DoD

July 19, 2013

Experts recover military personnel records 40 years after fire

A devastating July 12, 1973, fire at the National Personnel Records Center in suburban St. Louis, shown in this file photo, destroyed some 16 million to 18 million military personnel records. Today, a special team at the center continues working to piece together the remnants, sometimes literally, to ensure veterans and their descendants have the documentation they need to qualify for service-related benefits. Photo courtesy National Archives and Records Administration

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Forty years ago an enormous fire erupted at the National Personnel Records Center in suburban St. Louis. Burning uncontrollably for almost 24 hours, it destroyed some 16 million to 18 million military personnel records including official documents veterans need to apply for the benefits they’ve earned.

A devastating July 12, 1973, fire at the National Personnel Records Center in suburban St. Louis, shown in this article, destroyed some 16 million to 18 million military personnel records. Today, a special team at the center continues working to piece together the remnants, sometimes literally, to ensure veterans and their descendants have the documentation they need to qualify for service-related benefits.

Today, a team of about 30 people continues to put the pieces back together. They use the latest restoration techniques so reference technicians can glean details from charred and water-damaged documents.

“It’s like a MASH [Mobile Army Surgical Hospital] unit,” Marta O’Neill, who heads the National Personnel Records Center’s Preservation Lab, said during a telephone interview. “There may be 15 different routes that a record could take so we can still preserve the information and get the benefits to the veteran.”

The July 12, 1973, fire destroyed up to 80 percent of the 22 million records of veterans of the Army, Army Air Force and Air Force who served between 1912 and 1963, reported William Seibert, senior archivist and chief of archival operations at the National Archives in St. Louis.

About 85 percent of the records of soldiers discharged between 1912 and 1959, including veterans of World War II and the Korean War, went up in smoke. In addition, about 75 percent of the records of airman with last names beginning with “H” through “Z” who left service between 1947 and 1963 were lost.

The true extent of the loss remains a mystery, because the center had no central registry of its holdings at the time, explained Seibert. Even if it was physically possible to reconstruct every single missing document, nobody knows for sure which ones they are, he said.

Records are being tracked down and, when necessary, restored, by request. And four decades after the fire, requests for documents from the burned holdings or “B-Files” continue to roll in at the rate of 200 to 300 every day, O’Neill said.

Some come from veterans needing a record of their service to receive federal health-care, home loans or other veterans’ benefits, she said. A homeless veteran, for example, may need a copy of his or her DD-214 discharge certificate to qualify for Department of Veterans Affairs-sponsored shelters or meals.

Sometimes requests come from veterans’ families, needing the records to apply for entitlements on their loved one’s behalf, or to have them buried in a national cemetery. In some cases, family members may need the records to qualify for scholarships or other benefits based on their family’s military affiliation.

Other requests also come from historians or genealogists trying to piece together their own family histories.

Fulfilling those requests can be as straightforward as tracking down one of the estimated 6.5 million records recovered from the fire, all now stored in temperature- and humidity-controlled conditions at the new National Personnel Records Center outside St. Louis.

The effort can become slightly more difficult if it requires cross-referencing of other official records to ferret out and verify the information needed.

But in other cases, fulfilling a records request involves the painstaking and time-intensive process of reconstructing a document blackened by fire, soaked with water or tainted with mold.

This is highly detailed work that O’Neill said demands both patience and a steady hand. In addition to a fulltime staff of 24, her team of technicians relies on the help of college interns eager to get hands-on experience in document preservation.

Donning gloves to handle the fragile materials, they use special equipment and techniques to clean documents of debris and mold, separate pages stuck together for the past 40 years and piece together brittle fragments into more complete documents.

State-of-the-art digital technology now helps them reconstruct documents once considered beyond repair, O’Neill said. “You can’t reverse ash,” she said. “But you can use scanners and digital software to enhance the document so the text on the burned part can be lifted and revealed. Basically, you look at a piece of ash, and when you digitally enhance it, you can see the writing on it.”

Regardless of what it takes, O’Neill said she and her staff get tremendous gratification from their mission — as preservationists, archivists and human beings. They delight in taking something badly damaged and making it, although not like new, better than most people could ever imagine possible, she said.

From the archival perspective, they enjoy reconstructing history, one document at a time. Since 1999, official military personnel records are now among the small percentage of government records now maintained permanently, based on their historical significance, she noted.

But the biggest reward of the mission, she said, is being able to recover documents that can make a real difference in someone’s life.

“We are helping so many people in so many ways,” she said.




All of this week's top headlines to your email every Friday.


 
 

 
U.S. Air Force photo/ Staff Sgt. Michael Quiboloy

18th AF views March as model for Total Force Integration

U.S. Air Force photo/ Staff Sgt. Michael Quiboloy (Center)Lt. Gen. Carlton D. Everhart II, commander, 18th Air Force, speaks with a group of Airmen on the future of the air mobility enterprise and total force integration, durin...
 
 
U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Master Sgt. Matt Proietti

War’s end meant 452nd’s demise…for 20 months

U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Master Sgt. Matt Proietti Technical Sgt. Ed Hinrichs, left, and Staff Sgt. Harvey A. Shaw share memories of their time as B-17 Flying Fortress gunners at a 452nd Bomb Group Association reunion. (F...
 
 

Evaluating detox diets: Do they actually work?

When it comes to detox diets, women are a prime target for marketers, who promise a wide range of health benefits including increased energy, focus and immune function. Weight loss claims are also made for some detox plans. Yet these diets are not scientifically proven to be effective. The basic idea is that detox diets...
 

 

‘Lucky 13’ tips for a safe and happy Halloween

Whether you’re goblin or ghoul, vampire or witch, poor costume choices—including decorative contact lenses and flammable costumes—and face paint allergies can haunt you long after Halloween if they cause injury. Enjoy a safe and happy Halloween by following the “lucky 13” guidelines from FDA, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the Centers for Disease Control...
 
 

VA guarantees its 21 millionth home loan

WASHINGTON – The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced this month that it has guaranteed 21 million home loans since the Home Loan Guaranty program was established in 1944 as part of the original Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the “GI Bill.” This achievement comes during the year-long commemoration of 70 years...
 
 
ncsam-graphic

Online vigilance helps reduce security risks

I received at least five emails last week warning me to secure my social media settings and be aware of what I post on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Why? Do you not like to see what I had for dinner last night? Too many #sel...
 




0 Comments


Be the first to comment!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>


Directory powered by Business Directory Plugin