U.S. World War I Draft Registrations

On May 18, 1917, Congress passed the Selective Service Act authorizing the President to draft men into military service. These records are available to today's genealogists and provide a wealth of family information.

The Selective Service System (SSS), under the office of the Provost Marshal General (PMGO), was responsible for the process of selecting men for induction into the military service, from the initial registration to the actual delivery of men to military training camps.

The SSS operated under a "supervised decentralization" format. The President established district boards based on Federal Judicial Districts. The average district board had jurisdiction over approximately 30 local boards, each with an average registration of 5,000 men. The district boards had appellate jurisdiction over the decisions of the local boards in some claims and original jurisdiction in others.

Under the PMGO, the SSS was made up of 52 state (or territory) offices, 155 district boards, 1,319 medical advisory boards, and 4,648 local boards. These organizations were responsible for registering men; classifying them; taking into consideration needs for manpower in certain industries and in agriculture, as well as certain special family situations of the registrants; handling any appeals of these classifications; determining the medical fitness of individual registrants; determining the order in which registrants would be called; calling registrants; and placing them on trains to training centers.

Local boards were established in each county or similar subdivision in each state and for each 30,000 persons (approximately) in each city or county. The local boards were charged with registration, determination of serial and order numbers, classification, and the call and entrainment of draftees.

During World War I, there were three registrations. The first was on June 5, 1917, registering men between the ages of 21 and 31. The second was on June 5, 1918, registering men who had turned 21 since June 5, 1917 (A supplemental registration on Aug. 24, 1918, registered those becoming 21 since June 5, 1918.). The third registration was held on September 12, 1918, and registered men 18 through 45. So, all men born between 1872 and September 1900 who were not in active military service by June 1917 filled out draft registration cards, whether they were native born, naturalized, or alien.

There were five World War I draft classifications, but they were not the straightforward arrangement that we all remember from later wars, such as 1A or 4F. Every registrant was considered belonging to Class 1 until his status giving him the right of deferred classification was fully established. So, all registrants were in Class 1 unless they were granted a deferment. The remaining classes, 2-5, were known as the deferred classes, but that did not mean they could not be drafted. The report states, "After exhausting class 1, men would be called from the first registration from Class 2, 3, and 4, with practically accurate knowledge that they were being called in direct order of their availability and in inverse order of their need for the social and economic life of the country." Class 5 was the only class not subject to induction.

Each draft board used a set of standard "principles" to place men in the deferred classes, including dependency, sundry specific vocations, necessary agricultural and industrial workers, or moral disqualification. Alien citizens, termed alienage by the SSS, were placed in class 5. Enemy aliens were also classified 5s. The rest of registered "noncombatant" and "neutral" aliens were dispersed across Class 1 and other deferred classes. Dependency deferment was based on family support needs, if someone else was able to support family members, and if the man had children or how recently he had married.

Sundry specified vocations were generally federal and state officers (class 5), ministers (class 5), pilots (class 5), mariners (class 4), county or municipal officers (class 3), firemen and policemen (class 3), customhouse clerks (class 3), or mailmen (class 3). Necessary agricultural and industrial workers were classified in all classes "according to the degree of their skill and the relative necessity and importance of such an individual to a particular enterprise. In class 2 was placed a registrant found by his district board to be a necessary skilled farm laborer in a necessary agricultural enterprise or a necessary skilled industrial laborer in a necessary industrial enterprise. In class 3... found to be a necessary assistant, associate or hired manager of a necessary enterprise; ...also a registrant found to be a necessary highly specialized technical or mechanical expert of a necessary industrial enterprise. Class 4... found to be a necessary sole managing, controlling, or directing head."

After the signing of the armistice on November 11, 1918, the activities of the Selective Service System were rapidly curtailed. On November 27, 1918, the Provost Marshal General ordered that selective service organizations be closed and that records of draft boards and state headquarters be forwarded to Washington. By March 31, 1919, all local, district and medical advisory boards were closed, and in 1919 the last state headquarters closed operations. The Provost Marshal General was relieved from duty on July 15, 1919, thereby finally terminating the activities of the Selective Service System of World War I. Detailed accounts of the organization and activities of the Selective Service System are contained in two annual reports and the final report of the Provost Marshal General to the Secretary of War and in the Selective Service Regulations (Washington 1918).

