Remembering Pearl Harbor: Personal Stories Salvaged from the USS Arizona
Personal Story Saved from the USS Arizona: 72 Years Later
A big challenge in preserving paper is dealing with the consequences of how records were maintained during the time they were actively used. Navy personnel records are difficult ones. Folded in thirds to fit into “jackets” or “bricks,” as the expandable brown folders are called, pages get torn, creased, and scrunched, requiring treatment. In the case of career Seaman 1st class Walter Lewis Hampton, the record is one hefty assemblage of papers spilling out of the small folder. Enlisted in 1925, Hampton served on the USS Henderson, the Arkansas, and the Wyoming, among others, before reporting for his final duty in December 1940 when he joined the USS Arizona.
Hampton’s sizable record contains a very special segment of documents - the Service Record kept on board the Arizona itself. This portion of his record was maintained to keep at close hand information on his enlistment, service, training, and physical description while at sea. It was among the records salvaged by the Navy after the loss of the USS Arizona on Dec. 7th, 1941. As Archives staff identifies records damaged aboard the Arizona, they are brought to the Paper Lab.
Hampton was among the missing after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He left four children and a wife who had initiated divorce proceedings on the grounds of years of abandonment. Although bearing the scars of the attack, his service record still details his personal description. Brown hair, blue eyes, a ruddy face, and tattoos—a kewpie doll, sailor boy, Red Cross nurse, pig, and rooster. This personal information is all perfectly maintained despite the bloom of heat from the center of the booklet, or accretions of dirt along the edges of the pages that still remain from long ago blasts. For these special documents, not only the information they contain but the remnant damage of battle itself preserve an important piece of history.
Donna Judd spends each day carefully searching for valuable information for veterans in the documents left burned and brittle by the 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis.
She looks for separation documents so that veterans can get benefits, and she sifts through damaged files to find information for medals.
“One record could take 5 minutes, another record could take 5 hours,” she says.
To read the full story of how Donna helps veterans claim their benefits even when the files have been damaged, go to today’s blog post: http://go.usa.gov/jrVA
A few minutes past midnight on July 12, 1973, a fire broke out at the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in the suburbs of St. Louis. At risk was an untold amount of information about Americans who had served in the armed forces in the 20th century
Bad fortune struck minutes past midnight on the night of July 12, 1973, when a fire alarm sounded at the North Central County Fire Alarm System. The time was 12:16:15 a.m.
By the time the fire reached its peak, 42 fire districts were fighting it. The fire burned uncontrolled for more than 22 hours. Four days later, on the morning of July 16, fire department officials declared the fire out, but it was several more days before all hot spots were extinguished.
via Prologue: Burnt in memory: Looking back at the 1973 St. Louis fire
July 12, 1973 is a dark day in the history of the National Archives. A massive fire tore through the top floor of the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, destroying or damaging thousand of military personnel records.
Forty years ago this week, a devastating fire tore through the top of floor of the National Archives in St. Louis just after midnight. This photo shows the tremendous heat that warped shelves. The ashes on the shelves are the remains of cubic foot cartons of records.
At its peak, 42 fire districts were fighting the blaze. The fire burned uncontrolled for more than 22 hours.
About 73 to 80 percent of the approximately 22 million individual Official Military Personnel Files (OMPFs) stored in the building were destroyed. The records lost were those of former members of the Army, the Army Air Force, and the Air Force who served between 1912 and 1963.
The work of recovering veterans’ information and repairing their documents continues 40 years on. Two Records Reconstruction Teams handle about 2,300 fire-related reference requests each week.
To learn more about the fire and how it has affected the National Archives, our staff, and the veterans we serve, go to: http://go.usa.gov/jCka
“Scott Levins, the Director of the National Personnel Records Center, recently received a letter of thanks from the folks at JPAC, mentioning the names of 32 men missing since the Korean War who had been identified, thanks to the efforts of this center, and could now be sent home for burial.
Some of the names listed were the names of young men whose records I had processed.
Sometimes, I take a quick look at the ages of the men and women whose records I am working on. I realize that most of them are less than half my age. I’ve had a good life so far. Sometimes, their lives ended just when it should have been beginning.”
—excerpt from Why I Do What I Do, by Michael Pierce, preservation technician at the National Archives at Saint Louis.
Our mission is to preserve, protect, and make available the records of the Federal government, and this includes the millions of files of veterans, living and deceased.These records are housed at the National Personnel Center in St. Louis, and can be accessed by veterans to received benefits, or by families and researchers.
To learn more about these records, watch this video.
Image: A grief-stricken American infantryman whose buddy has been killed in action is comforted by another soldier. In the background a corpsman methodically fills out casualty tags, Haktong-ni area, Korea. August 28, 1950. Sfc. Al Chang. (Army, 111-SC-347803)
From May 22 to 31, the digital collection of the USCT Service Records will be free on www.Fold3.com.
On May 22, 1863, the War Department issued General Orders 143, establishing a Bureau of Colored Troops in the Adjutant General’s Office to recruit and organize African American soldiers to fight for the Union Army. With this order, all African American regiments were designated as United States Colored Troops (USCT).
Today marks the 150th anniversary of the USCT, and the National Archives is pleased to announce the completion of the USCT Service Records Digitization Project. In partnership with Fold3, the project provides online access to all service records—more than 3.8 million images—of Union volunteers in USCT units.
