The painstaking effort to recover millions of burned military service records
Forty years ago this summer, firefighters in St. Louis arrived on the scene of what would become an archive catastrophe unparalleled in U.S. history — a disaster that to this day is affecting military veterans and their families.
Minutes after an alarm sounded on July 12, 1973, the firefighters reached the National Personnel Records Center, which held millions of official military files spanning the 20th century. They reached the burning sixth floor, but after a couple of hours had to withdraw because of the flames and heat. The inferno burned out of control for 22 hours, and it took two days before fire officials could even re-enter the building. The smoke was so thick and harsh that residents living in the area had to remain indoors for days. After 4½ days — and millions of gallons of water poured into the building — the fire department declared the fire extinguished.
The calamity ultimately destroyed the records of about 18 million veterans, including roughly 80 percent for Army personnel discharged between 1912 and 1960 and 75 percent of Air Force personnel discharged between 1947 and 1964.
The documents had never been microfilmed, nor did any duplicates exist. No cause of fire was ever determined.
About 6.5 million water-soaked and partially burned personnel files eventually were salvaged.
Decades later, technicians with the National Archives facility in St. Louis still painstakingly search for and process the burnt and brittle personnel files requested by veterans, their wives and children and researchers. Often the requester is looking for proof needed for federal entitlements, such as medical care, education benefits and burial.
“It’s been 40 years now, and we still expend the equivalent of about 30 full-time jobs a year doing nothing but respond to requests from veterans and their families and other stakeholders concerning records that were lost in that fire,” said Scott Levins, director of National Personnel Records Center, which is now located in a state-of-the-art facility in northern St. Louis.
“That’s just the reference piece of it. There are another 25 full-time people who do preservation work, and a significant part of that involves records salvaged from the fire.”
The center stores roughly 60 million military personnel records beginning with the Spanish-American War to roughly the year 2000, when the individual services started to move to full electronic record keeping, Levins said.
The center gets about 5,000 requests per day for records arising from that century-long period, he said. The records for many of those veterans are in sound condition, having either escaped damage or been created since the fire.
About 200 to 300 of those daily requests, however, end up being handled by the technicians in the center’s paper treatment lab, said Marta O’Neill, head of the center’s preservation program. There are normally 10 technicians but currently only seven because of a hiring freeze, she said.
The “B-files” — as the burned records are referred to — comprise about 75 percent of the lab’s workload, she said.
“We have some records that look like a puzzle box,” she said. “You open it up and it’s 100 pieces. Then we try to piece it back together and repair it.”
In the wake of the fire, damaged files were dumped into a makeshift tent city on the center’s 70 acres. The sheer volume of records is hard to conceive: The six-story building was nearly three football fields long and one field wide.
A registry for the damaged records was begun almost immediately as personnel tackled the waterlogged files.
Drying out the files was of paramount importance or else mold would destroy what fire did not.
A dormant vacuum-drying chamber at McDonnell Douglas’ St. Louis facilities — which had been used to simulate pressure conditions for the Mercury and Gemini space missions — was pressed into experimental service. The chamber could handle about 2,000 milk-crate sized containers holding soaked documents at any given time. The chamber would be lowered to freezing point and then filled with hot, dry air, squeezing out about 8 tons of water during each drying session.
Most of those millions of records were then stored — only to be handled again if the center receives a document request.
It’s basically luck of the draw whether a requester’s file is among them.
Anthony J. Barranco Jr., a Miami attorney, counts himself among the lucky.
Barranco’s namesake father had served in the Pacific in World War II as a surgeon and then returned home and had a family.
“We heard a story when we were kids from a well-known lawyer that Dad had been decorated for bravery on the island of Guam,” Barranco said. The elder Barranco, who has passed away, had supposedly been the first to arrive at a plane crash on Guam and pulled the pilot and co-pilot to safety and then treated them.
But Barranco never confirmed that this had actually happened, and last year he decided to seek the facts.
“My father would never talk about the war,” he said. “He would never watch a war movie on television. He would never discuss what he did during the war.”
That led to a request to the archives center in St. Louis. Several months later, he received photocopies of personnel, medical and transfer records almost 70 years old.
“Some were burned or defaced, but the majority of them were readable and in good order,” he said.
