JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. -- Last February, more than 8,000 vinyl records were found hidden away in a wall space on Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Last week, they were sent back to their source: the Armed Forces Network Broadcast Center in Riverside, Calif.

What's truly remarkable about the collection, though, is that they never should have been there to begin with.

"I think it's great that they didn't end up in a dumpster," JBLM Cultural Resources Program historian Duane Denfeld said.

The Armed Forces Radio Service transcriptions, which date from 1942 to 1968, were discovered in a 19.5-inch corridor during the renovation of Keeler Sports and Fitness Center near the Madigan Healthcare System.

The narrow space had been closed off for years, but wedged in the back of the dark hallway were 30 boxes containing the record collection of KMAH, Madigan's own closed-circuit radio station, and a card catalog cross-referencing them by genre and artist.

The station, which is no longer active, was dedicated in 1948, not long after AFRS began broadcasting in 1942.

In order to being "a touch of home" to servicemembers all over the world, the organization sent transcriptions to all its affiliates.

This included what was sometimes known as the Bedside Radio Network, for stateside hospitals like Madigan where patients could tune in using individual speakers wired to their beds.

Because the 16-inch records were produced under special licensing agreements with the government stipulating that the music would never be sold or played on commercial airwaves, AFN recalled all the records when it switched to audio cassettes in the mid 1980s.

Those that were not returned weren't supposed to survive.

"Most all the stations, they destroyed these," Denfeld said.

He was one of the first people to know about the records after they were found, and has had fun looking through the collection and trying to imagine what the world was like when they were made.

There were clues, of course. Tucked into many of the record sleeves were bits of memorabilia -- radio show scripts from the 1940s, handwritten notes from disc jockeys, even an original poem entitled "To an Old Friend".

No one knows why the KMAH collection ended up in Keeler gym instead, but now they could help play an important role in the history of Armed Forces broadcasting.

A handful of the records found in the collection, which were recorded specifically at and for KMAH, and the other items found with them will be kept at JBLM. The hope is to display them one day in the JBLM Army Museum.

But all the AFRS transcriptions were shipped back to the AFN Broadcast Center Nov. 29 -- with good reason.

Not all of the estimated 25,000 albums that would make up the entire AFRS library still exist in national archives.

AFN employees are hoping that this and other collections might help fill some of the gaps.

"We're trying to preserve our history," AFN Broadcast Center public affairs officer Larry Sichter said.

AFN's current collection is made up of almost 20,000 records, including thousands of transcriptions recently returned from affiliates in Spain, Wake Island and the United States Postal Service Recovery Center, which collects undeliverable mail, in Atlanta, Ga.

The Defense Imagery Management Operations Center will now inventory and archive the records. Ideally, the entire AFRS catalog will be made available to the public in a searchable database.

"Some of them have a collection of artists' songs that didn't appear in a commercial album," Sichter said, noting that the collection would be of interest to historians and music fans alike.

The records themselves will be evaluated by the Library of Congress, the National Archives and Records Administration and maybe even the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to see what they want to acquire for historical preservation.

For Denfeld, that preservation is a reminder that what's past is prologue.

"It's part of our culture, and we build on that culture," he said.

Marisa Petrich:

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