National archives at St. Louis


PEP (Persons of Exceptional Prominence) Spot Light:  Lieutenant (JG) Harriet Pickens (1909-1969) & Ensign Frances Wills (1916-1998)

In honor of African American Women’s History Month, we are highlighting the first two African American women who were commissioned as officers in the US Navy.  Lieutenant Pickens and Ensign Wills were commissioned in the United States Navy on December 21, 1944.

Lieutenant Harriet Pickens, a public health administrator with a master’s degree in Political Science from Columbia University, was the daughter of William Pickens, one of the founders of the NAACP.  Prior to her military service, Harriet was the Executive Secretary of the Harlem Tuberculosis and Health Committee of the New York Tuberculosis and Health Association.  In addition to this position, she was a supervisor of recreation programs in the New Deal’s WPA (Works Project Administration). 

Ensign Frances Wills was a native of Philadelphia and graduate of Hunter College.  While Frances pursued her MA in Social Work at the University of Pittsburgh, she worked with famed African American poet, Langston Hughes.  She worked in an adoption agency, placing children in adoptive homes.   Her experiences as a pioneering naval officer led Frances to eventually write the book Navy Blue and Other Colors under her married name, Frances Wills Thorpe.

Obviously, these were two accomplished and well educated women, highly qualified to serve their country as military officers in time of war.  It was only their race that stood in their way and the remarkable pair would help to tear that barrier down.  They were sworn in as apprentice seamen in the US Navy in November 1944. 

After receiving their commissions a month later, both Harriet and Frances serviced at the Hunter Naval Training Station in Bronx, NY, the main training facility for enlisted WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) recruits.  Harriet Pickens led physical training sessions up until her death in 1969 at the age of 60.  Frances Wills taught naval history and administered classification tests.  She died in 1998.

Lieutenant Pickens’ and Ensign Wills’ military files are two of the records in our PEPs (Persons of Exceptional Prominence) collection at the National Archives at St. Louis. Due to the high volume of attention and research on their military career, Lieutenant Pickens and Ensign Wills’ record was placed in the PEP collection and digitally copied. The Preservation Programs at St. Louis treats and stabilizes PEP records by placing the documents in polyester film sleeves, removing fasteners and staples and undertaking any required repair actions that will extend the life of the documents. An entire record is then scanned and placed on DVDs so researchers can access exact replicas, thus preventing damage to the original documents.

We are proud to highlight the lives and achievements of these two courageous women who in the face of segregation and hatred overcame and changed the face of the United States Navy forever.


Today is International Archives Day! Across the globe, our colleagues are working to preserve your history.

Here are two of our favorite images that show the importance of archives for everyday citizens.


The 12th Armored Association met at the National Archives at St. Louis  for their 67th annual reunion in 2013. Veterans of this famed World War II division came to the National Personnel Records Center for a tour of the facilities. Preservation staff met with the vets and their families to explain the work being done to treat records damaged in the 1973 fire.

Preservation staff also explained how they treat records salvaged from the USS Arizona. Mike Pierce, in the white coat, explained the unique damage that occurred to the personnel records on board the Arizona as a result of the attack.

Image and text via the To order a military record, go to:

Civil Rights

For many years, Edith Lee-Payne had no idea that her photograph was in the National Archives–or that she was one of the most iconic faces of the March on Washington.

In August of 2013, she saw her own face on display for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. “I’ve been in history all these years,“ declared Edith Lee-Payne after seeing the photograph taken by Rowland Scherman.

You can learn more about her story in our blog ( and in a video ( )


Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra 5/12/1925 - 9/22/2015

In memory of baseball icon Yogi Berra, our colleagues at the National Archives-St. Louis have shared his World War II and post-World War II-era selective service registration cards (DSS Form 1 and SSS Form 1). The registration cards were created to identify registrants, and to document the order registrants would be called to military service. Yogi’s WWII-era registration show that he was playing for the Norfolk Tars, a farm team for the New York Yankees, and his post-war registration card shows that he had made the big leagues and was playing for the Yankees. His post-war registration also shows his prior WWII service, as Yogi had served in the Navy from 9/30/1943-5/7/1946.

  • Selective Service DSS Form 1 for Lawrence Peter Berra, May 12, 1943; Selective Service System. Missouri State Headquarters. 1940-1975, Record Group 147, Records of the National Archives and Records Administration; National Archives at St. Louis, St. Louis, MO.
  • Selective Service SSS Form 1 for Lawrence Peter Berra, September 7, 1948; Selective Service System. Missouri State Headquarters. 1940-1975, Record Group 147, Records of the Nation Archives and Records Administration; National Archives at St. Louis, St. Louis, MO.

