Draft ages in World War II
Reader Sarah is struggling to track some key dates that may well be important for folks who want to research the young men of their families in the World War II era.
I’m trying to find exact dates for the different draft age changes during WWII. Everywhere I look, the information is not very detailed or contradictory. I know the original age at the start of the draft was 21, but I’m trying to find when it was lowered to 20, and then to 18. For the age 18 I keep seeing the date of June 1942, but then FDR’s Fireside chat where he mentions lowering the draft age from 20 to 18 isn’t until October 1942. Congress approves it November 11th, and I’ve seen December 5th as the age change to 18 as well. It’s quite a frustrating conundrum and I would love your help in solving this perplexing issue.
Great question… and one that requires reference to two key sources of federal reference materials that all genealogists should be familiar with. And it requires an understanding of the World War II draft registration system as well.
The first source to look to whenever a question like this arises will be the federal statutes: the laws passed by Congress and signed by the President (or enacted over his veto). These will provide the basic structure or framework that governed a federal issue like this one. And you can find historical federal statutes online in three basic locations:
• Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation, part of the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress. This fabulous free website is chock full of federal statutory materials, including the Statutes at Large (the printed volumes of federal laws in roughly chronological order from the first Congress after adoption of the Constitution through to the first major federal code, the Revised Code of 1875. For any statutory research up to about 1875, this should be your first stop.
• For public laws from 1875 forward through at least 1950, the Complete Collection of United States Statutes at Large of the Constitution Society is your best bet. There are individual downloadable PDF files for each volume of the public Statutes at Large from volume 1 through volume 128 (2013). The website doesn’t have private laws (affecting individuals or families personally) after about 1875.
• For modern federal statutes, from 1951 through to 2011, the Government Publishing Office’s Federal Digital System has the United States Statutes at Large with PDFs of each volume of the Statutes at Large from volume 65 (82nd Congress, 1st Session, 1951) through volume 125 (112th Congress, 1st Session, 2011).
• And for modern statutes right up to today, the House of Representatives’ Office of the Law Revision Counsel has the entire United States Code — all existing federal statutes — from 1994 to the present.
So… what were the draft laws affecting our young men in World War II?
Leading up to and during World War II, there were three key draft statutes that made men of various ages subject to being conscripted:
• The Selective Training and Service Act of 1940, enacted into law on 16 September 1940, provided that “every male citizen of the United States, and every male alien residing in the United States who has declared his intention to become such a citizen, between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-six at the time fixed for his registration, shall be liable for training and service in the land or naval forces of the United States.” So the first group that could be drafted were those aged 21-35, and any young man could enlist at age 18.
• An amendment to the Selective Training and Service Act was adopted by the Act of 20 December 1941: “every male citizen of the United States, and every other male person residing in the United States, who is between the ages of twenty and forty-five at the time fixed for his registration, or who attains the age of twenty after having been required to register pursuant to section 2 of this Act, shall be liable for training and service in the land or naval forces of the United States.” So as of the start of the war, the age range was 20-44, but young men had to register for the draft at age 18.
• A final amendment to the elective Training and Service Act was adopted by the Act of 13 November 1942: “every male citizen of the United States, and every other male person residing in the United States, who is between the ages of eighteen and forty-five at the time fixed for his registration, shall be liable for training and service in the land or naval forces of the United States.” So as of the end of 1942, the age range for the draft was 18-44.
But what about those other dates Sarah kept finding? Like the December 1942 date? That requires us to look at another reference source: the Executive Orders of the President. That’s where policy can be set that limits or impacts the statutory system. And on 5 December 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt did issue an executive order, Executive Order 9279, transferring draft authority to a newly-created War Manpower Commission.
That Executive Order didn’t change the draft age. Instead, it provided that all men 18-37 who were subject to the draft couldn’t enlist voluntarily but had to be inducted into the military “under provisions of the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940, as amended.” So that December order really pushed young men into the draft system, rather than the enlistment system.
And what about that June 1942 date Sarah keeps seeing? That’s where the understanding of the draft registration system comes into play. Because some of the dates you’ll come across when looking at the World War II draft system are dates when different registration rules took effect and different groups of people had to register for the draft.
There were, in all, seven draft registrations during World War II — and there’s a good overview of these registrations free online at Fold3.com. Fold3.com gives us these bits of information:
First Registration – October 16, 1940: “over 16 million men between the ages of 21 and 36, registered at local draft boards around the country.”
Second Registration – July 1, 1941: “men who had reached the age of 21 since the first registration.”
Third Registration – February 16, 1942: “For men 20-21 and 35-44 years (born on or after February 17, 1897 and on or before December 31, 1921).”
Fourth Registration, “Old Man’s Draft” – April 27, 1942: “men who were 45 to 64 years old at the time.”
Fifth Registration – June 30, 1942: “Men 18-20 years.”
Sixth registration – December 10-31, 1942: “Men who had reached the age of 18 years after June 30, 1942.”
“Extra Registration” – November 16-December 31, 1943: “American men living abroad, 18-44 years old.”
So the law said who could be drafted, and who had to register. The Executive Order limited whether those who might be drafted could enlist. And the draft registration system created the records when those who were subject to the laws actually had to register for the draft.
Image: James Montgomery Flagg, World War I recruiting poster, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division