The National Personnel Records Center Fire of 1973: Not Everything Was Destroyed

One of the big losses to genealogists and to many others occurred on July 12, 1973, when a fire destroyed many records at the National Personnel Records Center in Overland, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. The records storage facility was operated by the National Archives and Records Administration and housed military service records. The fire destroyed approximately 16 to 18 million official military personnel records. While that is a staggering number of records, it still represents only about one-third of its 52 million official military personnel files.

Sadly, the records had not yet been digitized for long-term preservation nor even copied to microfilm, the standard method of preserving paper documents at that time. The records existed only on fragile paper and were susceptible to fire, flood, mildew, and other dangers. The building was essentially a large warehouse, filled with filing cabinets. There were no firewalls or other fire-stopping devices to limit the spread of fire. No heat or smoke detectors were installed in the building, nor was there a fire sprinkler system to automatically extinguish a fire.

The exact cause of the fire was never fully determined. However, the fire investigation later reported that cigarettes were present in several trash cans, obviously displaying a hazard in a building full of paper. Another possibility was spontaneous combustion. The same report noted that the floor where the fire started had seen extremely high temperatures in the St. Louis summer with little or no ventilation.

When the fire broke out, it spread rapidly and destroyed the only copies of millions of records. The fire destroyed the entire 6th floor of the National Personnel Records Center. Water damage destroyed many more records on the 5th floor, and additional water damage was spread throughout the building. Another problem was mold that was observed within days in the hot, humid summer weather. Officials sprayed thymol throughout the building to control any mold outbreak.

For any genealogist looking for an ancestor’s personnel record, this was a great loss. It became an even bigger loss for the men and women whose records were destroyed as it became difficult to prove military service when applying for benefits. Indeed, many people assume “all the records must have been destroyed in the fire, so I won’t even bother to check.” While millions of records were destroyed that day, this is unfortunate since not all of them went up in flames. In fact, many of the records did survive and are available today.

No indexes had been created prior to the fire. In addition, millions of documents had been lent to the Department of Veterans Affairs before the fire occurred. Therefore, a complete listing of the records that were lost is not available.

The National Archives reports the following losses:

80% loss to records of U.S. Army personnel discharged November 1, 1912, to January 1, 1960

75% loss to records of U.S. Air Force personnel discharged September 25, 1947, to January 1, 1964, with names alphabetically after Hubbard, James E.. The records of Air Force personnel with names occurring earlier in the alphabet survived.

Some U.S. Army Reserve personnel who performed their initial active duty for training in the late 1950s but who received final discharge as late as 1964.

There were no losses to the records of Navy and Marine Corps military records.

You can read more about the fire and the records that were lost at http://www.archives.gov/st-louis/military-personnel/fire-1973.html.

In May 2011, the National Personnel Records Center completed construction of a new facility, located at 1 Archives Drive, St. Louis, Missouri. Surviving records have been moved to the new building that is equipped with the latest fire prevention technology.

While many records were indeed destroyed by fire, you should realize that not all of them went up in flames. Study the list of available records carefully. You may be surprised to find that the record you seek is still available.

28 Comments

Here is another record set I recently discovered at NARA in St. Louis – W.P.A. records. I recently received a thick file for the 1935 to 1943 Works Projects Administration records for my grand uncle who lived in Chicago. I learned about their availability from the article, “Their Loss, Our Gain,” by Sunny Jane Morton in the May/June 2014 issue of Family Tree Magazine. It was a simple process printing an available online form and then mailing it. In 11 days I received notice that the file was located and the fee that was required. In seven more days I had the file. Fastest service ever!! I learned so much about his work in in the 1930s in Chicago and also his work record from 1908 to 1938 in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Illinois. What a great resource!!!

Like

    Mr. Martin,
    How does one find WPA records? I went to the archives.gov site but couldn’t figure out how to search for specific records? I’ve written for family members’ military records but don’t know where to begin for WPA records.

    Also, the men in my family were all in the Merchant Marine. I have no idea how to track records for MM or if one can do so. Any advice will be welcome.

    Like

I worked for a public agency in the 1980s. The loss of veterans’ DD214 paperwork was a huge problem for them. I heard about the fire in St. Louis often from the vets I served. Thanks for the explanation.

