New in our Catalog: Famous Faces in the Military

Today’s post comes from Marie Taylor, Preservation Technician with Preservation Programs at the National Archives.

Photo of Joe Louis from his Official Military Personnel File, n.d. (National Archives Identifier 57277097)

Have you ever wondered what Elvis did during his time in the military? How about Humphrey Bogart, Sammy Davis Jr., or even legendary boxer Joe Louis?

Many people forget or simply don’t know that these famous individuals served in our nation’s Armed Forces. That awareness might change in the future, thanks to a new initiative from the National Archives at St. Louis.

Many of the Official Military Personnel Files (OMPFs) from the Archives’ Persons of Exceptional Prominence (PEP) collection will now be available to view or download on the National Archives Catalog.

So, what are the PEPs? The PEPs are Specially Protected Holdings (SPHs) of accessioned military and civilian personnel files of prominent individuals who served in the military or Federal Government. They warrant special protection due to their status, what they did while serving, or as a result of their service.  

Humphrey D. Bogart’s enlistment form from his Official Military Personnel File, 1918. (National Archives Identifier 40910835)

What makes a record eligible for the Specially Protected Holdings status? According to the National Archives and Records Administration Directive 1572, supplement 2, Specially Protected Holdings are defined as:

Unclassified holdings to which extra physical, intellectual and access controls are assigned because they bear exceptional intrinsic or monetary value, and are therefore subject to heightened risk of theft or vandalism.

In the case of the National Archives at St. Louis, the PEP collection can include nationally recognized celebrities, officials who served in top positions within the Armed Forces, highly decorated military personnel, innovators and pioneers, infamous characters, and even individuals associated with important cultural events or movements.

Letter of Recommendation for John Ford from his Official Military Personnel File, August 29, 1934. (National Archives Identifier 40914175)

Records considered for PEP status do not always fall into these categories, but these are the general guidelines for archivists to follow when submitting a record for PEP status.

For a complete list of PEP files within the collection, visit our website.

As users begin to explore the OMPFs, they can expect to find a variety of resources within the files. An OMPF can include the person’s entry paperwork (enlistment or commissioning documents), training paperwork, correspondence from military officials, separation documents, summaries of military training, assignment history, decorations and awards, and sometimes even photographs or negatives.

A.Coltrane, John 001
John Coltrane’s Navy Enlisted Personnel Qualification Card from his Official Military Personnel File, 1945. (National Archives Identifier 57283291)

A word of warning—not every file contains large number of documents, just as not every famous service member had a long term of service. The average page count of an OMPF across all types is 76 pages. This number comes from a comprehensive survey of the collection conducted in 2004. Officer records tend to be larger, averaging over 100 pages, and the larger PEP records have thousands of pages each.  

As NARA moved into the digital age and began scanning many of its records, the PEP OMPF collection became an excellent candidate for digitization. OMPFs from famous figures are requested at a higher volume than other OMPF records, and since each record can be scanned and made into a high quality copy, it made sense to protect these special holdings and digitize many of them. A few hundred PEP records have been scanned since the mid-2000s, with more to be added to that list as records are treated and requested.

Digitizing the collection is just the first step in providing greater accessibility to these special records. The next chapter in the PEP story is happening right now, and it involves adding these high profile military personnel files to the National Archives Catalog.

Archival Operations at the National Archives at St. Louis (RL-SL) has teamed up with the Preservation Program at St. Louis to add, process, and reformat personnel files in order to add them to the Catalog. Over the next couple of years, more PEP files will continue to be added, giving researchers and the public unlimited access to some of the military’s most famous servicemen and women.

Thanks to the advancement of technology and the National Archives’ strategic focus on accessibility, these records can now be viewed and appreciated by the public for years to come.

3 thoughts on “New in our Catalog: Famous Faces in the Military

  1. What fascinating details in these documents – John Coltrane worked as a “soda jerker” after school.
    What exactly did a “soda jerker” do?

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