The NPRC records fire of 1973

Up to 18 million military records were engulfed in flames


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The files were stored in cardboard boxes stacked on steel shelves lining the sixth and top floor of a large, rectangular federal building in a small, northwest suburb of St. Louis. They were packed so tightly within the thousands of boxes that, when the fire erupted, it burned so intense, so quickly, so out of control, it took the responding 43 fire departments more than two days to smother. When the smoke settled and the interior temperature cooled, the building’s staff found that up to 18 million of “the most fragile records in our nation” had been reduced to smoldering piles and puddles of ash.*

There was no motive, no suspect, and few clues. The person(s) responsible for destroying 80 percent of Army personnel records for soldiers discharged between 1 Nov 1912 to 1 Jan 1960 and 75 percent of the Air Force records of Airmen discharged between 25 Sep 1947 to 1 Jan 1964 (with surnames beginning with Hubbard and running through the end of the alphabet) has never been found.

NPRC Fire 1973

The NPRC records fire of 1973 destroyed up to 18 million WWI, WWII, and Korean War Veterans’ personnel records.

The NPRC records fire is 42-year old news, yet even today it continues to impact the lives of our most sacred Veterans and their dependents and survivors.

How does an Army Air Forces bombardier from our Greatest Generation apply for VA healthcare and benefits without records of his service? What can be done for the fiduciary of an Army Nurse Corps Veteran looking for records to piece together his grandmother’s legacy? How does NPRC staff deal with the thousands of records requests from this time period it fields each year?

In the days following the fire, NPRC used experimental treatments to recover about 6.5 million burned and water-damaged records. Today, it has a preservation program, split between two teams (1 & 2), reconstructing what was recovered. This has proved helpful and hopeful for the many “treasure hunt” stories that occasionally surface in media profiles.

But, what about those whose records were not recovered?

You can help VA help NPRC reconstruct the damaged record. There is a specific request you must fill out that gives VA the authority to ask NPRC to reconstruct that file. This request provides information that allows the NPRC to search for other types of documents, such as individual state records, Multiple Name Pay Vouchers from the Adjutant General’s Office, Selective Service System registration records, pay records from the Government Accounting Office, as well as medical records from military hospitals (current Army list; current Air Force list), unit records and morning reports, and entrance and separation x-rays and organizational records, that would assist you with your VA healthcare access or compensation claim, or for valuable research on your family member’s service history.

When it comes to VA compensation, however, maybe you don’t have time to play detective. It is critical, in the request you send to VA, that you provide as much information as you can, including the units you were assigned to, as well as the name of the company, battalion, regiment, squadron, group, and/or wing.

VA will accept, as alternate sources for records, statements from service medical personnel, certified “buddy” statements or affidavits, accident and police reports, Employment-related examination reports, letters written during service, photographs taken during service, pharmacy prescription records, insurance-related examination reports, medical evidence from civilian/private hospitals, clinics, and physicians that treated you during service or shortly after separation, and photocopies of any service treatment records that you may have in your possession.

It is important to note that, although these details can significantly help, VA does not rely only on service treatment records when deciding claims for cases that are related to the 1973 fire.

While this can appear daunting, there is help available; VA encourages you to work with an accredited representative or agent if you need assistance. You can also request an attorney, claims agent, or Veteran Service Organization representative online.

The ramifications of this tragedy have been longstanding and well documented, and it couldn’t have happened to a more heroic group of Veterans at a worse time—when those files were needed most. Archaeologists two centuries from now are not going to magically dig up microfiche duplicates that were never created. Those records are lost to time. With NPRC’s assistance, VA is committed to ensuring that no eligible but affected Veteran goes without the benefits and services (or information) to which he and she have earned.

 

*In 2012, NPRC relocated to a new building housing 60 million records (from the Spanish-American War to about the year 2000) in 1.8 million boxes “in a climate-controlled warehouse with a constant temperature of about 35 degrees and with a relative humidity that never dips below 40 percent.”

Some information within this post has been sourced from outside, non-VA media. Each instance has been hyper linked to the original material.

Author

Jason Davis

Jason Davis served five years in the 101st ABN, including two combat tours to Iraq. He’s currently an M.A. candidate in Writing at Johns Hopkins University and serves as social media administrator for the Veterans Benefits Administration.

Comments

  1. walter rencehausen    

    Thank You. They tell me “cant find records of my time being a Prisoner of war” Leipzig Germany, 1944,April. (69th Infantry Div. 273 inf Regt. But I do have Buddy Statements. will That suffice ??? Thank You .

    1. Jennifer Holik    

      Walter, you should have the Unit Records and POW records at NARA in College Park, MD searched. The POW cards and records are there. If you need a researcher at College Park, check the resources section on my website http://jenniferholik.com – Jonathan is a great researcher and on-site every day.

  2. toni chiara    

    Have the DoD and VA hire jobless Veterans and have them scan the paper records to electronic files with electronic back-up records. It is ridiculous to have boxes of paper that could catch fire. Be pro-active and not have another loss of valuable records.

    1. David Arquette    

      toni
      VA has been paperless and has been scanning/archiving records for years now. No worries.

