Last year, when Hurricane Irma, a monster Category 5 storm, barreled toward Florida’s southern peninsula and Homestead Air Reserve Base, The Air Force Reserve commander had a lot of decisions to make.

Thankfully, history – in the form of Air Force historians – was on her side.

The Air Force Historical Research Agency is the repository for Air Force historical documents. The Agency's collection, begun in Washington, DC, during World War II, moved in 1949 to Maxwell Air Force Base, the site of Air University, to provide research facilities for professional military education students, the faculty, visiting scholars, and the general public. It consists today of over 70,000,000 pages devoted to the history of the service, and represents the world's largest and most valuable organized collection of documents on US military aviation. Video // Andrew Arthur Breese

The Air Force Reserve Command history office pulled data and information from three previous hurricanes, including Hurricane Andrew, a Category 5, which devastated the base 25 years ago. In just a few hours, the office had a timeline and a list of issues that came up in each of the three previous storms. Historians worked through the data with the Innovation, Analyses and Leadership Development directorate, or A9, and determined that the biggest issue was maintaining communications as Andrew had continued into Georgia, knocking out power to the AFRC’s battle staff.

The commander and staff then worked to prevent history from repeating itself.

The results were good communications throughout the storm, clean up and reconstitution. The base opened airfield operations and sustained 24-hour operations, offloading 112.8 short tons of cargo and relief supplies, including two UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters, cargo and personnel from the 66th and 920th Rescue Squadrons and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Those “good comms” resulted in the AFRC coordinating aircraft, relief supplies, Airmen and equipment with the right skills and the right gear to save lives. In previous years, relief efforts were delayed because nobody could talk.

“Now, did History do all that?” asked Dr. Jim Malachowski, a senior aerospace historian for the Air Force History and Museums Program at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. “No but knowing what worked and didn’t work in the past gave her a good starting point to ask the right questions.”

Malachowski explained when the right knowledge is injected with historical perspective at the right point in the decision cycle it helps commanders make better decisions.

The history of Air Force history

Located in the heart of Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, is a gold mine and although it does not contain precious metals, the Air Force Historical Research Agency is filled with the world’s largest and most valuable organized collection of original documents concerning U.S. military aviation. The more than 100 million pages of Air Force history inside the repository chronicles the evolution of American military flight and provides a treasure trove of information for researchers, authors and historians.

While touching the pages of history is unique, said Malachowski, applying the historical lessons learned from the study of past wars is fundamental to the preparation for the next. This is why it is so crucial for the Air Force’s operational and institutional memory is preserved.

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a researcher with the Air Force Historical Research Agency
Sam Shearin, a researcher with the Air Force Historical Research Agency looks through World War II unit lineage documents, June 7, 2018, at Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base, Ala. There are more than 70 million pages devoted to the history of the service, and represents the world's largest and most valuable organized collection of documents on US military aviation.

U.S. Air Force photo // Tech. Sgt. Perry Aston

When he established the Army Air Forces (AAF) Historical Division in 1942, General Henry “Hap” Arnold, widely considered the architect of the Air Force, He assembled nine prominent historians from Yale, Princeton, Columbia, the University of Chicago, and Harvard and asked them how the Air Force should organize and run its history program. Following their recommendations, Arnold put trained historians in every unit to record history “while it is hot.” Historians had to be independent so history would be recorded accurately and factually “without an axe to grind.”

The collection of historical data for the Air Force began before the service’s inception, even pre-dating the Army Air Corps. Without a plan to preserve it, the bulk of airpower history from the First World War was lost. In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Committee on Records of War Administration to preserve an accurate and objective account of military experiences. By 1943 the AAF Archives had been established and historians began collecting, assimilating and organizing contemporary and historical information.

The creation of this archive dedicated to receiving, organizing and preserving the information gathered by these early historians has evolved into today’s collection.

The majority of AFHRA’s library consists of unit histories, written by unit historians, which chronicle Air Force operations and activities in peace and war from World War I to the present day. These materials provide the data and historical perspective to support planning and decision-making processes throughout the Air Force.

