Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Friday, November 4, 2016

Genealogical Disaster: Part — 1. The 1973 Fire at the U.S. National Personal Records Center

By Constance Potter, NARA

In terms of size and impact — the number of records destroyed and the number of persons affected — none of the earlier fires equaled the disaster of July 12, 1973, at the National Personnel Records Center.
Walter W. Stender and Evans Walker, writing in 
The American Archivist

On 12 July 12 1973 the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, MO, suffered a massive fire that destroyed approximately 16–18 million official military personnel records, one third of the records. Among the records destroyed were 80 percent of U.S. Army personnel discharged 1 November 1912 to 1 January 1960, which includes those for World War I.

None of the records destroyed in the fire had duplicate copies nor had they been microfilmed. Neither had they been indexed. To add to the confusion, a very small number of U.S. Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps records were out of their normal file area being worked on as active requests. When the fire began, these records were in the section of the building damaged by the fire.

The fire damage was extensive because of the poor design of the NPRC facility. Each floor consisted of large spaces for records storage, stretching hundreds of feet with no fire walls or other fire stopping barriers to limit the spread of the fire. The entire facility lacked heat or smoke detectors or a fire sprinkler system.

Damaged Records from the Fire

Despite an extensive effort to restore service records burned in the fire begun in 1974, the damage to files still poses a problem. Some of the information in NPRC files that was lost may be gleaned in other sources. This series will describe some of the sources useful to finding World War I service records.

In Part 2 tomorrow, Editor Mike Hanlon will share some of the workarounds he has discovered to assist genealogical researchers who have been frustrated due to this fire in 1973.

Source:  Website of the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission


  1. This terrible event has stymied my research (or at least hampered it). I have requested dozens of WWI records over the years, and I usually get final pay vouchers (which do have some important information on them). In only two cases have they sent complete records, salvaged from the fire, and those two were very helpful.

  2. The National Archives in Chesterfield has unit morning reports for the WWI period. Each company submits a report almost every morning of accessions, AWOLs, hospitalization, etc.

    Thus, if you know the unit of your ancestor, you may find useful information.

  3. We learned that the Records Center often responds to a request with a letter saying that the fire may have destroyed the records. But they have not actually searched for the specific records requested. We hired a researcher who persisted and got the records of a WW2 airman for us.

  4. Hi Dan,

    So if I know the Infantry Regiment and the name of a hospitalized soldier, they might help me with additional info?



  5. How does one go about requesting records? I am writing about my grandfather who served in the 91st in the Argonne. Such records would prove valuable. Thanks ahead!