On July 12, 1973, the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) outside St. Louis, Missouri, caught on fire. The center was, and still is, the largest repository of military service records in the country. The lack of a sprinkler system and thousands of paper files led to a four-and-a-half-day blaze that has been described as the worst archival disaster in American history.
No one knows what started the fire, but the devastation was clear. 16-18 million veterans' records were destroyed, including an estimated 80 percent of Army personnel discharged between 1912 and 1960 and 75 percent of Air Force personnel discharged between 1947 and 1964, which were housed together on the sixth floor. About 6.5 million documents were salvaged, and since the fire, the NPRC has been dedicated to helping veterans and their families recreate service records that were destroyed in the fire.
Charles Cohen is one of those veterans, but he didn't even know it until late last year, when he visited a Pittsburgh Veteran's Affairs office to ask about securing a plot in a National Cemetery. Cohen, an 89-year-old Army veteran who served in World War II and the Korean War, wants to be buried in Beverly National Cemetery in New Jersey, alongside his father, who served in the Army during World War I. But for that, his family will need his service records, which burned to ashes in the 1973 fire.
Cohen filed a request with the NPRC to retrieve his records, and in March, he received a certificate of military service. But the certificate stated that he entered and left the Army on the same day—April 24, 1946, an arbitrary date—and never rose above the rank of private. Cohen, for his part, says he left World War II as a First Sergeant and the Korean War as an Acting Company Commander. The certificate also listed his date of birth as "not available."
"I think they just put that down because they didn't want to go looking for anything else," Cohen told VICE. Because of all the inaccuracies, he didn't understand how this could serve as his new military record.
Cohen isn't the only veteran left confused, or completely devastated, in trying to recreate his military records. Emil Limpert, a World War II veteran who earned a Purple Heart, was denied benefits from the Department of Veteran's Affairs earlier this year because his records had also been lost in the 1973 fire. Limpert, who is in his 90s, had not applied for VA benefits previously and only applied now because he is "down to nothing." After he was told there was no record of his service, a GoFundMe page was set up to help support Limpert financially while he continues to try to prove his military record.
NPRC technicians receive around 5,000 requests each day from veterans or their next of kin who are seeking benefits, burial services, or merely answers to questions about the past. The facility staffs about 25 people to do preservation work on the 6.5 million saved documents, and 40 people to handle cases from veterans like Cohen.
To reconstruct a veteran's service records, NPRC Director Scott Levins told VICE that technicians reach out to other government agencies and veteran groups for auxiliary records or other proof of service. If they can find an entry or discharge date, then they can issue an official document like the one Cohen received.
The NPRC is successful in most cases, but if technicians can't find any proof of service, that's the end of the road. For veterans whose records can't be recovered, it's like they never served.
The NPRC was able to confirm Cohen's record from World War II, but since the standard of proof is high, they haven't been able to amend his new record with all of the details, including his service in the Korean War. He can still use his new certificate to access VA benefits—including a military burial—but he says it feels like an insult, since it's erased so much of his military history.
"I want credit for everything I did," he said.
In World War II, Cohen says he was a member of the 609th Transportation Company, an all-black unit. He watched friends, who hadn't been warned by officials, get sick from radiation poisoning during America's occupation of Japan. After President Harry Truman desegregated the military in 1948, Cohen served in the Korean War as part of the Army Corp of Engineers. He helped clear roads, often walking into ambushes in the process. He experienced racism while he served, but he doesn't like to talk about that. He doesn't even like to say he "fought" in Korea, since he was never involved in battle, and he insists that "there were a lot of guys who did a lot more than me."
After the Korean War, Cohen taught English in Philadelphia for 30 years, and then stayed on as an administrator for another 21. He retired and moved to Pittsburgh in 2007 to help raise his grandchildren following the death of his daughter. He and his wife, Machere, had six children and now 12 grandchildren.
"And I want the credit on my [grave] marker so they can see when they visit me," he said.
Cohen had a collection of service medals and separation documents, but he says he lost them when he moved to Pittsburgh. Without them, he's hoping the NPRC can find another way to recreate his full service record.
This spring, after doing a secondary search for records, a technician sent Cohen a second certificate with updated information about his entry and discharge dates, as well as his exiting rank. The new certificate still doesn't include his service in the Korean War, and his date of birth is still listed as "not available."
The NPRC is working on another revision for Cohen, and this time, Levins said he would personally reach out to the Department of Veteran's Affairs to see if he can track down any records. But he can't make any promises.
"When we get a request from someone who served during that time period, more often than not, we have nothing," he said. And for veterans who aren't as lucky as Cohen, that might mean being denied benefits or the military burial they deserve.
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