Working Around the National Personnel Records Center Fire of 1973

Millions of personnel records for members of the U.S. armed forces who served during the twentieth century were destroyed as a result of the 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in Overland, Missouri. These records had not been duplicated or microfilmed, so the loss was tremendous. Many genealogists researching men and women who participated in World War I and World War II assume that all records were destroyed and that no information is available; however, that is not necessarily the case.

Since no indexes had been created prior to the blaze, there is no comprehensive list of the records that were destroyed. Navy and Marine Corps personnel records survived the fire. The majority of the records destroyed were for Army and Air Force personnel, including

  • 80% of records for Army personnel discharged between November 1, 1912 and January 1, 1960;
  • 75% of records for Air Force personnel with surnames falling alphabetically after Hubbard and who were discharged between September 25, 1947 and January 1, 1964 (not including records for veterans who were retired or in the Air Force Reserves); and
  • some records for U.S. Army Reserve personnel whose active duty for training began in the late 1950s and who were discharged in 1964 or earlier.

There are several exceptions to the above-listed groups. Records for Army retirees who were discharged between 1912 and 1960, but were alive on the date of the fire, were stored in another location and survived. Additionally, some personnel records that were in possession of the Department of Veterans Affairs at the time of the blaze may have survived.

It is important to remember that the records destroyed as a result of the fire were personnel records, which typically included enlistment and discharge papers, final pay vouchers, medical information, and other records specific to the veteran. These records included information such as a veteran’s dates of service, serial number, organization, ranks, battles, campaigns, citations, reason for separation, medical information, orders, pay information, and more. However, military records of a more general nature have survived, and information about veterans can be extracted from those to help reconstruct a veteran’s service. For many years, the National Personnel Records Center has attempted to gather basic service information for veterans whose records were destroyed, using multiple-name pay vouchers, hospital records, morning reports, enlistment rosters, and other general records from the military and other government agencies.

Researchers seeking information about military service for a veteran who served during the twentieth century should always start with the NPRC. Even if a veteran’s record was among those lost in the fire, a reconstructed record may already exist. Military service records for this time period can be requested by submitting an SF 180 (Request Pertaining To Military Records) to the location indicated on the last page of the form. NPRC’s response will indicate whether a partial record is available. If a veteran’s personnel file has not yet been reconstructed, a Questionnaire About Military Service can be submitted to request that the NPRC begin that process.

In addition to the reconstructed records available from the NPRC, there are many options for obtaining the records and information that were contained in the destroyed personnel files.

Recorded Discharge Papers

Army Discharge for Peter Jimcosky

Army Discharge for Peter Jimcosky

Veterans and their dependents were encouraged to record their discharge papers with their local county clerks or recorders. Many county clerks’ offices have dedicated record books for military discharges, while some have military discharge records mixed in with other types of records. There may be some restrictions on who can view these, depending on how long ago the discharge took place; however, records for World War I and World War II veterans are generally available in most locations. Since these records were usually recorded shortly after a veteran’s discharge, researchers should check with the clerk or recorder’s office in the county where the veteran lived immediately following his or her military separation.

Civilian Records
Many World War I and World War II veterans were also part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) or Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Civilians serving with these organizations were required to provide the federal government with much of the same information as individuals who joined the armed forces. For World War II veterans, civilian personnel records can serve as a good substitute for military personnel records, specifically for information about the servicemember’s life prior to joining the armed forces, including education, employment history, family information, and more. For veterans who served in the military prior to their civilian service, such as World War I veterans, WPA and CCC records will provide at least the branch of service and rank, and possibly other details.

State-Level Records
Numerous records created on the state level contain much of the same information as records that were destroyed in the fire. Each state’s Adjutant General Office (AGO) holds records related to men and women from their state who served in the military. The type of records held by the AGO varies by state, and some may be subject to privacy restrictions. AGO records can include unofficial service records, pay vouchers, copies of separation papers, and records of compensation. Some older records have been transferred to state archives or historical societies. Researchers should check with the AGO (or the institution that presently holds its records) in the state where the veteran lived when he or she joined the military. Some of these collections have been digitized and made searchable through various subscription sites, such as Iowa World War II Bonus Case Files and New Mexico World War II Records on Ancestry.com.

Veterans Administration Records
The Veterans Administration (VA) and its local offices also hold some types of records pertaining to veterans’ military service. The records held vary on a case-by-case basis, depending on whether a veteran registered his or her military service with the VA, and whether the veteran or his or her dependents ever filed any claims with the VA. Veterans and dependents who filed claims after the fire in 1973 had to prove the veterans’ service, so the VA may have copies of records that were obtained when claims were made, including enlistment or separation papers that had been retained by the families, or reconstructed military files. The VA handled compensation, loans, medical benefits, education funding, and other services for veterans. Some records held by the VA have been digitized and made searchable, such as the Pennsylvania Veteran Compensation Application Files for World War II Veterans, available from Ancestry.com. This collection includes entry and discharge dates, rank, organization, stations, posts, camps, and units where the applicant served—much of the same information that would have been found in a personnel file.

Military Naturalizations
Members of the armed forces who were not U.S. citizens were eligible to have their naturalization petitions expedited. These military naturalization records include the serviceperson’s place of residence (often a military base), branch of service, rank, and date of entry into the military. They are housed at the National Archives and Records Administration’s facility that covers the area where the naturalization took place.

Court Records
The Soldiers and Sailors Civil Relief Act (and subsequent related acts) protected military personnel from some civil legal actions, allowing them to defer their response to a civil action rather than be issued a default judgment. Under the act, some servicemen may have requested a stay based on the fact that they could not be present for a trial. In cases such as these, military service information, such as unit, rank, and location at the time the action was initiated, may be found in court case files, such as divorce actions.

Records of Veterans’ Deaths
A plethora of records are available for members of the armed forces who died as a result of their duties, even when their personnel files do not survive. Many states have lists or databases that include detailed information about each fallen veteran’s death and service. Additionally, local newspapers almost always published articles about deaths, and these articles usually include the branch of service, rank, and unit, and sometimes provide information about where the deceased was stationed and how he or she died.

Regardless of how and when a veteran died, evidence of military service had to be provided in order for the veteran to receive a military-issued headstone or be buried in a military cemetery. The VA may hold proof of service for veterans who died recently, and a record of their burials (which includes very basic service information) can be found in the Nationwide Gravesite Locator. For older burials, headstone applications are available online at FamilySearch.org and Fold3, and can provide the veteran’s rank, company, and other details. In some locations, grave registrations are also available, typically from state archives or at the county level, and can provide even more information.

Service and Support Organizations
Veterans’ organizations, such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion, have copies of their members’ applications, discharge papers, and other records. Many other organizations that offered support to veterans also existed, and these groups may hold copies of records for veterans they assisted. Collections are often available from the organizations or from historical societies. Some have even been digitized, such as the World War II Jewish Serviceman Records Collection, a database of index cards referring to veterans who were assisted by the National Jewish Welfare Board. These cards serve as an index to files held by the American Jewish Historical Society, which can include information and records that were destroyed in the fire.

Finding information about veterans and their military service may seem like an insurmountable task when no personnel record exists, but with some extra effort and a look at alternate sources, it can be done.

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