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Over There
11/1/2007
The Great War engulfed the entire world—including your ancestors, whether they headed to Europe or stayed home. Here's how to trace them in records of World War I.

My grandfather Victor Fryxell wasn't among the more than 2 million doughboys who went “over there” in 1917 and 1918 to “make the world safe for democracy” in World War I. He was a bit too old, having reached his mid-30s. But that won't keep me from learning about him in WWI records: Although he was never called up, my grandfather - along with 24 million other men - had to register for the draft.

Even if he had gone to war, Victor Fryxell's records probably would've burned in the 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, which destroyed some 18 million Army service records from 1912 to 1963. If your ancestor did fight in World War I, though, don't despair. Other documents at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) <archives.gov> and in state archives' collections might yet tell his story. To find the facts about your WWI ancestor, you may have to dig a little deeper and use a bit of ingenuity, but eventually — like the Yanks who proclaimed, “Lafayette, we are here!” at the French general's tomb — you can claim victory.

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