The archive was later moved to Maxwell AFB from Washington D.C., putting it in the direct control of the Air Force and at the disposal of professional military education students, faculty, and the public.

The history kept inside of AFHRA’s walls isn’t just sitting idle – it’s continually being added to, vigorously being researched and, most importantly, actively being interpreted by Air Force historians to get valuable information to leaders and decision makers to create a more efficient and lethal Air Force.

Collecting the data

Capturing Air Force history begins with aerospace historians. Today, there are just over 200 historians placed at wings and 10 major commands, which is 75 percent less than in 1990. Air Force civilians now fill all roles in collecting the history at wings and commands.

Air Force civilian and Reserve historians also support a continuous deployment rotation as combat historians to support combatant commands and joint staff taskings across the globe.

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A researcher at the Air Force Historical Research Agency, Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base, Ala., looks through microfilm
A researcher at the Air Force Historical Research Agency, Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base, Ala., looks through microfilm to track down the shipment history of bomber aircraft that were shipped overseas to fight during WWII, June 7, 2018, at Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base, Ala. Private researchers can visit and use the AFHRA for research.

U.S. Air Force photo // Tech. Sgt. Perry Aston

Dr. Bill Harris, the Deputy Director of the Air Force History and Museums Program, says whether at home station or deployed the most important aspect of a historian’s job is being actively involved in their organizations.

“What Aerospace historians bring to the table is we are the only person in the room whose sole job is to capture and preserve the institutional memory,” said Harris. “Just documenting the events of this war will not help the leaders of the next. We also interpret. So, in history professor terms, interpreting is how we help decision makers understand and learn from the past.”

Harris explains when historians are operationally integrated into situations they observe while also collecting and recording what happens, documenting the “right now for the future.” A historian will understand the organization’s history and have a deep knowledge base of the mission set. They recognize patterns and can provide a quick write-up to inject information to leadership on that highlights how other people have navigated similar situations before decisions are made this time.”

The first priority for field historians at the wing and MAJCOM level is to complete and submit an accurate periodic history report, which are the official history of an organization and serves as its institutional memory in AFHRA’s archive.

“To do the job, you have to get out there and be part of the mission, collect hundreds of important documents, reports, and emails and then figure out where the holes are., We do that with interviews.” said Malachowski. “Research interviews are more Q&A to find out what’s going on inside the organization. Oral history interviews are a little bit more in-depth interviews conducted with key personnel whose memories and perspectives are recorded for future generations.”

Job two for historians is heritage.

The Air Force history slogan is history makes us smart, heritage makes us proud.

In addition to a dozen field museums, historians often work within their organizations to build squadron heritage rooms and displays to showcase physical reminders of the unit’s historical past to promote morale and serve as daily reminders of a unit’s identity.

That identity is also visible in a unit’s heraldry. “Organizations use visible, enduring symbols to promote spirit de corps, morale and a sense of heritage,” said Jack Waid, a historian at Air Force Materiel Command Headquarters. “Air Force heraldry in the form of emblems gives Airmen a connection to the past and the motivation to live up to the proud lineage from which they come.”

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Air Force Historical Research Agency keeps a repository on the unit's emblem history
The Air Force Historical Research Agency keeps a repository on the unit's emblem history, including original and re-designed emblems and the paperwork approving the artwork.

U.S. Air Force photo // Tech. Sgt. Perry Aston

With the newly authorized transition from the Airman Battle Uniform, which did not permit the wear of unit patches, to the Operational Camouflage Pattern, Airmen will once again be to wear their units on their sleeve.

Waid explains it’s important to understand, emblems and patches are completely separate entities and authorization to display them is approved and maintained by different Air Force offices as well.

“Our office deals with a unit’s official emblem, but anything that goes on the uniform, like patches, are approved through the AF/A1 (Office of Personnel) uniform office,” said Waid. “A unit’s history and lineage goes with an emblem whereas a patch is a wearable symbol of pride, history, warrior spirit and honor.”

