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.