Military Records and “the Records Fire”

| February 8, 2014

Many of us have heard something about a “records fire” that destroyed many military Official Military Personnel Files (OPMFs) years ago.  And we’ve also heard some people claim that “my records were destroyed in ‘the records fire’ – and that’s why there’s no record of my <insert award for valor/Special Operations qualification/service here>”.

But many people don’t know much more than the fact that a fire once happened where many military records were stored.  The reality is that liars using the excuse of a “records fire” to justify false claims about their military service are regrettably common.  Such claims are very often if not almost always false.

This article will give the facts concerning that fabled “records fire”.  In it, I’ll give some background about the storage activity, its history, and its design – which contributed to the severity of the fire.  I’ll also briefly discuss the fire and its impact.

And, finally, I’ll discuss what records were – and what records weren’t – affected by the fire.  I’ll also provide some references that provide much more detail.

BLUF:  if someone was an Army retiree alive in July 1973; served in the Army after 1959; served in the USAF after 1963; or served in the Navy or USMC – it’s a virtual certainty that their records of service were not affected by the fire.  Any claims to the contrary are pure, unadulterated organic fertilizer of the type produced by male bovines capable of reproduction.

The National Personnel Records Center

The National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) is located in the Saint Louis, MO, metropolitan area.  For years it was located at 9700 Page Avenue (the same address as the US Army Reserve’s Personnel Center – indeed, they shared the same Federal compound).  However, in 2011 NPRC moved to a new, more modern facility.  Their address today is 1 Archives Drive, Saint Louis, MO.

NPRC came into being in 1966.  What follows is an abbreviated history; one of the links at the end of this article provides more details.

Prior to World War II, personnel records for separated Federal personnel – military and civilian – were scattered among literally thousands of locations nationwide.  The dramatic expansion of Federal employment during World War II – particularly military employment, which rose by somewhere around 15 million during the war – pointed out the need for both better management of such records and the need for some degree of centralization.

During World War II, the military services began centralizing their personnel records archives (e.g., those dealing with separated personnel).  The same was also true of Federal civilian personnel records for separated employees.  This process accelerated in the immediate post-World War II period.

The Federal Records Center (FRC) was created in Saint Louis in the early 1950s.  It’s original goal was to consolidate records of former DoD civilian employees, but quickly changed to consolidation of former Federal civilian employee records.  The military did the same – in the same general area.

In the mid-1950s, a new facility was constructed in Overland, MO (on the west side of what is now the Saint Louis metro area) to house archived military records.  The decision was made to transfer control of this facility – the DoD Military Personnel Records Center (DoD MPRC) – to GSA in 1960 (the FRC had been under GSA since 1951).

By 1966, the FRC and MPRC had effectively completed their records consolidation roles.  Due to the similarity of missions, that year the decision was made to combine these activities into a new entity – the National Personnel Records Center, or NPRC.  At the time, the NPRC remained under GSA.  (The National Archives and Records Administration – NARA – was not created until1986. The US National Archives and NPRC now both fall under NARA.)

The Facility

The facility housing the former DoD MPRC was built for the Army in the 1950s.  It was a huge, 6-story, relatively open building – measuring 283′ by 728′.  It was transferred to NPRC when NPRC was created in 1966.

When completed, the facility had neither sprinkler systems nor internal firewalls.  The lack of sprinkler systems was the result of a debate within the records management and archive community when it was constructed (mid-1950s) regarding whether sprinkler systems posed more risk of damage to records in storage than did fire.  The “no sprinkler” side won the argument, and the facility was built without them.

In one of the great ironies of history, the same year the building was completed (1956) the Federal government decided that the risk of fire was indeed greater, and mandated that all new records storage facilities have sprinkler systems.  Existing facilities were apparently “grandfathered”, however, and a sprinkler system was not installed at the facility prior to 1973.

The lack of internal firewalls, however, was IMO both inexplicable and inexcusable.  Regardless of whether or not sprinkler systems were used, fire was a foreseeable danger.  Internal firewalls IMO damn well should have been included as a design feature in order to limit damage in case of fire.

In essence, in July 1973 the building was a huge, 6-story warehouse.   At the time of the fire it was mostly filled with filing cabinets full of paper records – far more than originally expected (space was becoming an issue).  Unfortunately, the Federal government was to find out the hard way that installing sprinkler systems and having internal firewalls would have been damn good ideas.

