In honor of Veterans Day, today’s post comes from Sarah Basilion, an intern in the National Archives History Office.
The National Archives is one of the best places to research U.S. military records.
As the official repository of military personnel records, the National Archives allows researchers to view documents and records related to the military both online and in person. Researchers can also look through general military records, view architectural and cartographic records, or conduct research on specific wars.
This, however, was not always the case.
Before there was a National Archives, the Department of War was the main repository of military and war records.
After the National Archives was created in 1934, it repeatedly attempted to obtain records held by the department, but by 1936 the department would only transfer small amounts of records.
The first Archivist of the United States, Robert D.W. Connor, was concerned. He knew that the military records held by the War Department were being kept in poor conditions that could irreparably damage the documents.
He also recognized the value such records could have when publicly available to researchers.
After negotiations with the War Department failed, Connor appealed to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937 and asked him to intervene.
Roosevelt stepped in, contacting Secretary of War Harry Woodring, explaining that putting the records in the Archives would offer safer storage options for the important documents and ease the workload of War Department employees.
After months of negotiations, the Department of War agreed to transfer historic military records that were not needed for present military operations.
At the National Archives the records were kept in better storage facilities, and staff could repair any damage incurred from poor storage conditions.
Since then, the National Archives has been the official repository for records of military personnel who have been separated from service from the U.S. Air Force, Army, Marine Corps, Navy, and Coast Guard.
Military records are now accessioned into the National Archives 62 years after the service member’s final separation, retirement or death in service from the military. This is the date the records are open to the public.
This date is rolling. So, for example, today’s date minus 62 years equals the date a record is open to the public. Records not yet archived have access restrictions. Prior to archiving, the veteran, or his/her next-of-kin (NOK) as defined by the Defense Department (surviving spouse or children) are the only individuals for which complete access to the record is granted. All other family members and the public have to wait until the record is archived.
A researcher can bypass this wait-period if they obtain permission from either the veteran, the NOK if the veteran is deceased and/or the respective military service department, or if the record is from a “Person of Exceptional Prominence (PEP).” PEP records can be made accessible ten years after the individual’s date of death.
Currently available PEP records include those of former Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and John F. Kennedy; actor Mickey Rooney; singer Elvis Presley; writer Jack Kerouac; and baseball player Ted Williams. A complete list can be found here.
Military records prior to the early portions of the 20th century are held at the National Archives in Washington, DC.
Though it varies by branch of military service, generally 20th century military personnel records are held in the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, Missouri.
The NPRC stores more than four million cubic feet of holdings, and is the central repository of records relating to the nation’s military and civil service personnel. Once the record is archived it transfers to the holdings of the National Archives at St. Louis, which is co-located with the NPRC.
On July 12, 1973, a fire consumed the sixth floor of the NPRC’s military records building at the former location at 9700 Page Avenue, destroying or severely damaging decades of military records. Approximately 16-18 million records were destroyed.
Since the fire, National Archives staff have worked diligently on requests to reconstruct a basic service information for veterans whose original file was destroyed or damaged in the fire. The Records Reconstruction Teams handle such requests.
Today, veterans, family members, researchers, and government officials access thousands of military records a year. These records are valuable in genealogy and history research, and are used by the government in an effort to find military personnel who were missing in action or prisoners of war. In the near future, the current military personnel records, which are electronic, will be accessioned into the holdings of the National Archives at St. Louis.
To request information from your military file in St. Louis, go here.
Thanks to Trevor Plante and Bryan McGraw for their assistance with this article.