The world of genealogy is no stranger to overcoming records that perished in natural and man-made disasters. Many of these disasters resulted in monumental record losses that took with it a significant part of our history. On 12 July 1973, the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis caught fire shortly after midnight and burned intensely for almost an entire day. The damage from flames and water used by the firefighters resulted in an insurmountable loss of an estimated 16-18 million records. The National Archives reports that the following records were affected:
|Branch||Personnel and Period Affected||Estimated Loss|
|Army||Personnel discharged 1 Nov 1912 to 1 Jan 1960||80%|
|Air Force||Personnel discharged 25 Sep 1947 to 1 Jan 1964 (with names alphabetically after Hubbard, James E.)||75%|
This means that the fire destroyed important service records for those who served in the U.S. Army and Air Force during WWI, WWII, & the Korean War; essentially three of the most major conflicts in the 20th century. The loss is so important because service records provide important genealogical information and amazing detail on our ancestors’ roles in these wars. I know because when the copy of my grandfather’s OMPF (Official Military Personnel File) from his service in the U.S. Navy came in the mail, my jaw dropped from the sheer size of the packet containing his military personnel documents.
In the aftermath of this disastrous fire, the National Personnel Records Center undertook extensive efforts to treat records that were somewhat salvageable, so there is a chance that if you put in a request, they may have a partially reconstructed file. Most of all, it is for the U.S. military extensive documentation and record keeping practices that we are grateful, because we can use a number of alternative or “auxiliary” sources to reconstruct our ancestor’s service. Most of these are in the custody of the National Archives at St. Louis.
- Burial Case Files
The National Archives has several series relating to the burial of U.S. soldiers. Dating back to the Civil War, The Office of the Quartermaster General assumed responsibility of burials and cemeterial affairs for U.S. soldiers. For researchers investigating the deaths of World War I soldiers, consulting the collection “Correspondence, Reports, Telegrams, Applications, and Other Papers Relation to Burials of Service Personnel, 1915-1939” is essential. Also known as “Cemeterial Files” or “293 Files,” this series contains all the documents submitted to the Quartermaster General’s office regarding the burial of a U.S. Soldier who died during World War I. A file can include documents such as grave location cards, reburial information, correspondence to family members, financial records, and ephemera like the soldier’s dog tags. In the aftermath of the war, Gold Star mothers traveled overseas to visit the burial sites and records related to their travel (itineraries) are also included. Researchers will also be able to determine the soldier’s exact cause of death from documents such as this telegram found in the burial case file of poet Joyce Kilmer.
Image Source: NARA
This series does not cover burials for World War II and later, so researchers need to consult different sources. The National Archives holds a number of series including internment control forms, maps of overseas gravesites, and applications for headstones. The latter, covering applications made 1925-1963 has been digitized and is searchable on Fold3.com. The American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) also collected information regarding burials of soldiers overseas. The National Archives has custody of these records in Record Group 117, Records of the American Battle Monuments Commission. Data from these records has been extracted and is available free on Fold3.com, as well as the ABMC’s own website.
- Pay Cards and Vouchers
The U.S. General Accounting Office kept pay cards and vouchers for Army World War I Officers, Enlisted Men, and Nurses, dated 1917-1921. While most of the pay cards contain strictly information related to wages and deductions, the final pay voucher is the most revealing, because it will list the rank, unit, enlistment information, as well as character of discharge. However, final pay vouchers do not survive for every soldier.
For World War II, there are Army Deserter Pay Cards, 1943-1945 and Army Officers Pay Cards, 1940-1951 that includes their name, unit, and serial number.
- Deceased Veterans Claim Files, 1917-1948
Known also as “XC Files”, these can be a goldmine of genealogical information, just like the pension files for veterans of earlier conflicts. XC Files are part of Record Group 15, Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs. What you can find on veterans is astounding and extremely helpful for genealogical research. These files include the veteran’s full name, birth date, names of family members, beneficiaries, service information, residence, and death date. Files may include the veteran’s discharge papers, medical records, change of address, vital records, wills, funeral receipts, insurance papers, and photographs.
Image Source: NARA
Open cases are still in the custody of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Those that are closed have been transferred to the National Personnel Records Center and later, the National Archives at St. Louis. NARA’s St. Louis branch has in their archives XC files for veterans from the Civil War up to World War I. The National Archives at St. Louis does have the VA Master Index File up to 1972, which can give you the VA claim number and others, allowing you to contact the Veterans Administration directly for more records.
- Award Cards
Many award cards at held at NARA’s St. Louis branch. These cards were created by the Adjutant General’s Office of the War Department and document soldiers, as well as civilians, who performed acts of heroism and sustained injuries. These cards may include name, place of birth, address, service number, rank, general order number, award type, and description of why they are receiving an award. Using the general order number can lead to additional records in the General Orders series about why the veteran received this particular award.
- Morning Reports
Morning reports were created by each unit of the U.S. Army and Army Air Force to report changes in the status and number of personnel within the organization. For this reasons, morning reports will list soldiers who were injured, hospitalized, reassigned, or given leave. They are not the complete roster of an organization. Morning reports may also include activities within that unit and may mention an individual’s specific involvement in a battle or event. These types of details are not included the official military personnel files. Morning reports are held at College Park and on microfilm at NARA’s St. Louis Branch, but because they were reproduced poorly, they only permit researchers to look at them on-site and will not take mail requests.
Don’t overlook state records for veterans either, such as “Pennsylvania, Veteran Compensation Application Files, 1950-1966,” and “Iowa, World War II Bonus Case Files, 1947-1954,” available on Ancestry. Genealogical research on veterans can be bountiful, but also complicated. My research toolbox contains all the necessary links to do genealogical research on World War II Veterans, including online databases, NARA reference papers, how to request personnel records, research repositories, and more.
 “The 1973 Fire, National Personnel Records Center,” National Archives at St. Louis (www.archives.gov/st-louis/military-personnel/fire-1973.html: accessed 6 Sep 2016.)
Copyright (c) 2016 Jake Fletcher.
Jake Fletcher, “Overcoming the 1973 NPRC Fire: 5 Auxiliary Source For Reconstructing Military Service,” Jake Fletcher, posted 8 Sep 2016 (http://travelyourgenealogy.com/2016/09/09/overcoming-the-1973-nprc-fire-5-auxiliary-source-for-reconstructing-military-service: [access date]).