Seventy years ago today, the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. About 2,400 U.S. personnel were killed including 1,177 officers and crewmen aboard the battleship Arizona. It remains at the bottom of the Harbor beneath a memorial bearing the names of those lost on her, and others who served on the Arizona and will be laid to rest there.

One connection to that battle can be found over 4,000 miles east, at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis. It houses more than 56 million records on U.S. military individuals dating back to 1841. Among them are several hundred files on crewmembers of the Arizona.

Those files were aboard the battleship when it sank. They are now are undergoing conservation measures by the Center’s archivists.

Director Bryan McGraw says he and his staff didn’t know what they had until a request came in for one of those records. “Wow, this one is from the Arizona; that type of thing. So we’ve started a process to take the ones that we know of based upon crew manifests and things, to pull those records and give them some additional conservation treatments because they’re in such fragile condition.”

McGraw says he knows of a few hundred such personnel files from the Arizona that survive. These include a wealth of information on each sailor. “It would have things about their entrance and physical, it would have their assignment history, it would have a variety of demographic data about the individual, various awards or decorations if they earned it, training reports, fitness reports, performance appraisals; those types of things, any kind of discharge or separation documents.” They also including facts of particular interest to families. “It may also have information about dependents; if they got married while they were in the service, if they had children, beneficiaries, things like that. So, if you’re constructing a family history…family tree, these types of records are very, very popular for researchers.”

McGraw says the documents have sustained water damage, bear residue from fires from the battle, and some still smell like fuel. A variety of steps are being taken to save them. That includes mending, humidifying and flattening and removing fasteners, rust and debris.

To see images of some of the documents, courtsey of the Center, visit this [slideshow of documents].

Once each document has been treated as necessary, McGraw says it goes back on file. “These will be kept in a secure room that we have where we store prominent records of famous and historic individuals and figures. They will be kept in there because of the damage that they sustained, and the historical value.”

The project could take months or years before it is completed, as the staff continues to answer other requests for information.

For information on the Center and to learn how to make a request, visit its website.

AUDIO:  interview with National Personnel Records Center Director Bryan McGraw – 10:34