The 1973 St. Louis Military Records Fire
At some point or another, whether it has been said to you or your fellow veterans, I am sure you have heard some form of the following from the VA: “We cannot find your military records because they were destroyed in a fire, therefore we have denied your claim.” Though some have cried conspiracy, unfortunately it is true. In the summer of 1973, a fire broke out on the sixth floor of the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis. Firefighters initially went in, but after a few hours they had to retreat because it was too dangerous. It was not until 4 1/2 days after the fire started that the fire was declared out. Some of you and your loved ones are still paying for this unfathomable catastrophe. The cause is still not known.
The aftermath of the fire posed several problems. Unfortunately, the vast majority of records were reduced to ashes that will never be restored. There were pages that were fused together by the heat that poses the near impossible task of separating them into single sheets. Ink burns at a different temperature than paper, so there may be some visible ink on otherwise seemingly burnt-to-a-crisp records. Additionally, all of the salvaged records were waterlogged from the fire hoses so they had to be carefully dried out so as to prevent mold. The salvage records are stored and only to be touched when a request is made.
What if Veterans Need Their Records to Claim VA Benefits?
The good news is that no such incident has happened since and measures have been taken to keep any future fires to a minimum. Also, since 2000, record keeping has become electronic. The bad news is that the fire destroyed the records of approximately 18 million veterans, including 75% of Air Force veterans discharged from 1947 – 1964 and 80% of those from the Army discharged from 1912 – 1960. That is a significant portion of records spanning three wars! That makes it especially tough for the remaining survivors of World War II and the Korean War to successfully win claim for benefits ranging from disability to burial.
To this day 25 full-time employees work on preserving records that were lost in the fire. That is on top of the NPRC employees who handle requests concerning those records lost. Anywhere from 200 to 300 of the 5,000 daily records requests to the NPRC pertain to damaged records. Measures such as infrared cameras, Photoshop and other experimental means are used to capture and reconstruct the information from the original documents. Other sources such as final pay vouchers, Veterans Health Administration records, unit rosters and morning reports are all used to piece together the missing information. While much success can be had by these methods to verify dates of service or character of discharge, the information from damaged medical records may be gone forever.
Don’t Take “No” for an Answer if the VA Denied Your Claim Because of Lost Military Records
Your military history is permanent. The records were never meant to, and are never to, be destroyed. The NPRC continues to do what it can to salvage what was lost. Even if the VA denies your claim for benefits because your records may have been destroyed in the fire, all is not lost. Never just take “no” for an answer. Other ways to prove your claim may be available. Learn more about your options and how our firm can help by contacting a veterans disability advocate from Veterans Help Group.