Records Descriptions

The order of the Secretary of War of November 27, 1918, provided for the transfer of the Selective Service System records to the Adjutant General's Office, where they were administered by the Selective Service Division. Since the closing of the PMGO in 1919, the great bulk of the records have been destroyed by Congressional authority as having no permanent value or because of duplication. All the records not destroyed were transferred to the National Archives in 1942 and 1945 with the exception of the original registration cards, which were in the custody of the Bureau of the Census until 1989. At that time they were transferred to the National Archives. These records include the correspondence, reports, and related papers of the PMGO relating to the administration of the draft, draft quotas, appeals to the President, the Students' Army Training Corps, deserters, aliens, personnel, accounts, and other matters; records of the local boards consisting principally of docket books, classification lists, lists of inductees and of delinquents and deserters; docket books and forms of district boards; and vouchers. Also included in this record group and described in this checklist are the correspondence files of the Selective Service Division of the Adjutant General's Office, 1919-39, which furnished information during that period to inquirers concerning the Selective Service System and its records.

The draft registration records consist of approximately 24 million cards (about 23% of the population in 1918). They are reproduced in M1509, WWI Selective Service System Draft Registration Cards, 1917-18, on 4,277 rolls of microfilm. It is important to note that not all of the men who registered for the draft actually served in the military, and not all of the men who served in the military registered for the draft. Moreover, these are not military service records. These records end when individuals reported to the Army training camp. They contain no information about an individual's military service.

M1509 is arranged alphabetically by state or territory, and then by county or city (except for Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, which are arranged by division or counties), and then alphabetically by surname of registrant. Each of the three registrations used a slightly different type of card. Each card asks for the same basic information, posed in formats of 10, 12 or 20 questions: name, age, address, date and place of birth, race, citizenship, and name and place of employment. The 10-question format (June 1917) also asked for the place of birth of the registrant's father and the name and address of the nearest relative. The 12-question format (June and August 1918) included the registrant's occupation, marital status, dependents, former military status, and claims of exemption from the draft. The 20-question form (Sept. 1918) asked more specific citizenship information and name and address of nearest relative. Accompanying each is a brief physical description of the registrant.

There are some notable points to remember when using M1509. Indians, prisoners, the insane, men in hospitals, and late registrants' cards are filed separately at the end of the microfilm series. These films are not available at every NARA facility. If a man was already serving in the military, he didn't need to register. Some recent immigrants may have written their last names first, so their cards may be filed under their given name rather than their surname. Hispanics use both the father and mother's surnames, so their cards may be filed under their mother's rather than their father's surname. And lastly, remember these cards were filled out by the registrant, and some people, even in 1918, were illiterate and may not have spelled their names as they are spelled today.

Also available on microfilm is M1860, Boundary Maps of Selected Cities and Counties of WWI Selective Service Draft Registration Boards, 1917-18, on one roll of microfilm. These maps can simplify the task of finding the card of a registrant who lived in a heavily-populated area. Some of these maps are draft board maps showing the boundaries of the draft boards while others are just street and road maps. The maps are arranged geographically and cover major cities, including Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Bridgeport (CT), Buffalo (NY), Chicago, Washington (DC), Cleveland, Cincinnati, Hartford (CT), Dallas, Denver, Indianapolis, Jersey City (NJ), Kansas City (KS), Louisville, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Minneapolis, New Haven, San Diego, St. Paul, Seattle, and Toledo, as well as the New York City metropolitan area and major cities in Pennsylvania. They were filmed in their plastic sleeves, due to their fragile condition and age. Many of the maps are discolored or faded from age, and this makes them difficult to use. The highly reflective plastic sleeves caused unavoidable reflections as well.

If the NARA facility nearest you doesn't have the roll of M1509 you need, the Atlanta office provides reference services for draft cards. There is a form available on NARA's web site, http://www.archives.gov/facilities, which researchers can use to request a search. You must know the man's full name, complete home address at the time of registration (including county), and name of nearest relative, at a minimum. Additional information helps them find the right card, including birth date, birth place, and occupation. Cost is $10 for each search.

In addition to these microfilmed draft registration cards and boundary maps of registration boards, records of the PMGO are available, but most are not microfilmed. The administrative records of the PMGO, including correspondence, personnel records, and opinion records, may not interest most genealogists. Some researchers may find their ancestors in the records relating to citizenship status, Presidential appeals, or delinquents and deserters. Perhaps most interesting are the records of local boards, including docket books and classification lists, list of inductees, and delinquent and deserter forms.