To his delight, the tale turned out to be largely true. Among the documents was a letter, badly burned around the margins, in which commanding Brig. Gen. Thomas Power wrote of his “desire to commend” Capt. Barranco for “outstanding performance of duty” at the scene of a B-29 bomber crash. The captain rescued the radio operator “while the plane was afire and ammunition was exploding,” the letter of commendation stated.
Barranco, who has no children, sent copies to his brother and his four children. “They were thrilled to have it,” he said.
Over the years, and as technology has developed, the center’s paper treatment lab has gotten better at retrieving lost information.
Portions of paper charred black by fire that were once useless are now yielding some of their secrets, thanks to the still-experimental use of infrared filters on cameras.
Burnt ink, whether from a pen or typewriter, looks different than burnt paper, but the naked eye can’t really see that, O’Neill explained.
“If you look at that piece of burned ash, and you turn it just the right way, you might get a little reflection, because ink doesn’t burn at the same rate as paper,” she said. “You might even be able to see a letter or two if you hold it at just the right position.
“We’ve found that using infrared filters on the cameras helps us capture ink, printed and typed, that’s still sitting on top of that ash. We can also manipulate that with standard software like Photoshop. After the scan, we can manipulate the light and play with curves and restore information that might have otherwise been lost.”
She said she’s not aware of this experimental technique being used anywhere else.
The lab is also considering purchasing and using new technology developed at the University of Colorado that can scan beneath fiber layers and reconstitute written information.
“A lot of our records that were damaged in the fire are fused together, like a block,” O’Neill said. “Or there are several sheets of paper that are stuck together, and if you try to separate them physically, you’re going to tear the paper or the top piece is going to stick to the lower piece and you’re still no better off.”
The new sub-fiber scan, however, can only examine tiny areas.
“To try to reconstitute an entire 8-by-11 piece of paper is quite massive in scale and requires a lot of data so we can’t do entire sheets at a time. But you can zero in on certain areas and magnify them.”
But even though a significant number of archive records like these were salvaged from the fire, the vast majority of records affected by the fire were completely wiped out of existence, Levins said.
“So when we go to reconstruct a record, it’s usually not about using some advanced technology to re-examine a piece of paper that was damaged in the fire,” he said. “Usually it’s about going to other sources of data to verify someone’s service and then create a new document they can use to get their new entitlement.”
Immediately after the fire, the federal government put a freeze on the routine disposal of records that could be useful in reconstructing veterans’ personnel files.
Among the most valuable, it turned out, was the final pay voucher.
“When we try to reconstruct service we’re really looking for three things: the date they go in, the date they got out and the character of their service,” Levins said, the final element covering the type of discharge they received.
“On the final pay voucher, you’ve actually got the day they got out and the character of their service, so you’ve got two-thirds of the equation,” he said. “They are one of our primary resources now.”
All final pay vouchers were eventually moved to the St. Louis center for permanent archiving.
The center has access to the Veterans Health Administration’s computer system in order to run a veteran’s name to see if the VA has a medical claim folder. The center then asks the VA to extract any record that can reconstruct service, such as a discharge document, known as a DD214.
A more difficult means to reconstructing a file comes from organizational records, such as unit rosters and morning reports — all of which are also housed at the center.
These have commonly been used for veterans who earned a Purple Heart but have no records to prove it, Levins said.
“Sometimes you’ll have to follow someone through their military service by looking at the units they served in during that time period,” he said. “That’s a labor-intensive search, but we will do that.
“In most cases we are successful at reconstructing the basic service and issuing a form that can be used in lieu of the DD214.
“In other instances, if people are interested in medical records and things like that, it becomes more complex. We’ll do our best, but our level of success won’t be as great.”
If there’s one positive that came out of the devastating 1973 fire, it’s that steps were taken so that no fire could ever wreak such havoc again. Archive facilities are now built with fire walls that would contain damage to a small area, and sprinklers are standard.
Levins said that the federal government “is taking better care of these records today than they have at any other time in the history of the republic.”
And the military records at the St. Louis center could very well be around as long as the republic because they are among the tiny 3 percent of federal records considered permanent, never to be destroyed, he said.
“When I speak to veterans groups, I tell them that in [a] sense they’ve been immortalized,” Levins said. “If you served in the United States military, your record’s going to be kept forever, just like the U.S. Constitution.”