By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, July 12, 2013 - Forty years ago today, an enormous fire erupted at the National Personnel Records Center in suburban St. Louis. Burning uncontrollably for almost 24 hours, it destroyed some 16 million to 18 million military personnel records including official documents veterans need to apply for the benefits they've earned.
Today, a team of about 30 people continues to put the pieces back together. They use the latest restoration techniques so reference technicians can gleam details from charred and water-damaged documents.
"It's like a MASH [Mobile Army Surgical Hospital] unit," Marta O'Neill, who heads the National Personnel Records Center's Preservation Lab, said during a telephone interview. "There may be 15 different routes that a record could take so we can still preserve the information and get the benefits to the veteran."
The July 12, 1973, fire destroyed up to 80 percent of the 22 million records of veterans of the Army, Army Air Force and Air Force who served between 1912 and 1963, reported William Seibert, senior archivist and chief of archival operations at the National Archives in St. Louis.
About 85 percent of the records of soldiers discharged between 1912 and 1959, including veterans of World War II and the Korean War, went up in smoke. In addition, about 75 percent of the records of airman with last names beginning with "H" through "Z" who left service between 1947 and 1963 were lost.
The true extent of the loss remains a mystery, because the center had no central registry of its holdings at the time, explained Seibert. Even if it was physically possible to reconstruct every single missing document, nobody knows for sure which ones they are, he said.
Records are being tracked down and, when necessary, restored, by request. And four decades after the fire, requests for documents from the burned holdings or "B-Files" continue to roll in at the rate of 200 to 300 every day, O'Neill said.
Some come from veterans needing a record of their service to receive federal health-care, home loans or other veterans' benefits, she said. A homeless veteran, for example, may need a copy of his or her DD-214 discharge certificate to qualify for Department of Veterans Affairs-sponsored shelters or meals.
Sometimes requests come from veterans' families, needing the records to apply for entitlements on their loved one's behalf, or to have them buried in a national cemetery. In some cases, family members may need the records to qualify for scholarships or other benefits based on their family's military affiliation.
Other requests also come from historians or genealogists trying to piece together their own family histories.
Fulfilling those requests can be as straightforward as tracking down one of the estimated 6.5 million records recovered from the fire, all now stored in temperature- and humidity-controlled conditions at the new National Personnel Records Center outside St. Louis.
The effort can become slightly more difficult if it requires cross-referencing of other official records to ferret out and verify the information needed.
But in other cases, fulfilling a records request involves the painstaking and time-intensive process of reconstructing a document blackened by fire, soaked with water or tainted with mold.
This is highly detailed work that O'Neill said demands both patience and a steady hand. In addition to a fulltime staff of 24, her team of technicians relies on the help of college interns eager to get hands-on experience in document preservation.
Donning gloves to handle the fragile materials, they use special equipment and techniques to clean documents of debris and mold, separate pages stuck together for the past 40 years and piece together brittle fragments into more complete documents.
State-of-the-art digital technology now helps them reconstruct documents once considered beyond repair, O'Neill said. "You can't reverse ash," she said. "But you can use scanners and digital software to enhance the document so the text on the burned part can be lifted and revealed. Basically, you look at a piece of ash, and when you digitally enhance it, you can see the writing on it."
Regardless of what it takes, O'Neill said she and her staff get tremendous gratification from their mission -- as preservationists, archivists and human beings. They delight in taking something badly damaged and making it, although not like new, better than most people could ever imagine possible, she said.
From the archival perspective, they enjoy reconstructing history, one document at a time. Since 1999, official military personnel records are now among the small percentage of government records now maintained permanently, based on their historical significance, she noted.
But the biggest reward of the mission, she said, is being able to recover documents that can make a real difference in someone's life.
"We are helping so many people in so many ways," she said.