Today’s post comes courtesy of David Hardin of Research Services at the National Archives - St. Louis. 

To learn more about the Selective Service records at the National Archives- St. Louis please watch David Hardin’s presentation from last year’s Virtual Genealogy Fair (starting at roughly 1:15:00):

Archives Pop Art!

Our colleagues at the National Archives at St. Louis have been busy processing Selective Service System (SSS) Classification Records, also known as SSS ledgers. The SSS maintains information on individuals potentially subject to military conscription, in the case of a national emergency. Virtually all male U.S. citizens and male immigrant non-citizens between the ages of 18 and 25 are required by law to have registered within 30 days of their 18th birthdays. Archives staff have been working meticulously to unbind the records from their original bindings and rehouse them in proportionately sized protective boxes. The ledgers and cards represent three Draft periods occurring roughly between the years 1940 and 1974.

Last December, while working with our digitization partners at Ancestry, NARA staff were processing the Pennsylvania records when archivist Michael Tarabulski located Andy Warhol’s Registration Card.

Born in Pittsburgh with the name Andrew Warhola, the famous artist registered for the SSS soon after his 18th birthday. Please enjoy this Warhol inspired artistic interpretation of his SSS Registration Card, created by our talented friends in St. Louis!

Want to hear more about interesting finds in the archives? Check out our Prologue blog site at

This post was based on the Declarations article “SSS Holdings in St. Louis: Careful rehousing, useful data, and interesting finds,” written by Sarah Garner on February 11, 2016.


Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Selective Service System Draft Registration Card

The National Archives at St. Louis is home to millions of selective service system draft registration cards for men born prior to March 29, 1957.  In 2012, selective service registration cards were transferred to St. Louis from other NARA sites around the country.  The Reformatting Unit of the Preservation Programs at St. Louis recently stabilized, organized, and   re-produced digital copies of 17 boxes of these records which will available for public access.  During the project, Martin Luther King, Jr’s selective service card was located and scanned for public viewing.  Selective service registration cards can be viewed by the public and contains a great source of information for family history, genealogy, and scholarly research.


The National Archives at Saint Louis, in collaboration with the Saint Louis Preservation Program, opened its newest exhibition featuring some of America’s most memorable photographic images.  “Through America’s Lens: Focusing on the Greatest Generation, 1920-1945,” features a mixture of iconic photographs and textual documents from the Federal personnel file of some of America’s most prolific photographers and artists.  The exhibit opened Monday, March 11, 2013 and runs through Friday, September 27, 2013.  It is open to the public Monday through Friday (except Federal holidays) from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.  In conjunction with the exhibit is an exhibit lecture series.  For further information on lectures, please visit

The Wonder Sponge: And We are Not Talking about SpongeBob SquarePants

A popular tool in our St. Louis Paper Lab for cleaning mold from records is our foamed natural rubber sponge erasers. Every work station has a pile of them! These soft erasers do wonders in cleaning mold from the paper’s surface. The erasers come in “brick” sizes and are easily trimmed down into smaller pieces which are held more easily in your hand. But an important word of caution! Although softer than hard erasers these can still be abrasive, and can cause damage if used on paper surfaces that are soft and friable due to more extensive damage.

What the ….?

St. Louis Preservation Tech Jennifer Farr recently came across a record in an unusual condition: it had dark brown, sparkly stains on it.

Since we need to get records for open requests out as quickly as possible, she surface cleaned the pages and sent the record on its way after having Reformatting’s Lenny Hurtado shoot some photos of it.

But Farr’s curiosity was piqued, so she posted a query on our Internal Collaboration Network (in-house social media network) to see if others in NARA had ever found something unusual in their collections.

She received dozens of responses: wine stains, food, coal dust, spit tobacco, cat paw prints, illegal drugs, poker chips, lipstick, the “pension mole,” even an “undersea soil sample in (a) reused ice cream container.”

As Sara Holmes, the senior preservation specialist noted, “There are so many things … that make you wish the pages could talk to let you know just exactly how that happened!”

Preserving Pearl Harbor Documents

The photo above shows a service jacket and salvaged service record, with Navy envelope, for William Wells. Wells enlisted at Kansas City, Mo. on Jan. 1, 1940, and died Dec. 7, 1941, at Pearl Harbor after achieving the rank of Signalman 3rd class. Also lost that day was his brother, Raymond Virgil Wells. They were one of 23 sets of brothers on the Arizona who died that day. (ARC series # 299693)

One of the most important decisions a conservator can make is not how to complete a treatment, but when NOT to treat. An important example of this can be found in the records salvaged from the U.S.S. Arizona after it was bombed on Dec. 7, 1941. These service records, which were held one level below the main deck, were not submerged in water but were subjected to heat, fire, and high humidity. Salvaged by the Navy and sealed in envelopes which contained the damaged documents, the records came to NARA in the 1950s and are now housed at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis.

