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Reconstructing the Past: The National Personnel Record Center Fire of 1973

September 28, 2022 by | 0 comments

This month we welcome a special guest contributor to the Fold3 blog. Michael Strauss is an Accredited Genealogist and works at Ancestry ProGenealogists®.

On July 12, 1973, a catastrophic fire broke out in the National Personnel Record Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, Missouri. This facility housed the United States military personnel files. The fire broke out shortly after midnight, and firefighters arrived on the scene within minutes. Crews managed to reach the sixth floor of the complex, but the fire was so intense that it burned out of control for 22 hours. It took four and a half days to extinguish the flames fully.

After the fire was out, the NPRC was tasked with determining the fire’s root cause and deciding how to proceed with recovery efforts for records feared destroyed. Authorities could not determine the cause of the fire, and the staff immediately turned their attention to the records. Was anything salvageable?

B-File (or burnt file) discharge certificate for Burton Lancaster (courtesy National Personnel Record Center)

Military records lost in the fire

Between 16-18 million Official Military Personnel Files (OMPF) records were either destroyed or damaged due to the fire.

The United States Army personnel records suffered the most from the blaze. Files for personnel discharged between November 1, 1912, to January 1, 1960, were 80% destroyed.

The United States Air Force (founded on September 18, 1947, and separated from the Army) also suffered significant losses. Personnel records from September 25, 1947, to January 1, 1964, were 75% destroyed. The loss began with surnames starting with James E. Hubbard.

Fortunately, the military personnel records from the United States Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard were unaffected by the fire and remain intact.

What is considered archival?

Military personnel records are open to the public 62 years after a service member leaves the military. For genealogical research purposes, records of the Punitive Expedition of 1916, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War should have no restrictions. For any service members separated after 62 years, the records are non-archival and subject to access restrictions. Access is granted and understood to include an immediate family member.

Reconstructing lost records

Three commonly used record sets can be requested to reconstruct losses from the 1973 fire.

Burnt Files: These records called “B Files” survived the blaze but may have either fire and/or water damage, often around the edges of the papers. The staff at the NPRC requires additional time before patrons are allowed to examine the files.

Reconstructed Files: Following the 1973 fire, the NPRC reached out to veterans requesting copies of their original discharges and other personnel military papers. If no burnt file exists and the veteran supplied copies of their relevant papers, the record center will provide copies.

Pvt. Gandolfo Scarnici (photo courtesy of Virginia M. Scarnici)

Auxiliary Files: If the Official Military Personnel File (OMPF) was destroyed and no burnt file or reconstructed file can be ordered, the NPRC will provide copies of the final payroll forms for the veteran at the time of discharge. These files are typically a few pages in length.

Examples of Auxiliary Files for Pvt. Gandolfo Scarnici (courtesy of the National Personnel Record Center)

How can Fold3® help you reconstruct a military history when personnel records have been destroyed?

Fold3® has several collections that can help you reconstruct the military history of your ancestor. Valuable sources for the Mexican Punitive Expedition and World War I include service numbers, military units, records of events, and troopships. The following collections can prove very helpful in finding that information:

United States Army Moring Reports 1912-1939

United States Army Transport Service, Passenger Lists

Other sources for WWII research include unit histories, photo collections, and Memorials. In addition, the following collections can help reconstruct service numbers, dates of enlistment, admission to military hospitals, and missing aircrew personnel.

World War II Army Enlistment Records

United States World War II Hospital Admission Card Files, 1942-1954

United States Army Missing Air Crew Reports, World War II

Requesting copies of records

Patrons can request copies of OMPF files online at: https://www.archives.gov/veterans/military-service-records or by visiting the NPRC research room by appointment. If you cannot visit the facility, patrons can also employ contractors to request copies of files on their behalf. The other option is to mail in Standard Form #180 filled out (which is a PDF fillable and printable form). This form can be found online at: https://www.archives.gov/files/standard-form-180.pdf and should be mailed to:

National Personnel Records Center
(Military Personnel Records)
1 Archive Drive
St. Louis, MO 63138

Fold3® has nearly 600 million records to help you reconstruct your ancestor’s military history. Start searching our archives today!

