The Olivette Fire Department in St. Louis County, Missoui, got the call at 12:16am on July 12, 1973. Fire had broken out on the sixth floor of the massive federal National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) a mile down the road. Part warehouse, part office building, the Internationalist steel-and-glass NPRC had gone up in the Overland suburb of St. Louis in 1956. It was an open space with heavy pillars, no firewalls, and no sprinkler system. Miles of steel shelves and filing cabinets held billions of pages of military records belonging to 52 million individuals. Most of them were one-of-a-kind and unindexed. Most of them were on the sixth floor.
Firefighters rushed to the top floor within minutes of the call. They fought the flames for hours until heat and smoke soon forced them to retreat back outside. From the yard and parking lot below they shot millions of gallons on water through the row of broken plate glass windows. The building’s roof collapsed, flames shot straight into the air and blanketed the neighborhood in smoke. Residents stayed indoors for days.
After forty straight hours of battle, firefighters gained the upper hand. Three days later, officials declared the fire extinguished, though pumper trucks returned repeatedly for weeks to handle flare-ups.
No one was killed or injured in the fire, and no cause was ever determined. But the damage to our nation’s heritage was devastating. We’ll never know precisely how many records were destroyed because there’s no database or registry to crosscheck. But the best estimate is between 16-18 million veterans’ records were turned to ash, including 80% of Army discharges from 1912-1960 and 75% of Air Force discharges from 1947-1964. Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps records, stored in other floors, were largely spared.
On July 23, NPRC staff and contractors began picking through the crumpled metal shelves to recover whatever they could. As vast human chain passed water-logged bricks of ash—burnt one-foot-cubic file boxes–down to workers in a tent city erected in the parking lot below. There, the records were placed into plastic milk crates–the best containers for hastening the drying process. It was a race against time as the muggy St. Louis heat turned the soggy paper into a breeding ground for mold.
Thousands of milk crates filled with burnt records stacked outside the National Personnel Records Center 1973 (National Archives)
The first effort involved laying the paper out on drying racks at the Civilian Personnel Records Center in downtown St. Louis. But then the nearby McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Corporation told the National Archives that it had a state-of-the-art vacuum chamber used to test equipment for the Mercury and Gemini space missions. The chamber might be used to pressure-dry the paper, 2,000 milk crates at a time.
McDonnell Douglas technicians loaded the chamber, sealed it up, and worked the dials. Water came flowing out of the stacks of paper. Each vacuum treatment extracted nearly 8 total tons of water from the 2,000 crates. In fact, the drying process was almost too good. With no moisture, the paper became brittle. Workers soon perfected the process, and the NPRC sent water-logged records to NASA in Ohio for similar treatment. Such work and ingenuity saved about 6.5 million damaged records.
Example of a service record recovered from the 1973 fire (National Archives)
The restoration efforts continue almost a half-century later. The National Archives has two Records Reconstruction Teams which field over 2,000 fire-related reference requests each week. A request triggers an effort to reconstruct the documentation, either through chemical treatment, digital enhancement, or by consulting Auxiliary Records from the VA, Selective Service, or service branches.
Of course, historians like me value these efforts for helping to preserve and further knowledge of our past. But millions of American families depend on these vital records to access loans, health care, disability claims, and other benefits earned from military service. To see if you can access information from your military file in St. Louis, go to archives.gov/veterans/. To learn more about the NPRC’s Preservation Laboratory and its ongoing work to recover burnt files, go to archives.gov/preservation/st-louis-preservation-branch.