      1. armyguy    

        Iwas 6 years old when that fire took place.So when I went to the gulf war and got out they could not use the excuse that my records burned in the fire. But they did use the excuse that I did not serve on foreign ground. I had to produce a stressor indicating combat service in support of my caim. Luckily I listened to a vietnam vet that told me to do the following. Before exiting the service go into your 201 file and get your original orders of combat service medals which is a stressor needed for your claims. And keep for safekeeping. And sure enough that day came when I had to produce proof.The bureacucy of the system fell short when faced with a soldier that did his homework. Thank god for that vietnam vet that was tired of getting shafted and passed his knowledge to me.

  3. Bill Galbreath    

    What a mess!! I always wondered if that was a convenience fire.

    The way our inner workings of our present government portrays, I would not be surprised if I read/heard about another catastrophic fire of destruction.

    All this goings on now with our VA hospitals and so called lack of performance and care of our veterans still leads me to believe that leaders are at the rear pushing when they should be up front pulling/leading.

    1. Michael Bish    

      My mom told me that she was a WASP and I could not find her records because they said they were burned up. They also told me that her initial for her last could not be found (it was C) because of the fire. I was also told that since she deadsticked a P38 into an airfield located in Texas at the time and it rolled and messed up her back, the government would not help with any medical and her brother had retained an attorney and that is when her records were supposed to have disappeared. Now that the WASP have been recognized her paperwork never show up. Now that is funny because all those women that have been honored had their paperwork or others found them but I can’t find my moms. You got to love a lying government, you do not me.

  4. Joseph Albert Moser    

    I have been trying to get my father’s Purple Heart for years now. His records were burned up in that fire. He served from January 23, 1945 to August 8, 1947. While he was in a foxhole in 1945 (he is almost 90 years old and doesn’t remember the date) in Northern Luzon, a Japanese artillery shell landed near him, he said it felt like someone had hit him beside the head with a flat board. He was knocked unconscious for a period of time and when he regained consciousness the army medics were treating his head wounds and cleaning him up. They bandaged his head and put him back in his foxhole. He has a significant hearing loss and a 50% VA disability rating because of it. He is also currently on aid and attendance.

    I have been talking with Mary A. Johnson of the U.S. Army Human Resources Command from Ft. Knox, KY and she had me send for the Unit Morning reports but as of yet we haven’t received them. It has been 71 years and I would really like to get this for him before he dies. If you can help me with this it would be greatly appreciated.

    1. Jennifer Holik    

      Joseph,
      From the NPRC website, they will not do a Morning Report search for you. To obtain Morning Reports you have to go there yourself or hire a researcher. I’m a WWII historian and writer and refer all my clients to Norm Richards, an independent researcher like myself. He will request the OMPF (service file) and follow-up to see if it really burned or if NPRC is only sending you the letter to lighten their work load. He will also pull Morning Reports listing your dad. The Purple Heart usually isn’t listed in Morning Reports, but once you have traced the service and know what unit(s) he served in, you can look in Unit Records at NARA College Park, MD (I have a researcher there too) who can search those for the unit(s) your dad was in and try to find a copy of the citation.

      Quite often, the unit on the discharge papers is not the only unit in which a soldier served. In many cases, especially at the end of the war, soldiers with enough points were put into a unit ready to be disbanded, sent to the states in that unit (in which they never saw combat) and discharged. Then the unit was disbanded.

      You can learn more about researching WWII records in the books I published this year and get Norm Richard’s contact info on my website http://jenniferholik.com – Norm’s info and my College Park researcher are listed under RESOURCES. There is also a WWII Toolbox with additional resources.

  5. William (Bill) Elmore    

    If you are told by NARA or by VA, your records were destroyed in the fire, request Certified copies again through your member of Congress. Also note, the VA has a records center in St. Louis as well (Records Management Center), that houses millions of veterans records as well. Ask the VA to search their holdings and make you a complete copy of all their holdings of your records.

    1. Sandra Blalock    

      I’ve read that VA has access to those records but can’t find anywhere on their website what form I need to fill out to request copies nor anything else about the process for requesting the data like which VA mailing address to send the request to. I’m trying to help my uncle find his old medical records as he was AF with last name starting with ‘B’ so they should still exist.

  6. Sandra Gerald    

    My dad is a WWII veteran. He was injured by enemy fire the day after D-Day on the Normady Beach. He never received any recognition for this injury. I had 2 proofs from old family records they 1st told me i needed. After many frustrating attempts, I have been told the proof of enemy fire was destroyed in the fire. Sure wish there was some way to get this recognition before his passing. He is now 91. Very sad!

    1. Jennifer Holik    

      Sandra see my note to Harlan below. His injuries should be documented in Morning Reports and elsewhere in Unit level records. These are held in two separate locations and it is better to work with a researcher to get what you need. Feel free to contact me on my website. http://jenniferholik.com

  7. E P Smith    

    Even though the personal records were destroyed the finance records were not. Finance records show where you were at. Combat pay info even POW info. Those records were maintained at Ft Benjamin Harrison. Indiana and were all kept intact

  8. Tim cantwell    

    I have requested any records available on my father from ww2, I have some papers that he had but not much, was told that most was lost in the fire but with the new tech was hoping to find out new info, where would I apply for this?