The administrative records of the PMGO consist of several series, including general files, states files, miscellaneous files, office files, alien files, passport files, historical files, subject index to the PMGO's files, person and place index to the PMGO's files, orders to state draft executives, local board experience files, sample forms and form correspondence files, newspaper clippings, information file on court decisions, complaints file, list of U.S. residents serving in the British Expeditionary Forces, list of U.S. residents serving in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces, lists of registrants living abroad, personnel records, vouchers, appropriations received and spent for military service, and financial statistics of the Selective Service System. Some of these series are indexed.

The general, states, miscellaneous, and office files consist mainly of correspondence, reports, and related administrative papers relating to preparation, interpretation, and enforcement of the Selective Service regulations, state activities, and members of Congress. The alien files and its index are correspondence with foreign representatives about the registration of aliens residing in the United States. The passport file contains correspondence with draft registrants who desired passports to leave the United States. The historical file consists of papers withdrawn from the other files because they were considered to be of historical value. The local board experience file holds questionnaires filled in by local boards and sent to the PMGO on various provisions of the Selective Service Act. The complaints file consists of cards digesting correspondence received about draft dodgers, unfair classifications, and similar subjects, giving the name of complainant, summary of complaint, number of form letter sent in reply or notation of referral to the Department of Justice. The personnel records include cards of state draft board members and state draft officials, as well as PMGO personnel. The financial statistics are in two volumes and consist of lists of Selective Service appropriations with amounts expended by offices and boards for salaries, traveling expenses, equipment, rentals, supplies, and other purposes. The second volume is a chronological summary of expenditures of all states, followed by a summary sheet for each state.

Records of the district boards are also available. These include Forms 185 and 1006, which list the cases received in the district boards, either on appeal or as claims based on engagement in agriculture or industry. These forms give names of registrants, order and serial numbers, dates on which actions were taken, and classification. Many forms are incomplete. They are arranged by state and then by district board.

The records of local boards include docket books, classification lists, lists of inductees, individual induction forms, and lists of delinquents and deserters. Some have indexes. The docket books are lists of registrants in the first registration, giving, for each man, his order and serial numbers, date on which the questionnaire was mailed to him, date and result of physical examination, date on which the registrant was sent to mobilization camp, and notation of acceptance or rejection there. There are notations if an appeal was made. The volumes are arranged numerically by code numbers assigned to each local board. Within each volume, the arrangement is numerical by the order number of registrant. These order numbers are on the original draft registration cards. Many local boards destroyed their docket books since they reproduced this information on the classification lists.

The classification lists are lists of the registrants in all three registrations, giving the order and serial number for each man, race, date on which questionnaire was mailed to him and returned, classification, date of appeal, action taken by both local and district boards, date of physical examination, date of entrainment for mobilization camp, and notation of acceptance or rejection there. The volumes are arranged like the docket books. [These records are not currently available. Most are stored in NARA's Atlanta office and will not be available until after the move into their new facility. Check with the Atlanta office for further information.]

Lists of inductees are forms 164-A and 1029, used by the local boards to list men summoned for entrainment to mobilization camps. Each form contains the name of the local board, the mobilization camp, and the date on which men were to report. It lists the men with notations on acceptance or rejection at the camp or their failure to report. These are arranged within each state by local board and then chronologically by date of entrainment.

Lists of delinquents and deserters contain various forms, including 146-A and 1013 forms listing men who failed to report for induction or to return the questionnaires. They give the name of the local board, date, and list of registrants with order and serial number, addresses, dates due to appear, and reasons for failure to report. Forms 4003 are the final lists of delinquents and deserters of each local board, giving name, order number, and notations of action taken by local boards and state headquarters. Forms 1018 are the lists prepared by the local board or the state Adjutant General of who failed to report for military duty; they give names, addresses, and dates of induction. Forms 148-B, 146-C, 4003-A, and 1012, each filed separately, are similar to those above but do not duplicate them. Forms 1013-A are Delinquent Classification Lists for States, giving the delinquent's name, local board, order number, delinquent order number, dates of mailing forms, and date of induction. Some do not show action taken. An index to delinquents and deserters forms is a card file that includes the name, local board, order number, and number of form on which each delinquent was reported. These index cards are filed by state and then in general alphabetical order by name of delinquent.

Researchers wanting to use these World War I draft registration records should first determine which records they require and then determine where the records are stored for the state they are seeking. Some of these records are available on a regional level, but others are only available in College Park or Atlanta, Georgia. For information on where to find each type of record, see the Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States, or visit http://www.archives.gov and search the on-line catalog (ARC).

The above is based upon an article written by Jean Nudd, Archivist at the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration Northeast Region in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

Also see: Researching World War One Draft Cards