, the government would issue the certificate and it would be accepted as legal proof of birth by all U.S. government agencies.
Originally people turned to the census for proof of age. But eventually the Social Security Administration began to ask for birth certificates. For folks like my great grandmother who was born at a time and place where birth certificates were not issued, that meant they had to locate documents that could prove their age and allow them to obtain a delayed birth certificate. Delayed just meaning it was issued after the time of the birth.
Delayed birth certificates are not primary sources. (Remember we talked about Primary Sources in Episode 2. Since the delayed certificate was based on other documents, and not issued at the time of the event by an authority, such as the attending physician, then it is not a primary source. This means that while it’s great background information, it is more prone to error. In order to do the most accurate genealogical research you would want to try to find a primary source if possible. Chances are your ancestor used another primary source, such as an entry in the family bible, to obtain the delayed birth certificate.
The process for ordering a delayed birth certificate is likely going to be the same as ordering a regular birth certificate. You would start with the checking with the county courthouse, and then the Department of health for the state you’re looking in. Let them know that the birth record is a delayed birth certificate. Also the Family History Library card catalogue would be a place to look as many were microfilmed. Go to www.familysearch.org and search for delayed birth records by clicking on Search from the home page. Then click Catalog and do the keyword search just as the episode instructs, using “delayed birth” as your keyword. (Within that search, you can also add parameters for the place name.)
So the lesson here is that even though your ancestor may have been born at a time or in a location where births were not officially recorded by the state, they may very well have a delayed birth certificate on file.
Ordering Death Certificates
The Social Security Death Index is just one resource for getting death information. But in the end you’re going to want the primary source for your ancestor’s death, and that’s the death certificate. While many of your ancestor’s born in the 1800s may not have a birth certificate, there is a much better chance that they have a death certificate since they may have died in the 20th century. Each state in the U.S. began mandating death certificates at a different time, so you have to find out the laws in the state, and probably the county, since death certificates were filed at the county level.
As I said before, the death certificate is going to be able to provide you with a wealth of information. Of course you’ll find the name, date of death and place of death, and possibly their age at death and the cause and exact time of death, place of burial, funeral home, name of physician or medical examiner and any witnesses who were present. The certificate is a primary source for this information.
You may also find information such as their date and place of birth, current residence, occupation, parent’s names and birthplaces, spouse’s name, and marriage status. But because this information is provided by someone other than the ancestor themselves it is really hearsay, and the certificate is considered a secondary source for that information.
And lastly you may find a name in the box that says Informant. This is the person who reported the death to officials. Informants are often spouses, children, and sometimes, depending on the person’s circumstances, just a friend or neighbor. But the informant is almost always someone that you want to investigate further because they obviously were close to your ancestor.
Once you think you know the location where your ancestor died, and the approximate if not exact death date, you’re ready to order a certificate. If the person died in the last 50 years you’ll probably have really good luck at the county courthouse Department of Vital Records. The older the record, the more likely it may have been shipped off by the county records department to the state Department of Health. Look for helpful links to death records at Cyndi’s List Death Records.
Here are some tips that will ensure that you don’t get bogged down in bureaucratic red tape:
- Get the appropriate request form – this is usually available online.
- Print neatly and clearly – if they can’t read it, they will send it back to be redone.
- Provide as much information as you have.
- Provide a self addressed stamped envelope.
- Make one request per envelope.
- Include a photocopy of your driver’s license to prove your identity.
- Be sure to include your check for the exact amount required.
- Make a copy of the request form for your records and follow up.
- Lastly, keep in mind that county offices have limited personnel and are often swamped with paper work. So my best advice is that the more courteous and thorough you are the more success you’ll have.
Online Death Indexes
In the case of very old death certificates, as well as birth certificates, some state agencies have opted to hand them over to state Archives and Historical Societies, or at least make them available for digitizing.
And there you have it, lots of different avenues for tracking down your ancestor’s death records providing you with key information for climbing your family tree.