Like

I recently found copies of my father’s discharge papers and more (WWII era). Is there a way to share it with the Archives?

Like

It is my understanding that many veterans made copies of their records and send them in.

Like

Julia French Wood June 8, 2014 at 8:55 am

You state “There were no losses to the records of Navy and Marine Corps military records.” However, about 10 years ago, I requested the Marine Corp records of my husband and they wrote back that they didn’t have them, but did verify in a letter that he served and the dates of service and discharge.

Like

A link to a recent story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about a tragic and preventable security breach at our National Personnel Records Center, leading to the loss of more records. Some of the guilty parties have been prosecuted, but should never have been hired for such a critically important task.

http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/federal-workers-dumped-stashed-or-trashed-records-at-st-louis/article_8611ae42-359d-539d-b21c-5e864b02d672.html

Like

Yes, I tried to retrieve my records including all related medical stuff but was informed by the Dept that my records no longer exist…but for a fee… they will try other places where same information might be located. They would not tell me where else I might look. Carl

Like

Use –> Reuse –> Recycle

Like

Appreciated this insightful article about the military records. My dad’s records were caught up in the fire. I have been curious if there is any other way to find out my Dad’s role in the military other than these records. I have talked with a Major in the Army and he thought that there may be – but wasn’t sure how. Any thoughts? Thank you again for your articles and your insights. You are the first one I read every day!

Like

Paul I. Patridge June 8, 2014 at 9:35 am

My uncle’s WWII Army records were those that went up in smoke. Fortunately, he came from Iowa where the state gave bonuses to veterans. His record to get his bonus gave me some information about his Army service. This record was accessed on Ancestry.com.

Like

A few years ago, I sent for any records that might be available concerning my father’s service in the U.S. Army. I was very surprised to receive a bunch of copied documents that pertained to his years of service. He was discharged July 31, 1919, and while many of the copies showed damage (partially burned) to the originals, there was a ton of information that I never thought I’d see. So don’t give up the ship. There might be a world of information available to you.

Like

When I started researching my Dad’s records, first contact was to the NPC. Standard answer was ‘they were destroyed in the fire’. They did offer to perform additional research for a fee. I then contacted my U.S. Representative, who in turn contacted the NRC. One additional page from his file was found. I advised my Rep. to have them check for his file in the VA system. It worked-I received a huge file of his medical records going back to his WWII service. That file came with a letter from the U.S. Army indicating if further assistance was needed to contact them.

Like

At the time of the fire I worked for the General Services Administration (GSA) Regional Office in Kansas City. St. Louis was within our region. At that time the building in question was known as the Military Personnel Records Center. The records were administered by the National Archives and Records Service (NARS) which was an arm of GSA. Later NARS became the independent agency known as NARA. The building itself was operated by the Public Buildings Service, another arm of GSA for which I worked. I remember the morning of the fire very well. Beside the actions you mention taken to prevent mold on water damaged records my office leased freezer space to store records until they could be dried. My recollection is that the 6th floor, which was the top floor, was so severely damaged it was removed and the building became a five floor facility.

Like

    At the time of the fire, I was working for McAuto, the computer services company owned by McDonnell Douglas. The McAuto building was connected to the manufacturing building which contained all the white rooms and vacuum rooms used for space capsule building and testing. The addressed article is a bit misleading. The chambers were not “vacuum-drying facilities” but could be used to relatively quickly extract the water from the documents. As I recaull, McDonnell Douglas contacted the government and offerred their services.

    Like

I am happy to tell you how I located the WPA file for my Nicholas Martin. I have known for years that he worked for the WPA from family stories, and that was confirmed when I obtained a copy of his S.S. application which showed that he applied in July 1938 in Chicago and he was working for the WPA. But I had no idea if or where his file might be.

Recently I read the article “Their Loss, Our Gain” by Sunny Jane Morton in the May/June issue of Family Tree Magazine. Among other records she named, she noted that the WPA records are available from the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis. Go to archives.gov/st-louis and click on “Archival Civilian Personnel Records” for order forms and instructions. I printed a form and filled in the information and then mailed it on May 8th. I received a reply on May 19 that they had located the file, and the fee to obtain copies of the records was $70. Sounds like a lot, but I know from ordering other records from the NPRC that the files are rich with information that can be found nowhere else. I mailed a check the same day and received the file on May 26th. Pretty fast service!!

