U.S. National Archives Recalls Fire That Claimed Millions of Military Personnel Files

The National Archives and Records Administration recently marked the 45th anniversary of a devastating fire at the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, Missouri, that destroyed approximately 16–18 million Official Military Personnel Files (OMPF) documenting the service history of former military personnel discharged from 1912 to 1964.

Shortly after midnight on July 12, 1973, a fire was reported at the NPRC’s military personnel records building in St. Louis, Missouri. The fire burned out of control for 22 hours and it took two days before firefighters were able to re-enter the building. Due to the extensive damage, investigators were never able to determine the source of the fire.

The fire destroyed paper records in 1973 which sadly is before the capability of making digital copies for backup purposes existed.

You can read more in an article by Kerri Lawrence in the National Archives News at https://www.archives.gov/news/articles/archives-recalls-fire.


This should not discourage people who have relatives that were in the military from asking for files. I requested the files for my great uncle who was in France during WWI. The records center was able to make copies of over twenty pages of his records, all of them charred around the edges much like the picture you’ve shown, but almost all of the pages readable. Not everyone will be so lucky, but some records were recovered.


Microfilm was available before 1972 Another reason to film o digitize paper records.


There are also a lot of records to reconstruct service NPRC will not research for you. You can go there and do it yourself or hire a researcher. If you are interested in learning how to research all branches and what’s available (especially what they won’t do for you), or need to work with someone, please visit the WWII Research and Writing Center at http://wwiirwc.com. I have books that teach you how to research, articles, videos, online courses, and the 1st of 4 talks I gave at RootsTech 2018 on how to start research is available on my main page. The same strategies, locations of records, and what is available apply to WWI and Korea also.


If you go to the Research Center in St. Louis, you need to make an appointment at least 6 weeks in advance. If your ancestor was one of the many unlucky people whose records were destroyed in the Fire, try the VA. Most people had their records transferred to the VA after discharge. The other lesson here, if you have a fireproof safe, you need to make sure it is waterproof. This is what destroyed most of the military records in the fire.


Unfortunately my wife’s uncle was killed in France in 1945. We have his Purple Heart, but no records. The people in St. Louis tried to pull together other records, but couldn’t find any. We only know his death date and location of France, but no details on how or where.


    wfitzpatrick50 – NPRC will do as little as possible to reconstruct service. There are files called the IDPF – Individual Deceased Personnel File and other things that we can get. You have to go there or hire a researcher. If you look on my website and scroll down this record page – to IDPF you can see some examples. http://wwiiresearchandwritingcenter.com/portfolio/stories-from-the-wwii-battlefield-additional-resources/ If you need to work with a researcher to reconstruct history, feel free to contact me at info@wwiirwc.com. There are testimonials on my site under services and I help people do this every day. I also have a network of people in Europe I often refer clients to, especially if they want to walk in their soldier’s footsteps.
    Jennifer Holik
    International WWII Researcher, Speaker, Author


My father’s US Army Air Corps World War II records were destroyed in this fire. He knew a lot, he could not tell me much because some of it was classified. All I have been able to obtain were his discharge records. I would like to know why he was at White Sands, New Mexico in 1944.


    If you read the other replies I gave to other posts, you will see there are other records available, including Morning Reports which will show you what unit and where he was – it is possible he was in or near White Sands for training. When you have the MR and know where he was and in what units, there are other records to obtain from NARA College Park for his unit(s) so you get a better idea of what was taking place. NARA is only one place to start looking, but you have first have to know what units he was in. Using the final unit on his discharge paper it not the whole story. Men were moved in and out of units and sometimes they were put into a unit only for discharge. You should see the client case I am working on now and the units he was in. Will make your head spin. Much of that has been declassified now, though there may still be pieces that are not. Feel free to email me if you need research assistance and check out my website as there are a lot of resources there.


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