US Air Force Celebrates 75 Years!

September 15, 2022 by | 51 Comments

September 18, 2022, marks the 75th birthday of the United States Air Force. This branch of the United States military was established through the National Security Act, though officials realized the strategic value of air power long before.

Early Wright Flyer

During the Civil War, military balloons provided an eagle-eye view of the battlefield and helped military leaders conduct reconnaissance missions and direct fire over enemy territory. In 1907, the US Army Signal Corps created the Aeronautical Division and contracted with the Wright Brothers to deliver Aeroplane No. 1. Still in its infancy when WWI began, military aviation quickly expanded. In 1918, the government removed aviation from the Signal Corps and established the US Army Air Service. By the time WWI ended, the Air Service had nearly 200,000 officers and men, 45 squadrons, and 740 planes. Following WWI, the Army Reorganization Act in 1920 created the Air Service, and the Air Corps Act of 1926 established the Army Air Corps.

As the United States entered WWII, the Army Air Forces supplanted the Army Air Corps in 1941. By 1942, the Army Air Forces fell under a single command that rapidly expanded to include 16 air forces, 2.4 million officers and men, and some 80,000 aircraft. Nearly 30,000 women served in the Women’s Army Corps during WWII. The Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron was created in September 1942 to allow female pilots who worked as civilians attached to the Army Air Forces to ferry planes, fighters, bombers, and transports within the United States. They also trained male airmen. In 1943, they became the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs), an organization that broke ground for later USAF female pilots.

Tuskegee Airmen of the 332d Fighter Group

Two years after WWII ended, the National Security Act of 1947 created the Department of the Air Force, and on September 18, 1947, the United States Air Force was born. As an official branch of the military, the USAF began to diversify. During WWII, most personnel in the Army Air Force were white males. Still, the success of the Black WWII fighter pilots from the 332d Fighter Group (Tuskegee Airmen) in Italy helped pave the way for racial integration in the USAF. In 1948, President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 9981 abolishing segregation in the armed forces.

President Truman also signed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act in 1948. It allowed women to serve in limited roles in the USAF. In 1976, women were accepted into the USAF on an equal basis with men. Jeannie Marie Leavitt became the first female fighter pilot in the USAF in 1993. She later commanded a combat fighter wing.

F-35A Lightning II

Today, as the USAF celebrates 75 years, they continue to adapt to rapid technological changes to make America the leader in airpower. The Air Force’s five core missions include air 1- superiority, 2- global strike, 3- rapid global mobility, 4- intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, and 5- command and control.

If you would like to learn more about the critical role played by the USAF and its predecessor organizations in defense of the nation, explore these and other related collections today on Fold3®:

New British Royal Air Force Records!

August 29, 2022 by | 10 Comments

We are pleased to announce a new collection of military records from the United Kingdom. The UK, British Air Force Lists, 1919-1945 contains a list of people who served in the British Royal Air Force between the end of the First and Second World Wars.

Sample page from WWI Air Force List

The Royal Air Force (RAF) was established on April 1, 1918, when the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service merged during the final year of WWI. The Royal Air Force lists in this collection were published by Her Majesty’s Stationery Office in London and could be purchased there or at bookstores. The lists were initially produced monthly in pamphlet form beginning in February 1919. The publications were later changed to bi-monthly and then quarterly. The pamphlets contained lists of those serving in the Royal Air Force and were arranged according to role and rank.

You will find lists of officers in order of seniority, retired officers lists, and alphabetized indexes. The lists may also contain information about medical staff, nurses, chaplains, decorations and awards, and holders of the Victoria Cross. An explanation of abbreviations used in the lists can be found here for earlier WWI records and here for later WWII records.

Each name that appears on the lists has been indexed and is searchable, but in many cases, the lists contain initials and last names. When searching for a specific person, try different variations of their name in your search.

Records in this collection may include the following information:

  • Name
  • Rank
  • Date the individual joined the Royal Air Force
  • Military unit or organization
  • Military occupation

If you have an ancestor that served in the Royal Air Force, these lists allow you to trace their military career across time and identify changes in rank or title.