The Fire

The fire at NPRC began sometime during the night of 12 July 1973. The precise cause was never determined due to the degree of damage in the area of origin.  Evidence indicated that smoking could have been the cause, as cigarette butts were found afterwards in some trash cans at the facility.  However, spontaneous combustion is also a possible cause.  Saint Louis gets quite hot in July, and the upper floors of buildings tend to get the hottest.  Hot paper in storage can under some conditions generate enough internal heat to begin to slowly smoulder – and after a while smouldering, to burn.

At just after midnight on 12 July 1973, the first reports of smoke were called in to the local fire department.  The first firefighters were on the scene in a very short period of time – less than 4 1/2 minutes.  They indeed found a fire on the 6th floor of the building.  Unfortunately, they were unable to contain the blaze.

By 3:15AM, firefighting efforts on the 6th floor had been abandoned due to smoke and intense heat; they would be unable to reenter the 6th floor for nearly 2 days.  By 4:15AM, the entire 6th floor was involved; crews were pulled from the building approximately 5:00AM.  However, through strenuous other firefighting efforts, fire damage was contained to the 6th floor.

The fire burned out of control for 22 hours.  At that point, the fire was brought under control  The fire was not declared out by firefighting authorities until sometime during the day on 16 July 1973.  In total, firefighters from 42 local fire districts had participated in the firefighting effort.

The Damage

The damage to archived military records held by NPRC was extensive.  Between 16 and 18 million military personnel records for separated military personnel are believed to have been destroyed.  Roughly 6.5 million other OPMFs were damaged – either by the fire directly, or by the huge quantities of water used to extinguish the fire – but were later recovered.

A variety of means were used to preserve and restore damaged records.  Critical records – an index of the facility’s holdings on magnetic tape, and 100,000+ reels of microfilm containing USAF and US Army morning reports from 1912-1959 –  were removed during the fire.  Though some degradation of this film had occurred in storage, approximately 95% of it was useable.  By lucky coincidence, it also happened to correspond to the area that was most affected by the fire.  Alternate sources – including claims records on-file with the VA, individual state records, Selective Service Records, pay records, and military medical records – were used to reconstruct records of service that had been destroyed in the fire to the maximum degree practicable.

Not all records affected by the fire were destroyed; many were damaged but either completely or partially recovered.  Damaged records were not discarded, but were dried and placed in special storage.  Recovery efforts continue today.

Still, the damage was extensive.  The facility’s 6th floor was a loss (the roof had collapsed, and external walls had begun to lean outwards).  It was later removed; afterwards; the building was only 5 stories tall.

However, the records destroyed were the primary loss.  These losses were:

  • Army Records:   Personnel discharged November 1, 1912 to January 1, 1960 – 80% loss
  • USAF Records:   Personnel discharged September 25, 1947 to January 1, 1964 (with names alphabetically after Hubbard, James E.) – 75% loss

A handful of Navy and USMC records (3 dozen or fewer) might have also been affected.  The fire did not affect the area of NPRC storing Navy and USMC archival records, and no Navy/USMC records are known with certainty to have been affected.  However, it’s estimated that no more than 3 dozen Navy/USMC OMPFs in archival storage might – I stress, might – have been out of normal storage at the time and on analyst desktops in the area burned. Any Navy/USMC records that were out of storage and in analyst workspaces in that area at the time of the fire could have been destroyed.

Reportedly, records for then-living Army retirees were also not affected.  These records were reportedly still maintained by the nearby Army Reserve Components Personnel and Administration Center, which was not affected by the fire.

In short:  many irreplaceable records of Army and USAF service during World War I, World War II, and Korea were lost.  While a substantial amount was recovered from alternate sources, much of America’s individual military history – and the irreplaceable original documents containing it – relating to those conflicts literally went up in smoke.

The Stolen Valor “So What”

That’s what happened.  But for potential stolen valor cases, what does this mean?  Here’s my analysis.

1.   If someone served in the Navy or USMC, it’s a virtual certainty that their records were not affected by the fire.  At most, 3 dozen or fewer OPMFs for discharged Navy/USMC personnel in archival storage might have been affected.  None are known to have been destroyed, and NPRC’s official position is that none were destroyed.

2. If someone was a US Army retiree living in July 1973 – their records were not affected by the fire.  Records for living US Army retirees were reportedly still being stored at the nearby US Army Reserve Components Personnel Command (then the US Army Reserve Components Personnel and Administration Center) at the time. (See paragraph 26.a, page 2-E-2, in the last reference below.)

3.  If someone served in the Army in Vietnam, their records of service in Vietnam were not affected.   No US Army records relating to personnel discharged from active duty after 1959 were destroyed in the fire.  The same is true of US Navy and USMC personnel, but for a different reason – see the first item above.

