NARA Coast to Coast: “Pay Day” for Some World War I Military Personnel Records
Today, guest blogger Theresa Fitzgerald from the National Archives at St. Louis has written a special NARA Coast-to-Coast post sharing some recent discoveries in World War I era military records.
On July 12, 1973 a fire engulfed the sixth floor of the Military Personnel Records Center. This event destroyed 80% of all Army personnel records with discharge dates between November 1, 1912 and January 1, 1960; additionally, it destroyed 75% of all Air Force personnel records with discharge dates between September 25, 1947 and January 1, 1964, with names alphabetically after Hubbard, James E.
This fire greatly affected the ability of the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) to answer requests for information. In an attempt to reconstruct the destroyed records, the military branches of service, in conjunction with the Department of Veterans Affairs, provided the Military Personnel Records Center with all auxiliary documents in their possession.
Unfortunately, auxiliary documents contain limited information. They do not completely replace the data in records that were lost, but they do provide evidence of service that might not otherwise be proved. The most common types of auxiliary documents are pay cards and vouchers. These pay documents usually reflect the name of the veteran, rank, amount of pay, and discharge date. In general, this is only useful for establishing the service of the veteran involved and provides little of interest to historical or genealogical researchers. However, in processing a collection of World War I Warrant Officer Pay Cards (ARC ID 3518560), I discovered some clues that led me to two stories of veterans’ fame in history.
My first discovery was a pay card that identified a German Officer, Lieutenant Hans Berg. Upon further research I discovered that he was a WWI prisoner of war in Atlanta’s Fort McPherson. This was an enclosure for enemy servicemen, most of them German sailors interned as soon as the United States entered World War I. Berg was known for his successful use of the German Faustball Tunnel, a tunnel made famous by Steve McQueen’s movie The Great Escape.
Initially used by escaping prisoners in Germany to burrow under prison enclosures, Berg’s particular tunnel was a 143 foot shaft dug in fourteen days. The escapees gained notoriety in the Atlanta Journal of October 26, 1917:
“Five tramps had been seen shivering around a small fire in the woods near Griffin. They were Germans! A soldier had dragged a civilian out of a soda stand near Five Points. He was a German! A man with a red nose had asked a housewife in Decatur for a slice of pie. He was a German! A stranger on a Forrest Avenue car had stared suspiciously at a soap advertisement. The police were notified.
So it went. But as rumor after rumor was run down by the secret service operatives from the Department of Justice, only to fizzle out, it became more and more certain that Lieutenant Hans Berg, reputed to be the hero of a hundred Gretchens’ hearts, Arnold Henkel, the modern Monte Cristo, and their companions had either put many a mile between them and the city or were tucked away in some secret place which the police had not yet been able to locate.”
In addition to Berg, I used a description from the Officer Pay Card of Smiley Blanton that stated he was the Captain at the Neurological Institute. I followed the “Neurological Institute” clue and discovered that Smiley Blanton was among the earliest in America to work in the field of speech pathology. He combined his medical and psychoanalytic training from the military to create counseling and family therapies for children and adults who stutter and who have voice and articulation problems. He was also the director of the first university speech clinic at the University of Wisconsin, called the “Speech and Mental Hygiene Clinic.”
Pay cards and vouchers, while they contain limited information, can be great resources for many different kinds of research. Veterans utilize these documents to prove their service in the military. Historians and genealogists may use this information to discover the prior military records of famed historical characters or relatives. For a variety of researchers, these pay documents can provide valuable information about the history of military service members.
For more information on these records:
If you are interested in learning more about the World War I Warrant Officer Pay Vouchers specifically, and how to request or view the files, please visit http://www.archives.gov/st-louis/military-personnel/standard-form-180.html. Print, fill in, and mail the Standard Form 180 to the National Personnel Records Center 9700 Page Ave, St. Louis, MO, 63132, or make an appointment in our research room by calling 314-801-0951.
A successful request will contain the individual’s complete name, Archival Research Catalog (ARC) ID number, and military service number. To confirm that we have referenced the correct file, it is also helpful to provide the individual’s date and place of birth and, if possible, the date of release from military service.
If you are interested in pay vouchers other than World War I Warrant Officers, follow the above instructions, but do not include a specific Archival Research Catalog ID number.