The Simple Truth is Truth Resists Simplicity (And So Does Research)

I had already put in a good deal of legwork on my project (refresher: “On the Warpath: In the Footsteps of the American Combat Infantry in the World Wars”) before it was approved. I already had a file folder with letters from around fifty Marines from which I could pull for World War I. As you may recall from my previous post I am also fortunate enough to have gained the resources of a small British nonprofit, The Friends of the Assault Training Center, whose archives include lists of units that passed through the ATC and into Normandy. I had already mostly mapped out the locations in which I was likely to stop off to hit archives, battlefields, memorials, and museums around Europe in quest of further information and material. This is a huge project to undertake, but I was feeling reasonably confident about my chances of success when I dove into more detailed research this week.

Back in the heyday of my academic career – back when I was young and naiive, and the realm of historical exploration was confined to plumbing the recesses of Swem Stacks for an acceptable print source to use in a final paper – I imagined research would be something like Gandalf, in a carrel in Minas Tirith’s public library, checking up on ancient lore regarding the One Ring. There would be massive, dusty books, loose sheafs of parchment/paper that would contain vital clues, and despite the massive overabundance of printed works in the world I would inevitably stumble upon exactly what I needed, where the answers to all my questions were explicitly laid out.

Those were simpler times. Now, of course, I’m much older and wiser and dipping my toes in the waters of true academia. I haven’t gotten into foreign archives yet, but this week has been my opportunity to sit down and get into the details of research planning. And boy, oh, boy, was I in for a surprise. I am still feeling pretty comfortable with my WWI Marines, as for all intents and purposes I’ve been in the trenches with them for nearly a year. My Army soldiers were proving to be a little more recalcitrant (classic Army), and I’ve been working furiously to get them to fall in line because I only have about a week and a half left of prep time. This endeavor, still only about three days in the making, has not been as glamorous as Gandalf would have me believe.  Instead it’s looked a lot like me, sitting at my desk, hunched over a laptop and being run around in circles by dead end archival searches, personnel files that have been destroyed, unit designations that have changed, and a thousand other minute stumbling blocks that have prevented me from getting very far.

Allow me to explain.

This summer I will quite literally be following the circa 100- and 70- year old footsteps of Marines and soldiers across central Europe. I will be using their letters to understand their situations relative to their environment and each other. To do this I need two things (well, these are the two most basic, essential things): unit orders and letters. The unit orders will tell me exactly where a unit was ordered to go (imagine that!), and the necessity of letters should be self-explanatory at this point. However in order to access unit orders I needed to figure out what unit I wanted to follow. This was relatively easy – I picked an Army infantry unit I knew had served with the Marines in WWI and who, by happy coincidence, had passed through the ATC in training in the spring of 1944. Done and done.

The brigade composition of this division had changed in the interwar period, however, throwing me for a loop. When I’d managed to chart out the changes in command, I had enough information to request muster rolls for the correct battalion/regiment, which would give me the names of letter-writing men I could track down. Finding muster rolls for the unit was then a matter of accessing personnel records. The necessity for personnel records led me to the National Personnel Records Center, Military Personnel Records (NPRC-MPR) in St. Louis, Missouri, which is the home of all military personnel records that post-date the turn of the 20th century. A bit of time spent in their database and request protocols led me to an asterisk at the bottom of a page. This asterisk redirected me to the story of the Great Fire of 1973, a conflagration so egregious it merited its own page on the NPRC-MPR’s site. This page led me to the discovery that records of 80% of the Army personnel discharged between November 1, 1912 to January 1, 1960 had been obliterated. For those keeping score at home, this eliminates not only the names of soldiers in WWII that I was seeking, but also any hope of cross-referencing that unit’s WWI incarnation with my Marines.

The U.S. Army Center of Military History’s unit histories contain no names. The U.S. Army War College Library and Archives don’t have an extensively digitized collection and it’s difficult to ascertain from a remote location what holdings they might possess that could help me. Further logistic planning of my European tour are contingent on having definitive locations for the men I’m tracking.

This isn’t the kiss of death for my research, of course – not by a long shot. It’s only been three days since I set about trying to track this information down in earnest. As a professional historian, you’ve got to give it at least a week before you throw in the towel.

War is complicated. The military is often complicated. The stories that I’m trying to tell and the narrative distance imposed by so many intervening years since the actual events introduce an incredible number of variables that make this project terrifyingly, thrillingly ambitious. In presenting “On the Warpath” I am one part historian, one part sleuth, one part storyteller driving right to the heart of the complexity that is humanity at war. Despite my frequently ardent wish it were so, why should any part of the research involved be simple?

You’ll hear from me again in June when I, too, invade France. Thanks for joining me on the adventure (also sticking with me through long blog posts)!