Veterans

July 12, 2013

Experts recover military personnel records 40 years after fire

Tags:
Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

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.

WASHINGTON, July 12, 2013 ñ Forty years ago July 12, 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 theyíve earned.

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

It’s like a MASH [Mobile Army Surgical Hospital] unit,î Marta OíNeill, who heads the National Personnel Records Centerís 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.î
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 ìHî through ìZî 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.

Preservation technician Susan Davis is part of a team working to restore military personnel records damaged during a July 12, 1973, fire at the National Personnel Records Center in suburban St. Louis, Mo.

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 ìB-Filesî continue to roll in at the rate of 200 to 300 every day, OíNeill said.

Some come from veterans needing a record of their service to receive federal health-care, home loans or other veteransí 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 veteransí families, needing the records to apply for entitlements on their loved oneís 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 familyís 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 OíNeill 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, OíNeill said. ìYou canít reverse ash,î she said. ìBut 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, OíNeill 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 someoneís life.

ìWe are helping so many people in so many ways,î she said.




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


 
 

 
Courtesy photograph

Veterans remember Gulf War 25 years later

Courtesy photograph Command Sgt. Maj. Robert G. Nichols, now retired, deployed to the Middle East with 1st Brigade in 1990. Nichols played a major role in the largest air assault in history that secured Forward Operating Base C...
 
 

Soldier missing from Vietnam War accounted for

The Department of Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency announced Aug. 21 that the remains of a serviceman, missing from the Vietnam War, have been identified and will be buried with full military honors. Army Maj. Dale W. Richardson of Mount Sterling, Ill., will be buried Aug. 29, in Mountain View, Ark. Richardson was assigned to 2nd...
 
 
cmsaf-funeral9

Ninth CMSAF laid to rest

Air Force photograph by SrA. Preston Webb Members of the Old Guard escort the ninth Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force James C. Binnicker to rest in Arlington National Cemetery, Va., Aug. 14, 2015. Binnicker passed away March 2...
 

 

VA announces new rules regarding service animals in VA facilities

Aug. 17, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced that it has revised its regulation regarding the presence of animals on VA property. The updated regulation will ensure VA practices remain consistent with applicable federal law. It will also assist individuals entering VA facilities in developing a clear and consistent understanding of the criteria governing facility...
 
 

World War II airman’s remains identified

The remains of a serviceman, missing since World War II, have been identified and are being returned to his family for burial with full military honors, said the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency in a DOD news release issued Aug. 6. U.S. Army Air Forces 2nd Lt. Stephen V. Biezis of Chicago, will be buried Aug....
 
 

Remains of Pearl Harbor victims raised for identification

The military July 27 exhumed more caskets containing the unidentified remains of USS Oklahoma crew members killed in the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor. The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency disinterred five coffins from four grave sites at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, where they have rested for decades. The work is...
 




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=""> <s> <strike> <strong>