    1. Jennifer Holik    

      Tim Cantwell – see my answer to Harlan below.
      Jennifer

  9. Laura McKee    

    hi. My husband was in Vietnam during 70′-71′. During that time he was shot in the field. He received treatment in the field. He was not medivac’ed out. He returned to Buffalo NY and was examined at the VA Hospital here. They found shrapnel in him and gave him a 10% disability. He worked for the post office after that and when thePurple Heart stamp came out the p.o. Sent him a commendation for being a Purple Heart recipient. He NEVER received one. I contacted our local congressman who handles veterans issues and he told me to contact the Purple Heart assoc (?). W e received a letter from them saying they had no records of my husband. If he got a 10% disability and a commendation from the U.S.postal service then why didn’t he get his Purple Heart ?? Two govt agencies have acknowledged that he was shot and one of them called him a Purple Heart recipient. So, where the hell is his Purple Heart ? He has suffered enough from problems from his exposure to Agent Orange. I think him receiving his Purple Heart medal is the least this government can do now.

  10. Harlan Herder    

    My grandpa was a World War 2 veteran who never got any type of VA assistance because his records were lost in that fire. Can I as his grandson put this request in to find proof of his service? I have a photo of him and an uncle has his dog tags. When he was alive this information was not enough proof to be reconize as a veteran by the VA. His comrades were since awarded Medal of Honors. Please help.

    1. Jennifer Holik    

      Yes, as his grandson, as long as he was discharged by 1953, the records are open to you and anyone else who wants them. You are probably better off hiring a researcher to work with who can re-request the file (it didn’t always burn and sometimes they do have pieces of it they have saved from fire and water damage) and pull other records to reconstruct his service history. It can be done. All of my family member’s Army and Air Corps files burned and I was able to trace it all. If you need help, look at my website: http://jenniferholik.com I wrote a book this year “Stories from the World War II Battlefield” Volume 1 covers Army and Air Corps – it is over 300 pages and will walk you through how to do it or you can hire myself or someone else to help you. Feel free to contact me with questions and be sure to look through the Additional resources for the books as I have checklists to help researchers navigate things and full file examples you can look at on the website.

  11. Michael Gamble    

    I teach a college course in the vietnam war. Is there a VA or other depository of courses and lessons about the war? Do people who teach about the war ever get together at any conference or meeting to share ideas and instructional materials?

    Thanks

    Michael Gamble
    New York Institute of technology
    1955 Broadway
    New York, NY 10023
    201 970-2076

    mgamble@nyit.edu

    1. Lewis Colon    

      I am a Vietnam Era Vet who built a POW/MIA Vietnam Tribute Motorcycle to honor all those that served. If interested I can send you some pictures and maybe a short video. This bike tells a story and HONORS all those that served. I find that a picture tells a thousand words. Only suggesting. We cannot forget.

  12. Oliver Eugene Davidson    

    When I needed copies of my military records in the late 1900 i was told they burned in the fire,but when i contact my state congressman in less than a month he received my records.I ask afters how that happened,no one knew.

  13. Lewis Colon    

    I am a Vietnam Era Vet and I am conducting a family history of our service in the military. We have over 18 vets and 100 years. I have my grandfather’s discharge from 1916 in the U.S.Army. I have an uncle who served in Korea and received the BRONZE Star. We are trying to find out under what circumstances. It is very important to our family. He belonged to the 65th Infantry US Army from Puerto Rico. Since his personal records were allegedly destroyed in the fire are there any other ways of finding out . Thank you for your time. Lewis Colon. Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

  14. AndreaSalantDixon    

    My husband served as a US Marine in Vietnam. One of his duties was spraying agent orange in the fields. He was also on crash crew and worked on planes with agent orange aboard.Years later he developed lung cancer and subsequently died from it. His military records do not show his Vietnam service. However, they do show he was on military vessels leaving from US ports. I have contacted the military records department for ships logs and destinations. They in turn told me they do not have deck logs or destinations for the ships he was on. My claim was denied based on the fact they do not have records of where the ships went nor the names of personnel who were aboard those ships. Can anyone help me?

  15. Dustin    

    With the move of the VA towards Digital records can we please, as veterans ask that when the VA digitizes our records that the originals are sent to us and not destroyed. Regardless of “certified as the true ad complete original record” by the VA or outside contractors that the whole records were digitized in full there is no way to no until that veteran gets a copy of their claims file or goes on appeal and finds past evidence no longer in their file. This is not subjective “what ifs” it does happen and i know of it happening to an individual in baltimore who had their file sent to detroit to help with their backlog. In the very least hold it, send a letter to the Veteran stating that their records have been digitized and if they wish to obtain a copy of the original documents they have 30 days to respond to the letter or they will be destroyed. Once those records are lost, they are lost forever and years of work and medical evidence can be lost in an instant effecting that Veteran for years and decades to come.

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