Surprises from searching for military records

The government can work in strange ways when you’re trying to get information from military archives. Here’s a couple of examples:

In September 2007, I wanted the complete records from the general court-martial of a U.S. Navy lieutenant who got into trouble in World War II. His name was Edward Neal Little, and he was a prisoner of war at Fukuoka Camp 17 at Kyushu, Japan, from August 1943 to September 1945. His fellow prisoners accused him of cultivating the favor of his captors by being the camp informer. As a result of his reports to the Japanese, they said, several American POWs were murdered. After a 97-day secret court-martial in 1947 at the U.S. Naval Gun Factory in Washington, D.C., Little was acquitted of all charges.

I was working on a story about another Fukuoka prisoner, Joe Szczepanski of the Wilkes-Barre area. He hadn’t testified in the case, though he knew Little from the camp and disliked him intensely. Still, I wanted to see if Joe’s name came up in testimony.

My letter asking for the transcript under the Freedom of Information Act went to the Department of the Navy, Office of the Judge Advocate General, Criminal Law Division at the Washington Navy Yard in D.C. Ten days later, on Sept. 21, 2007, I got a response saying Little’s record consisted of 2,066 pages. The first 100 pages would be made available without charge, but copies of the remaining pages, at 15 cents a page, would cost $294.90.

Whoa, way too much! I spoke with my boss at The Morning Call and we opted for a different tack. We’d see if the newspaper’s reporter in Washington could go to the Navy Yard and page through the record, looking for Joe’s name. The Navy was OK with that, but our busy reporter in the capital couldn’t schedule the time to get over there. It wasn’t a terrible setback. The info might enrich my story but wasn’t critical to it. So I dropped my pursuit of the record.

Fifteen months later, in December 2008, surprise! A package from the Navy landed in my mail slot at work, marked certified mail. In it was a CD of the complete court-martial record of Edward Neal Little, all 2,066 pages.

It knocked me for a loop. I hadn’t asked for the CD. The Navy hadn’t told me the transcript was available on a disc and hadn’t alerted me that I’d be getting one. It came out of the blue, and at no cost.

When I did a search of the transcript, I got no hits on Joe Szczepanski’s name.

My story, about how the late soldier’s son Rick of East Allen Township was tracking down the horrors his father faced as a POW, ran on April 12, 2009. Here’s a link to it:

More recently, I was looking for the military records of my mother-in-law’s father, Robert Burns Dees, who served in the 4th Texas Volunteer Infantry during the Spanish-American War. I printed out the form from the website of the National Personnel Records Center,  followed the directions on where to send it and mailed it last April.

In May I got a letter from the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis. It said the info I was seeking wasn’t at the center, and my request was being forwarded to the National Archives and Records Administration, Old Military and Civil Records, in Washington.

Huh? That’s where I’d mailed the form – to the National Archives in Washington, not to the records center in St. Louis. Beats me how it got rerouted, but that’s the government for you.

By the way, I’m still waiting on that request.



One response to “Surprises from searching for military records

  1. I agree that going through the government in search of military records can be frustrating. Generally, records for veterans who served in the U.S Military during the 20th century are held in St. Louis, while the older military records are kept in College Park. There are also a number of on site resources (mainly on microfilm) at St. Louis which can be used to trace the steps of individual soldiers through WWI, WWII and the Korea war. The records of veterans who were discharged over 62 years ago are open to the public and military research specialists can access these records to show you where your dad or grandfather was and what he did during the war. This is really a wonderful way to uncover one’s family history as well as to preserve the memory of veterans who served in these conflicts.


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