The file for my Nicholas Martin has photocopies of 30 documents in his file. The staff person made two copies of each document – one positive image and one negative image to help with reading them, so I have 60 sheets of paper. A cover note states “Best Copies Available” but some are not very readable. Nevertheless, I have a great amount of new information about him and his work history. For example, the form titled “Record of Training and Experience” shows in his own handwriting the places and the years he worked in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Illinois from 1908 through 1938. Other records have even more details. It was well worth the time and money spent to have his file.

From the NPRC I previously ordered military records. World War II service records are now considered “archival” and are available for copies. My Dad’s Navy file was $60, and my grandfather’s brother’s Navy file was $70. Both worth the time and the price for the invaluable information they contained.

I hope you might have great success with your search.

Joseph Martin

Like

    Thank you so much! This is hugely helpful. I have also tried to get the Spanish American War records of my grandfather, but was unsuccessful. He died in a Naval Hospital, but served in the Army. I’m going to try again on his records.
    Thank you very, very much.

    Like

Another thing to keep in mind is that, just like with the 1890 census, there are alternate records to,some that were destroyed. Although my father-in-law’s records were destroyed, I was able to get some information about his service for my husband. Go online and fill out the form for requesting records. You don’t know what they have for your person until you ask.

Like

At the time of the fire, the personnel records center put out a call for WWII veterans to please provide copies of their discharge papers and other similar documents in order to help reconstruct the lost files. Some did this, but many others did not. As our WWII veterans pass from the scene, I hope that everyone will now make an effort to contact the National Archives before disposing of any documents from this period that they may happen to find while going through the effects of a deceased veteran. It may be the last chance to save part of our national history from being lost forever and make sure that particular old soldier’s personal service to our country is not forgotten.

Like

My uncle’s WWII Army records also were lost, but since he served in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) I filed a Freedom Of Information Act request with the CIA (The successor to the OSS) and after about a year, they declassified his records and sent me copies of the file. Even then, 50 years after his discharge, the still blacked our sections. But what I got looked fairly comprehensive. So there may be alternatives for some people.

Like

To what agency can one send a copy of the Army discharge so there will be a record for the future?

Like

THERE IS AN ALTERNATIVE SOURCE FOR SOME INFORMATION FOR 20th CENTURY MILITARY RECORDS:

Each state has a State Adjutant General. He is the commander of the state National Guard and militia units. In addition, in most if not all states, his office keeps records on citizens who join the military. I found very good information for both my WW1 grandfather and my WWII father through correspondence with the Tennessee state AGO’s office in Nashville, and could not speak more highly of their courtesy, speed, and professionalism.

Contact the AGO in the state that the serviceman would have been in when he joined the service – not his birth state, or the one he lived in later. The later records may be restricted for privacy considerations – you may need to furnish proof of death. Policies seem to vary from state to state. Fees may apply.

Some state AGO offices may also have records for 19th century military service, although in many states, those have been moved to state archives.

Like

My father, a WW II vet was advised when he was discharged to file his discharge papers with his local county courthouse. So, many may be found there. However, my FIL, who retired from the Navy in 1968, was not advised to do so, so his papers would not be at the courthouse.

Like

My late husband served in India and Burma and was under British command. He was wounded, spent time in a British hospital, reported back for duty but was sent home in late fall 1944. He had discharge records, but he never found any medical records. He did not receive a medical discharge, but he (and later I) believed until his death that he should have. Years ago our Representative in Congress helped search for his records but to no avail because of the fire. He did obtain medals my husband should have had all along. I even contacted one of the UK agencies (don’t remember which one) since he was in a British hospital. I would still like to know more about his injury, hospitalization and reason for his early discharge.

Like

I believe many of the records were “recreated” from other sources. Check out the book, “Who do you think you are?” by Megan Smolnyak. There is a section on military records and how to get them. It is very helpful for understanding how to play a FOIA request.

Like

Leave a Reply

Name and email address are required. Your email address will not be published.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

You may use these HTML tags and attributes:

<a href="" title="" rel=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <pre> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong> 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 7,326 other followers

%d bloggers like this: