Today, we’re going to take a break from my Ronald Tammen updates to discuss a topic that many of us have run into when seeking a person’s military records from the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, MO. Perhaps you’re one of the unlucky persons who has tried to locate a family member’s records and received a letter that opens with these discouraging words:
“Thank you for contacting the National Personnel Records Center. The complete Official Military Personnel File for the veteran named above is not in our files. If the record were here on July 12, 1973, it would have been in the area that suffered the most damage in the fire on that date and may have been destroyed. The fire destroyed the major portion of records of Army military personnel who separated from the service between 1912 and 1959, and records of Air Force personnel with surnames Hubbard through Z who separated between 1947 through 1963.”
More than 22 million files were lost in the fire. Fortunately, staffers in the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), which oversees the records housed in the NPRC, have been able to reconstruct details of the affected veterans’ time spent while they were serving our country, though those details are likely incomplete. NARA employees are good at what they do, but they’re not magicians.
I’ve always wondered about that fire, which sounded suspicious to me. How did it even start?
Last month, I was submitting a request for Richard Tammen’s (Ron’s younger brother’s) military records—which, alas, I’m afraid may be among those that were destroyed—when I also decided to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the FBI regarding their investigation into the St. Louis fire. Nine hundred digital pages later, the smoke has finally lifted. It took some work—the FBI never makes things easy, and you won’t believe the lengths they went to this time in order to keep the facts hidden. (Spoiler alert: I’m seeing strong signs of a cover-up that reeks of something far worse.) But after sifting through the documents and comparing what seemed to be the most relevant clues, a heartbreakingly human story has emerged. From what I can tell, this story has never been told publicly before. Other people have FOIA’d these same documents—I’m not the first person to do that. But you, Good Man readers—you, the most scholarly bunch of history-slash-mystery buffs I know, will be the first to learn the truth as best as I can tell.
First, let’s have a quick rundown on the fire. It broke out in the early morning hours of Thursday, July 12, 1973—around 12:15. At that time, most of the building’s occupants were custodians and maintenance workers who’d started their shifts at 4 p.m. the previous day and who would be officially off duty at 12:30 a.m. As the workers were winding things up for the night, returning trash carts and tools to the first floor of the building and signing out at the guards’ stations on the first and second floors, they started to smell the smoke. It was primarily traveling downward by way of the elevator shafts from one of the upper floors, though, at the beginning, they couldn’t be sure which one. Some people ventured to higher floors to scope things out, but the walls of smoke quickly drove them back.
As workers exited the building, some to their cars and others to the fenced-in area surrounding the building, their vantage points improved. Glowing flames were visible through the windows at the south end of the sixth floor—the uppermost floor of the building. Someone called the fire department and minutes later, the first firetruck arrived at the scene. Over the next five days, 42 fire departments would help battle the blaze.
Remarkably, the fire had grown so intense so quickly that firefighters couldn’t put it out until the sixth floor was in ashes and the concrete roof had collapsed upon it.
What’s more, no one would be able to officially pinpoint the fire’s cause, at least not from the physical evidence. Neither the fire marshal nor the FBI laboratory staff who flew in from D.C. to investigate would be able to safely explore the sixth floor before the roof caved in. The FBI’s ongoing talking point was that there were no signs of arson, but how could they know without having been on the sixth floor? Any possible signs of arson would have been buried under concrete rubble.
But make no mistake: arson was always the primary suspect. Building representatives and the FBI would occasionally speculate about faulty wiring or spontaneous combustion when speaking with news reporters, but the question in the front of their minds was always: who set this fire and why? Because for some reason, people were always lighting fires in that building. In the two years prior, a dozen or so fires had been discovered in rest room trash cans, custodial closets, and other areas. Some were reported to authorities. Other fires discovered in the nick of time were extinguished and quietly forgotten.
Also, the building, which was ballyhooed as being fireproof, was a proverbial tinderbox. Paper documents numbering in the tens of millions were tightly packed in cardboard boxes on metal shelves. As a cost-saving measure, someone from the General Services Administration (GSA), which oversaw the facility and the staff who maintained it, had made the decision to install sprinklers and fire alarms only on the first and part of the second floors. The upper floors, where the majority of the files were stored, went without. Another money-saving decision was to turn off air conditioners at 5 p.m. every night throughout most of the building, including the file areas. Custodians steered clear of the files as much as possible, though occasionally, someone would go there for a quick smoke , even though smoking was forbidden in those areas. They would brave the unbearable for some privacy and a nicotine buzz.
In addition to housing the military records, the NPRC served as an annex of sorts to the St. Louis field office of the FBI. Agents stationed on the second floor of the building could easily conduct background checks for persons who’d served in the various branches of the military.
Even though FBI investigators couldn’t look through the physical evidence on the sixth floor, they still had access to the next best thing: people. On July 12, they began to interview as many workers as possible who might be able to share information about the fire’s origin, especially anyone who was working in the building the previous night. If they were working on or near the sixth floor, that was all the better. “Did you see anything or anyone unusual?” would have been one of their go-to questions.
One custodian who was interviewed twice—first on July 12, and later on the 16th—had told investigators that he’d been working on the sixth floor for part of his shift but then went downstairs at around 10:30-10:45 p.m. During his second interview, this additional detail was written in the summary: “There was a crew of possibly three people who were buffing the floors on the sixth floor after he left.”
A custodian who’d been waxing the floors that night (likely on the sixth floor, although that detail has been redacted), was interviewed on July 13. We’ll discuss his comments in a few minutes.
On Tuesday, July 17, another night custodian, Terry Gene Davis, was interviewed. Davis was a 22-year-old Vietnam veteran, formerly with the U.S. Coast Guard. He’d also attended Meramec Junior College for a time. He’d been working as a custodian at NPRC since June of the previous year.
Davis didn’t work on the sixth floor—he was mainly stationed on floors four and five. However, he was one of only a few people who’d gone upstairs after the fire had started to see if he could find the source. On his own initiative, he took the stairwell all the way to the sixth floor to have a look around.
Davis walked to the southern part of the building and reported that the “west one-third of the building on the sixth floor in the file section was not on fire and was relatively clear of smoke.” It was when he started walking eastward, however, that “he ran into a solid wall of heavy dense, grayish-black smoke.”
More than 80 individuals were interviewed in the ensuing days, offering up whatever details they could think of that might be of help. Nevertheless, it didn’t appear as if the FBI was getting any closer to finding the source of the fire.
That all changed on October 12, when a male custodian signed a confession stating that he’d been smoking a cigarette near the files on the sixth floor at roughly 11 p.m. on July 11. He couldn’t recall his exact location, but said that it was at the south end of the building, toward the western side. The person, whose name is redacted, recalled discarding the match on the floor, and then snuffing out the cigarette in a screw hole in one of the metal shelves.
“It has been on my mind and I have been worried about the fire because I did not intend for it to happen,” he said.
Then he addressed a point that the special agents who were grilling him had undoubtedly asked about. Five employees had first-hand knowledge of him stating that he’d set the fire on purpose.
“I told some people that I threw matches in the files but I was only running off at the mouth,” he said. “I lit one match for my cigarette and I shook it out and threw it down. I don’t know where it landed but I think it landed on the floor.”
He signed the statement, and then two special agents added their signatures as well as the smoker’s identifying information.
With this new development, U.S. Attorney Donald Stohr instructed the FBI to interview the five coworkers concerning the sixth-floor smoker’s remarks. They said that they recalled him saying things about starting the fire, but they didn’t take him too seriously. The smoker on the sixth floor was known as an attention-seeker, they said. But as the months wore on, his claims grew bolder. He was saying that the fire was intentional—that he’d pulled out a box of files and lit it with his matches. A couple people warned him to be cool and to stop talking. They actually started to believe him. He was also beginning to show signs of worry, wondering what they would do to the person who set the fire. The fire was beginning to consume him.
“It was obvious that he felt things more deeply than he let on,” one of them said.
Their statements are included here:
Stohr also asked that the FBI check with the smoker’s school and doctor for possible background info. We don’t get to see much of anything that they said, but I’ll include those heavily redacted summaries anyway:
They also checked with the local police, who had nothing on him:
Stohr didn’t think that they had enough evidence to prosecute the sixth-floor smoker. A remorseful confession plus hearsay repeated by five coworkers didn’t sound like a slam-dunk to him. He said that they had two choices: turn matters over to the GSA, the smoker’s employer, and let them deal with him as they see fit. Or, they could present their evidence to the Federal Grand Jury in the Eastern District of Missouri to see if they had enough to initiate criminal proceedings. Stohr and others elected to do the latter and they argued their case on October 31, 1973. That same day, the Grand Jury returned a “no true bill,” which means that they didn’t feel that the U.S. Attorney had enough evidence to prosecute the case. The case was closed.
The next day, Terry Gene Davis shot himself in the head and died. Or at least that’s the official date that’s on the books. He hadn’t reported to work since October 30, and his body wasn’t discovered until November 5, when a concerned coworker who lived next door checked on him. The coroner said that, based on the state of decomposition of his body and the most recent sightings, he died on November 1.
Here’s the note that Terry Gene left behind, which has been lightly censored by someone at the FBI. I have no idea what the three asterisks mean, but I’m pretty sure I know what the two blank lines represent, and I agree with him on that point 100 percent.
“There just isn’t any point to any of this. Nobody gives a damn and never has. Blame it on dope. Blame it on parents. But people *** are the cause of all the _______ _______ in the world. All I ever needed was to know somebody gave a damn about anything to do with me.
“Where is truth? Where is love? Where is anything that is real? Thank you KADI. Thank you KSHE. Thank you humanity.”
The FBI summary noted that KADI and KSHE were local rock stations and that “Davis’ main ambition in the world was to become a star rock and roll performer.” It also said that he had been given an honorable discharge from the Coast Guard due to “psychiatric difficulties involving depression and anxiety.” Recently, he’d been having troubles with his parents and his girlfriend had just left him. He’d also had a minor car crash and had been arrested for riding his motorcycle through a prohibited area.
The article that ran in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on November 9 shows no mercy: “Drug User Kills Self; ‘Nobody Gave a Damn,’” it said.
I’d like to request a do-over. I have no idea who Terry Gene Davis was. His name is way too common for me to feel confident about my search results on genealogy websites. Did he go by Terry? Gene? TG? Or did friends and family call him by both names, like a Jim Bob or a Tommy Lee? Here’s what we know: he was born on July 29, 1950, and he died November 1, 1973. He was just getting his sea legs, doing what budding adults do. He attended a junior college. He joined the service. He valued love, truth, and humanity. Even though I didn’t know him, I think I can also safely say this: If Terry Gene Davis had anything to do with the NPRC fire, I’m quite sure that he was FREAKING OUT in the days before he died.
We’ve all managed to eff things up on the job at least once or twice in our lives, am I right? Oh my God, I’ve done some cockamamie things while I was on the clock. Have I accidentally burned down the entire floor of a federal building? Well, no. I’ll admit, that was pretty huge. But I also think that it could have been worse. The loss was less monumental than first realized and although there were injuries among firefighters, no one died in the fire. Also, as mentioned earlier, NARA has been able to reconstruct many of the destroyed records.
I’m going to go ahead and say it: I think Terry Gene Davis was the smoker on the sixth floor. And if Terry Gene did it, I think he regretted it terribly. On the night it happened, who walked up to the sixth floor to the very place where the fire was thought to have originated? Terry Gene. That sounds like something I might have done if I wanted to make sure I hadn’t caused the fire, just to put my mind at ease.
I know, I know. The identifying info under the smoker’s confession doesn’t match Terry Gene at all—not his height, not his weight, not even his race. (Apologies for the obsolete and offensive term used by the 1973 FBI.) His confession also says that the smoker cleaned the escalators on all six floors and worked as a custodian at NPRC for three years. In October 1973, Terry Gene had only been there a year and four months.
Terry Gene’s description:
Sixth-floor smoker’s description:
But is it possible—hear me out—is it remotely feasible that the FBI altered the identifying details of the sixth-floor smoker to throw everyone off?
As you know, I’m usually a big believer in archival documents. I often look to them as touchstones of truth we can all rely upon. Could it be that at least one or more members of the St. Louis FBI felt differently? Could someone have viewed the smoker’s signed confession as an opportunity to manufacture a new reality? Tweak a few details, and bada bing, bada boom…you have an edited version that’s more pleasing to the powers that be, for whatever reason.
Coincidentally, the special agent in charge of the St. Louis field office had some history with that very thing. His name was Robert G. Kunkel, and he’d recently been publicly demoted by Acting FBI Director L. Patrick Gray in 1972 for writing a false report to Gray about the D.C. field office that Kunkel oversaw. The report had to do with the actions of Kunkel’s special agents at an antiwar protest, and he doctored the report to present a more favorable account of what had transpired. In a Washington Post article, sources had said that they felt “that Kunkel’s report had been motivated by a long-standing ‘don’t embarrass the bureau’ syndrome.” By the time of the fire, Gray was gone, and Clarence Kelly was the new FBI director. Did Kunkel or his special agents feel more empowered under Kelly, a fellow Missourian, to reinstate past editorial protocols?
Here’s why I believe Terry Gene Davis was the sixth-floor smoker:
- A floor waxer mentioned a white male Vietnam veteran in his early 20s
As I mentioned earlier, on July 13, the FBI had interviewed a custodian who’d been waxing floors the night of the fire, likely on the sixth floor, though the floor number is redacted. During that interview, the custodian had passed along various names and background info, most of which were redacted. The exception was when he described one—possibly two—white male Vietnam veterans in their early 20s.
Another custodian had said that the sixth-floor custodians were waxing floors around 10:30-10:45 p.m. If so, then the floor waxer could have seen the sixth-floor smoker at 11 p.m., and the smoker may have been one of the Vietnam vets that he’d mentioned to the FBI.
- The sixth-floor smoker’s school and medical records were requested by US Attorney Stohr
Stohr had requested school and medical records for the sixth-floor smoker. Although the words are redacted, we can see that his school record is a couple inches in length, which is likely to include more than his K-12 years. In the smoker’s confession, he said that before he started working for NPRC, he “attended” BLANK, which was redacted. So it seems as though the person attended some type of college after high school. Terry Gene had attended Meramec Junior College.
As for medical records, I don’t think Stohr would have been interested in hearing from the sixth-floor smoker’s GP. Stohr was considering a possible arson case, so it makes more sense that the doctor who Stohr wanted to consult would have had direct knowledge of the smoker’s mental health. We know that Terry Gene experienced depression and anxiety in Vietnam, so much so that he received an honorable discharge on that basis. I’m no expert, but it sounds as if Terry Gene may have been suffering from PTSD, which has afflicted many Vietnam veterans. If Terry Gene was being treated by a Veterans Affairs–appointed psychiatrist, which is a reasonable hypothesis, and if he was the sixth-floor smoker, Stohr would have wanted to hear his psychiatrist’s opinion.
- The sixth-floor smoker’s whereabouts and comments after the fire started match those of Terry Gene
One of the five coworkers (coworker 4) recalled that the sixth-floor smoker had been on the sixth floor after the fire started and that he’d noticed no flames toward the west end. (Page 7 of the coworkers’ statements: paragraph 3, last sentence.)
Based on Terry Gene’s 7/17/73 interview, he was on the sixth floor after the fire started. He also said the following: “He walked over to the south side of the building where the windows are located and said that the west one-third of the building on the sixth floor in the file section was not on fire and was relatively clear of smoke.”
- Terry Gene Davis killed himself one day after the Grand Jury ruling
In the FBI report of Terry Gene’s suicide, we’re told about all the things that had been going badly in his life—his relationship with his parents, his girlfriend’s decision to leave him, his car accident, his arrest. If Terry Gene was responsible for the NPRC fire, then all of the above could have been the result of the stress he was under because of the fire. Stress can heat up our emotions. It can break up our relationships. It can make us prone to bad decisions.
The coroner said Terry Gene had died on November 1, a detail I can’t dispute. However, if Terry Gene was the sixth-floor smoker, is it possible that he hadn’t been made aware of the Grand Jury’s decision? No one mentioned calling him on October 31st, for whatever reason—they simply said that he hadn’t been to work since October 30. If Terry Gene was the sixth-floor smoker, then perhaps he didn’t even know that he wouldn’t be facing prosecution by the federal government, which probably would have been a huge relief to him.
- A handwritten note on the FBI report of Davis’ suicide refers to the “no bill” ruling that was returned by the U.S. Fed. Grand Jury for the sixth-floor smoker
At the bottom of the FBI report on Terry Gene’s suicide, dated 11/6/73, someone has jotted the following note. As best as I can determine, it says [with question marks added where I’m unsure]:
Advised 9:15 11/16[?]/73
What[?] Co Report
Reflecting no bill at U.S. Fed. Grand Jury
The words “ASAC Devic” refer to the assistant special agent in charge of the St. Louis field office. The next two lines are more cryptic. Perhaps that’s the date and time that someone had been advised of Terry Gene’s suicide, though it’s too difficult to say. The bottom two lines are easier to decipher. I believe they refer to the 11/5/73 FBI report that notified the US Attorney and the GSA about the “no bill” ruling for the sixth-floor smoker. Whoever wrote the note felt that the Grand Jury ruling on the sixth-floor smoker somehow pertained to Terry Gene Davis, who’d committed suicide one day after the Grand Jury’s ruling.
- The 11/6/73 memo on Terry Gene’s suicide says that Terry Gene furnished “strongest information implicating” the sixth-floor smoker
In the FBI’s response to my FOIA request, they supplied me with two versions of the same memo announcing Terry Gene’s suicide. The memo pertained to a report submitted by one of the special agents dated 10/17/73. That report included the sixth-floor smoker’s signed confession and the statements of the five coworkers who’d heard the smoker talk about starting the fire.
In one version of the memo (excerpt directly above), the first sentence reads “For information of Bureau, TERRY GENE DAVIS, who in interview set forth in referenced report furnished strongest information implicating REDACTED in captioned fire, discovered dead 8:30 PM, 11/5/73.” The words “strongest information implicating” are visible in that version but they’re redacted in the other version, which is shown with the handwritten notation under the preceding bullet. Bar none, the strongest information implicating the sixth-floor smoker was the signed confession, which tells me that, if the author of the memo is being truthful, Terry Gene furnished the signed confession.
The referenced report also included the statements of the five coworkers. Could one of those individuals have been Terry Gene? No, not based on the identifying characteristics that are provided. Not one person in the report has the same identifying characteristics as those supposedly belonging to Terry Gene Davis, as presented after his 7/17 interview. In other words, if Terry Gene’s information was so incredibly strong in implicating the sixth-floor smoker, where was he in the report?
In July 1974, Ted Gest, of the St. Louis Post Dispatch, wrote an article on the probable cause of the fire, quoting US Attorney Stohr. The article said that the fire was due to an employee’s careless smoking in a nonsmoking area. I’m including Stohr’s quotes below because they’re especially interesting when they’re applied to the deceased Terry Gene Davis:
- “Stohr said his office had concluded that the suspected smoker ‘is not prosecutable criminally.’”
- “Stohr said the suspect no longer worked for the government.”
- “Because he was ‘employed under a program for handicapped persons,’ no public identification will be made, Stohr said.”
- “Stohr said of the suspected cigarette smoker that ‘there would appear to be very little merit in endeavoring to recover any damages in a civil proceeding because of (his) personal circumstances.’”
You may be wondering why the FBI and U.S. Attorney Stohr didn’t come clean about the person who caused the fire, be it Terry Gene Davis or someone else. Was the secrecy to protect the person responsible? I doubt it.
Here’s my guess regarding the reason: Typed on a sheet behind the sixth-floor smoker’s confession is a short, heavily redacted paragraph in which one of the FBI’s special agents who worked in the NPRC says that he loaned a cigarette to REDACTED on the night of the fire.
A follow-up memo said that it happened at around 11 p.m. the night of the fire and that the cigarette-lending special agent also provided a light to the suspect. Unfortunately, the memo goes on to say that they aren’t able to get the SA and the suspect in the same room for an ID since one of them was on administrative leave.
If an FBI special agent was the source of the cigarette that burned through 22 million veterans’ personnel records, that’d be bad. If Terry Gene Davis was the sixth-floor smoker and the FBI covered it up to hide their possible culpability, that’d be worse. And if, as part of their cover-up, they decided to say that the sixth-floor smoker was Black when he was white, that’s morally repugnant and racist as hell.
Terry Gene was right. “Where is anything that is real?”
If you’re interested in obtaining a family member’s military records, go to this website and follow the instructions. Even if the record was destroyed in the fire, NARA personnel have been incredibly helpful in piecing together at least some pertinent information. They did it for me.
Help is available 24/7.