Historic military service records opened to public

Thursday, June 9, 2005

Personnel files of presidents, famous writers, pro athletes will be available for the first time.

OVERLAND, Mo. -- When Elvis Presley entered the Army, the public started writing.

Presley's military personnel file -- with a "current address" of Graceland -- contains a 1958 letter from a couple in Sacramento, Calif., to first lady Mamie Eisenhower. "Will you please, please be so sweet and kind as to ask Ike to bring Elvis Presley back to us from the Army? We need him in our entertainment world. ..."

That document is just one of those included in the 1.2 million military personnel files the National Archives will open to the public Saturday for the first time. Among the flood of papers are records related to famous politicians, military leaders and at least one rock 'n' roll star.

The bulk of the files relate to former enlisted personnel in the U.S. Navy from 1885 to 1939 or in the Marine Corps from 1906 to 1939.

But the National Personnel Records Center, in the St. Louis suburb of Overland, is also highlighting the files of 150 prominent people who served in the military and died at least a decade ago, including several presidents, famous writers, professional athletes and military figures.

Elvis' time in the military sparked high interest. Parents of enlisted men wrote letters, too, worried the star would get preferential treatment or early release.

"I am sure us poor people can do without his singing and rock and roll until he serves his country just like my son has to," an Oak Park, Ill., mother wrote to a congressman.

While the files provide a glimpse of social history, they also cross over into weighty events.

John F. Kennedy's file, for instance, has an account from the much studied sinking of the PT 109, the Navy patrol torpedo boat he commanded as a lieutenant that sank after being rammed by a Japanese destroyer off the Solomon Islands.

Mixed in with the well-known American history are novel glimpses related to famous figures and their time in the military.

Writer Jack Kerouac, who enlisted in the Navy, was confined to a military hospital for a period in 1943 while psychiatrists tried to determine if he had a mental disorder.

"Patient's father, Leo A. Kerouac, states that his son has been 'boiling' for a long time," one entry notes.

Another reads: "Without any particular training or background, this patient, just prior to his enlistment, enthusiastically embarked upon the writing of novels. He sees nothing unusual in this activity."

Years before filming "The Great Escape," Terrance Steven McQueen was placed under military arrest for being absent without leave while in the Marines. And Lt. Jackie Robinson's file captures racial barriers he encountered, noting he checked with the Special Service Branch and learned their were no openings for black officers in that field.

Bryan McGraw, the center's assistant director for archival programs, said there are about 56 million records relating to inactive military personnel at the center.

They usually are available only to the veteran, their next of kin as defined by the Department of Defense, the agency that created the record, or by approved special request.

But the Defense Department and the National Archives Records Administration agreed in 1999 to work to release some documents because of interest from the public and researchers.

Employees at the records center want to make it clear that not all records there are opening to the public. Documents being released are at least 62 years old, except those related to famous people, which can be released a decade after they die.

Further complicating the matter, the center had a fire in 1973 and about 20 million records were destroyed. Those were primarily Army papers from 1912 through 1959 and Air Force documents from 1947 through 1963, though Air Force records from the early part of the alphabet survived the blaze.

Randall Jimerson, the president of the Chicago-based Society of American Archivists, said it's difficult to know at this point if the opened documents will lead to revelations about famous figures, whose lives have already been closely scrutinized.

"I think they'll provide some interesting anecdotes, like the people asking for Elvis Presley to come back to the United States to perform," he said by telephone from Bellingham, where he works at Western Washington University.

And Michael Pavkovic, the diplomacy and military studies director at Hawaii Pacific University in Honolulu, said the records could perhaps lead to some modified interpretations for scholars.

"I think those records will help the average American trying to explore genealogy, a family past. That's where these records will really help," he said.

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