Piecing together the puzzle of 6 million burned military records

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ST. LOUIS, MO (KTVI) - Each day workers in north St. Louis County bring life back to historic documents burned in a huge fire. Marta O’Neill is the preservation officer at the National Personnel Records Center. She said it is a challenging job finding out what burned and moldy documents once said. O’Neill said, “It’s a very tedious and time consuming job and you can’t rush you have to do it right.”

On July 12, 1973 fire destroyed 18 million military records. Six and half million were recovered. Some of those singed, some waterlogged. Many badly damaged. Scott Levins is the director of the records center, “We have records that go back to the Spanish American War.” The cause of the fire was never determined.

Robert Taylor is a preservationist technician. He said, “Helping people is probably one of the general aspects of my livelihood and the veteran is the most important individual.”

Every day here they get 4-5,000 requests for a service person’s record. Bryan McGraw is the director of the St. Louis Archives, “A lot those requests are from veterans or their families for justly earned benefit and entitlements.” People who need documents for health care or to prove their right for burial in a military cemetery often apply. Gretchen Shoemaker works on rehabbing records, “This is a way I can say thank you to those service members by doing what I can do to make sure they get their benefits.”

Employees tenderly handle each burned document. In some cases they use a medical suction machine to vacuum soot from the page. It can take months to restore someone’s entire record. Cindy Pierce is a preservationist, “You can’t get in a hurry with this because the papers are so delicate that if you rush what you’re doing you’ll damage it more.”

Documents that have dried and are fragile are put in a humidity chamber to make them more pliable, easier to handle. McGraw added, “We comprise over 90 percent of all the written reference of the agency (National Archives) including all the presidential libraries.”

Imagine a puzzle where the pieces are burned and scattered, and your job is to put them all together again. Gretchen Shoemaker added, “It’s actually a very rewarding job it does require a lot of patience.”

Besides helping veterans the 56 million records here are preserved for history. O’Neill added, “We have lot of historians that come and do research and want to look at individual service members’ records.”

Famous people are part of the collection, they have the World War II document for actor Clark Gable, signed by Captain Ronald Reagan. Actress Bea Arthur’s records from her time in the Marines are here. There are documents related to baseball player Roberto Clemente and musician John Coltrane. Gretchen said, “I love this job.”

They love helping service people, they love protecting history.


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