National Personnel Records Center Oral Histories
Fifty years ago on July 12, 1973, a fire broke out in the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, MO, that destroyed approximately 16–18 million Official Military Personnel Files. The General Services Administration, the National Archives’ parent organization at the time, owned the building, which was also occupied by several other military and civilian agencies. National Archives staff at the NPRC staff serviced the records, which were owned by the Department of Defense. The records were originally deemed temporary, but in 2004 they were made permanent and came into the legal custody of the National Archives.
For the 50th anniversary of the fire, the National Archives gathered oral history interviews with staff and former staff with special insight to the fire and its aftermath. Interviews explore immediate and long-term preservation efforts, records management issues, and efforts to ensure veterans have access to their records. As additional interviews become available, they will be added to this web page.
Disclaimer: The views presented in these oral history interviews are those of the participants and not of the National Archives and Records Administration or the U.S. Government.
National Personnel Records Center Oral History Interviews
"Upon entering the building, you could smell the dampness and then you could see maybe water stains or wet stains on the wall still."
Margaret Bruno worked for the National Personnel Records Center from 1974 to her retirement in 2016. She started as a typist and retired as the secretary to the Director of the NPRC. In her oral history, she gives an overview of her career and what it was like working at the NPRC in the early years following the fire.
"And for a burned area with char, we view that as just a dark mass. But in infrared there's actually infrared light being absorbed by the carbon and the ink, the residual ink in that charred area."
Noah Durham has been working for NARA since 2008. He is currently the supervisory preservation specialist at the St. Louis facility, where he leads digitization projects to preserve and expand access to fire-affected records. Noah, who holds an M.S. in graphic arts systems, began his professional career in cultural heritage imaging in the mid-1990s when he was hired to convert photographic operations from analog to digital at two worldwide auction houses. In his interview, Noah discusses the specialized imaging process used to image burned records, including those with char.
"At the end of the day, the floor was littered with brown ash from these burned papers. It was really a filthy job that, you know, you didn't particularly wear your best clothing to do that..."
Alan Kramer began working for the National Archives in December 1973, just five months after the NPRC fire. He was first assigned to the NPRC’s civilian records building as the day supervisor for the records recovery project. This put him in direct contact with fire-damaged records after they had been freeze-dried to stop further deterioration. He created a directory of alternate sources of information that could be used to reconstruct/verify military service records, which was turned into a book and is still in use today. This experience led to him being selected as the Records Reconstruction Branch Chief. After later being promoted to positions within NARA's Federal Records Center Program, Alan retired in 2011 after 37 years of federal service, all with NARA.
"A few of us were on the telephone daily calling local, state, and county offices to find out if any of them had military records information that could be used to reconstruct records."
Thelma Martin worked at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis for 35 years. She held a variety of roles, beginning as a work-in-file technician with the Army Reference Branch in 1972. She ended her NARA career in 2007 as Assistant Director of the Civilian Personnel Records facility. Her oral history covers her time at both the military and civilian records facilities.
"The building always smelled of smoke from the fire. Even though it had been cleaned up decades before and repainted many times, there still was that inherent smoky smell to it."
Bryan McGraw joined NARA in 2004 as the new Assistant Director of Archival Programs for the NPRC. His operation had legal and physical custody of approximately 20,000 cubic feet of archived Official Military Personnel Files (OMPFs) and employed five staff members. He was responsible for establishing and growing the fledgling archives and overseeing the construction project for the two replacement facilities following the 1973 fire as well as the relocation of government records. When he retired in December 2022, his operation had almost one million cubic feet of accessioned records and employed a staff of more than 40 people. In his interview, Bryan talks about the challenges of moving staff and records, including those damaged by the 1973 fire, to the new facility.
"You saw the water in the hallways. It was water from the sixth floor, which had drained all the way down to the second floor and through the stairwells and the escalators."
In his 35-year career at the National Archives, Mickey McGuire worked as an archives technician, an archives specialist, and the Military Personnel Records Center's mailroom supervisor. He came to the National Personnel Records Center in 1964 as a file clerk, and by the time he retired he was chief of the Army correspondence section. Mickey's oral history offers an account of the fire damage to the building and the days after the fire was extinguished. He also describes his work at the time of the fire with the accession unit.
"So if somebody's record was destroyed, nobody ever thought, 'well, there's no hope for you.'”