Explore this new collection of RAF records today on Fold3®!

Incredible Stories of Survival

August 15, 2022 by | 27 Comments

Throughout WWII, military personnel displayed uncommon valor and courage. Our record collections contain countless stories of ordinary men and women who serve in extraordinary ways. Here are two remarkable stories of survival.

S/Sgt. Eugene P. Moran

Eugene P. Moran enlisted in the US Army Air Corps on October 21, 1942. The Wisconsin native served as a Staff Sergeant in the 339th Bomb Squadron, 96th Bomb Group, 8th Air Force. On November 29, 1943, while serving as a tail gunner in a bombing mission over Bremen, Germany, Moran’s B-17 Flying Fortress was hit by German flak. The B-17 was cut in two, sending Moran hurtling toward earth in the tail section. A bail-out was impossible because Moran was wounded in both arms, and his parachute was riddled with bullets. The damaged vertical fin and horizontal stabilizers fluttered and flapped, helping to slow his fall. After falling 24,000 feet (more than four miles), one of the tail’s stabilizers stabbed into a tree, and Moran abruptly stopped. He was severely injured, suffering wounds, back injuries, and head injuries.

Out of the crew of ten, Moran was one of two survivors. He was captured by German soldiers and taken POW. His captors denied him medical attention, but a Serbian doctor, also a POW, rendered aid and likely saved his life. Over the next 17 months, Moran was held prisoner at POW camps in Germany, Prussia, and Poland. He spent time on a “hell ship” on the Baltic (so-called for the horrific conditions Allied prisoners endured while on board). He also survived a forced 600-mile march. Moran endured his time as a POW and was liberated on April 26, 1945, by the 104th Infantry Division. He was awarded two Purple Hearts, an Air Medal with Gold Leaf Cluster, the European Theater Medal, and a Good Conduct Medal. In 2007, Moran became the first recipient of the Veteran Lifetime Achievement Award in Wisconsin. He passed away in 2014 at the age of 89.

B-17E in Flight
Sgt. James A. Raley

Sgt. James A. Raley of Henderson, KY, served as a tail gunner in the 353rd Bomb Squadron, 301st Bomb Group, Fifteenth Air Force. He was on a bombing mission to Piraeus, Greece, on January 11, 1944, when his aircraft collided mid-air with another B-17 in heavy cloud cover. The tail section was severed, and Raley was caught in the wreckage. In a 1944 newspaper interview, Raley said, “When the crash occurred 19,000 feet in the air, there was a terrific impact, and I was thrown face down on the floor toward the rear of the fort. I had an immediate sensation of falling as the plane spiraled downward, twisting to the right in a tight circle. My first thought was to grab my parachute and get out of the plane, but the spinning made it impossible for me to move.”

Raley recited prayers during the descent. “I must have been spiraling downward for 10 to 15 minutes,” he said. The tail came to rest in a clump of treetops. Raley realized he had just survived a fall from 19,000 feet. He was worried the aircraft might catch fire or explode and was anxious to clear the wreckage. He made his way to the bulkhead door, but the rest of the aircraft was gone when he opened it. Eight members of the crew died in the tragic accident.

Raley suffered back injuries and a small cut on the chin but miraculously survived. He was awarded an Air Medal and a Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster. Despite his near-death experience, Raley continued to serve in the military. He served in the Korean War and the Vietnam War, attaining the rank of Lt. Col. in the US Air Force. Raley passed away in 1999.

There are many more stories of survival in our archives. If you would like to explore our collections for more amazing but true stories, search Fold3® today.

August 21, 1863: The Lawrence Massacre

August 1, 2022 by | 171 Comments

On August 21, 1863, a Confederate guerilla group led by William Quantrill attacked citizens in the town of Lawrence, Kansas, during the American Civil War. Guerillas killed more than 150 boys and men and burned much of the town. The Lawrence Massacre, also known as Quantrill’s raid, was a culmination of tension between local abolitionists and pro-slavery partisans along the Missouri-Kansas border.

