History in the making
When most people think of historians, university professors or museum curators may come to mind. As with countless other professions, however, the U.S. military has its own take on this scholarly field – command historians.
They don’t just read about history, they write it. Although civilians, they may deploy from Japan, Guam or South Korea to locales such as Kuwait, Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan. Their expertise may be called on as much to retrace a vet’s military service or help a survivor find solace as it is to inform command decisions or find World War II wreckage.
Unlike their counterparts, military historians are as much about the present as the past. They are assigned to certain commands primarily to document events for future histories. They use internal sources to document their units’ annual histories (monthly when deployed). Those documents become official records of history when commanders sign off on them.
“Most historians enter an archive and then write about the past based on what they find there,” said John Treiber, 374th Airlift Wing historian at Yokota Air Base, Japan. “I am writing about events as they occur, or soon after, and can talk with the people directly involved. There’s an immediacy to Air Force histories that simply does not exist in a typical historical account.”
Each branch of service has its own history division with branch historians as well as select full-time historians at various commands. Currently in Asia-Pacific, Air Force and Army historians may answer directly to commanders, or, like Navy and Marine units in the region, some unit historian functions may be the auxiliary duties of other personnel.
“The Installations historian job is a collateral duty here at Marine Corps Installations Pacific,” said Glen Andrews. The Current Operation & Training staffer and part-time historian at Camp Butler, Okinawa, added that the job, “serves as a central clearinghouse for subordinate units to ensure that events are collected and appropriately memorialized in Marine Corps history (for) future generations of Marines.”
In addition to chronicling current events, military historians are also the keepers of archives compiled by their predecessors. This offers rare insights with which to advise commands and assist civilians – and unlocks a treasure trove of information for the historically inclined to dig into.
“I certainly like to research and find some long forgotten aspect of the USAF history in the Mariana Islands and the 36th Wing’s long and prestigious heritage,” said Jeffrey Meyer, 36th Wing historian at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam. “Then and there, putting myself into the airmen’s shoes and trying to imagine what it must have been like to live in that moment of time, in those particular circumstances.”
For others, it’s the insights gleaned from past events that are used to advise commands in determining current and future policies and contingencies. Since, as the saying goes, “those who ignore history are destined to repeat it,” this is also a key function of some full-time military historians.
Perhaps no one exemplifies this more than the command historian for U.S. Forces Korea, ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command and United Nations Command at Yongsan Garrison in Seoul, South Korea. In addition to answering to three different commands, the job includes giving historical input on sensitive issues that can affect high levels of government.
“The purpose of (my) job is to provide context so the Commander and the staffs can understand the historical environment in which they are operating, as well as participate in the Commander’s military history education program,” said Lewis Bernstein, command historian for UNC/CFC/USFK, HQ USFK. “I like all aspects of this job. It gives me the opportunity to do research and communicate directly with people.”
That interaction can also include historical briefings and the occasional tour as well as representing respective commands at conferences and seminars. It can also mean helping civilians unearth details of past events.
Annual histories and other historical data may be classified, and the general public may need to file a FOIA, or Freedom of Information Act, request to access some of it that is not. Depending on the command and query, however, military historians can be a researcher’s best friend.
“Most of my energy should be focused on writing an annual history,” Meyer said. “The only exception to that rule is for timely customer service and that is to answer historical questions and inquiries.”
“I deal with veterans fairly regularly, as well as former dependents who were stationed at Yokota as children,” Treiber said.
Those inquiries may be for the sake of verification, nostalgia – or even closure.
“The 18th History Office was asked to do some research on the Ie Shima explosion that took place in 1948,” said James D’Angina, USAF 18th Wing historian at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa. “The request came from an individual who had lost his father in the accident. We provided over 200 pages of information on the event that brought tears to the eyes of the requester.”
That’s not to say such queries are without challenges.
“The most challenging questions usually concern inquiries from former veterans who need information regarding their service in relation to Veteran’s Affairs claims,” said Casey Connell, another 18th Wing historian at Kadena. “Most need information about their service or personnel records that we do not have. So, when I am unable to answer an inquiry or find information someone is looking for, I get frustrated because I want to be able to help people and provide those answers they seek.”
Then there are those seemingly monumental queries into history that can come from up the command chain. Meyer said the most challenging and time consuming task he’s had to date was to research the possible whereabouts of B-29 Superfortress bombers downed in the waters off the islands of Tinian and Saipan between 1944 and 1946 during World War II.
“Most of those wrecks are too deep to dive and certainly not where the approximate locations were estimated by the accident reports,” he said. “The airmen back then didn’t have GPS and the currents certainly put them somewhere else on the ocean bottom.”
For many military historians, 120-day deployments are part of the job description. Challenging in their own right, the laborious task of compiling an official record of history is compounded by stringent deadlines, according to Connell, who deployed to Qatar last year with the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing.
“The primary job when working in a deployed environment is to write a ‘contingency’ history which covers the monthly activities of the wing,” he said. “It is a pretty intense environment writing history everyday with very tight timelines.”
Intense, yes, but although these historians are not the Indian Jones of their profession, it seems to beat working in a university or museum. Before Treiber was stationed in Japan he was assigned at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam. He has also deployed as a historian to Kuwait and Qatar. That is what attracted him to the job.
“After graduate school I was planning to teach at a university, but when I found out about the Air Force History and Museums Program I decided that that was the route I wanted to go,” Treiber said. “After all, as a college professor I would likely have spent my entire career in one location, whereas I knew the Air Force would send me around the world, which has proven to be the case.”
Q: What is one of the most fascinating pieces of history about your unit or facility?
A: I find the Korean War time frame for the 18th Wing the most interesting. As a fighter-bomber wing, our unit was at one time based in North Korea. Also we flew World War II-era aircraft on close air support missions during the war.
– James D’Angina, USAF 18th Wing historian;
Kadena Air Base, Okinawa
A: Many airmen here don’t know that North Field (now, Andersen Air Force Base) was built with segregated units of the all-black 1895th Engineer Aviation Construction Battalion and the all-white 894th Engineer Aviation Construction Battalion. I haven’t discovered yet if other World War II airfields in the Marianas were built with segregated units, but this is heritage that I’m still researching.
– Jeffrey Meyer, USAF 36th Wing historian;
Andersen Air Force Base, Guam
A: In May 1975 during the (Vietnam War’s) so-called Mayaguez Incident the wing(now the 374 AW) was tasked to drop six 15,000-pound BLU-82 “daisy cutter” bombs on Cambodia’s Koh Tang Island in order to create a landing zone in support of recovery efforts there. On 15 May the 374th launched four C-130s from Thailand, each carrying a single BLU-82, and one of planes successfully dropped its payload onto the island from 8,000 feet. The Mayaguez Incident was the last battle of the Vietnam War, and for a brief moment a seemingly mild-mannered airlift wing essentially became a bomb wing. Of course I say it like this for dramatic effect, since in reality the BLU-82 was, and continues to be, one of the C-130’s many capabilities. More important, though, is that most accounts of this incident, if mentioned at all, do not bother to say that it was the 374 TAW that dro pped the BLU-82.
– John Treiber, USAF 374th Airlift Wing historian;
Yokota Air Base, Japan
A: The Yongsan area has been used as an installation for foreign troops since the 13th century. When the Japanese and later the U.S. and the ROK armies occupied Yongsan it was an out of the way place. Over the last century, Seoul has expanded and now Yongsan is part of Seoul.
– Lewis Bernstein, command historian, United Nations Command; Combined Forces Command; U.S. Forces Korea, Yongsan Garrison