The National Archives has unveiled 1.2 million official military records of former U.S. Navy and Marine Corps enlisted personnel who served from 1885 to 1939. That's 20,000 cubic feet of paperwork, enough to fill 20 huge semi-trailer trucks with reams of minutiae from the military stints of mostly ordinary Joes who served their country long ago.
It's not scintillating reading: all those names, ranks and serial numbers, and the mundane military form-speak only families, genealogists and historians can love.
But wait! To enliven the unveiling, the Archives is also making public, for the first time, the military records of 150 dead celebrities! Elvis! JFK! Bogart! McQueen!
On Thursday morning, in cluttered Room G1, the National Archives' press office, where a photocopying machine was cranking out nonstop excerpts from a few of those files, the media got first dibs on what the archivists call "persons of exceptional prominence" -- former presidents, famous military leaders, entertainers, sports superstars and other celebs. All the records -- famous or otherwise -- will open to the public following a ribbon-cutting at the National Personnel Records Center's new research room in St. Louis that was to be held Saturday.
"The overwhelming majority of these records relate to unsung heroes of our times," says National Archives spokeswoman Susan Cooper. "But we are also opening this group of records that are really from VIPs."
Scanning some of the VIP files has a certain voyeuristic quality to it, especially the induction medical exam info. Screen idol Clark Gable, then 41, enlisted in 1942 in a secret swearing-in ceremony to protect him from his fans. His physical exam notes that he had 20/20 vision, a repaired dental bridge, and an appendectomy five years earlier. Hollywood tough guy Humphrey Bogart's 1918 physical noted that the 19-year-old had several prominent scars.
Two years after starring in the 1940 classic "Grapes of Wrath," Henry Fonda enlisted in the Naval Reserve at age 37 and was missing three teeth and weighed 164 pounds. Found "physically fit to perform active duty," Fonda made five films that year and two the next. His file documents the Bronze Star he received in 1947 -- not for acting but for planning operations against Japanese forces in the Pacific as an intelligence officer during World War II.
Unlike most of the records now made public, many of the star-studded files released by the Archives on Thursday are from years after 1939 (which is okay, since they've all been dead longer than the requisite 10 years, and since the Archives needed to drum up some excitement). Some are also from the Army and Air Force, even though the complete archives from those branches aren't yet available. Cooper says the decision about what years and which armed services were included in this batch was made by the Department of Defense. The next scheduled release, in 2010, will include Navy files from World War II. Army and Air Force files from 1912 to 1960 will be released to the Archives in 2022.
Some files contain more personal insight than others. Elvis Presley's induction record lists Graceland as his "current address" and "mother and father" under "other dependents."
Soon after the King joined the Army in 1958, he was shipped off to the 1st Medium Tank Battalion, 32nd Armor, in Germany, which put his fans in a funk. Making his file is a letter from one fan who wrote to the White House begging, "Please ask Ike [President Eisenhower] to bring Elvis back to us soon. . . . We wish Ike would pass a law real soon to exempt all entertainers who pay large sums of income taxes."
And some files recount heroism. A badly typed and pencil-edited document from two naval intelligence officers provides a detailed report of Navy Lt. John F. Kennedy's PT-109 rescue story that reads like a World War II action novel: "That afternoon, Kennedy, hidden under ferns in the native's boat, was taken to the coastwater at about 1500. There it was arranged that the PT boats would rendezvous with him at Ferguson Pass."
But "permanent records" are also repositories for trouble. Steve McQueen, the definition of cool in his flicks from the late '50s into the '70s, joined the Marine Corps at 17 and two years later, in 1949, went AWOL for nine days from the Second Amphibian Tractor Company in Camp Lejeune, N.C. Most of his file relates to his arrest and his court sentence that landed him in the brig for 30 days and docked his pay $30 a month for three months.
Charles Lindbergh enlisted in the Army's Air Service Reserve in 1924, trained as a pilot, and three years later made his historic first nonstop solo flight across the Atlantic. But in 1941, before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, "Lucky Lindy" came under public criticism for campaigning against American involvement in the war. When President Franklin Roosevelt publicly denounced him, Lindbergh resigned his commission in the Army Air Corps. In the file is his 1941 resignation letter accusing FDR of "impugning my loyalty, character and motives."
The paper trail on Gable reveals how he learned a different definition of "theater" in the Army. After negotiating his military tour with the Army brass, he headed to basic training and officer training school in Miami. Once commissioned, he trained at gunnery school in Panama City, Fla., with a unit heading into "an active theater."
The idea was that Gable would get actual battle experience so he could come out of the service a combat-hardened major and a recruitment spokesman. Oh, and his studio cameraman and sidekick enlisted with him to document it all.
Gable flew on "many combat missions" as a bomber gunner with the 8th Air Force stationed in England, according to the records, before reporting to the "First Motion Picture Unit" in Culver City, Calif., where he produced a recruiting film before going back to civilian life.
Care to guess who signed Gable's discharge papers?
Capt. Ronald Reagan, naturally.
Cooper admits not all the celebrity files are that catchy.
"F. Scott Fitzgerald's file," she says, for example. "I really wanted to see that file. But there was nothing there. And Jack Kerouac's file, you go, 'Oh, well, yeah.'
"I think that there probably will be history to be written from these files," she adds. "But it probably won't be from the VIPs, it'll relate to those quiet heroes, what they did and the sacrifices they made for this country that the rest of us don't know about."