National Archives at St. Louis

The National Personnel Records Center - A History

Establishment of a National Archives

The National Personnel Records Center (NPRC), located in St. Louis, MO, is one of the National Archives and Records Administration's (NARA) largest operations. With more than 4 million cubic feet of holdings stored in several buildings, the NPRC is the home and central repository to the nation's military and civil service personnel-related records.

The idea for a national archives, to safeguard and protect the vital records of the nation, can be traced back through the early formative decades of our country's history. However, the concept did not come to fruition until June 19, 1934. On that date, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed legislation creating the National Archives as an independent agency.

In its early years, the National Archives dealt mainly with administrative, logistical and staffing issues. During the 1940s, the Archives proved of vital importance to the American war effort with its extensive holdings of maps of the European and Pacific Theaters. After the war, the Archives faced several challenges, not the least of which included the logistics of how to absorb the vast amounts of records generated by the Armed Services. In June of 1949, as part of a reorganization of the executive branch of government, the newly created General Services Administration (GSA) absorbed the National Archives. No longer an independent agency, the Archives, under GSA, assumed greater responsibilities, including oversight of current records as well as archival records. To reflect its new mission, the Agency changed its name to the National Archives and Records Service (NARS). The Federal Records Act of 1950, which established the framework of records management among Federal agencies, further expanded the mission of NARS. In order to house and store the war-generated records, NARS began establishing a series of federal records centers around the country.

Civilian Personnel Records, Origins

The establishment of a Federal civilian employee records center can be traced back to the early 1940s and the U.S. War Department's initial efforts to combat the growing problem of storing and maintaining the records of its former employees. One of the earliest predecessors of NPRC's civilian records operation was the Central Records Section, Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Located in Omaha, Nebraska, the War Department activated this organization on December 1, 1942 in an attempt to bring together the administrative records of the CCC, a depression-era agency. As the government was in the midst of disbanding the CCC, the War Department reasoned that one central location for these records would reduce overhead costs and hasten administrative actions associated with these records. Re-designated the Discontinued Projects Branch of the Adjutant General's Office (AGO) in March 1943, this operation assumed additional responsibilities in the War Department's liquidation of other agencies.

The records of the War Department's former civilian employees were scattered among thousands of Department facilities across the globe. In August 1943, in an effort to deal with the increasing problem of records storage and service, the War Department consolidated all of its former personnel folders and designated the Discontinued Projects Branch as the central repository for these records.

In 1945, the War Department took consolidation a step further when it established the Records Administration Center, AGO in St. Louis, MO. Located in an inactivated ordinance plant at 4300 Goodfellow Boulevard, this center initially housed military and civilian personnel and pay records. A year later, the War Department moved the Discontinued Projects Branch under the new Records Administration Center, renaming it the Civilian Personnel Records Branch (CPRB).

By 1950, the CPRB of the Department of the Army (formerly the War Department), had achieved a good degree of consolidation of its former civilian employee records. However, a survey from that year revealed that former civilian personnel records from all federal agencies, many from the military, were scattered among more than 20,000 locations. Therefore, Secretary of Defense George C. Marshall recommended that the General Services Administration (GSA) take custody of all former DOD civilian personnel records. GSA accepted this proposal on April 25, 1951.

The pending transfer brought about the need for a new home for these civilian records. So too, the outbreak of the Korean Conflict necessitated returning the Goodfellow ordnance plant, where the Army's CPRB was located, to its original function. As such, in September 1951, the Butler Brothers Building at 18th and Locust Streets in downtown St. Louis became the new home for these records. On October 29, 1951, the Army formally transferred its CPRB over to GSA, and the new St. Louis Federal Records Center (FRC) officially came into being under the National Archives and Records Service, GSA.

Within a short time, the FRC began accepting significant record groups from across the country. Following the example of the other Armed Forces, the Navy disestablished its civilian personnel records center in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania and sent its records to the FRC in St. Louis. The Veterans Administration followed suit and transferred all of its former employee personnel records from Philadelphia. On March 3, 1953, the Civil Service Commission ordered most Federal agencies to retire the Official Personnel Folder (OPF) of their separated civilian employees to the FRC. By 1955, the St. Louis FRC was the sole records repository for all former Federal civilian employees.

In 1958, Congress appropriated funds for the construction of a new center to replace the interim storage facilities at the Butler Brothers Building. The site, at Marine and Winnebago Streets in south St. Louis, was home to the old Federal Marine Hospital, which had been in Federal service since 1852. Construction was completed on a new two story facility in the spring of 1961, at a cost of $5.6 million. By September, the St. Louis Federal Records Center, at 111 Winnebago, became home to more than 400,000 cubic feet of records that had been accumulated over the previous ten years.

Military Personnel Records, Origins

The development of the Military Personnel Records section of the National Personnel Records Center can be traced to the early 1940s, when the proliferation of World War II military records necessitated a change in records storage and management. The war generated vast amounts of paperwork, such as individual service records, medical files and organizational records - all of which required storage space. As space in Washington D.C. was limited, the president issued a directive requiring the decentralization of as many agencies as possible to locations outside of the D.C. area. The Demobilized Records Branch (DRB), which maintained the Army and Army Air Force military personnel files, was split among several locations within the city due to limited space. To consolidate its operations, the DRB moved to High Point, North Carolina in 1942.

Within two years of moving, the DRB, which previously had been responsible for Army records created after November 1, 1912, reorganized to accommodate incoming World War II records. The new Demobilized Personnel Records Branch (DPRB) now handled separate WWI and WWII sections, as well as an Organizational Records Branch in Savannah, Georgia.

By 1945, spatial limitations and rising costs forced the Army to seek an alternate central storage location. On September 1, 1945, it established the Records Administration Center, AGO at the St. Louis Administration Center, on 4300 Goodfellow Boulevard in St. Louis, MO. The facility, formerly an ordnance plant, also became home for the Army's civilian personnel and pay records. In October 1945, the Army transferred the WWII section of the DPRB from High Point to St. Louis. The Organizational Records Branch from Savannah followed three months later, and the WWI section moved in March 1946.

However, by 1949, the DPRB was again facing a critical space shortage. While the National Security Act of 1947 had created a separate Department of the Air Force, the Army continued to administer the Air Force's records until 1956. To relieve some of the strain, the Army transferred its Organizational Records Branch to the Kansas City Records Center, AGO in 1950. However, space shortages continued; and, by 1952, the Army estimated that the DPRB was housing more than 17 million individual records of separated Army and Air Force personnel. In addition to space issues, the outbreak of the Korean conflict necessitated returning the Goodfellow ordnance plant, where the Army's DPRB was located, to its original function. Outside of St. Louis, the Naval Records Management Center in Garden City, New York was also facing a similar situation; as, by 1950, it had outgrown its location.

To resolve these problems, the Department of Defense (DOD) decided to consolidate the millions of military personnel records in one new building in St. Louis, MO. In 1951, DOD contracted with the St. Louis firm of Hellmuth, Yamasaki and Leinweber to design such a center.

The firm sent study teams to several existing record centers, including the U.S. Navy in Garden City, New York and the DOD facility in Alexandria, Virginia. It later incorporated the study team's findings into the 1952 report entitled, "Report of Existing Facilities and Program Requirements for Defense Military Personnel Records Center." In 1956, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finished construction of the new building, located in the St. Louis suburb of Overland, at a cost of $12.5 million. The building, an evolution of the design team's numerous studies, visits and analyses, was an immense structure that stood 6 stories high, 728 feet long and 282 feet wide.

The new Overland facility, named the Department of Defense Military Personnel Records Center (DODMPRC), was a Department of the Army installation designed for joint use among the Departments of the Army, Navy and Air Force. DOD's concept was for one large building, occupied by three individual records centers. In December 1955, the Army re-designated its Demobilized Personnel Records Branch at the Goodfellow facility as the Army Records Center and moved it to the DODMPRC in January 1956.

The Army's custodianship of the Air Force's military personnel records ended on July 1, 1956. On that date, the Kansas City Annex of the Air Force Records Center took custody of nearly 135,000 cubic feet of records. One year later, the Air Force Records Center at the DOD Military Personnel Records Center in St. Louis assumed control of more than 1.8 million folders of separated Air Force personnel.

The third group, located at the Naval Records Management Center in Garden City, New York, began its move to the DODMPRC in St. Louis in 1956. This moved involved nearly 16 million Navy and Marine Corps service and health records.

With the records of all three services now located at one central location, the branches signed a joint agreement for the operation and management of the Center. The Army provided all service support and budgeted for all costs of building and grounds maintenance, while the Navy furnished its own classification and accounting services and the Air Force provided data and assistance for budget preparation.

The Establishment of the National Personnel Records Center

The division of the Military Services' records into three separate individual records centers at the DOD Military Personnel Records Center was short lived. On July 1, 1960, the Pentagon transferred the title property for the Overland building and the operational responsibility for the DOD Military Personnel Records Center to the General Services Administration (GSA). Within GSA, the holdings of the Air Force Records Center, the Naval Records Management Center and the Army Records Center were absorbed and consolidated into one unit under the administration of the National Archives and Records Service (NARS).

This newly formed Military Personnel Records Center (MPRC) created an administrative challenge for NARS, which faced the task of merging three operationally independent centers, run by three separate military departments, into one unified organizational system. In addition, due to the stipulations of the individual transfer agreements, MPRC did not have legal custody of the records. Each individual Service maintained authority over their records. As such, procedural changes often required the consent of the Military Services.

As administrative changes at the Center continued over the next few years, so did records accessions. In 1962, the Marine Corps transferred its separated military personnel records to the MPRC, and the Coast Guard followed suit two years later.

By 1966, both the St. Louis Federal Records Center and the Military Personnel Records Center had achieved their respective goals of housing and servicing all former civilian and military personnel records. However, while both organizations shared a similar mission and maintained like holdings, their administrative functions, under GSA, were kept separate. This changed in May 1966, when GSA merged the Military Personnel Records Center and the St. Louis Federal Records Center into one organization, under the National Archives and Records Service. This new cohesive agency, called the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC), was the embodiment of NARS's long-held vision for one central unit with administrative and physical control over all former Federal personnel records, both military and civilian.

The 1973 Fire

Over the next several years, as the new NPRC underwent several internal reorganizations designed to create a more efficient administrative unit; it also continued its core mission of safeguarding and servicing the military and civilian personnel records within its holdings. While these administrative reorganizations were changing daily job functions and shaping the future of the NPRC; nothing had as much of an impact on the Agency's future as did the fire of 1973.

On July 12, 1973, a disastrous fire ravaged the sixth floor of the NPRC's Military Personnel Records (MPR) building in Overland. 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). The records affected:

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.) 75%

In the aftermath of the fire, the removal and salvage of water and fire damaged records from the building was the most important priority. Thanks to the efforts of the NPRC staff, approximately 6.5 million burned and water damaged records were recovered.

In the months that followed, the NPRC initiated several new records recovery and reconstruction efforts, including the establishment of a new branch to deal with damaged records issues. As many military personnel records had been partially or completely destroyed by the fire, the new branch's central mission was to reconstruct records for those requesting service information from the NPRC. While some staffers sought to recover such information from documents and alternate sources outside of the NPRC, others searched through the Center's organizational files for records to supplement the destroyed OMPFs.

In the years following the fire, the NPRC collected numerous series of records (referred to as Auxiliary Records) that are used to reconstruct basic service information (for more information on the fire, see 1973 Fire).

