Site search

Site menu:

Find Out More

Subscribe to Email Updates

Archives

Categories

Contact Us

Archive for July, 2013

One fire, 5 days, and 381 men

Today’s post comes from Sara Holmes, supervisory preservation specialist at the National Archives in St. Louis. (The images below are from the National Archives at St. Louis, with a special thank you to Capt. Dave Dubowski of the Spanish Lake Fire Department and the late Chief Bob Palmer of Mehlville Fire Department.)

What happened after midnight on July 12, 1973, changed everything for the National Archives in St. Louis.

The fire was first sighted outside of 9700 Page Avenue. Minutes later, the first team arrived at the sixth floor of the building, only to be forced to retreat as their masks began to melt on their faces.

Multiple engines try to contain the fire.

Multiple engines try to contain the fire. Note the warping of the roof from the heat. Filing cabinets can be seen on the right. The center had to put out a call for people to return records that had blown away during the fire.

The Military Personal Records Center (MPR)—now known as the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC)—was a huge building. Hailed as an architectural wonder when it was built in 1956, the building was 1,596,332 square feet, second only to the Pentagon in size at the time. Two NFL regulation football fields would fit comfortably within each of its six floors with room to spare. It had no sprinklers in the records storage areas and few firewalls … [ Read all ]

Burned and brittle records are in good hands

Over 5,000 requests for veterans’ military personnel records are received every day at the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, MO.

Donna Judd spends each day carefully searching for valuable information for veterans in the documents left burned and brittle by the 1973 fire at the NPRC building. She looks for separation documents so that veterans can get benefits, and she sifts through damaged files to find information for medals.

“One record could take 5 minutes, another record could take 5 hours,” she says.

The fire that swept through the sixth floor of the National Personnel Records Center on July 12, 1973, damaged and destroyed millions of documents. These records are needed—often urgently—by veterans in order to claim health benefits, receive medals, or secure a military burial.

As the fronts of boxes burned away, records spilled to the floor, providing further fuel for the fire.

As the fronts of boxes burned away, records spilled to the floor, providing further fuel for the fire.

When a request for a damaged record comes in, the file is pulled and then sent to a triage area where the Preservation staff assesses its condition. If the record is heavily damaged, it remains with the Preservation team. If it’s damaged but the information could be retrieved with care, the record will go to Judd.

An average of 200 to 250 records arrive in her office every week. Judd and another staff member, Jeannette Crowder, and three … [ Read all ]

Burnt in memory: Looking back at the 1973 St. Louis fire

This blog post is condensed from the article “Burnt in Memory,” by Marta G. O’Neill and William Seibert, from the Spring 2013 issue of Prologue.

By the time it was daylight on July 12, 1973, at the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, one thing was painfully clear: the loss of records to fire and water was staggering.

The fire had swept through the top floor of the building just after midnight. At its peak, 42 fire districts were fighting it. The fire burned uncontrolled for more than 22 hours.

[placeholder]

The Military Personnel Records Center after the July 1973 fire. Vast numbers of personnel records for veterans from 1912 to 1963 were destroyed or damaged by fire and water.

About 73 to 80 percent of the approximately 22 million individual Official Military Personnel Files (OMPFs) stored in the building were destroyed. The records lost were those of former members of the Army, the Army Air Force, and the Air Force who served between 1912 and 1963.

Up on the sixth floor, reinforced concrete columns had sheared off, causing the roof to collapse. Metal shelving and metal filing cabinets were bent and twisted by the fire’s heat. Bricks of ash remained where cubic foot boxes of records once sat. Aisles between shelving rows were filled with debris up to three feet deep, and several … [ Read all ]

Flying Saucers, Popular Mechanics, and the National Archives

The reports were among the thousands of pieces of paper waiting to be processed in a group of 100 boxes. But a few pieces of paper—with schematics that looked like they were right out of a 1950s sci-fi flick—were destined for a featured article in Popular Mechanics.

But first the documents were spotted by Michael Rhodes.

The cover of USAF Project 1794.

The cover of USAF Project 1794.

Rhodes is an archives technician. His hands are the last pair—in a long chain of National Archives staff—to touch formerly classified documents before they are released to the public. Rhodes was working on part of the final push to clear a backlog of 366 million pages.

His assignment: finish processing over 100 boxes of Air Force records. He got to work.

As he checked each record to be sure that it was in good condition and ready to be released to the public, he noticed something unusual. The box of records didn’t seem to be in any order, just reports and more reports, but Rhodes, who is interested in aviation and aerospace history, noticed an odd detail.

“What caught my eye was the icon of the saucer-looking shape,” he explains. The icon—a blue saucer over a red arrow—was in the corner of test flight reports and contracts with a Canadian company. And the strangest record of all? A drawing that Rhodes says … [ Read all ]

The 150th anniversary of Pickett’s Charge

Today’s guest post comes from Robert Lee Tringali, program analyst at the National Archives.

Starting on July 1, the last three days have marked the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, the turning point of the Civil War. In particular, today marks the anniversary of Pickett’s Charge, the defining event of the battle.

Monument at the Angle, the site of the fiercest action of Pickett's Charge. The Copse of Trees is in the background. Photo by Robert Tringali.

The battle of Gettysburg had raged furiously for two days. On the first day’s action—after bloody fighting at McPherson’s Ridge, Oak Hill, Oak Ridge, and Barlow’s Knoll—Union troops were forced to retreat and occupy a position southeast of town on Cemetery Hill. The second day’s action was marked with savage fighting at Little Round Top, Devil’s Den, the Wheatfield, the Peach Orchard, Culp’s Hill, Cemetery Ridge, and Cemetery Hill.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee failed to dislodge the Union forces on both the left and right flanks. Consequently, at a meeting late on July 2, Union General George Meade warned that the following day’s attack would descend upon the Union center. Meade’s reasoning proved correct as Lee’s battle plan for July 3 called for an assault on the Federal center.

The attack was preceded by a massive Confederate artillery bombardment of the Union center. Shortly after … [ Read all ]