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It’s why I do what I do

Today’s blog post in honor of Memorial Day comes from Michael Pierce, preservation technician at the National Archives at Saint Louis.

It’s called “the Forgotten War.” But like any conflict, the Korean War is always remembered by the men and women who fought in it, and by their families.

A grief-stricken American infantryman whose buddy has been killed in action is comforted by another soldier. In the background a corpsman methodically fills out casualty tags, Haktong-ni area, Korea. August 28, 1950. Sfc. Al Chang. (Army, 111-SC-347803)

The Preservation Lab at St. Louis occasionally get requests from JPAC (the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command) for information from records of men who went missing in Korea and other places. Our lab deals primarily with records that were damaged in the 1973 fire at our old facility in St. Louis. Millions of Official Military Personnel Files from the Army and Air Force were destroyed, or heavily damaged, by fire, smoke, and water.

Sometimes, the requested record is part of that registry. We clean the record, make copies of the necessary documents, and send them on. Normally, we don’t hear anything about the results of our efforts.

I’m always telling my fellow technicians that we’re the “unsung heroes” of the National Archives at Saint Louis. Everyone else gets the accolades and the thank-you letters, while we work in the background, quietly doing our little bit, then moving along to the next file.

Susie Davis, technician in the Preservation Lab at St. Louis, treats burned documents. Photo by Lenin Hurtado for the National Archives.

However, Scott Levins, the Director of the National Personnel Records Center, recently received a letter of thanks from the folks at JPAC, mentioning the names of 32 men missing since the Korean War who had been identified, thanks to the efforts of this center, and could now be sent home for burial.

Some of the names listed were the names of young men whose records I had processed.

Sometimes, I take a quick look at the ages of the men and women whose records I am working on. I realize that most of them are less than half my age. I’ve had a good life so far. Sometimes, their lives ended just when it should have been beginning. Occasionally, I shed a tear.

I know I’m supposed to be primarily concerned with preserving the paper, guarding against the further loss of information on these documents. Still, my sense of humanity creeps in on occasion.

We have records salvaged from the USS ARIZONA after she went down at Pearl Harbor. When one of these records has been in a plastic bag for awhile, you can smell diesel fuel when the bag is opened. When I smell that, it takes me to that time and place, wondering what those young men and women were thinking and experiencing as their world was suddenly turned upside down.

Historians are encouraged to look at events objectively, to keep a bit of mental distance from the subject they’re studying. I can do that when I’m on the job until I consider that I’m performing a task that allows these documents to come alive and speak for those who may no longer be with us.

It’s why I do what I do.

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Comments

Comment from Maarja Krusten
Time May 28, 2013 at 2:58 pm

As a historian, a former NARA employee, and someone who appreciates thoughtful eloquence in writing, I really appreciated this post! Many thanks, Michael Pierce, for sharing your thoughts, and NARA Social Media team, for posting this for Memorial Day.

Comment from Lisa
Time May 29, 2013 at 7:22 am

Thank you very much for sharing your message. How can you NOT be affected by the subjects described in the documents you touch daily? Your work brings closure to so many people – what a blessing for them.

Comment from Michael Pierce
Time May 30, 2013 at 7:12 am

From myself and my co-workers, thanks to all of you for your kind words.