Week 7– Voices Lost: the 1973 Fire at the National Personnel Records Center and its Implications on Service Records

 

 

One night when I was young, my father brought home a stack of books entitled Soldiers of the Great War. We sat down at the kitchen table while he reverently opened one volume of the fragile book set to a dog-eared page. Tracing his finger across the yellowed paper, he stopped on an image fainted from years of touching. The caption read “Pvt. Luigi Caporusso, Trenton [New Jersey]” under a subsection “Died of Wounds”.

My great-grandmother never knew her uncle, but the unspoken loss had led her to occasionally open the book for my father.  She repeated a ritual her father had started. His trembling finger had been the first to touch the face of his dead son as my young great-grandmother looked on. The somber ritual had lost its strong connection over time, but it made its way down to my father and I. The faded photo we viewed offered nothing but a forgotten tragedy; the story of a foreign-born soldier who died far from home and whose abrupt death echoed over generations.

I felt compelled to understand who Luigi was and years later, I would request his service record from the National Personnel Center in St. Louis. The response I  received was a letter stating that nearly 80% of personnel records had been destroyed in a 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center, including that of my relative. I was crushed; I had followed his trail using the limited information I could gather from the New Jersey State Archives and from reading about the 78th Lightning Division in World War One. What medals had my relative earned? What had happened when ,24 days before the war ended, Luigi had been wounded? Where did he finally die and how?

To remedy issues caused by this fire, the NPRC reconstructs these official files using alternative sources such as medical records, pay records, and VA claims. But I wonder how much was really lost. How many veterans have been affected when it comes to claiming their service or how many relatives may never know the stories of heroism that had been within the Official Military Personnel files of 75-80% of Army and Airforce personnel serving between 1912 to 1964. One can only hope the NPRC has learned and disaster planned to avoid a future calamity and also, that the sacrifices of these service members was documented elsewhere.

As for the story of Luigi Caporusso, my efforts continue. I’ve learned a great deal about my ancestor and in so doing, began to understand some family roots. But ultimately, I am left with more questions than answers. Sometimes, I find myself opening the book to a brittle page folded long ago. Continuing a ritual of loss that started nearly 100 years ago.

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