To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the devastating fire at the National Personnel Records Center, we’re featuring a three-part series. Today’s post comes from Jen Hivick, an archives technician at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, MO.
July 12, 1973, has loomed large in the history of the National Archives. That day, shortly after midnight, authorities were alerted to a massive fire at the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC). Within less than 24 hours, roughly 16 to 18 million military personnel records were burnt to a crisp. The loss of these documents was—and is—a tragedy both for history and for the millions of veterans who were affected by the destruction of their records.
The 1973 fire was a defining event for the National Archives, but to understand how it even got to that point, we need to go back to the history of military records before the fire and to explore how—and why—the NPRC was created in the first place.
For the first century and a half of the nation’s existence there was no National Archives. Instead, government records were held by each individual agency. This concept, while not ideal, became a larger problem as the United States, as well as government agencies, grew in size and records became damaged or misplaced.
Throughout the early 20th century, historians and politicians campaigned for the United States to follow the lead of several European countries and establish a central government archives. In 1926 Congress passed the Public Buildings Act, which earmarked funds for a national archives facility. Construction on the building began shortly after that, and in 1934 Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the bill that established the National Archives.
After World War II, military records facilities—separated by branch—all became overwhelmed with the volume of military personnel records generated by the war. The Army had transferred their World War II records to St. Louis in the fall of 1945, and by 1950 the Naval Records Management Center in New York had run out of space. The Department of Defense, watching the amount of military records continue to grow due to the Korean War, decided it would be best to consolidate records from the Army, Air Force, and Navy in one place and that St. Louis would be the ideal location to do so.
At the same time, the General Services Administration (GSA), which then oversaw the National Archives, took steps to consolidate the personnel records for civilians who had worked in the government. Again, St. Louis was deemed the ideal spot to store these records, in part because the Department of the Army had transferred civilian personnel files there in 1945. This facility was located in a different part of St. Louis, but for the first time all federal personnel records and all retired military records were stored in the same city.
The U.S. Army Corps, guided by multiple studies and design plans, conducted by a St. Louis firm, finished building a facility for military records in St. Louis in 1956. The building was under the administration of the Department of Defense (DoD) for its first four years, and three military branches—the Departments of the Army, Air Force, and Navy—had a joint agreement to take care of the military records.
In 1960, DoD gave GSA control of those military records, with GSA handing administrative oversight over to the National Archives. The National Archives had to merge the records from all three military branches that had records in St. Louis at the time, but they had to do so while being careful to make sure these three branches approved of the changes they were making.
Although the National Archives was the physical custodian of the records, the separate service branches still owned them—the National Archives stored and serviced them on the behalf of the military branches. Because of this arrangement, many of the administrative changes had to be approved by the military.
By 1966, records from all five military branches were finally under one roof. This move, meant in part to help streamline records requests from veterans, was the beginning of a new era for the organization. At this time, GSA and the National Archives merged the Military Personnel Records Center with the St. Louis Federal Records Center.
This was not a physical merger, and when talking about building locations, they continued to be known under their separate names. Because the two organizations had similar purposes and were located in the same city, GSA decided that they should be combined for administrative reasons. The National Personnel and Records Center as we know it today was finally established.
Ironically, in the fall of 1972 the General Services Administration conducted a study regarding fire risks for the Military Personnel Records Center facility. There had been a rash of fires in the preceding year, and although they were small fires, it was enough to concern the government. The study concluded that the facility was at high risk for a devastating fire, pointing to the storage containers (cardboard, not metal), the lack of overhead sprinklers, and the ebb-and-flow of employee hours as three particular concerns.
Less than a year later on July 12, 1973, these worries were validated: the NPRC was vastly unprepared for fire.
Stay tuned for the next post in this series on the 1973 NPRC fire, which looks at the fire and the immediate aftermath of it.