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

December 5, 2022 by | 41 Comments

This month we welcome back special guest contributor Michael Strauss, an Accredited Genealogist from AncestryProGenealogists®. In September, he wrote a blog on reconstructing military records lost in the fire at the National Personnel Record Center in 1973. Due to the number of responses and additional questions, Michael has graciously volunteered to follow up with more information. Click here to see Part I in this series.

The loss of records of the United States Army between 1912 and 1960 and the Air Force from 1947 to 1964 can be disappointing. However, other sources can be searched to locate details lost from the service files that can help to reconstruct your veteran ancestor’s military service. Here are three more sources to consider:

Frederick William Bender

Pension and claim files

Beyond looking at service files, many veterans and their dependents applied for benefits based on their prior military service after their discharge. The National Personnel Record Center in St. Louis, Missouri, has custody of the pension/claim files. In 1921 the United States Congress created the Veterans Bureau to assist veterans seeking benefits. Later in 1930, President Herbert Hoover combined the Veterans Bureau with the Bureau of Pensions and the Home for Disabled Veterans to form a single office called the Veterans Administration. Later in 1989, this office was changed to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The indexes to locate veterans who applied for benefits cover multiple years. The earliest index dates from 1917 to 1940. This index covers veterans of World War I, the Mexican Punitive Expedition of 1916, and older Civil War and Spanish-American War veterans or their dependents who lived into the twentieth century.

The index is available on Ancestry®, and you can search the names of veterans here. Digitized images of the original cards are available at FamilySearch and can be found here. The original card indexes usually contain the following:

  • Name and address of the veteran
  • Branch of service
  • Military unit or organization
  • Military rank or grade
  • Service number
  • Dates when veterans mustered in/out of the military
  • Claim number

The upper right corner of the card index includes a claim number beginning with either a “C” or an “XC.” The “C” indicates the veteran applied for their own benefits. The “XC” indicates the veteran died and someone else applied for the benefits.

Frederick William Bender – Military Pension Index Card (Note the “XC” designation)

The master card indexes often include other prefixes beginning with letters for other documents included in the veteran’s pension or claim file. For example, the letter “A” followed by a series of numbers was only for World War I veterans eligible for a bonus owed for military service. The master index of codes can be found here. A later master index for pensions covers 1940 to 1972, covering veterans of World War II. Searches in the index are only available by request from the National Personnel Record Center in St. Louis, Missouri. Regardless of which master index is searched to obtain copies of the pension file, the same research office must be contacted.

Military discharges filed in the courthouse

Other sources for military records beyond the service files can be found locally where the veteran was domiciled at the end of their military service. Many veterans filed copies of their discharge or separation papers at the local courthouses where they resided. Requests for copies of separation papers should be directed to your local courthouse. On discharges, the military issued a form referred to as the Reports of Separation for the veteran authorized by the Adjutant General Office of the United States War Department (you will see WD AGO, representing the War Department Adjutant General Office, listed at the bottom of the paper). The term DD214 for separation from military service was not formally adopted until 1 January 1950. Since then, the new form has undergone multiple revisions and is still in use today for discharged military personnel.

Statement of service cards

Following the end of World War I on 11 November 1918, the United States Congress passed an act on 11 July 1919 (41 Stat. 109) authorizing the creation of service cards for each soldier who served in the Army in the late war. The cards were sent to individual state Adjutant General Offices to be processed after the war. On 4 June 1920, Congress passed the Naval Act of 1920 (41 Stat. 815) authorizing that veterans of the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard also have their military service recorded on service cards.

Frederick William Bender – Statement of Service Card

For veterans of the United States Army, two different forms were used. For enlisted personnel Adjutant General Office (AGO) form 724 was used, and for officers, Adjutant General Office (AGO) form 84 was filled out. Officer cards were sub-divided into Regular Army (RA) form 84a-3, National Guard (NG) form 84b-1, Officer Reserve Corps (ORC) form 84c-1, and National Army (NA) on form 84d-1. The last-named group for the national army was officers that were conscripted. For enlisted personnel, the 724 series of cards were numbered between 1-9, indicating the cause of separation from the military, and used different card color stock.