As part of Preservation Awareness Week, the National Archives at St. Louis National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) invited employees and visitors to bring their treasures to the Preservation Road Show Thursday, July 12.

Preservation experts will offer guests practical advice on caring for their personal items, including photos, home movies, paper documents, artwork, comics, and scrapbooks. The Road Show will also feature interactive games, clinics, and brief lectures on topics such as digital records management and film preservation.

For more information, visit the National Archives at St. Louis Facebook page.


Preservation of Frank Capra’s movie, “The Negro Soldier”.  A look at the preservation process from beginning to end.

St. Louis Preservation Program took second place for its “Christmas Story”-themed entry in the National Personnel Records Center’s annual Holiday Basket Contest. Volunteers from each department created gift baskets, and staff members contributed money and/or materials. Once winners were chosen, the baskets were given away as attendance prizes at our annual Holiday Party. The winning departments got gift cards for pizza parties, which are paid for with money from the center’s Fundraising Committee. The basket contest gives creative staff members the chance to impress their coworkers and helps to put us all in the holiday spirit.


Ever wonder what the Preservation Programs at St. Louis does?…Watch this!!!


What a Difference a Move Makes

When the National Archives at St. Louis National Personnel Records Center moved into its new building, we did it for the records.

NARA monitors temperature and relative humidity throughout our buildings with electronic dataloggers called Preservation Environment Monitors, or PEMs. The PEMs constantly gather temperature and humidity readings, which we collect and evaluate. The data can alert us to problems with our HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) systems before they become serious.

The first graph is from our old building on Page Avenue. The second graph is from one of Archives Drive’s archival bays. Notice how often the PEM recorded temperatures at Page Avenue that were above 100° F and humidity levels that were above 60%.  Under NARA Directive 1571 the proper temperature and humidity for archival records is 65°F/35% (±5%).

So, the move made not only the employees but our holdings much happier.

PEP (Person of Exceptional Prominence) Spot Light:  Cpt. Mary T. Klinker (October 3, 1947 – April 4, 1975)

Mary Klinker served in the Air Force as a flight nurse, instructor, and flight examiner from 1969 to 1975.

In 1974, the Vietnam War was ending and in an act of pure humanity, President Gerald Ford announced a mission that would be known as “Operation Babylift.” This mission’s purpose was to evacuate more than 2000 orphaned children from Saigon. Capt. Mary T. Klinker was enlisted as a flight nurse responsible for caring for the children during their transport to the Philippines.

Unfortunately, on April 4, 1975, the inaugural Operation Babylift flight ended in tragedy crashing within minutes of takeoff killing 138 of the 314 on board.  The flight crew, caregivers, and infants died in the Operation Babylift plane crash including Capt. Mary T. Klinker.

Capt. Klinker was 27-years-old when she died and was the last nurse and only member of the US Air Force Nurse Corps to be killed in Vietnam. She was posthumously awarded the Airman’s Medal for Heroism and the Meritorious Service Medal.

Capt. Klinker’s military file is one of the records in our PEPs (Persons of Exceptional Prominence) collection at the National Archives at St. Louis. Due to the high volume of attention and research on her military career, Cpt. Klinker’s record was placed in the PEP collection and digitally copied. The Preservation Programs at St. Louis treats and stabilizes PEP records by placing the documents in polyester film sleeves, removing fasteners and staples and undertaking any required repair actions that will extend the life of the documents. An entire record is then scanned and placed on DVDs so researchers can access exact replicas, thus preventing damage to the original documents.

As we continue to protect and preserve these important military records, it reminds us that Memorial Day is not just the “beginning of the summer holiday season”, but  a time to reflect on the lives of men and woman of our armed forces who willingly gave up their lives for our freedom and the freedom of others around the world.

Perfecting our skills

Fall is when most students return to school, and the grown-up kids in St. Louis Preservation Programs did that, too. The Campbell Center for Historic Preservation Studies offers classes for professionals who work in many areas of cultural resource management, from architectural renovation to textile stabilization to digitization. This year, St. Louis staff studied microscopy, digital forensics, care of photographs, and the care of paper artifacts. That last class was taken by Preservation Technicians John Nkenchor and Carol Gorecki, shown here.

The Campbell Center draws a national and even international student body. And Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler, chief of the Document Conservation Lab at Archives II in College Park, Md., co-taught the class “Preservation of Archives.”

