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When you find something old, who you gonna call? The base historian

  • Published
  • By Jill Pickett
  • AEDC Public Affairs

Recently, while working in one of the warehouses at Arnold Air Force Base, a team member found a box containing some old photos.

Looking through the photos, he realized they were from June 25, 1951 – the day then-President Harry Truman dedicated Arnold Engineering Development Center in honor of Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold, General of the Air Force, visionary and driving force behind the creation of AEDC.

Realizing what he had found, the team member asked what he should do with the photos to make sure they could be preserved and archived if needed.

While several of the found dedication photos have been published over the years, without knowing if every photo found is available in the AEDC archives, history could have been lost had the photos been discarded.

With more than 70 years of testing and evaluating military, government and commercial systems, other historical documents, photos and artifacts may also have been pushed to the backs of storerooms, shoved in desk drawers or forgotten about in lesser visited areas where they remain until someone comes across them and investigates what they are.

Over the years, as the use of areas has changed and personnel have come and gone, it is not a stretch to imagine others have made or may make similar finds. Preserving these items is important to future generations and continues the legacy of Arnold.

“Gen. Arnold created the Army Air Forces Historical Division in 1942 to record history, in his words, ‘while it is hot,’” said Dr. Deborah Kidwell, AEDC historian. “He consulted nine prominent historians from respected institutions of learning that included Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Harvard and the University of Chicago. Arnold asked the experts how the program should operate and be organized for accuracy, efficiency and integration. They recommended leadership place trained historians in every unit. Historians should be independent from command or other influences, the group recommended, to foster an accurate recording of facts, and in Gen. Arnold’s words, ‘without an axe to grind.’ These early historians captured the many unit histories and other collections that now reside in the Air Force Historical Research Agency at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama.”

Kidwell and other historians continue to grow the archives of the AFHRA through contributing unit histories and other documents. The archives, made up of more than 100 million pages, are open to researchers. An individual’s access to specific pages is based upon the content and the researcher’s affiliation and need to know. Each base historian decides what is historically significant and should be kept within the individual base archives and what is provided to the AFHRA.

“There is no specific definition of what makes an item historically significant in Air Force or Department of Defense instructions,” explained Kidwell. “Older working papers or other documents that might not have seemed worth archiving in the past, could be important from the standpoint of history and should be reviewed by the historian.”

Sometimes the preservation of history simply helps Airmen and the public remember how the Air Force became what it is today, but other times it can make a difference in finding the best path forward during a crisis.

Kidwell described such a situation that she learned about from the article, “Redefining History” in the Oct. 9, 2018, issue of Airman Magazine.

“In addition to informing commanders on decisions and topics of interest, history can also have a more practical side. When Hurricane Irma threatened to decimate Homestead Air Reserve Base in 2017, the history office provided the commander and his staff with information from three previous hurricanes, including Hurricane Andrew, which had devastated the base 25 years prior. Historians quickly shared a useful timeline and list of issues that had challenged those responding to similar past events. They informed the commander that maintaining communications was crucial as the hurricanes swept through Georgia. Understanding this, and other basic challenges, helped prepare a more focused response to the factors that had been problematic and to anticipate second and third order effects. This knowledge assisted to offload the more than 112.8 short tons of cargo and relief supplies needed while operating around the clock to repair and mitigate the destruction of the hurricane and to care for those affected by it.”

While images and text can be digitized and stored in significant quantities with today’s technology, artifacts take up more space. The decision to keep or discard an artifact is made by the staff of The National Museum of the Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.

Arnold Air Force Base is home to some of these artifacts. The Air Force aircraft on display at the Main Gate and Gate 2 of Arnold AFB are on loan from the National Museum of the Air Force and the Navy aircraft are on loan from National Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida.

If you find items, such as old documents, photos, film or other objects, that you think possibly have historical value, send an email to Kidwell asks that you include the following information:

  1. Size and number of boxes or approximate linear feet
  2. Exact location – address, building and room number
  3. Point of contact person – phone number and email

Requests are logged and will be responded to by the AEDC History Office as time permits. Kidwell asked for patience when waiting for a response and encourages those finding items to follow up if there are any additional questions.

“If you think a collection or found object might be historically significant, it’s worth sending an email about,” Kidwell said. “The more specific you are, the better History Office staff will be able to give feedback and ask further questions to help determine the find’s historical significance. It’s probably best to let us make the decision in most cases as we are the most trained and familiar with documents and artifacts at the base. If the collection will absolutely need to be removed by a certain date, the building is being torn down, for example, please be sure to indicate that in your email.”

What a base employee stumbles across in their endeavor to clean up or find a document for a current project may be a significant contribution to AEDC, and possibly Air Force, history.

“A short stroll through the National Museum of the Air Force will illustrate how important it has been for these items to be recovered, catalogued, evaluated and displayed,” Kidwell said. “Primary source documents might not be as flashy as the SR-71 Blackbird or other aircraft on display, but can be as significant and useful to commanders, curators, researchers and the public. Those documents abandoned in a scruffy box under the stairs may contain the information engineers need to explain the next physics dilemma – but that is a story for another day!”