RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The genealogy Web site Ancestry.com has announced that it's making millions of U.S. military records available online. The site will allow people to search their family's military history in wars ranging from the 1600s to Vietnam. NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.
ELIZABETH BLAIR: Ancestry.com invested about $3 million to digitize and index records from almost every major American war. The collection includes service records from the Revolutionary War, thousands of photographs taken during the Civil War, and a complete collection of United newsreels from 1942 to 1945.
(Soundbite of newsreel)
Unidentified Man: Throughout the world, throngs of people hail the end of the war in Europe.
BLAIR: Most of the material for the U.S. military collection comes from the National Archive and Records Administration. It took the Ancestry.com staff a year to make it searchable. Tim Sullivan is CEO of the Generations Network, the parent company of Ancestry.com. He says this is one of their most ambitious projects.
Mr. TIM SULLIVAN (CEO, Generations Network): This one was kind of linked thematically around America's families' military experience, and therefore touches every war and all military experiences from the country.
BLAIR: As part of a Memorial Day promotion, Ancestry.com is letting visitors search their military heritage for free, but only until June 6th, the anniversary of D-Day.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: Jefferson and Eugene and Grigsby.
BLAIR: NPR correspondent Karen Grigsby Bates agreed to test out Ancestry.com.
GRIGSBY BATES: Here we go. Here's granddad with a World War I draft registration card.
BLAIR: It took a few tries, but eventually Karen Grigsby Bates found draft cards complete with signatures for both of her grandfathers, dated 1917. She says she was most struck by the handwriting. Her paternal grandfather's elegant penmanship is a trait she says she didn't inherit.
GRIGSBY BATES: My father's father's handwriting seemed to be quite a lot like my dad's handwriting. My father used to always say, you might be a good writer but I can't read it, so I can see now why he was sort of harping on that.
BLAIR: Ancestry.com is expecting the new military history collection to be one of its most popular features. Tim Sullivan says after the Associated Press reported about it yesterday, they received record-breaking traffic to their site, which might explain why searches were sometimes erratic.
Geoffrey Wawro, a military history professor at the University of North Texas, says it's an untapped market since regular folks greatly outnumber academics in the stacks at the archives.
Professor GEOFFREY WAWRO (University of North Texas): It's huge business and until now it's been handled by, you know, overworked, weary archivists who are forced to respond to all these requests and dig through dusty boxes and search through them.
BLAIR: Most of the military records of people who served are likely to be pretty sparse. But even a handsome signature adds to a family's history.
Elizabeth Blair, NPR news.