4.  If someone served in Vietnam in the USAF in Vietnam, there’s only a very slim chance that their records were affected. However, for that to be possible they’d have to have (1) served in the USAF in Vietnam between 15 November 1961 (start of 1st USAF-recognized campaign for the Vietnam Service Medal) and 1 January 1964 (last date of USAF records affected by the fire), (2) been discharged from the USAF before 1 January 1964, and (3) had a last name alphabetically after “Hubbard, James E.”, for that to be possible.  No USAF records relating to personnel discharged after 1 January 1964 were affected.  Even then, it’s a stretch.  That’s a rather small fraction of the number of airmen who served in Vietnam.  End of year troop strengths in Vietnam in 1961-1963 for all services were 3,025, 11,300, and 16,300, respectively.  Most of these personnel were US Army soldiers.

5.  Anyone who first joined the US military during the last 50 years claiming that their records were “destroyed in the fire” is a damned liar.  The newest records destroyed by the fire were from 1963.

Bottom line:  if someone served in World War I, World War II, or Korea – the fire might have affected (or destroyed) their records.  But if they served in Vietnam?  Only if they served there in the USAF between 15 November 1961 and 31 December 1963 is that a possibility.  Even then, as noted above that’s highly unlikely.

And anyone making that claim who was discharged from active duty after 1963 is a damned liar.

References

The following links provide further information about NPRC, the 1973 Fire, and it’s aftermath.  They were used in the preparation of this article, either as background or as direct sources.

http://www.archives.gov/st-louis/archival-programs/history.html

http://www.archives.gov/st-louis/military-personnel/fire-1973.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Personnel_Records_Center_fire

http://www.archives.gov/st-louis/military-personnel/nprc-fire.pdf

http://www.defense.gov/News/NewsArticle.aspx?ID=120446

http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2011/fall/nprc.html

http://www.airforcemag.com/Features/Pages/2013/July%202013/box071213records.aspx

http://blog.eogn.com/eastmans_online_genealogy/2012/03/the-national-personnel-records-center-fire-of-1973-not-everything-was-destroyed.html

http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/metro/searching-for-treasure-at-military-records-center/article_ed6db9a4-268e-5a67-ab3c-d1df72c1aef2.html

http://todaysdocument.tumblr.com/post/55293539712/the-fire-at-the-national-personnel-records-center

http://www.stripes.com/news/the-painstaking-effort-to-recover-millions-of-burned-military-service-records-1.233869

http://www.benefits.va.gov/warms/docs/admin21/m21_1/mr/part3/subptiii/ch02/ch02_sece.doc

Category: Historical, The FOIA Process

Comments (21)

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  1. Kerry Swart says:

    Thank you for this post. I served from 1958 – 1960 (active duty) 1960 – 1964) (receives) and have always assumed my records were destroyed. I am going to request my DD214 and see what happens.
    Keep up the good work on Stolen Valor. Arizona had a notable violator when the publisher of The Arizona Republic was exposed as a phony.

  2. HMCS(FMF) ret says:

    Hondo – excellent work on the article!

  3. Hondo says:

    Kerry Swart: per the info I found, your records should have been unaffected if you were discharged after 1 January 1960.

    The only possible issue I see would be if you were a reservist (from your 2-year term of active duty and the dates, I’d guess you were a Cold War Army draftee). One source I’ve seen said a few members of the Army Reserve who did active duty prior to 1960 but who didn’t receive a final discharge from the USAR until later were affected as well. I probably should have mentioned that in the article as well; I may go back and add that.

    If you were a draftee, I don’t think you were in that category. If not, there’s a slight possibility your records might have been affected.

    In any case, hopefully they weren’t among those that had significant water damage (some that weren’t destroyed did). I’ve never been able to determine whether the damaged records were limited to those on the 6th floor that were not destroyed (a larger than originally expected number survived) or if other floors had significant water damage.

    Best of luck.

  4. OWB says:

    Yep. My Father is one whose records were partially destroyed in that fire. He had kept good records and was able to fill in what they did not have and able to verify that what they thought they were seeing on the partially destroyed records was correct. For him it was mostly just filling in some gaps. Very large gaps, but enough of the originals were in tact to confirm that what he provided was correct.

    Still it was a royal pain to provide those records to them. But, it was also a great life lesson for me – I kept a copy of every military record I ever received, and followed up on those which I had not received as soon as I though they should have been provided.

