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.


 
 

 
Air Force photograph

Doolittle Tokyo Raiders to receive Congressional Gold Medal

Air Force photograph The USS Hornet had 16 U.S. Army Air Forces North American B-25B Mitchells on deck, ready for the Tokyo Raid on April 18, 1942. Seventy-three years ago, 80 men achieved the unimaginable when they took off fr...
 
 
Army photograph by Patrick Bloodgood

Over 27,000 burial sites to open at Arlington next year

Army photograph by Patrick Bloodgood Construction crews move dirt and prepare the ground at the Arlington National Cemetery Millennium Expansion Project, Feb. 19, 2014. The project also involves restoring an impaired stream tha...
 
 
Navy photograph by JOC Sam Shavers

SecNav commemorates Battle of Iwo Jima

Navy photograph by JOC Sam Shavers Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus delivers remarks at the 70th anniversary commemoration ceremony of The Battle for Iwo Jima in Iwo To, Japan. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus arrived on Iwo To, ...
 

 

Applications accepted for 2015 National Veterans Golden Age Games

The Department of Veterans Affairs is currently accepting applications from Veterans interested in competing in the 2015 National Veterans Golden Age Games. Applications can be completed online at www.veteransgoldenagegames.va.gov, and will be accepted through May 15. Veterans ages 55 and older who are enrolled for VA care are eligible to participate. The 2015 National Veterans...
 
 

VA eliminates net worth as health care eligibility factor

The Department of Veterans Affairs is updating the way it determines eligibility for VA health care, a change that will result in more veterans having access to the health care benefits they’ve earned and deserve. Effective 2015, the VA eliminated the use of net worth as a determining factor for both health care programs and...
 
 

VA establishes MyVA advisory committee

The Department of Veterans Affairs announced March 13 the establishment of the MyVA Advisory Committee. The committee brings together skilled experts from the private, non-profit and government sectors to assist in reorienting the Department to better meet the needs of Veterans. This committee is charged with advising the Secretary of Veterans Affairs with a focus...
 




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>