William Quantrill

These border tensions had been brewing for some time. Beginning in 1855, pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers engaged in a series of violent confrontations and political killings over whether Kansas would be a free state or a slave state, leading to a border war known as “Bleeding Kansas.” Lawrence was founded along the Oregon Trail on the homelands of the Kaw, Lakota, Osage, and Kikapoo by New Englanders. Considered the anti-slavery capital, Lawrence was well-known as a stronghold for abolitionists and the Free-State movement. When Kansas was admitted to the Union at the start of the Civil War, the town became a gathering place for pro-Unionists and Jayhawkers, Free-State militiamen known for attacking plantations, freeing enslaved Black people, and confiscating Confederate supplies in nearby Missouri.

In April 1863, Union General Thomas Ewing, Jr. issued General Order No. 10, which called for the arrest of anyone “giving aid or comfort” to Confederate guerillas. A number of women and girls, most of them relatives of the guerillas, were arrested and incarcerated in squalid conditions in a women’s prison in Kansas City. A week before the Lawrence Massacre, the prison collapsed, killing four and leaving others with severe injuries.

The Leavenworth Times – August 15, 1863

In the predawn hours on August 21, Quantrill led a group of about 450 Confederate guerillas, also called “Bushwhackers,” into Lawrence. They surprised the town’s sleeping residents and began to execute civilians and loot valuables. Panicked residents tried to hide in cornfields or along the Kansas and Wakarusa rivers, though some surrendered only to be shot later. For over four hours, Quantrill’s raiders pillaged and burned the town, killing at least 150 men and boys.

The Lawrence Massacre was one of the bloodiest events of the Kansas-Missouri border war. Following the attack, Gen. Ewing issued General Order No. 11, ordering all citizens of four counties on the Missouri side of the border to relocate to Kansas City. Ewing intended to cut off supplies and support to the guerillas, and under his orders, Jayhawkers burned everything remaining to the ground.

Although Quantrill was a field-commissioned officer under the Partisan Ranger Act, Confederate leadership was outraged by his tactics and withdrew official support for his Bushwhackers. Quantrill led his men south towards Texas and continued to wreak havoc. Infamous members of Quantrill’s raiders included Bloody Bill Anderson, outlaw Jesse James, and his older brother Frank James. On May 10, 1865, William Quantrill was shot by Union troops in Kentucky in one of the last engagements of the Civil War. He died of his wounds on June 6, 1865.

Jesse and Frank James

If you would like to learn more about the Lawrence Massacre or William Quantrill, search Fold3® today.

WWII Research and the Missing Air Crew Reports Collection

July 18, 2022 by | 40 Comments

During WWII, the United States Army adopted a form to document the fate of missing air crews. Missing Air Crew Reports (MACRs) are a valuable resource that provides details, witness statements, survivor accounts, and more. The reports tell the story of aircraft that went down for various reasons, including enemy fire, bad weather, or mechanical difficulties.      

A glance through the MACR collection reveals a rich collection of stories of bravery, sacrifice, and survival. Army rules dictated that a MACR be filed within 48 hours after an aircraft was officially reported as missing. While this allowed for fresh witness testimony, it also meant that the outcome for some crew members was unknown. The reports include each soldier’s military ID number. This information allows researchers to explore additional records such as the POW collection, hospital admissions, or death records.

WWII Draft Registration Card for Evarist V. Albers

Here are a few stories from the MACR Collection:

On November 1, 1943, S/Sgt. Evarist V. Albers and his crew from the 47th Bomb Squadron, 97th Bomb Group, took off for a bombing mission over Italy. As they neared their target, the formation encountered enemy flak. Moments later, the aircraft lurched. They had been hit and were going down! An explosion took a wing off and burned Albers’s face. They began to roll, but Albers managed to bail out. He searched for other survivors as he floated to the ground but didn’t see any other sign of life. A nearby gunner testified that he saw two chutes, one fully opened, but the other one was trailing. Albers was the only survivor of the crash and returned to service four days later.

