On April 20, 1915, a man named Byron Q. Jones got into an “aeroplane” and flew along the Rio Grande River in Brownsville, Texas.
Today, almost a full century later, we know what type of aircraft he was flying, what his altitude was, who his passenger was – even what side of the grass parade grounds he took off from – all because Jones was a pilot in the Army’s 1st Aero Squadron at the time. The fact that his airplane took machine gun fire from Mexican revolutionaries during the flight – the first “combat” mission for a U.S. flyer – ensured that some long forgotten sergeant recorded all the details.
Those kinds of details are ready available to you, should you need to add some military flavor to your next article. Want to work up a history on the old Army fort on the edge of your town? Perhaps you are just trying to find out what Grandpa did during World War II. All of this has become much, much easier today, thanks to the many resources now available online to the writer willing to spend a little time in research.
Jones is now largely forgotten, but he was present for many key moments in the history of military aviation in the first half of the 20th century. His story, as well as your next book or article, can be found in many of these resources:
+ For past Army generals, and a sprinkling of colonels, start with the U.S. Army’s Center of Military History, www.history.army.mil. The Center maintains an exhaustive database of general officers. The index is online, but the actual biography can be e-mailed on request. My turn-around time on a request has been 2-3 weeks. The index goes all the way back to the Revolutionary War period. The biographies list major assignments, promotions and major medals and commendations. The Center also provides links to specific unit histories, overviews of wars and major battles and the like.
- At www.history.navy.mil, you’ll find a similar collection of materials, along with extensive histories on current and past ships. Want to know what the “USS Yourtownnamehere” did during the War of 1812? You’ll find it here. You’ll also find a link that lists the meaning of many Navy/nautical terms, in case you need to use a few in your next maritime adventure yarn.
- The Air Force Historical Research Agency, www.afhra.af.mil, has similar resources with an additional focus on the pioneers of early aviation, going back to before the Wright Brothers.
- Is your veteran buried at Arlington National Cemetery? If so, check out the information at the unofficial www.arlingtoncemetery.net. It features biographies, many taken from period news accounts, of many of the nation’s heroes buried there.
- If you are a family member, or searching for a person who left military service more than 62 years ago, the National Personnel Records Center may have some documents for you. Unfortunately, a devastating fire in 1973 destroyed an estimated 16-18 million documents, particularly Army and Air Force records from 1912-1960. Still, the NPRC has millions more records of both military personnel and civilian federal employees. My turn-around time on a request is normally about a month. Visit www.archives.gov/st-louis.
- The U.S. Military Academy, Naval Academy and Air Force Academy all have active Associations of Graduates, each of which publish newsletters that carry extensive obituaries of graduates. Depending on the Academy and the year, the newsletter may have been published anywhere from quarterly to annually. The Military Academy at West Point, as an example, has more than 100 years worth of such publications available for free on-line. The obituaries are often written by a former classmate of the deceased and can run up to a page or more in length, often including a photo.
- The Military Times newspapers maintains an online database of many (not all) citations for awards of valor. The citations are available at www.militarytimes.com/citations-medals-awards
- Various newspapers have on-line databases of old editions. The New York Times goes back to 1851 – 10 years before the start of the U.S. Civil War! The search is free, though to buy access is a few dollars. Prior to the 1960s, the Times often featured short articles about military news that would likely never be covered today.
If your historical articles need a photo, the “.mil” web sites are a great source for historical images, virtually all of which are in the public domain and therefore available for your consideration and use.
Finally, if you can’t find it online, or need something specific to a local base or unit, many military installations house a small museum or have a base history office. These offices can be a font of old newspaper clippings, helpful advice – and good quotes! – if you run into a wall elsewhere in your research.
Dan Heaton, a public affairs specialist with the Michigan Air National Guard, is a freelance writer in the Detroit area. His first book, Forgotten Aviator: The Byron Q. Jones Story, is forthcoming from Branden Books.
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