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?
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.
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.
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:
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.
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!