We can’t wait to test our new skills in the lab.


What is Preservation Programs doing with a Burned Record, a Customized Camera, and a WEBER Grill? 

               The burned record bays at Archives Drive facility in St. Louis are home to the ‘B-files’.   These are OMPF records that were recovered from the devastating 1973 fire, when the entire 6th floor of the Page Avenue facility burned destroying some 18 million individual serviceman’s records.  Approximately 6.5 million records were recovered.  Given the variety of conditions present on these documents, a number of preservation actions (e.g., mold remediation, repair, flattening or other stabilization) are required before releasing these records for reference. Unfortunately many, like this example, are too damaged to yield information and will deteriorate rapidly in the case of further handling.


For several years Preservation Programs in St. Louis has tested IR photographic methods to ‘see through’ charred and mold-stained paper and recover information with the idea that digitized versions will best accomplish access for this subset of highly damaged records.  Our testing led to the development of a customized camera system, by Digital Transitions, a photographic technology vendor that specializes in cultural heritage imaging. The examples above are successive shots directly from the camera prototype, with no manipulation (except cropping and redaction).  An internal filter wheel (at very bottom of illustration 4) can be rotated to select bandwidth sensitivity between visible light and two infrared ranges. In addition, the lens turret has been modified to include focus stops (illustrated in orange) to allow operators to rapidly and accurately adapt focus between taking successive shots of visible and IR.

While testing the prototype camera, Digital Transitions created simulated burned records by wrapping a dictionary in aluminum foil and grilling it in a barbeque grill. It turns out that creating char without completely consuming paper is not as easy as it might seem.  

Significant challenges and work remain in the areas of:  a) identifying the best candidates for digitization, b) developing special document handling methods during photography for those fused, blocked, moldy, highly burned, brittle or otherwise heavily damaged documents, and c) integrating these images of damaged records into the archival and reference workflows.


The Last Box
On Tuesday, Nov. 6, the last box from the National Personnel Records Center’s more than four-year move was placed in its new home. It now resides on a shelf in Bay 13 at the new NPRC National Archives at St. Louis. The bay conforms to NARA’s archival temperature and humidity standards. An astounding 4,209,834 cubic feet was transferred during the move. NPRC marked the historic occasion with a center-wide lemon-lime soda toast on Nov. 16.

While the Reformatting staff of the National Archives at St. Louis may be best known for its work on the military records of Persons of Exceptional Prominence, many of its tasks lack such glamour. One project the staff recently began working on involves Air Force Flying Time Records. These microfiche sheets record the flying time of Air Force personnel from 1973 to 1998.

Each microfiche is made of one of three types of material: silver, vesicular, or diazo (see definitions here). Unfortunately, in the past they were all stored together, so the Reformatting staff is separating them out by the material used. Many of the silver fiche were stored without paper sleeves and subsequently stuck together, requiring the application of deionized water to separate them.

The silver “master copies” will be sent to NARA’s cold storage caves in Lenexa, Kansas. The vesicular and diazo “use copies” will stay here for researcher access.

The project involves more than 250,000 microfiche, filling up 25 cubic feet, and will last about three months. These records can help recreate and verify part of an airman’s service if his record was destroyed in the 1973 fire, since it is part of the same record group as that of airmen who served from 1912 to 1972.


PEP (Person of Exceptional Prominence) Spot Light: FRANK CAPRA (May 18, 1897 – September 3, 1991)


Strange, isn’t it?  Each man’s life touches so many other lives.  When he isn’t around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”  (quote from Clarence the Angel to George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life”).   Frank Capra, director of “It’s a Wonderful Life”, may have never known how many people viewed his films, but the impact of the films he created while he served in the US Army helped promote morale and focus to what the military mission was during World War 2.

Frank Capra’s military record is one of our PEPs (Persons of Exceptional Prominence) at the National Archives at St. Louis.   Due to the high volume of attention and research on his military career Mr. Capra’s record was placed in the PEP category and digitally copied.   The Preservation Programs at St. Louis treats and stabilizes the documents by placing them in polyester film sleeves, removing fasteners and staples, scanning the documents individually, and placing them on DVDs so researchers can access exact replicas and prevent damage to the original documents. 

As we continue to protect and preserve these important military records, it reminds us of another quote that Clarence the Angel told George Bailey, “You see George, you really have had a wonderful life”.  We are protecting the wonderful life stories of people like Mr. Capra, who served his country with his talents and lived his life to the fullest.  We are hoping that through preserving his records, we will earn our wings (I think I just heard a bell ring!).    Happy Holidays from the Preservation Programs of the National Archives.