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 part-time staff members—Wanda Dalton-Devore, Quintin Braggs, and Carol Berry—processed over 11,000 records last year.

On a good day, Judd will get through 60 records. On a “bad” day, she averages 20. “I feel like I haven’t done anything, but I’ve worked twice as hard,” she says. The records can be heavily charred, resulting in a dark brown color which makes the printing barely legible. Some have brittle edges that could snap off if not handled correctly, breaking the document and losing valuable information.

Wearing a mask and gloves, she works under a ventilator hood in a special room that prevents the mold on the damaged records from spreading throughout the facility. Each record presents different challenges. Parts of documents can be completely burnt away on either side or even have a hole in the middle, depending on how the record was shelved or where it was filed on the sixth floor.

Judd is familiar with the different shapes of these fire victims. The size and shape of World War II service records are smaller than Korean War–era records, while records from World War I tend to be a collection of loose papers.

Donna Judd examines damaged documents at her work.
Donna Judd examines damaged documents at her work station.

To protect the records, Judd tries to handle them as little as possible. She can sometimes make out the writing on a charred page by holding it up to the light. When she finds what she is looking for, she usually photocopies the file (very carefully!) and sends the photocopy to the technician on the Reference Core who is handling the request. But when the record is too fragile to copy, she writes it all down by hand. The pressure to be accurate is intense—she knows the technician and the veteran both rely on her to correctly identify the needed information.

Still, she sometimes does have to carefully pry apart records. When looking for information on medals, Judd knows that the World War II separation documents do not always record a Combat Infantryman Badge (CIB). The CIB is important because it entitles World War II veterans to the award of the Bronze Star Medal. Since the information could be on another document in the file, she searches as thoroughly as possible through the pages.

Often she finds the records of more than one soldier in the same folder. Because of the way the damaged records were retrieved and dried, multiple records can be mixed together. Soldiers with the same name could be found in a clump. Judd carefully sorts through the documents, checking the duplicate names against service numbers. It’s tedious work, but Judd doesn’t mind. “I love it. It’s like working puzzles all day,” she says.

Her careful work has rewards—one single request for a record once yielded documents for 12 separate men. These veterans, who may have been told in the past that their files were lost in the fire, can now successfully request their valuable service records.

For Judd, the importance of her work each day goes beyond the challenge of carefully handling a crumbling document. “You have to have people who care about the records,” says Judd, “but you also have to have people who care that the vets who served this country get what they deserve.”

To learn more about how the NPRC processes veterans’ requests for military personnel records, watch this video.

To read a personal account of working on veterans’ records, read “It’s why I do what I do.”

To learn more about the St. Louis fire, read “Burnt in Memory,” by Marta G. O’Neill and William Seibert, from the Spring 2013 issue of Prologue.




9 thoughts on “Burned and brittle records are in good hands

  1. A relative was trying to get my father’s Army records, but was told they were lost in this fire. I had them, would it be possible to donate a digital copy to the Archives?

    1. To answer your question, I know there is a policy in place for donations to the St. Louis facility for paper copies of destroyed records, not sure of digital copies.
      I will defer to the folks there for specifics on those kind of records, but I would imagine there is an interest.
      Even beyond the need of the living veterans, the rebuilding of these records will provide much help to future scholars and researchers for decades or even hundreds of years to come.

  2. Thank you so much for posting this. Beautifully represents the NARA I know and admire and at which, in the Washington area, I once worked as an archivist. Especially like the line from Donna Judd, “‘I love it. It’s like working puzzles all day,’ she says,” as well as the overall vibe of helping others. Well done, Donna Judd and NARA..

  3. Great post, Hilary, and my appreciation to Donna Judd and her colleagues for their perserverance on and dedication to this important task.

  4. Donna Judd and your team- you are heros in my eyes for all the painstaking work you do for the families and the veterans. You help find answers, mend broken hearts by giving information that families need for closure and fill loved ones hearts with info they desperately wanted and/or needed. Thank you for all your work.

  5. Thanks Jody for sending this out. I had to do a search a few yrs ago and they could only send a smoky page of my DD-214. My service was ’50 to ’54, USAF.

  6. We appreciate the noble step that Ms. Donna is taking to help the old people claim their demand which they must have never expected after the massive fire accident.

    Hats off to her thought and approach to execute the same, and thanks a lot for sharing the article with us.


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