Charles Pellegrini is a lifelong resident of St. Louis, MO. After high school, he served in the U.S. Air Force from 1965 to 1969. He began his career with the National Archives in 1974 as an archives technician, and he retired in 2004 as a management analyst and chief of the Management Systems Staff. In his oral history, he talks about the challenges of verifying veterans' service after the fire and the "War Babes" project which sought to identify U.S. soldiers who fathered children overseas during World War II.
"But, early on, when I started going into the burn-file bays, every time you walked in the door, you could smell that smoke, smell that ash smell." ~ Michael Pierce
"So this is a chance for me to serve the people that did and to serve my country and to feel like I'm doing something of value and giving something to people that need it." ~ Cindy Pierce
Michael and Cindy Pierce have a combined 35+ years of experience working in the Preservation Department at the National Archives’ NPRC. In their interview, Michael and Cindy discuss the aftermath of the fire and their work in preserving the records and serving U.S. veterans.
"I always thought that my job was worthwhile, that I was doing something to benefit veterans."
Diane Rademacher worked at the National Archives from 1974 to 2007. In 1985, she developed a computer program to decode records from the Army Surgeon General's Office (SGO), which NPRC personnel could use to document service-connected medical claims. In her oral history, she discusses the SGO project and early efforts to automate veterans record requests.
"So I worked with Bill Seibert and did a survey of the records. …And so that was what I did. After the fire they were put in cold or cool storage, and so I sat in those rooms and I counted off—I don't remember what the number was—but it was a statistically valid sample."
Diana Roley was the National Archives Regional Preservation Coordinator and National Preservation Program Officer from 1992 to 2001 where she was responsible for government-wide archives preservation policy development. In her oral history, she discusses her assessment of the B-files at the Military Personnel Records Center, which served as a foundation for the preservation program in St. Louis.
"And at the end of every workday, the custodial crew would come through with dry mops and sweep up ashes from the floor. I mean, it was a real challenge."
Bill Seibert retired in 2017 after working at the National Archives for 39 years. He held positions as Senior Archivist and Chief of Archival Operations at the National Archives at St. Louis, and Preservation Officer for the NPRC. He also headed the Military Organizational Records Appraisal and Disposition Project at the Center. He began his career with the National Archives in 1978, working in NPRC’s Records Reconstruction Branch, providing access to and reconstructing records affected by the 1973 fire. In his interview, Bill discusses reappraising OMPFs as permanent records and the challenges of reconstructing burned records.
"So it was incumbent upon us to do our best to try and get the basic information that you needed to prove you're a veteran."
Eric Voelz came to the National Archives in 1977 as an archives specialist trainee and had assignments at both the military NPRC at 9700 Page Boulevard and the civilian NPRC at 111 Winnebago Street in St. Louis. Eric worked in several NPRC branches, and in 1991 he moved to the Office of Regional Records Service, Research Services, where he was archivist specialist then supervisory archives specialist until his retirement in 2014. In his oral history, he discusses how the NPRC was organized, his early work at the NPRC, and the move to make military personnel records permanent.
Glossary of Commonly Used Terms:
1 Archives Drive: Current location of the National Archives at St. Louis and the National Personnel Records Center.
111 Winnebago Street: Former location for the National Personnel Records Center (Civilian Records).
9700 Page Avenue: Location of the National Personnel Records Center building where the fire occurred.
Archives I: The National Archives Building, Washington, DC.
Archives II: The National Archives at College Park, MD.
Auxiliary Records: Series of records used to reconstruct basic military service information.
Bays: Records storage spaces.
B-Files: Burned files.
Core: Correspondence and reference team.
DD-214: A Department of Defense form that serves as the subject’s Official Notice of Separation from the military.
Federal Records Center: A temporary storage facility for records that are needed infrequently by the creating agency but are not yet eligible for disposal or transfer to the National Archives. Records stored in a records center remain in the legal custody of the creating agency.
National Archives at St. Louis: Holds permanent archival civilian and military personnel records.
Official Military Personnel File (OMPF): A primarily administrative record containing information about the subject’s military service history.
Persons of Exceptional Prominence (PEP): Records documenting the military service of Presidents, members of Congress and the Supreme Court; famous military leaders, decorated heroes, celebrities, and other cultural and historical figures.
Permanent Record: Federal records that the National Archives has determined to have sufficient value to warrant their preservation indefinitely.
Temporary Record: Federal records that the National Archives has determined to have insufficient value to warrant permanent preservation. Approximately 95 to 98 percent of all federal records are temporary.
Tent City: Erected on the NPRC grounds to sort and rehouse recovered records.