Another form 724-1 ½ was also used by the Adjutant General Office (AGO) for the United States Army, where the type of enlistment would be inserted, followed by the place and date and place where the event was recorded. The type of enlistments was RA for Regular Army, NG for National Guard, ERC for Enlisted Reserve Corps, and NA for National Army conscripted men.

During World War I, several states published their card indexes and later made them available online. Many other states kept the original cards in their state archives maintained by the Adjutant General Office (AGO) locally, but Ancestry® and FamilySearch have digitized them. Other states have lost their extant records completely. One of the states that suffered a record loss includes Illinois. Searching their online card catalogs using the keyword “statement of service” will locate the records. 

Statement of Service Cards was again authorized for World War II. This was part of the passage of the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 passed by the United States Congress on 16 September 1940 (54 Stat. 885) that required all men between the ages of 21-45 to register. The Office of Selective Service Records (OSSR) used form number 4 to record the statement of service for World War II veterans who served. The same form was used for all military branches and included the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard. Very few of the forms are online for World War II. Forms for North Carolina from 1940-1948 are available on Ancestry® by clicking here.  Alaska records from 1948-1949 are available at FamilySearch by clicking here. For other states, look to state archival collections. For example, the Nevada State Library and Archives have cards from 1948-1953 for World War II and the Korean War.

Putting everything together

World War I veteran Frederick William Bender (1897-1921) served in Battery A of the 69th Coast Artillery Corps (CAC) during the war. His Official Military Personnel File (OMPF) was destroyed in the fire in 1973 at the National Personnel Record Center in St. Louis, Missouri. Both his military pension index card and World War I statement of service card were found using these search techniques. Both records point to new information making the additional searches well worth the time.

To search military records dating back to the Revolutionary War, visit Fold3® today.

The Caterpillar Club

November 18, 2022 by | 91 Comments

Have you ever heard of the Caterpillar Club? The Caterpillar Club is an association of people who have successfully used a parachute to jump out of a disabled aircraft. The club began in the 1920s, and though not limited to military personnel, many club members received admittance while serving in the military. Those admitted to the club received a caterpillar lapel pin identifying them as members. The Irvin Airchute Company was one of the companies that claimed to have founded the Caterpillar Club and created pins to award to members saved by Irvin parachutes. Other parachute makers followed suit. Branches of the Caterpillar Club still exist today. The club’s name refers to the silk threads used to make original parachutes, and though it’s a club that nobody wants to join, once admitted, membership comes with bragging rights and a sense of pride.

Caterpillar Club Membership Card for Lt. Wallace H. Wickander
Caterpillar Club Pin

The origins of the Caterpillar Club aren’t known, with several different people or organizations claiming to be the original founders. Our Fold3® collections contain declassified microfilm made available from a private donor. The microfilm dates from the 1920s and contains records from the US Army Air Corps related to the Caterpillar Club. You’ll find remarkable stories of Airmen who survived jumping from a disabled aircraft.

Charles Lindberg was an early member of the Caterpillar Club with four jumps to his credit. One jump came after a mid-air collision in 1925. While practicing formations and diving attacks over Kelley Field, Texas, Lindberg collided with Lt. C.D. McAllister. “My head was thrown forward against the cowling, and my plane seemed to turn around. Our ships were locked together…I jumped backwards as far from the ship as possible. Fearing the wreckage might fall on me, I did not pull the rip cord until I had dropped several hundred feet. The parachute functioned perfectly,” said Lindberg. Lt. McAllister also jumped from his disabled aircraft, and he, too, earned admission to the Caterpillar Club.

Russell B. Graham
Caterpillar Club Membership Certificate for Russell B. Graham

During WWII, the Caterpillar Club was incorporated as an official organization, and membership increased dramatically. T/Sgt. Russell B. Graham earned his membership when his B-17 Flying Fortress was shot down on February 26, 1945, after a bombing raid on Berlin. Graham and the rest of the crew bailed out. They could not see the ground until just before landing. Graham landed in a tree and survived. He kept the parachute that saved his life and, following the war, brought it home. His mother used the fabric to sew a small blessing gown, and many of Graham’s children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren were blessed in that gown.

Would you like to learn more about the Caterpillar Club? Read more accounts of the heroic jumps that earned admission to the Caterpillar Club and see additional records and Memorials for Caterpillar Club members on Fold3® today.

