For those family historians who have tried to or want to retrieve military records, this may explain why some are not available. There was a disastrous fire.
In July 1973, the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, MO, suffered a fire, but quick-acting officials, dedicated workers and advanced technology prevented a total loss of military records.
Recovery efforts began before the fire was out. Other agencies preserved records that might help in any reconstruction of the affected records; workers removed tens of thousands of reels of records from other floors in the building; to prevent hold, thymol was sprayed on the water logged ruins of the building; and workers hauled thousands of plastic crates filled with smoky, wet records to a nearby aircraft facility where they were stacked in a huge vacuum-drying chamber to be dried. Their efforts paid off – about 6.5 million records were saved.
What Was Lost?
The loss was significant and amounted to 16-18 million Official Military Personnel Files (OMPF) for:
- 80% of the US Army personnel discharged November 1, 1912 to January 1, 1960 and
- 75% of the US Air Force personnel discharged September 25, 1947 to January 1, 1954.
No duplicate copies were ever made, microfilm copies were not produced, no indexes were created prior to the fire; millions of documents had been loaned to the Department of Veterans Affairs before the fire so a complete listing of the destroyed records is not available.
To reconstruct records, the NPRC established a “B” (burned) registry file to index the 6.5 million recovered records and a special area to protect and safeguard them.
It also established an “R” (reconstructed) file to for all newly reconstructed records and a storage area separate from the “B” files.
A new branch was set up to reconstruct records for anyone requesting military service information. Staffers used documents and alternate sources outside and inside the NPRC – Veterans Administration claims files, individual state records, multiple name pay vouchers, the Selective Service System registration records, pay records from the Government Accounting Office and medical records from military hospitals.
Reconstruction continues today on the basic service details lost. Due to the extensive damage, investigators were never able to determine the source of the fire.
Initial Request for Record
To request military service records (including DD 214/Separation Documents, Personnel Records, Replacement Medals and/or Medical Records) online, by mail or by fax, go to http://www.archives.gov/veterans/military-service-records/index.html. Veterans use this form to prove their military service and to access VA benefits.
Don’t be discouraged if your request cannot be filled. You will simply have to persevere and use alternative sources.
The information you will need to start is the date and place of birth and date of death; perhaps also the Social Security number and the veteran’s unique service number. Begin by filling out SF-180 (https://www.archives.gov/veterans/military-service-records/standard-form-180) to the NPRC. It will retrieve available documents or inform you that the veteran’s file is in the process of being reconstructed.
When discharged, a veteran was given discharge papers (Report of Separation DD-214) that outline his/her military service (unit info, rank, dates of service and discharge and perhaps date and place of entry into active duty, home address at time of entry, participation in battles and campaigns, decorations, medals, citations, service outside the US, reason for separation and home address after separation). For more information About Military Service Records and Official Military Personnel Files (OMPFs, DD Form 214), go to https://www.archives.gov/veterans/military-service-records/about-service-records.html.
Copies of discharge papers were stored in the veteran’s personnel file but few were saved after the 1973 fire. It is possible to locate copies of the originals by employers, funeral homes or with the Adjutant General records. You may have to use Last Pay Vouchers, VA records, passport applications or naturalization records.
The response you receive after submitting the SF-180 will verify the existence of a veteran’s Last Pay Voucher; if such exists, the NPRC will provide ordering details. This voucher usually has the service number of the veteran and some other information about the individual’s service.
The Adjutant General is a state’s senior military officer and that office holds military records for the state. Upon discharge, veterans were instructed to register their military service with the local VA offices and that information was then filed with the Adjutant General, who may have copies of the original separation of DD 214 papers.
Many of the NPRC files were on loan to the Department of Veterans Affairs before the 1973 fire so they should be intact. If the veteran claim was filed after 1973, the veteran had to prove military service so the VA may have a partially reconstructed personnel file and able to assist you in locating claim files.
Other alternative sources include the NPRCs 10 million Medical-Related Alternate Records, morning reports and unit rosters, as well as death certificates, funeral home records, passport applications and naturalization papers.