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The painstaking effort to recover millions of burned military service records

By Wyatt Olson, Stars and Stripes

“Forty years ago this summer, firefighters in St. Louis arrived on the scene of what would become an archive catastrophe unparalleled in U.S. history — a disaster that to this day is affecting military veterans and their families.” “Minutes after an alarm sounded on July 12, 1973, the firefighters reached the National Personnel Records Center, which held millions of official military files spanning the 20th century. They reached the burning sixth floor, but after a couple of hours had to withdraw because of the flames and heat. The inferno burned out of control for 22 hours, and it took two days before fire officials could even re-enter the building. The smoke was so thick and harsh that residents living in the area had to remain indoors for days. After 4½ days — and millions of gallons of water poured into the building — the fire department declared the fire extinguished.” “The calamity ultimately destroyed the records of about 18 million veterans, including roughly 80 percent for Army personnel discharged between 1912 and 1960 and 75 percent of Air Force personnel discharged between 1947 and 1964.” “The documents had never been microfilmed, nor did any duplicates exist. No cause of fire was ever determined.” “About 6.5 million water-soaked and partially burned personnel files eventually were salvaged.” “Decades later, technicians with the National Archives facility in St. Louis still painstakingly search for and process the burnt and brittle personnel files requested by veterans, their wives and children and researchers. Often the requester is looking for proof needed for federal entitlements, such as medical care, education benefits and burial.”

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