Remember: All National Archives collections on Fold3.com can always be viewed for free at a computer at any National Archives facility nationwide.
The photo and paperwork above come from the compiled military service records of former slave Edmund Delaney. Read his story on the Prologue blog.
Jimi Hendrix: November 27 1942 - September 18, 1970
Today would have been the 70th birthday of pioneering guitarist Jimi Hendrix (born Johnny Allen Hendrix). His creativity and nonconformity are also reflected in his US Army enlistment documents, such as this security questionnaire on which Hendrix takes a novel approach to filling in check boxes. (Not surprisingly, Hendrix’s subsequent Army career was less than stellar).
Veterans, We Salute You!
Veterans Day has special meaning for us at the National Archives where we hold the almost 112 million individual personnel files and medical records of the men and women who have served in the military. Housed in St. Louis, Missouri and Valmeyer, Illinois, more than 800 staff process, protect, and service those records to ensure that veterans and their families can receive the benefits due to them, can document family histories, and can received replacement medals and awards. More than 5,000 requests are received each day and I am so proud of the dedication the staff brings to their work, often going the extra mile to ensure that our veterans get what they need.
Read the full post on the AOTUS blog
See some of the painstaking and dedicated work by our amazing National Archives volunteers as they prepare Civil War Widows’ Pension Files for digitization.
Celebrating Our Volunteers
This week we had an opportunity to honor volunteers who contributed more than 100 hours of their time to the National Archives this year in our Washington and College Park locations—295 volunteers who contributed 42,284 hours! These amazing numbers demonstrate their love of history and the work that we do.
A parade of staff supervisors took the stage to brag about the work of their volunteers who wrote hundreds of item-level descriptions, created thousands of photo captions, scanned tens of thousands of files, indexed tens of thousands of records, inventoried rows of stacks, answered researchers’ questions, improved access to our online holding, and even used social media to broadcast information about our records. Some wrote articles for our Prologue magazine as well as blog posts about the records and some presented lectures to the public.
Read the full post on the AOTUS Blog.
If you, like Buster Keaton, have served in the military, your personnel file is held at the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, Missouri. More than 34 million files are held in this new facility, filling 2.3 million cubic feet of records on 385,000 shelves. There are 6.2 billion feet of paper in the military records alone.
This picture shows the building under construction in 2011. The shelves that are being installed are 29 feet high.
About 600 full-time staff work in St. Louis. In 2011, the NPRC received 1,093,522 written requests for records, about 3,000 requests per day.
Read more about this incredible building and the work our NPRC staff do for veterans: http://go.usa.gov/YbeH
(Ed. note - corrected typo in Buster Keaton’s name)
Sometimes you move for better schools or an easier commute, but when the National Personnel Records Center moved, they did it for the records:
What a Difference a Move Makes
When the National Archives at St. Louis National Personnel Records Center moved into its new building, we did it for the records.
NARA monitors temperature and relative humidity throughout our buildings with electronic dataloggers called Preservation Environment Monitors, or PEMs. The PEMs constantly gather temperature and humidity readings, which we collect and evaluate. The data can alert us to problems with our HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) systems before they become serious.
The first graph is from our old building on Page Avenue. The second graph is from one of Archives Drive’s archival bays. Notice how often the PEM recorded temperatures at Page Avenue that were above 100° F and humidity levels that were above 60%. Under NARA Directive 1571 the proper temperature and humidity for archival records is 65°F/35% (±5%).
So, the move made not only the employees but our holdings much happier.
Photoshop often gets a bad rap when it comes to doctoring photos but this post from our colleagues in Preservation shows how it can play a crucial role in recovering some vitally important documents. (Literally — these records can be the key to often urgent and essential veterans’ benefits.)
Now You See It
Nearly 40 years after the 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, work continues on the preservation of the fire-damaged records (affectionately known as the B-Files). This work takes place at our St. Louis Preservation office, and includes both conservation and reformatting of the documents.
At first, you may think that the written information located in the heavily burned area is unrecoverable. But with the use of Adobe Photoshop we can manipulate a digital image of the burned document to accentuate subtle differences in tones and make the burned area readable.
Our Reformatting Lab is in the planning stages of a project that will use infrared sensing cameras to photograph burned documents. It will be less labor intensive than the Photoshop process and will produce better quality images.
Preserving Pearl Harbor Documents
Service jacket and salvaged service record, with Navy envelope, of William Wells. Wells enlisted at Kansas City, Mo. on Jan. 1, 1940, and died Dec. 7, 1941, at Pearl Harbor after achieving the rank of Signalman 3rd class. Also lost that day was his brother, Raymond Virgil Wells. They were one of 23 sets of brothers on the Arizona who died that day.
One of the most important decisions a conservator can make is not how to complete a treatment, but when NOT to treat. An important example of this can be found in the records salvaged from the U.S.S. Arizona after it was bombed on Dec. 7, 1941. These service records, which were held one level below the main deck, were not submerged in water but were subjected to heat, fire, and high humidity. Salvaged by the Navy and sealed in envelopes which contained the damaged documents, the records came to NARA in the 1950s and are now housed at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis.
Note: This is the first in a series of posts on conservation of Pearl Harbor documents.