Burned Records — The “B-file”

by , under Census, Military Research, NARA, WWI, WWII

As genealogy researchers, we have often heard the statement, “The records were burned.” The statement usually involves the records that should be on file in a courthouse. But there is another type of record search that often gets that response: Army records from WWI and WWII. That’s because in July 1973, a disastrous fire broke out at the National Personnel Records Center’s (NPRC) military records building in Overland, MO. The fire destroyed the building’s sixth floor. The fire was so bad, it took firefighters four and half days and millions of gallons of water to quench all the hot spots. An article describing the fire is available at http://www.archives.gov/st-louis/military-personnel/fire-1973.html.

The National Archives and Records Administration was responsible for maintaining those Army records. The fire led to a lot of study on how to protect such records from loss in such a manner.

Actually, the 1973 fire was the second huge fire to destroy a large, important government record set, for in 1921 a fire at the Bureau of Census destroyed most of the 1890 census. There is an informative article about that disaster at http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/1996/spring/1890-census-1.html.

There was nothing that could be done to rescue data that should have been available with the 1890 census, but for the WWI and WWII army records, there has been a course of action charted by the National Archives to rescue some of the Army service records data. Here is how NARA describes the problem and the partial solution (http://www.archives.gov/st-louis/archival-programs/preservation-program/burned-records.html):

Documents not burned by the fire were soaked by water used in the fire suppression. In the aftermath, most of the water-damaged records underwent an experimental vacuum-drying process. As this method had never been implemented in a record’s disaster recovery, many of the records were over-dried, resulting in a higher rate of brittle paper. In terms of loss to the cultural heritage of our nation, the fire was an unparalleled disaster, destroying approximately 16-18 million Official Military Personnel Files (OMPF).

From the wreckage of the sixth floor, NPRC staffers were able to recover approximately 6.5 million records. As part of the reconstruction effort, the NPRC established a “B” registry file (or Burned File) to index all of the recovered records. Today, despite their condition, “B-files” are requested daily, requiring the Preservation Laboratory to devise safe methods for cleaning, treating and making the information in these records available to veterans, Federal agencies and the general public.

Burned Records Intervention:

Working with burned records, or “B-files,” is one of the core activities of the Preservation Program. Within the Laboratory, technicians provide file review, assessment and treatment for the burned records. Key efforts involving “B-files” include:

Assessing files for mold, fire and water damage and/or loss of information and determining access levels and treatment actions based on the condition of the records.

Providing basic holdings maintenance so that lightly-damaged records can be released to the NPRC reference personnel.

Providing records handling training to the NPRC personnel tasked with Fire-related reference.

Cleaning and treating moderately damaged records for use by the public, NPRC personnel or other Federal agencies.

Providing surrogate copies of heavily damaged records to the public, NPRC personnel or other Federal agencies.

Mold Remediation:

In the days after the 1973 Fire, the most immediate concern at the NPRC revolved around water. In order to combat the blaze, firefighters were forced to pour millions of gallons of water into the building. To stop sporadic rekindling of fire, firefighters also continued spraying water on the building until late July. In addition, broken water lines continued to flood the building until they could be capped. Standing water, combined with the high temperatures and humidity of a typical St. Louis summer, created a situation ripe for mold growth. As paper is highly susceptible to mold, officials immediately tried to prevent such an outbreak by spraying thymol throughout the building.

Damaged records that could be recovered in the wake of the fire were placed in a temperature controlled storage area to retard further mold growth. Today, mold evident on the records is generally dormant or desiccated as opposed to active. However, mold-damaged records must be carefully stored and handled, as an increase in temperature and humidity can cause dormant mold to become active again. In addition to mold contamination, many burned records are scorched, browned, brittle and/or in danger of information loss.

To ensure appropriate access, while at the same time minimizing unnecessary handling, the Preservation staff checks each requested “B-file” to:

Determine its condition and/or mold-damage before releasing it from the storage area.

Direct the record for appropriate treatment, if needed. Underneath a vented enclosure, inside the Laboratory’s fume hood room, technicians use vacuums fitted with HEPA filters to remediate the records by removing as many spores as possible.

Direct the record to the appropriate area in the Archival Program Division or the Records Center where the record can be safely viewed by researchers or handled for reference work.

Staff members working in this area are specifically trained in records handling to minimize further damage or loss of information.

It may be worthwhile, if you have a WWII Army veteran in your direct-line ancestry–or in a collateral line–to pursue his (or her) B-file. A good starting point is available online at http://www.archives.gov/veterans/. You will need to be patient, and there probably will be fees involved. BTW, in looking into the situation, you may learn that other records that are available for WWII, and especially for WWI, participants may satisfy your quest for information.


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