Military Records and the Fire of 1973

The National Personnel Records Center suffered a fire in 1973 that destroyed millions of military service records from 1916 to 1964. Here’s what happened.

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If you’re looking for military service records for anyone who served in the U.S. Army or Air Force between 1912 and 1964, you may have a difficult time. It all depends on the person. Their record may or may not still exist. That is because those military records were stored at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri, and the floor on which they were stored suffered a devastating fire on July 12, 1973.

Though firefighters arrived to battle the blaze only four minutes after it was reported, they faced numerous problems in putting it out. The intensity of the fire, inadequate water pressure for their hoses, and a broken pumper truck all contributed to the issues, and it took them days to officially put it all out. The fire was uncontrolled for 22 hours, and after that, though it was under control, areas of the building still smoldered. It wasn’t until four days later, on July 16, that the fire was declared officially out and people were allowed back into the building.

The Loss of Millions of Military Records

By this time, a lot of damage had been done, not only to the building but to the millions of records that were stored there. Though several million military records were not in the building at the time, having been on loan to the Department of Veterans Affairs, this was only a small amount of the total records that were stored at the St. Louis facility.

To make matters worse, the records being stored at the facility, as well as those that had been lent out to other government agencies, were not indexed and no copies of them were ever made. Therefore, it was impossible for those who worked with the records to accurately determine just which records had been lost, and no way to get backups. Nevertheless, restoration efforts on the vast quantities of burned and water damaged records in the building started immediately. Even before the fire was totally put out, plans for restoration were underway. In fact, those restoration efforts are still ongoing today, which shows just how extensive the damage was… it’s been over 40 years, and records damaged and even almost destroyed in the fire are still being brought back to life.

Restoration Efforts

Officially, all military service records for Army personnel who served between 1916 and 1960 were lost (except the ones on loan to other government agencies). Records for Air Force personnel who served between 1947 and 1964 were also lost, beginning with names after Hubbard, James E. This encompasses anyone who was in the Army or Air Force for the United States during WWI and WWII, as well as the Korean conflict.

However, all is not quite as lost as it seems. While some records were undoubtedly completely destroyed in the fire, most of them still have some remnants existing. It is from those remnants that restoration work is being done.

The records and pieces of records that are left are charred around the edges, water damaged, and often affected by mold (although mold mitigation was one of the first steps taken to preserve what was left of the records). Some records are little more than ash, but as technology increases in the restoration field, it is being discovered that information can even be gleaned from these previously unreadable pieces of paper.

The federal government issued an order immediately following the fire that prohibited the destruction of any documents held by any government agency that might be useful in proving military service for the people whose service records were destroyed in the fire. This helped veterans who needed proof of their military service to get benefits. It also helped restoration experts put things back together again as best they could.

Over 6.5 million records were able to be recovered from the building after the fire, though they were in terrible condition. They were carefully dried, sprayed with mold repellant, and pieces of records that were charred began to be put back together in a painstaking, careful, and slow process. X-rays and other techniques were used to read what was still legible on them. Ultraviolet light is now used to lift pieces of text off of crumbling, ashy paper fragments, allowing restoration experts to read what has been hidden for decades.

Requesting Military Records Today

There is now an index to restored records. Also, while restoration work is ongoing, the National Personnel Records Center still receives hundreds of requests for military records each day. If the records fall within those that were affected by the fire, the restoration experts determine if any piece of the record still exists. If it does, they will do a restoration of that record on demand, and send the results to the person who requested it.

While some records were totally destroyed beyond any restoration effort, there are alternative record sources that can be used to substitute for the official military service record. If your ancestor’s records do not exist anymore in any form, you will be directed to one or more alternate sources. These sources include VA claims files, state military records, pay voucher records, selective service registration records, pay records from the GAO (government accounting office), medical records from military hospitals, and entrance and exit x-ray records for military personnel.

Though the official service records of millions of 20th-century military personnel were destroyed in the 1973 fire, they were not all totally lost. Your ancestor’s record may be among the ones lent to other government agencies, one that was not destroyed (such as the A-H Air Force records), or may have already been restored. If it hasn’t been restored, it may be among those that can be restored. If it was completely destroyed in the fire, you still have plenty of alternate sources you can use to put together the record of your ancestor’s military service for your genealogical records and family history research.