Many people assume that all military pension and service records are located at the National Archives or the Library of Congress in Washington, D. C. In fact it is the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington that hold the very old military records including pension applications. For those persons who served in the U. S. Army, that includes the Army Air Force and Air Corps, between 1912 and 1950, those military personnel files are housed instead at the National Archives Center at St. Louis, Missouri. Additional service records in St. Louis are for the Navy, those enlisted personnel from 1885 to 1950 and naval officers from 1902 to 1950. For the Air Force it has all personnel files from 1947 to 1950 and Marine Corps from 1905 to 1950 and Coast Guard from 1898 to 1950. These dates represent a person’s discharge date. Of note is that records are archived after a person was discharged 62 years or longer. For a lesser period, those records are placed with the Federal Records Center of Military Files, also in St. Louis.
Accessing the records sounds fine only there was a major disaster on a hot summer day, July 12, 1973. A major broke out just after midnight at the personnel records building on Page Blvd. in Overland, near St. Louis. Firemen worked for nearly five days to put out the fire because it was so severe. The end result was that some 16 to 18 million Official Military Personnel Files were burned, became moldy or suffered water damaged. To give you an idea, there was 80% of the U. S. Army files from Nov. 1912 to Jan. 1960 lost in the fire. For the U. S. Air Force there were 75% lost from Sept. 1947 to Jan. 1964 with those surnames from ‘Hub’ to Z.
At the time in 1973, there were no duplicate copies or any microfilm copies anywhere of these records. There were just paper records kept in filing cabinets. Instead after the fire, work began to salvage what they could and then gather information from numerous veteran organizations along with other sources to try and rebuild as much information on the millions of military personnel as possible.
The good news is that there are still millions of military records (including photos) totally unharmed, including all the Navy and Marine Corps files. It was estimated that there were some 52 million records of which one-third were severely damaged. So there are still many available original records. I know this first hand. I was able to get copies (some 40 pages) in 1998 of all my father’s US Army and Air Force records and he served from 1927 to 1957. There were also two portraits of him in his uniform in the file and those originals were sent to me.
The National Personnel Records Center took safeguards after 1973 to place the records with full fire sprinkler systems, smoke detectors and firewalls, plus making various copies (now digital) of those surviving records. Also in May 2011 a new facility was opened on #1 Archives Drive in St. Louis equipped with the most modern fire, flood or storm protection.
If you have not checked to see if there are military personnel files available on an ancestor, do so. If the ancestor was discharged before 1950, the records are archived and do cost $20 for five pages copied or $60 to have six or more pages copied, even for family members. It will take a couple months for the copies. If it appears to be taking longer, just have your local Congressmen send them a note and it will speed up the process.
If you are able to visit the facility in St. Louis, there is a Research Room where you can view records, but do make an appointment first.
Go to these web sites from the National Personnel Records Center to apply for copies of records: