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Now-public military files reveal private lives

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By Andrea Stone, USA TODAY
Nov. 7, 2007

OVERLAND, Mo. This was the moment Frank Smith had waited for since he was 12 and first held his great-uncle's World War II Purple Heart. Finally, he would get a look at the Navy file of Glen Ray, a radio operator killed at 22 when his patrol plane was shot down by the Japanese over the Aleutian Islands in 1942.

Smith, a military memorabilia collector, had driven more than 2,100 miles from his home in Edmonds, Wash., to the federal government's massive military personnel records repository in this St. Louis suburb. Now, as he carefully unfolded the first paper in the brown folder, he smiled. It was Ray's application for enlistment. The date was Oct. 14, 1940.

"My grandfather always told me he joined the day after Pearl Harbor" in December 1941, said Smith, 39, who grew up inspired by Ray's patriotism. A few days earlier, he had recalled the family lore that Ray joined the Navy as "the right and noble thing to do. I found that so unlike the generation I was in."

Yet next to Ray's fingerprints was his real reason for enlisting. The high school dropout wrote that he wanted "to learn a trade."

The four words were clear. "I was growing up with a fib," Smith said.

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If his family's history wasn't all it had seemed, Smith wasn't disappointed Monday as he became one of the first people to look through a few of the 6-million-plus military personnel files of those who served before 1946 that were made public last week by the National Archives. Ray's documents had been untouched by a devastating fire in 1973 that damaged or destroyed 18 million Army and Air Force files.

Part of the second phase

The newly released records are a treasure trove for veterans' families, historians and genealogists. They arrive as the nation prepares to observe Veterans Day on Sunday and amid renewed interest about World War II sparked by filmmaker Ken Burns' recent documentary The War. Most of the opened files are from World War II, although some date to 1885.

They are part of the second phase of a program to gradually open more than 57 million individual military files stored here at the National Personnel Records Center, the largest National Archives facility outside the Washington, D.C., area. In June 2005, the agency released 1.2 million records for Navy and Marine Corps veterans who served from 1885 to 1939.

Privacy concerns had kept the files sealed except to veterans, their immediate families or historians and others with special permission. A 2004 agreement with the Pentagon allows the National Archives to release personnel files to anyone 62 years after a servicemember leaves the military.

The last paper files will be released in 2067, 62 years after the Air Force became the last military service to digitize its records.

The personnel files, among 1.5 million boxes that would stretch nearly from New York to Pittsburgh if lined up end to end, contain all the bureaucratic trappings of military service. There are unit assignments, evaluations, awards and decorations, education and training records, physical exams, disciplinary actions and even photos and official correspondence.

Sorting through the 'B files'

The records "provide the spine for military history in the United States," says historian Douglas Brinkley. He used records here for a book on President Carter, who gave him permission to see his Navy files. "It's people's history. All sorts of amazing facts leap out from an average GI's record."

Take the file of 2nd Lt. Robert Andrino of Monterey Park, Calif., an Army Air Corps pilot shot down over Normandy, France, in August 1944. Tucked amid dozens of pages singed by fire is a claim letter from his widow on a $10,000 insurance policy. It notes that Andrino originally wanted his mother to receive $9,000 in the event of his death and his wife just $1,000. But after learning his wife was pregnant in June 1944, he made her his sole beneficiary. Andrino died two months later. He never met his child.

"You see all sorts of things," says Ashley McLendon, 29, a preservation technician restoring Andrino's file. She's been surprised at the number of soldiers who deserted during training.

"It makes you realize that people were people back then," she says. "You look at World War II in such a romanticized light. People didn't want to fight in that war either. They were just scared."

McLendon is one of 15 technicians who try to restore "B files" or burnt files such as Andrino's that were on the top floor of the drab green and gray records center here when the fire broke out shortly after midnight on July 12, 1973. The flames and the millions of gallons of water used to put them out destroyed 80% of the records for Army personnel discharged between Nov. 1, 1912, and Jan. 1, 1960, and 75% of Air Force discharge records from Sept. 25, 1947, to Jan. 1, 1964.

It was the biggest loss of archival material in U.S. history.

Used to verify military service

The center receives 1 million requests a year from veterans or their families seeking verification of service for medical care or benefits. Of those, 150,000 involve records that were stored on the ruined sixth floor of the now five-story building. As many as 300 requests a day seek proof of service so a loved one can be buried in a veterans cemetery.

Sometimes, that proof is inside one of 147,000 boxes from the fire area that are now kept in the climate-controlled basement of the center. Often, it is not.

Workers have used muster rolls and unit reports from the Pentagon, medical and benefit records from the Department of Veterans Affairs, state archives and other sources to verify military service for 6.5 million veterans or their families when records were missing. Since the preservation lab opened here in 2002, previously unusable records have been salvaged. Still, finding records is often a matter of luck.

This reporter's request for the records of relatives who served in World War II turned up mixed results. Nothing was found for my father or an uncle, presumably because their files were lost to fire.

Archivists did find what spokeswoman Deborah Hilton called "an exceptional record for a burn file" for my mother's cousin, Philip Artin. There, on brittle pages scarred by water stains and pitted with rusty staple holes, was not the mild-mannered Bronx grocer I knew before he died in 1977. There was a married man whose first taste of combat came as an Army ammo carrier during the bloody Battle of the Bulge. He fought only four days before being captured by German troops.

There is the "statement surrounding disappearance of missing personnel" describing how his unit, Company C of the 157th Infantry, moved to take a hill near Lichtenberg, France, and was "probably captured" on Jan. 17, 1945. There is a copy of a Feb. 8 letter from the Army adjutant general to his wife, Rose, reporting him missing in action and extending "my heartfelt sympathy during this period of uncertainty." There is even a German POW card with faded red ink from Stalag 11B Fallingbostel, the Prussian work camp where the 26-year-old was imprisoned until freed on April 30. Artin's story continues with a request for a combat infantryman's badge and a 1950 claim for dental care at a VA facility.

For preservation technician Gretchen Shoemaker, 33, the records mean others could "look past the forms and see into the man's life." They also remind her that her own grandfather had fought in the Battle of the Bulge but that his service records burned in the fire.

As brimming as Artin's folder was, Shoemaker turns to a more typical file on her workstation. "This poor gentleman has this," she says, pointing to a charred, mangled brick of fused paper belonging to a soldier named Ralph Lomma. "This is a result of being burned, then wet, then squished, then shoveled off the roof," she says.

Still, Shoemaker goes to work. She gently wields a small surgical vacuum to suck up dried mold. She uses a paint brush and sponge to remove soot. Then, using a micro spatula, she gingerly unfolds and separates the melded pages.

"It's coming," she says as the fragile pages reveal Lomma was from Scranton, Pa., and enlisted at 18 with an eighth-grade education. And that was about all that could be learned. "This whole seam is burned," Shoemaker says. "We can't mend a burn like this."

Nevertheless, the lab workers aren't easily deterred. Documents warped and made brittle by water damage are placed in humidifying bins to become more supple, then pressed to straighten. Pages that have flaked to pieces are reassembled on rice paper with special adhesives. Fire-blackened papers are scanned onto a computer and digitally enhanced to bring out writing invisible to the naked eye.

"I love what I do," Shoemaker says. "Helping somebody learn about a relative's information they didn't know before is really a service."

Portrait of a sailor

Smith learned a lot about his great-uncle Ray as he pored over his record. He was an "average student" who earned a grade of 3.06 out of 4 at Navy radio operator school. He was "a model sailor," according to conduct reports.

From a tiny photo negative, Smith discovered a "puffy"-haired recruit posed in front of a height chart that pegged him at 6-feet, 1-inch. A pink carbon copy of a death certificate said Ray weighed 146 pounds. "I wish I had his build," said Smith, an unemployed banker who planned to stay here until Thanksgiving to research 300 military records for himself and others. "A string bean."

Smith even solved the family mystery of the missing Purple Heart letter. For more than 20 years he had searched for the document that came with the medal engraved with his great-uncle's name. He found it in Ray's personnel folder. His grandfather had mistakenly sent it back to the Navy with a return receipt Smith found in the file.

With the certainty that thousands of others may soon feel as they plumb the depths of the records here, Smith declared quietly, "This explains everything."