  5. Sig says:

    My grandfather asked about getting a medal he’d earned in Korea and they told him they had no record of his service. I don’t know how the dates played out. Fortunately, he had copies of everything, which he sent them. He never ever talked about Korea (at least with family) until after my brother and I came back from Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively.

  6. Pinto Nag says:

    Excellent article, Hondo. One stop shopping for the facts about the fire.

  7. NHSparky says:

    Awesome job as usual, Hondo. And good-to-know information to out phonies as well.

  8. John M. says:

    Thanks for posting all your research. My mother enlisted in 1942, went to OCS in 1943, and served until 1954 when she got pregnant with my brother and was forced to leave the service. She died of cancer in 1971 when I was 9 years old, so I was unable to hear of her military career first hand. I’ve got all the records that she maintained, but it would have been nice to get a copy of her official records. I’ve heard many stories of the St. Louis fire, but yours is the most detailed. Again, much appreciated!

  9. CWO-ACB says:

    Wow. Absolutely amazing article. I sincerely appreciate this info. Hats off to you Hondo. Should we ever cross paths, it would be an honor to buy you a frosty beverage of your choice.
    From a grateful fellow vet,
    -ACB

  10. Poetrooper says:

    Hondo, job well done, soldier.

    I’ve always wondered whether or not my records were affected by that fire and it’s good to know they weren’t. Fortunately I kept enough of my records to substantiate my six years of service. Also I utilized the GI Bill to attend college when I ETS’d in 1967 so my eligibility for veteran benefits was established prior to the fire. Also I have my two DD-214’s from both three year tours (I had a break in service). I’ve never been overly concerned but still it’s good to know my records were unharmed.

    May I suggest that TAH readers see to it that this article be
    dispersed as widely as possible to veterans organizations? I’m going to send it to the 327th Airborne and 506th Airborne websites.

    Thanks again for your hard work and service, Hondo.

  11. Sparks says:

    Hondo, thank you and THANK YOU. A lot of hard work and it is very much appreciated.

  12. Just An Old Dog says:

    The entire series on the FOIA is great, and this was the cherry on top.
    Basicly if anyone under the age of 67 says their records were destroyed in the “great fire” fire they are as full of shit as a Christmas Turkey.
    You have to do another piece on How Hurricane Katrina destroyed military records. Thats what happened to Tina Kirsten’s records.

  13. ExHack says:

    Hondo,

    Thank you again for all you do to keep the lamp of truth shining bright. Keeps the roaches on the defensive, where they belong.

  14. IFCSguy says:

    As luck would have it, mine got destroyed. My county clerk came through however, as it was required that all returnees in my county hand over their DD214’s to them for a photo copy. They were most cordial a year or so ago when I ask them for a copy of their copy, after I was informed that the US gov had let their copies burn up. Nothing to report here out of the ordinary though. Just in, Aug 54 and out Aug 56, date of rank May 56, SP 3. Goes on about reserve obligation but I didn’t have to do anything there to fulfill it. Only thing I can see there is that my rank was E-4 not as some might think, E-3. The only mention of my training was artillery school and that seemed under reported, but oh well. I lucked out and didn’t have to see combat. I sure honor those who did. Since I’ve had and maintained various security clearances working in the defense industry since well before the fire, I have to wonder if a FOIA request might reveal more info to me. Don’t know what or who to ask though.

  15. Eggs says:

    I’d like to look into getting info on Dad’s WWII service, I had some paperwork years ago but unfortunately lost it. I also had and uncle whose service I question, apparently his headstone says Korea on it, but I don’t think he made it past Guam during that war.

    • Fred Nordhorn says:

      If you know what unit he was in Collage Park Maryland National Archives has the unit history files. Information about him may be in the file

  16. MGySgtRet says:

    Nice Job Hondo. Have heard stories about the fire, but never had any of the facts.

  17. David says:

    When my Dad retired from the Reserves he was told his records were burned and he had to bring his own (extensive – he kept copies of everything) copies in to reconstruct his files. He was WWII but did no active duty after about 1952 or so. He had bad luck with paperwork and fires…. he was born in St. Joe MO and his original birth certificate (kept at county level back then) burned up, too. Always remember my Grandmother telling the story of the damn fool lawyer asking her on the stand if she was present when Dad was born!

  18. Enigma4you says:

    I have been hoping and praying that one day they will be able to reconstruct my Uncles Records. He was KIA on 5 may 1942.

  19. Dwight says:

    My dad was a medic in Pattons 3rd Army throughout WWII his records were burnt. Any other sources you know of to find out any info on him?

    • Fred Nordhorn says:

      Check Unit History file: National Archives in College Park, MD. If you know what unit he was in