On July 12, 1973, approximately 16-18 million Official Military Personnel Files were destroyed when a fire ripped through the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis.
More than 40 years later, staff at the NPRC still are attempting to piece together those records.
Kevin Pratt, NPRC’s assistant director for Military Records, told American Legion Department Service Officers School attendees that teams at the facilities are reconstructing 2,000-3,000 records per week. Using information that was not destroyed, and working with other agencies and the military branches to get additional information, close to 6 million records have been reconstructed since the fire.
“It is probably the most painful thing I have to deal with on a day-to-day basis,” Pratt said. “It’s very difficult to tell a veteran and family members that we don’t have their records and that it was destroyed in the fire. It’s frustrating to deal with, but we’ve done a lot of things over the years to try to … satisfy the requirement for the service veterans.
“We’re at about 90 percent-plus able to do a record recreation of that veteran’s service and produce a document they can use for the (Department of Veterans Affairs) and other benefits. That’s a good thing, but there’s obviously a lot of history lost in that fire.”
The NPRC houses military records of individuals who served in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard dating as far back as 1886 and as recently as 2008. No National Guard records are stored at the NPRC unless a Guardsman served on active duty or was federalized. Those who were never called up to active duty will likely be referred to their respective state.
No military unit information is housed at the facility, though Pratt said staff there has contacts with agencies that can help locate that info.
“A lot of what we do at the NPRC is liaising with both the (military branches) and the VA in order to provide benefits for the veterans,” Pratt said. “In many cases, there’s a lot of complexity associated with it, and have to kind of weed through it to find out what we need to do to provide the benefits for the veteran.”
Pratt urged anyone seeking a veterans’ records for the sake of receiving VA benefits makes sure to state that is the reason for the request. There is a fee of $25 per five pages to receive a record, but there is no fee if the request is to secure a veteran benefits.
With 77 million records that include several of the same names, Pratt urged providing the most specific information possible when submitting a records request. But, “if a veteran sends it to us on a cocktail napkin, we’ll honor that request as long as they sign it,” he said.