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History Up in Flames: 50 Years After the St. Louis NARA Fire

July 15, 2023
Daily News Journal clipping from July 12th 1973
Clipping from the Daily News Journal, from July 12th, 1973

It seems like at some point in any archives' existence, a disaster (whether it be natural or man-made) will occur. Unfortunately for the National Archives, 50 years ago, there was a major disaster. 

On July 12th, 1973, the archives and records management world suffered a great loss with the unfortunate fire that broke out at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, destroying approximately 16-18 million official military personnel files. You may wonder "what does this have to do with Nashville history?" A lot actually, as it does with the rest of the country as well (military and genealogical history). 

Before I talk about how the fire started and the aftermath, and how it affects Nashville history, here's a brief history and explanation of the records held at the St. Louis NARA (National Archives and Records Administration) location... 

Photograph of the Military Personnel Records at St. Louis

National Archives at St. Louis 

From the Tom Tichenor Collection, man in military uniform.
From the Tom Tichenor Collection, unknown man labeled as "Carl" in military uniform.

Though our nation's history dates back to the 18th century (and definitely older), the history of the National Archives and Records Administration is a lot more recent than that; 1934, to be exact, is when Congress established the National Archives to preserve and care for the records of the U.S. Government.

Several other federal record centers were built around the country in the years after, including the National Archives at St. Louis location that is co-located with the National Personnel Records Center, and holds military personnel records (among other military records). 

According to NARA, up until just after World War II, government records were held by individual federal agencies. Each branch of the military stored its military personnel records in a separate location. After WWII, military records facilities became overwhelmed with the volume of military personnel records generated by the war.

Watching the amount of military records continue to grow due to the Korean War, the Dept. of Defense (DOD) decided it would be best to consolidate records from the Army, Air Force, and Navy in one place, and the St. Louis facility would be the ideal location to do so. So in 1955, the Military Personnel Records Center was completed in St. Louis. 

What records do they hold?

Sample military discharge record from Metro Archives
Sample military discharge record for a Nashville citizen, date: 1945. From Metro Archives records, NOT NARA. Just an example record of what NARA might have.

According to their website, the types of records housed in the St. Louis NARA facility include:

So if you're researching your own military records or conducting family genealogy research, this is the institution to reach out to. And although that unfortunate 1973 fire destroyed so many records, the staff did such a great job with the clean-up, that a letter can still be issued to verify service.

To quote them straight from their website...

“Because of the actions taken immediately after the fire, especially with regard to identifying, collecting, and indexing other record series that could be used to verify service, we are normally able to reconstruct basic service and issue a document which can be used in lieu of a separation document (DD Form 214) to secure benefits,” said NPRC Director Scott Levins. “In fact, to date our Records Reconstruction technicians have been successful in reconstructing details of service despite the loss of the personnel file 5.5 million times to support our nation’s veterans.” 

Military pass from World War I
From the Clarence Alford Collection, a military pass leave from France, in 1919.

How Did the Fire Start...

Metro Archives photo of a fire at the Maxwell House Hotel
Photo of a fire being extinguished at the Maxwell House Hotel (NOT THE ST LOUIS ARCHIVES FIRE). From the Metro Photographer Collection.

And to get to the reason why you're here - the fire! 

Just after midnight on July 12th, 1973, a local St. Louis citizen was driving home and happened to spot flames coming from the roof of the Personnel building. 19 minutes after the citizen reported the smoke to a security guard, the fire department arrived and reported back there was extreme heat and heavy smoke coming from the 6th floor. After some time though, the intense heat drove the firefighters from the building.

They set up a perimeter around the building, pouring water on the roof from several angles. When they were able to re-enter the building 2 days later and advance to the 6th floor, the roof was beginning to collapse from the extreme heat and stress. The fire was so intense, local residents were advised to remain indoors due to the heavy, acrid smoke.

With the help from several fire departments in the area, on July 16th (4 days after the fire started), the fire was extinguished. What caused the fire? I'm not sure; nothing I've read has been able to report the cause but apparently the building had 2 major flaws: it lacked a sprinkler system due to fear of leaks and water damage, and the building’s interior had very little to offer as a safety net against spreading flames.

After all was said and done, 16 to 18 million veterans service records were destroyed. This included veteran's records from the U.S. Army, Army Air Force, and Air Force personnel.

The Aftermath and Recovery

After the fire and recovery efforts began, they focused on 2 main areas: the damage to the building and the records. Since the bulk of the damage was on the 6th floor (with an estimated 79% of the records lost), it was decided to remove the sixth floor from the building and cap the remainder of the building, where the rest of the facility was determined to be sound. 

From the NARA webpage about the 1973 fire, here are the specifics of what records were lost:

Branch Personnel and Period Affected Estimated Loss
Army Personnel discharged November 1, 1912 to January 1, 1960 80%
Air Force Personnel discharged September 25, 1947 to January 1, 1964
(with names alphabetically after Hubbard, James E.)

NARA provides a pretty thorough explanation of the steps taken by staff and other officials following the fire (and years beyond). I'll highlight a few other important details to try to wrap up this post, but if you're interested in learning more, check out the links provided below. 

A few other important details:

  • Due to the swift response immediately after the fire, approximately 6.5 million burned and water-damaged records were able to be recovered.
  • On July 23, 1973, the Government issued a Federal Property Management Regulations Bulletin (FPMR B-39) halting Federal agencies from disposing of records that might be useful in documenting military service. Such records have proved vital in efforts to reconstruct basic service information for requestors (verbatim from their website).
  • Just like the water-damaged wills we encountered in Metro Archives, the main concern after the fire was mold. To avoid sporadic fires breaking out, water was continued to be poured on the building until late July, and within a short amount of time, it was found that several thousands of boxes in the building had mold growing among the records. So the solution: officials sprayed thymol throughout the building to control the outbreak. And, water-soaked records were placed in milk crates and shipped to various other locations for the drying process to begin. 
  • As you do in an archival disaster scenario, a plan was established following the fire in order to label and properly organize the recovered records. The NPRC established a "B" registry file (or Burned File) to index the records, and in April 1974, they established the "R" registry file (or Reconstructed File) to further the reconstruction efforts. 

Further info can be found here:

What Metro Archives has to help...

While we don't have the same personnel-type records like NARA within our archive, we do have some military-type records that can be of the same assistance as well as for genealogy and history research. 

From one of our manuscript collections, several military passes
Sample ephemera from one of our manuscript collections: military passes.

Discharge Records

For approximately the same time period of the burned records, we have discharge records dating from 1917-1946 (see photo above of a sample discharge record). 

Burial and soldier indexes

For older military records dating back to the Civil War, we have indexes of Confederate soldiers and burials. 

Manuscript Collections

Manuscript (or family) collections are not exactly something that'll help everyone with their genealogy research, but will provide context and details pertaining to military history. Most of these collections primarily hold correspondence, photographs, and other military-related ephemera (such as ration cards), and therefore can provide important information from primary source documents.

To view the indexes or more details about each of these types of records, click on this link that will take you to our website. 

'Til next time, 


lucille ball


Sarah is a Program Coordinator with Metro Archives. Her interests and areas of expertise are history, reading books (of any kind), music, travel, Harry Potter, and bingeing a good comedy series. When not in Archives, she is either nose-deep in a book or planning her next trip. Learn more about the fascinating materials found at Metro Archives through their website.