Today’s post comes from Thomas Richardson, an archives technician at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri. It is the part of a series on records at the National Personnel Records Center.
In 1973, when an infamous fire ripped through the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri, thousands of records were lost in the fiery blaze. A majority of Army and Air Force records went up in smoke, and with them a wealth of personnel and medical information on World War I, World War II, and Korean War veterans. Since that day, the NPRC has worked tirelessly to reassemble damaged records using whatever materials necessary. One source that has proved invaluable is the record series Award Cards, 1942–1963.
Medals and awards information are a crucial component of a veteran’s Official Military Personnel File (OMPF). They reflect professional achievement and acts of heroism. They also play a vital role in legal cases pertaining to Stolen Valor. The Award Cards, 1942-–1963 series consists of thousands of index cards detailing pertinent information on an award bestowed upon a veteran within those years. Originally held by the Department of the Army, they were transferred to the National Archives in 1973 following the NPRC fire in order to assist technicians in rebuilding destroyed OMPFs. They were made a permanent collection in 2006 under Record Group 64: Records of the National Archives and Records Administration.
The series includes personal awards and decorations for the Army, Air Force, and Army Air Force (World War II predecessor to the Air Force). These are medals earned through individual effort such as meritorious service, personal gallantry, heroism, and acts of bravery against the enemy. They include the following from left to right:
- Distinguished Service Cross
- Silver Star
- Legion of Merit
- Distinguished Flying Cross
- Soldier’s Medal
- Bronze Star
- Purple Heart
- Air Medal
- Commendation Medal
The card also contains basic information about the recipient, which includes the veteran’s name, service number, rank, general order, order date, and organization. Appurtenances such as Oak Leaf Clusters and “V” devices are noted on the award cards. A sample award card displays this information:
The veteran, Staff Sgt. Fred L. Richardson, Service Number 38563209, with the Army Air Corps, was awarded the Air Medal. The issuing authority came from Headquarters, Far East Air Forces, under General Order No. 1945 with the effective date September 7, 1945. Three months later on December 13, 1945, the same organization issued General Order No. 2238, awarding an Oak Leaf Cluster.
For someone who is knowledgeable about Army and Air Force award qualifications based on time and place, additional information can be extracted from an award card. Looking at the above card, we can determine that he is a World War II veteran and served in the Pacific Theater based on date and location. This would entitle him to the World War II Victory Medal and the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal. The general orders also mention the unit he served with and can be used to determine any unit awards, such as Presidential or Meritorious Unit Citations. With this card, we can begin to reassemble what award information might be contained in this OMPF.
Along with personal awards, the Award Cards, 1942–1963 series includes information on a handful of special and foreign awards such as the Croix de Guerre, Philippine Presidential Unit Citation, and others. As the different types of awards increased, some award cards were updated and retroactively applied to veterans who served in multiple conflicts.
This series is fully digitized and available on the National Archives Catalog. When searching the collection, cards are separated into groups based on award type and listed in alphabetical order by veteran’s last name. There are 596 file units, and within each unit are over 1,000 digitized cards, translating to more than 500,000 cards! While that may seem daunting, knowing the veteran’s name, service number, and years of service, will aid in narrowing down the search.
On a personal note, the award cards were an immense help to researching my grandfather’s World War II service. His OMPF was destroyed in the 1973 fire with only a pay record surviving. Armed with a service number, rank, and organization, I was able to search the award cards and find one match; the card for Fred L. Richardson mentioned above. I was given his original Air Medal by my father, but neither of us knew it came with an oak leaf cluster. It is not uncommon for veterans to receive appurtenances without realizing it, since it might not have been reflected in their record. Award cards like these can fill in those gaps and deliver a clearer picture of a service record.
For those researching military service from fire-related records or interested in learning more about awards from the U.S. Armed Forces, the Award Cards, 1942–1963 is an excellent resource. Visit the National Archives website to learn more about requesting medals and awards.
Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the National Personnel Records Center is only completing emergency requests for separation documents (i.e., burials, medical emergencies, homeless veterans, etc.). All other requests for personnel, medical, and awards information are not being answered at this time until local health conditions improve. For current information about the center’s operating status, please visit Veterans Service Records.