On August 7, 1942, a B-26 Marauder loaded with seven crew and Associated Press reporter Vernon Haugland encountered a severe storm and drifted off-course over New Guinea. With fuel running low, the crew bailed out at 13,000 feet and landed in the jungle. The crew became separated and spent the next several weeks trying to escape. Haugland kept a journal of his 43 days in the wilderness. He nearly starved to death and weighed just 95 pounds when he was rescued. Haugland became the first civilian recipient of the Silver Star medal for heroism. He later published a book, Letter from New Guinea, about his experiences. Co-pilot James A. Michael and 1st. Lt. Carroll W. Casteel did not survive the ordeal. Pilot Duncan A. Seffern spent two weeks in the jungle before being rescued but died months later in another airplane crash.

1st Lt. Carroll W. Casteel died in the New Guinea jungle

Lawrence H. Lancashire served in the 93rd Bomb Group, 409th Bomb Squad, and participated in Operation Tidal Wave – the bombing of oil refineries around Ploiesti, Romania, in 1943. Lancashire was co-piloting a B-24 Bomber with a crew of 10. They were flying at tree-top level when enemy fire hit the aircraft’s engines, and they crash-landed. Lancashire was captured and spent three months as a prisoner of war. Others in the crew were not so lucky. Pilot Hubert H. Womble lost a foot and was also taken POW. William K. Little broke his leg and was trapped in the plane. While waiting hours for extrication, airplane fuel ran over his body. He died eight days later from untreated injuries and the poisoning effects of gasoline vapor. Details about other crew members are also contained in the report.

The Pantagraph 11.19.1943

If you want to be inspired by more incredible stories of heroism, explore the Missing Air Crew Reports collection today on Fold3®.

80th Anniversary of the Battle of Midway: June 4-7, 1942

June 8, 2022 by | 56 Comments

Eighty years ago, on June 4-7, 1942, the United States defeated Japan in a decisive naval and air battle known as the Battle of Midway. The battle came after a Japanese attack on a US base on Midway Atoll, a tiny island in the Pacific. Japan never recovered from its losses, and the battle is known as a turning point in the Pacific Theater during WWII.

Following the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo in April 1942 and the Battle of the Coral Sea in May, Japan began planning the attack at Midway in hopes of destroying the US Pacific Fleet. They wanted military dominance in the region and a base for future military operations.

Burning oil tanks on Sand Island, Midway Atoll, following Japanese air attack on June 4, 1942.

Unbeknownst to Japanese forces, US cryptanalysts had broken Japanese codes and were aware of the impending attack plans. This gave officials time to prepare a counteroffensive. On June 4, 108 Japanese aircraft took off from four Japanese aircraft carriers, the Akagi, Kaga, Soryu, and Hiryu. They attacked the US base on Midway, inflicting heavy damage.

US Navy Torpedo Squadron 6 prepare to launch from the USS Enterprise. June 4, 1942

American Admiral Chester Nimitz, commander of the Pacific Fleet, had sent two task forces to meet the Japanese. Task Force 16, which included the Hornet and Enterprise, under Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance; and Task Force 17, with the carrier Yorktown, under Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher. The Yorktown was damaged but had undergone hasty repairs at Pearl Harbor and was ready for the fight.

Bombers took off from the US fleet and attacked Japanese carriers Akagi, Kaga, and Soryu, causing devastating damage. The ships were set ablaze and abandoned. The Hiryu launched counterattacks and bombed the Yorktown, disabling the ship. Though it managed to stay afloat, the captain ordered the ship abandoned. A Japanese torpedo finished off the Yorktown two days later, and she sank.

Scene on board the USS Yorktown after she was hit by three Japanese bombers on June 4, 1942

With only the Hiryu remaining, a scout plane from the Yorktown located the Japanese ship and sent dive-bombers from the Enterprise to attack. At least four bombs hit the Hiryu, and she sank.

During the Battle of Midway, the Japanese sustained heavy losses, including 3,000 men and four carriers. American casualties included 300 men and one carrier. The battle set the stage for landings on Guadalcanal and the Solomon Islands and prevented Japan from launching a major offensive in the Pacific again.

Our friends at Stories Behind the Stars have headed up a special project to write the story of each American torpedo bomber that participated in the Battle of Midway. Learn about their efforts on this Facebook page. To learn more about the Battle of Midway, search Fold3® today!