Independence and Modernization

The decades under GSA changed the National Archives. Its holdings swelled with records; and it now oversaw various regional archives, presidential libraries and federal records centers throughout the country. Many supporters of the Archives, both in and out of the government, felt it was time for the organization to regain its independence. On October 19, 1984, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation separating the Archives from GSA. Effective April 1, 1985, the newly named National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) was once again an independent agency.

With the increase of computer-generated records and the rapid modernization of the country and the global community, the National Archives has witnessed and implemented many changes within its organization to keep pace with the evolution and demands of our society. Over the past several years, NARA has put into operation several solutions to better meet customer needs, improve effectiveness and efficiency and expand access to its holdings while safeguarding the records for future generations.

In 2000, NARA initiated a Business Process Reengineering project at the National Personnel Records Center that allowed the NPRC to address and revise structures and systems that, in some cases, had been in place since the Center first opened. One of the main goals of the NPRC was to increase the speed and ease with which customers could gain access to records, services and information. As such, while customers were still able to mail or fax in requests for records, they now also had the electronic option of requesting information over the Internet. As part of the final phase of the project, the NPRC launched an electronic request tracking and reporting system in 2002 that dramatically improved customer service. This new system greatly enhanced the Agency's service to the public by expediting response time and allowing technicians to track requests from receipt to closure.

Also in 2000, NARA created a reimbursable records center program. Under this program, all Federal agencies that use NARA to store and retrieve their records are required to reimburse the Agency for its services. This fee-for-service allows the NPRC and other records centers to combat the rising costs of records management, costs which could potentially lead to reductions in service and jobs.

Creating an Open Archives

In an effort to expand access to ensure the preservation of the records, NARA together with the Department of Defense (DOD) developed a schedule, signed July 8, 2004, making the Official Military Personnel Files (OMPF) permanent records of the United States. This schedule mandates the legal transfer of these files from DOD ownership to NARA ownership 62 years after the service member's separation from the military. As part of the initial transfer, the records of 1.2 million veterans who served with the United States Navy and Marine Corps were opened to the public in July 2005. In addition, 200 OMPFs of "Persons of Exceptional Prominence" (PEP files) - such as Presidents, members of Congress and the Supreme Court; famous military leaders; decorated heroes; celebrities; and other cultural figures who served in the military - were also made available to the public for the first time.

In November 2007, NARA opened to the public 6.3 million OMPFs of former military personnel who served in the United States Army (including Army Air Corps and Army Air Forces), Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard. In September 2009, marking the 62nd anniversary of the creation of the United States Air Force, NARA accepted the first block of Air Force records into its custody. The opening of these records is part of the ongoing transfer of all military OMPFs from the ownership of the military services to the legal custody of NARA, 62 years after separation from service. Based on this rolling date of 62 years, all military personnel records will eventually become archival records held in NARA's legal custody and open to the general public.

Also, in 2009, NARA signed an agreement with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management making the Official Personnel Folders (OPF) of certain former Federal civilian employees archival. As such, many personnel records of former Federal civil servants whose employment ended prior to 1952 are now open to the public.

As permanent records of the United States, these historically valuable documents are cared for and preserved by the NPRC's Archival Programs Division and are available for public viewing and reproduction in the NPRC's Archival Research Room.

Towards the Future

To ensure the continued preservation of these records, NARA is actively working to replace the aging NPRC facilities in St. Louis, MO to comply with new federally-mandated records storage requirements. Two new facilities will replace the current NPRC buildings in Overland and South St. Louis. In October 2008, NARA opened the first facility in Valmeyer, IL. Known as the NPRC Annex, this new Center is located in a retrofitted limestone cave. NARA has slated the second NPRC facility, currently under construction in suburban North St. Louis County, for opening in the fall of 2011. These two new facilities will ensure that the vital personnel records of the military and civil services will be preserved and safeguarded for generations to come.

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