75th Anniversary of the First Veterans Day Celebration and Free Access to Fold3® on Veterans Day Weekend

November 7, 2022 by | 42 Comments

Following WWI, the United States commemorated November 11th as Armistice Day. The date was significant since WWI fighting ended on November 11, 1918 (the 11th hour, 11th month, 11th day). However, in 1947, a WWII veteran from Birmingham, Alabama, was the driving force in his community to organize this country’s first Veterans Day celebration. Raymond Weeks believed that all veterans should be recognized – not only those who perished, as was the case for Memorial Day. The idea took root, and eventually, in 1954, Congress passed a bill designating November 11th as Veterans Day.

This Veterans Day marks the 75th anniversary of that first celebration. To honor all veterans, starting Thursday, we are offering free access* to Fold3® on Veterans Day weekend (November 10-13). We invite you to explore our Fold3® collections, find records related to your veteran, and create a Memorial for our Honor Wall. These Memorials contain heroic stories of service and sacrifice and can be shared with others. You can attach military records, stories, journals, and photographs in one place to create a lasting tribute to the service of your veteran. There is no subscription required to view these Memorials. For tips on how to create a Memorial, click here.

Sgt. Daniel P. Matthews

One example of a Memorial is that of Sgt. Daniel P. Matthews, who served in the Korean War. Dan and his twin brother Dave were from Van Nuys, California, and enlisted together in 1951. Dan served in the Marines, while his brother Dave served in the Navy. Dave recalled that each time a round was fired from his Navy ship, he prayed it would keep Dan safe. On March 28, 1953, at Vegas Hill, Korea, Dan charged an enemy machine gun emplacement. The enemy assault was preventing the extraction of a wounded Marine. Though seriously wounded by enemy fire, Dan continued the charge until mortally wounded. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. Dave accompanied his brother’s body home, and the heartbroken family laid Dan to rest in Sylmar, California.

We owe a debt of gratitude to our veterans and their families. Take advantage of free access to our Fold3® records collections this Veterans Day and explore nearly 600 million records from the Revolutionary War, Civil War, WWI, WWII, and more. Discover incredible details about the courageous men and women who have served to defend and protect our country. Search Fold3® today.

*Access to the records on Fold3® will be free until 13 Nov 2022 at 11:59 p.m. MT. Registration required. After the free access period ends, you will only be able to view records using a paid Fold3® membership.

New Collection of Military Notices from the London Gazette!

October 28, 2022 by | 15 Comments

We are pleased to announce a new collection of UK records on Fold3®. The UK, London Gazette WWII Military Notices 1939-1945 contains 1.3 million indexed records for service members found in the Military Notice sections or supplements of the London Gazette newspaper.

The London Gazette is Britain’s oldest continuously published newspaper. It is the authoritative source of government news and publishes notices related to elections, Royal proclamations and other declarations, appointments to public office, and more. Issues of the Gazette also include notices on military matters. This new collection consists of a searchable index of service members and the awards or mentions they received in the Gazette during the WWII years of 1939-1945. These notices include military awards or commendations, reports of people leaving service due to illness, appointments, promotions, and other military matters.

Ordinary Seaman Bennett Southwell posthumously receives the George Cross

In some cases, the award notice also includes the story behind why the recipient received an award or commendation. The notices in this collection may contain information such as name, rank, regimental number, occupation, military dates of service, commendation dates, regiment, and unit. They provide clues to help unlock stories of bravery and sacrifice. One example is Ordinary Seaman Bennett Southwell, who served in the Royal Navy.

On October 7, 1940, during the London Blitz, Southwell served in the Land Mine Disposal Section. That day he and Sub Lieutenant Jack Easton arrived on the scene of an incident in East London. A bomb containing 1500 pounds of explosives had crashed through the roof of a house but failed to detonate. The parachute bomb was dangling by its lines, with the chute canopy partly wrapped around the chimney. The two men could see that the fuse was damaged, and they would need to attempt to deactivate the bomb in place. They evacuated the surrounding area, and the men went to work. Suddenly, the bomb shifted and began ticking. Southwell and Easton ran. They only had 12 seconds until detonation. The bomb exploded with such a terrific force that it destroyed 12 streets. Miraculously, Easton was dug out of the rubble alive, albeit with severe injuries, including a fractured skull, pelvis, and two broken legs. Southwell, 22, was not so fortunate. He died in the blast. On January 23, 1941, the Gazette announced that Southwell would receive the George Cross. King George VI presented the award to Bennett’s widow at Buckingham Palace in October 1941.

