Interpreting the North Carolina World War I Service Cards

Matthew M. Peek, Military Collection Archivist

We have written about this before briefly, but with the new year of 2018 we thought we would remind our readers about this unique resource. The original version of this blog post was published in November 2016 on the State Archives of North Carolina's blog History For All the People by the author.


The North Carolina WWI Service Cards are now available online for free through the joint efforts of FamilySearch and the State Archives of North Carolina. These cards were originally prepared after World War I by the U.S. War Department for use by the North Carolina Adjutant General’s office. The WWI Service Cards report on men and women who claimed residency in North Carolina and who served in official military capacities—including nurses, medics, and chaplains—during World War I. The cards include such information as name, military service number, home town, age or birth date, place and date of induction, units in which served, ranks held, dates of overseas service, and date of discharge from active military service.

However, the cards can be difficult to interpret, as numerous individuals were involved in creating the cards, and several different formats of both cards and information were used by the War Department. Also, the cards were created as two separate sets based on division of military branches. One set of cards includes individuals who served in the U.S. Army, U.S. Army Air Service (or also called the Army Air Force informally at the time, which is the precursor of today’s U.S. Air Force), and U.S. Marine Corps. The other set of cards includes the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Coast Guard. This is important to understand, as there are different abbreviations and formats for the different card sets. Navy and Coast Guard service cards are large and contain more detailed service information than those of the Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps.

At the time of the War Department’s production of the cards, they created a 13-page list of abbreviations and their meanings as utilized on the cards. This original list--from the microfilm reel containing the WWI Service Cards--is being posted with this blog post so that the public can understand the service history more completely when they access the online cards. Even with this list of abbreviations, it is still confusing to understand the context of the service history. In the course of my work with the Military Collection at the State Archives, I have had to learn how to interpret the cards’ information accurately, and would like to share a tutorial on using the cards.

Identification of Race

Race was listed on the cards as “White” or “Colored.” Colored could refer to African Americans or Native Americans. On many of the Army, Air Service, and Marine Corps cards, both race designations are typed, and the War Department employee would mark the cards with the person’s race in one of two ways in this scenario. The employee either underlined the race of the person, or crossed it out. However, this can mean several different things.

If one of the two race designations is crossed out, it could mean that the WWI service individual is either that race, or that the race designation was crossed out to indicate that the person is not that race. The same applies when the race designation is underlined—it could be the individual is that race, or the underline is indicating that they are not that race. A lot of cards have a one-word race designation typed, making it easier. The only real way for researchers to clarify the race of the WWI service individual is to check that individual’s federal WWI draft registration card, accessible freely online through FamilySearch.

U.S. Army, Air Service, Marine Corps Cards

The cards for North Carolinians who served in the Army, Air Service, and Marine Corps have several fields that need explanation. These fields include: Organizations served in, with dates of assignments and transfers (or Organizations and staff assignments); Principal stations; Grades, with date of appointment (or “Promotions” on some cards); Engagements; Wounds or other injuries received in action; Served overseas; and percent disabled at time of discharge from service. Before I get to these, it should be noted that when the cards list “inducted at,” this refers to where and when an individual was inducted into military service—not necessarily if a soldier was drafted or enlisted. It simply refers to the location at which the individual reported for official federal military duty, from which they were sent to a training camp or duty station.

Military Organizations

The field usually titled beginning with “Organizations” contains abbreviations for the units served in, and list of dates. The military organizations or units served in are arranged in chronological order on the card, though dates of service at particular locations or with particular units are not always listed. Usually, the service dates will be listed as follows: “51 Dep Brigade to October 23/18; Co D 349 Labor Bn QMC to disch.” This line means “assigned to 51st Depot Brigade until October 23, 1918; transferred to Company D, 349th Labor Battalion, Quartermaster Corps, until his discharge from active service.”

Also, for Army units or Marine Corps units, the highest levels of military unit structure are not listed on the cards, such as “Division,” “Corps,” or “Army.” Especially for Army units, the regimental level is the highest military unit division described. If you do not know that the 119th Infantry Regiment was under the 30th Division, U.S. Army, you will have to do some searching to identify your ancestor’s division.

The only way to tell if an individual served in the Army Air Service is if the abbreviation “Aer” or “Aero” is included. You can also check the “Principal stations” field for the military camps at which the individual served, because certain camps were only aviation training locations, such as Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio, and Camp Dick, Texas. Although the U.S. Army’s aviation program would become the “Army Air Service” officially on May 24, 1918, as the official national air force, you still see in aviators’ papers of the time the Air Service referred to as the “Army Air Force,” largely because the British used the term “Air Force” instead of “Air Service.” With the Allies working together closely in aerial operations in France and Belgium, the terms became interchangeable, though not officially labeled as such.

It is also important to note that just because an individual is listed as serving with, say, the “120th Infantry” during a certain period while the individual was stationed in Europe, that does not mean the individual was only serving with that unit. The cards list the individual’s service units, but not temporary duty station or temporary assignments to other units on the battlefield. The individual may be primarily assigned to the 120th Infantry, but temporarily attached to a French Army unit attempting to stop a German advance along a trench line. Unfortunately, the only way you can learn this type of detailed information is from published military unit histories, personal papers of the soldiers, or published memoirs by individuals in the same unit as the person for whom you are searching.

National Guard Service

Some North Carolinians will have two service cards, if they were serving in state National Guard or federal military service prior to the June 1917 federal draft registration. For example, a person could have been serving since 1915 in the North Carolina National Guard when the U.S. declared war on Germany in April 1917. Many individuals in the National Guard were honorably discharged from the National Guard in order to be called into active federal service. The first card, in this instance, will contain the date the individual was discharged, and the name of the National Guard unit in which he was serving.

Individuals who were still serving in the North Carolina National Guard as of June 1917 were sent with their unit to basic training camps, after which their National Guard unit was converted into a federal Army unit. The cards list this circumstance as in the service card of Joe W. Thompson of Smithfield, N.C., as follows: “Sup Co 2 Inf N C NG (Supply Company 119 Inf).” This means “served in Supply Company, 2nd Infantry Regiment, North Carolina National Guard (converted to Supply Company, 119th Infantry Regiment).”

Reserves Service

If you see R.O.T.C., E.R.C., or the name of a college or university, the service member was stationed in a reserves’ training program, or attending college and serving in a campus-based military reserves program. Oftentimes, a soldier stationed in university reserve programs around late 1918 did not serve overseas in Europe during WWI because of the declared Armistice in November 1918. If a person is stationed at a military training camp, the dates of service at the camp are not usually listed. Some military service organizations have interpretations that are difficult, like when a soldier served in the U.S. Adjutant General’s Department. This could mean that the person served in the department in Washington, D.C., which means at the Adjutant General’s office, or serving in the Adjutant General’s Department in the field or at another duty station outside of Washington, D.C. that is where the “Principal stations” field will come in handy.

Principal Stations

The “Principal Stations” field has the military camps and station locations for a WWI service member listed in the order in which that person served there. Here are some quick tips. If the station location is in Hoboken, New Jersey, or New York City, this usually means that the individual was stationed at that location prior to embarkation to Europe for overseas service or return from Europe following the end of overseas service. New Jersey and New York were the primary locations for embarkation of American Army and Marine Corps personnel in WWI. Some stations are listed by location, though the location refers to a particular military camp. For example, you might see on a card “Garden City, NY.” This is a location on Long Island, which refers to Aviation General Supply Depot and Concentration Camp, a temporary camp location used for organizing, training, and equipping Air Service troops. However, it was adjacent to Camp Albert L. Mills, which was actually at Mineola, New York. If a station listed denotes “AEF,” that refers to the “American Expeditionary Forces,” which is the official name for the American military forces that were stationed in Europe during WWI. If you see the abbreviation “AEF,” the individual was stationed overseas during the war at some point.

Military Ranks

The “Grades, with date of appointment” field is pretty straightforward, as it lists in chronological order the ranks the individual held in their military service, or the date the individuals were appointed a particular rank. If only one rank—such as “PVT” for Private—is listed, that means that was the rank of the individual during their entire federal active military service. Sometimes, when an individual was not demoted or promoted, their rank is listed in the field “Called into active service as” field at the top of the cards (this is typically for individuals who were officers, or who had been in Officers’ Reserve Corps). Some ranks of unit information are listed, such as for Henry Lewis Graves of Carthage, N.C., who is listed as “2 LT Sig C AS,” which means “2nd Lieutenant, Signal Corps, Army Air Service.” Some ranks are not always listed, as we have found in the Military Collection while conducting research into individual soldiers. Some of the cards will list individuals returning to a rank previously held. This is not always a demotion, as it can reflect that the individual was transferred to a different unit or a temporary duty station, and the rank was changed by the military for that reason.

Military Campaigns and Engagements

The “Engagements” field refers to major military campaigns in which the WWI service member was involved during the war. However, this field is very deceptive. A majority of service members’ cards have no military engagements listed, but the service members in fact did serve on the front lines or in particular battles. Because the field denotes campaigns, individual battles are not often represented. Researchers will have to rely upon personal soldiers’ papers or unit histories to know in what engagements an individual actually was involved.

Overseas Service

The “Served overseas” field contains the date span for which a North Carolinian served overseas in Europe during WWI. The first date listed is the date the individual left the United States for Europe—not the date the individual actually became stationed in Europe. Most ships took anywhere from five to ten days to reach England in the first leg of the journey to France from New York, so the time frame needs to be factored in.


There are two fields that need to be explained in context of the practice of the time. The “Wounds or other injuries received in action” was intended to report the type of injury and the date of the injury, including occasionally the battle or military campaign in which the individual was injured. Not all injuries were reported in this field. Many WWI collections at the State Archives contain letters denoting injuries or wounds that do not show up on the cards. Some of this is due to the way medical records were reported and veterans’ benefits were administered.


The “Percent disabled at time of discharge from service” gives a percentage compared with 100% perfect health. By and large, the service cards report a 0% disabled. There are also commonly seen disability percentages of 5%, 10%, 20%, and 50%. These percentages are not accurate, as the recognized disabilities of service members at the time of the honorable discharge would have to be covered for future medical care under federal veterans’ benefits laws. It was not until 1921 that the U.S. created the U.S. Veterans’ Bureau, to consolidate veterans programs managed by three agencies: the Bureau of War Risk Insurance, Public Health Service, and the Federal Board of Vocational Education. Public Health Service hospitals were not equipped to and did not cope well with the huge influx of patients during and after WWI.

Because of such factors, anecdotally I have seen from conducting research in the course of my job that an individual who was severely injured in the war would often be listed between 0%-20% disabled. If an individual could not walk or had some other such serious disability, you often see the cards list disability as “50%.” Rarely is an individual listed as 100% disabled. One collection at the State Archives for Bynum M. Grogan of Watauga County, N.C. (Bynum M. Grogan Papers, WWI 26, WWI Papers), records his exposure to mustard gas and his application for medical veterans benefits through the late 1930s. Grogan had no success because his disabilities from the chemical weapons were not recognized in the official U.S. military records. Grogan was listed on his service card as 0% disabled, though the physical problems were evident at the end of his military service and verified with sworn affidavits from fellow soldiers from his unit during WWI.

Navy and Coast Guard Cards

The U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard WWI service cards are longer than the Army cards, and often contain better delineated information in a more standardized format. There is not that much on these cards that needs explaining, as abbreviations were used far less on these cards. However, a few things do need definition. Because Navy and Coast Guard members often transferred ships, were docked in different locations, or transferred between ships traveling in different areas in the Atlantic Ocean, Mediterranean Sea, and Caribbean Sea, these service individuals often have two cards for their service, as the War Department’s Navy card format ran out of space faster than the Army’s cards. These cards also do not indicate in the same manner as the Army’s cards the overseas military service of a North Carolinian, because of the nature of working on a ship that frequently traveled between different American and foreign ports.

You might see frequently on Navy and Coast Guard cards the “Served at” field identifying service on a “Receiving Ship.” Receiving ships were ships used in a harbor to house newly recruited sailors before they were assigned to a specific military or troop transport ship’s crew. Due to the proliferation of Liberty ships, troop transport ships, Merchant Marine service opportunities, and official Navy and Coast Guard vessels, what service an individual was performing at a receiving ship could refer to a variety of things.

Additional Information

Should you have further questions about how to use these cards, the State Archives of North Carolina Reference Unit staff can assist you. If you find someone you are researching in these cards, we encourage you to use the collections in the WWI Papers of the Military Collection at the State Archives—as well as North Carolina county government records—to see if there might be more information on these individuals’ WWI service.

The North Carolina WWI Service Cards are now available online for free through However, as of December 2017, users must register for a free account and be signed in to access the online collection.


Associated Files