See more of ‘Preserving Air Force history’ on Flickr

With more than 7,000 emblems to convert into OCP patches, there is a huge demand for the production and supply chain. The Air Force estimates it will take the full-30 month OCP transition period to manufacture and distribute all the patches. For units with approved emblems, the MAJCOM/A1 office will notify them when their patches are ready to order.

Units without an approved emblem should contact their historian.

“Since June we have been doing everything in our control to help units make sure they have an accurate emblem,” said Waid. “More than two-thirds of AFMC’s units are without an emblem or possessing one that does not meet standards.”

“It is important to make sure the time-honored Air Force unit patch returns to the uniform properly so that units can display their heritage with pride. Wearing the squadron patch completes the family group, you have your name tape and then you have the greater family, the Air Force, but now these patches give Airman an opportunity to show how extended their family is and how rich their heritage is by wearing their unit’s emblem.”

Changing the paradigm

For decades, periodic history reports were written in narrative monograph format, a print-era framework that could reach hundreds of pages. It was long and time consuming to write and worse to search for answers. “Even with academic historians, the monograph just isn’t the answer anymore. Technology has changed, but our reports haven’t.” said Malachowski.

The Secretary of the Air Force recently directed that commanders would integrate their historians in operations at the wing-level and above and ensure they had access to data and information to complete timely history reports.

With fewer historians, a high-demand deployment schedule and mountains of data to ingest, historians have little time to write long, cumbersome reports and even less time if they want to be fully involved in their organizations.

Something had to change.

“With the help of the Air Force Survey Office, we asked more than 150 wing and group commanders what they needed from historians. The commanders are very adamant that they don’t want these hundred-page tombs. They want something much, much shorter because they don’t have whole lot of time and they want something focused more on their priorities,” said Harris.

A survey of historians said the same thing. Historians want to be more involved with their units and want a better process.

“If we lock ourselves away for half of our time to write we are not out in our units doing our job. So we have to refocus the writing and we have to improve our ability to put the right things into the archives for future researchers,” said Malachowski. “So all we can really do is record the present for the future and the real funny thing is it is exactly what Gen. “Hap” Arnold told us in 1943. He wanted us to record the present for the future. So we’re going back to the future, if you will.”

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General of the Air Force Henry H. Arnold
General of the Air Force Henry H. Arnold was a pioneer airman who was taught to fly by the Wright Brothers, and commander of Army Air Forces in victory over Germany and Japan in World War II. He established the Army Air Forces (AAF) Historical Division in 1942, when he assembled nine prominent historians from Yale, Princeton, Columbia, the University of Chicago, and Harvard and asked them how the Air Force should organize and run its history program. Following their recommendations, Arnold put trained historians in every unit to record history “while it is hot.”

Photo // USAAF

Arnold’s direction was to document the operations and activities of an organization immediately into a rough form that future historians would improve on. He believed the only reason a history program should exist is to further the operational efficiency of the Air Force.

The Air Force History program had to redesign itself in a dynamic new way and embrace change by revising their policies and revolutionizing their processes.

Now, a modular history report is being adapted that stresses accuracy, speed and relevance across the joint enterprise. It provides uniformity and consistency, which synchronizes history operations across the Air Force and focuses on unit activities and operations at the right level of warfare. This new system also creates one standard of writing for peacetime and wartime reports.

The four-part modular system reduces the writing complexity of history reports to a more short and concise process on what matters most to the commander, unit and mission. Short studies are written and published immediately, freeing up historians to be historians.

Another change is the creation of an Operational History Branch that is solely focused on war and contingency operations. All wartime history reports will be routed and evaluated through this fusion cell to write monthly and annual summaries that provide a holistic picture of combat operations.

“The way it’s designed the Operational Historian Branch will help us mature history at the Joint warfighting level, improve historical support to deployed commanders, and prevent several historians from deploying each year,” said Malachowski. “Most wings only have one historian so this saves us from turning out the lights at so many home station history offices.”

Focused on the past since its inception, the Air Force History Program has now reinvented itself by embracing its own past in order to create a more efficient future.