To explore this collection, you can search by a service member’s name or browse the records by year and month. The individual information found within the notices provides a jumping-off point for further research.

Start searching this new collection of military notices from the London Gazette today on Fold3®.  

The Last Surviving Veterans

October 14, 2022 by | 83 Comments

Each time the last surviving veteran from any war passes away, it marks the end of an era and the closing of a chapter in history. The question of who was the last often brings lively debate. In some cases, the claims are contested and not verifiable, and in other times, early records are missing. We’ve combed our archives to share the stories of some veterans who are among the last survivors from the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Civil War, and WWI.

Daniel Frederick Bakeman

Revolutionary War: Daniel Frederick Bakeman was the last soldier from the Revolutionary War to receive a pension. He was 109 years old when he died in 1869. Though no specific records to validate Bakeman’s claim of service survived, authorities deemed his testimony credible, and he received a pension. Bakeman was born in Schoharie County, New York, in 1759. At age 18, he enlisted and served as a private in the Tryon County Militia. He fought at the Battle of Johnstown. After the war, Bakeman married Susan Brewer, and they had eight children. Bakeman outlived his wife and two children. He died in Freedom, New York, on April 5, 1869. In his 109 years, Bakeman experienced inventions that revolutionized daily living, such as trains, gas lighting, elevators, typewriters, the sewing machine, and photography. His lengthy pension file contains records, letters, and testimony.

Hiram Cronk

War of 1812: Hiram Cronk was born in Frankfort, New York, on April 19, 1800. He enlisted in the 157th Regiment of the New York militia on October 8, 1814. He was 14 years old and served at the naval station at Sacket’s Harbor. Following the war, Cronk married Mary Thornton. He worked as a shoemaker, and they had ten children, seven of whom survived to adulthood. During his lifetime, Cronk witnessed incredible advances, including the invention of electric lighting, the automobile, and the airplane. When Cronk passed away in 1905, he was honored with a state funeral in New York City. Thousands lined the streets to view his funeral procession. The event was captured on film and preserved in the Library of Congress.

Funeral of Hiram Cronk courtesy of the Library of Congress
Albert Henry Woolson

Civil War: When Albert Henry Woolson was young, he met Abraham Lincoln. It’s hard to comprehend that a soldier who met President Lincoln in the 1860s survived long enough to see Elvis Presley’s hits top the charts in the 1950s. Woolson was born in Antwerp, Minnesota, on February 11, 1847. He enlisted as a drummer boy on October 10, 1864, in the 1st Minnesota Heavy Artillery Regiment, Company C. During Woolson’s lifetime, he had a front-row seat to history and watched the industrial revolution transform the country’s landscape. On his 109th birthday, Woolson said he enjoyed pipes and cigars and smoked for nearly a century, beginning when he was 12. Woolson died in 1956.

WWI: The last surviving American veteran of WWI was Cpl. Frank Woodruff Buckles. Buckles was born on February 1, 1901, in Missouri. He enlisted at 16 and served in the American Expeditionary Forces with a detachment from Fort Riley. He mostly drove ambulances and motorcycles in Germany and France. Following the war, Buckles sailed home aboard the Carpathia – the same ship that rescued survivors of the Titanic. Buckles went to work as a purser on commercial ships. He was in the Philippines in 1941 when Japan invaded and became a civilian POW. He endured nearly three years of cruel treatment before being freed after a US Army raid on the prison where he was held. In 2008, President George W. Bush invited Buckles to the White House. Buckles lived 110 years, passing away on February 27, 2011. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Frank Woodruff Buckles

To learn more about these and other veterans, explore military records, veteran Memorials, and other collections today on Fold3®!

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

September 28, 2022 by | 168 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. He served in the Headquarters Company of the 55th United States Infantry (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 Morning 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: 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: 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®: