Clio in Combat: The Evolution of the Military History Detachment

by Robert K. Wright, Jr.
The Army Historian, No. 6, Winter 1985, pp. 3-6

Military histories written by participants have been around at least since ancient Greece, and American efforts to gather and preserve battle details predate independence. In April 1775, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress prepared an official account of the engagement at Lexington through the use of oral interviews conducted in the field. The Lexington exercise was a precursor to the Army's use of military history detachment charged with the mission of gathering historic materials on the battlefield.

The military history detachments have their roots in the groundwork laid in 1918 with the creation of the Historical Branch of the War Plans Division within the Army's General Staff. Secretary of War Newton Baker directed this permanent historical activity to collect, index, and preserve the records generated during World War I, and to prepare a limited array of monographs. Its effectiveness was handicapped by the fact the Army did not have military historian assigned to the field during this period. The weakness in documentation uncovered during the work of the Historical Branch led directly to a 1929 regulation that is the ancestor of major portions of the current regulation governing, among other things, the military history detachments- AR 870-5.

World War II

World War II produced a major change in the Army's historical philosophy. Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy and Chief of Staff George C. Marshall determined that the Army would prepare a comprehensive account of the war and, in August 1943, created the Historical Branch in the Military Intelligence Division to supervise the work. A month later General Marshall tasked the branch with an additional mission: preparing a series of short monographs on selected combat actions for internal Army use- the fourteen volumes known today as the American Forces in Action series. The first test of this concept came when Lt. Col. S. L. A. Marshall, the spiritual father of military history detachments, went to the Pacific to cover the 7th Infantry Division's invasion of Makin. From his background in journalism, Colonel Marshall knew value of oral interviews. Conducted immediately after the action, his interviews filled in the inevitable gaps in the written records. His experiences as a staff officer told him that prompt collection and processing of historical materials could produce tactical "lessons learned" of immediate value to planners and commanders. These two pillars formed the basis determining the subsequent development of a military hi program. Colonel Marshall assembled a provisional team of two officers and one enlisted man in the Pacific in December 1943, and the new unit began operating three months later. In the interim, the theater historian in Europe learned of Marshall's experiment in the Pacific and laid plans to form teams of two officers and three enlisted men to provide historical support for each corps in this own theater of operations.

The Army institutionalized these experiments in April 1944 with the creation of Informal and Historical Service (I&HS) units, provided for centralized historical and public affairs support at the numbered army level of command, with each function carefully separated. Historical assignments were carried out by a lieutenant colonel who served as the senior historian and army command historian, a monograph unit consisting of one officer and two enlisted historians, and a clerk-typist, together with a flexible number of contact teams, each with two enlisted and two commissioned historians. The monograph unit was to produce General Marshall's Army Forces in Action booklets and the teams we to provide records retrieval and oral interview support to document specific divisional actions. A total of nine Information and Historical Service units appeared during the war, supplemented by thirty-six additional separate teams, twenty which supported the Army Air Force. The Army devoted some 300 officers and men to work in historical units.

Actual experiences of the historical unit revealed some deviations from the ideal. Each army commander exercised direct control over his I&HS and therefore tailored its work to me his own interests. One unit in the central Pacific


placed emphasis on furnishing lessons-learned data of use in current operations and relegated publication to secondary importance. Another inherited its personnel and primary emphasis from a provisional formation of historians the Fifth Army assembled to write a narrative history of that Army's operations. This unit, the 7th I&HS, carried out the task admirably, also producing several monographs, accumulating art and photographs, and collecting records.

Several major complaints emerged from this first experiment in military history units. Lack of clearly defined, centralized control over the units produced variety in quantity and quality of product. Not enough contact teams existed to ensure that every significant action received coverage. Personnel turnover (especially the demobilization of key individuals before the completion of projects), administrative, and transportation complications all interfered with missions. Finally, the late start in organizing units left a significant part of the war without coverage.

Post-World War II

In the reorganization following the end of World War II, the Army sought to correct the problems which had been uncovered. In the process it made significant alterations in the operational philosophy of military historians. The Office, Chief of Military History (OCMH), predecessor of the Center of Military History, emerged by 1950 as the locus of historical efforts, carrying out a wide array of publication projects, the most significant of which was the massive US Army in World War II series. One Information and Historical Service unit, the 2d, redeployed to the United States and remained on active duty until 1949. Twenty-six separate teams with the two-officer and two-enlisted structure provided a trained reservoir within the Organized Reserve Corps. These interim measures led to a complete separation of the history element from the public affairs activities. Tailored to the echelon of command being supported, the history unit placed primary emphasis on preparing special reports and conducting interviews, rather than on producing finished monographs. The reports would provide OCMH historians with raw data and also serve as a data base for immediate analysis within the theater.

By 1949, then, the military historical detachment had emerged in a form it would basically retain for more than thirty years. Under the new organization, the theater historian supervised but was not a member of a detachment. An "A team consisting of three historians (two officers, one noncommissioned officer), a clerk, and a driver provided support to the theater of operations through the theater historian and the theater communications zone. It exercised supervision over one or more "B" teams, each designed to support a corps and each consisting of one officer historian, a clerk, and a driver. The "C" team carried out division-level support with a similar organization, but was commanded by a captain instead of the major found in the "B" team.


Following the outbreak of the Korean War, the old units in the Organized Reserve Corps were disbanded, and the Army formed two "A", six "B", and four "C" teams. One "A" and three "B" teams deployed to Europe, the remainder to Korea. Plans assumed that enough "C" teams would be available to the Eighth Army to cover each division actually in line at any given moment. In practice, the intent of providing qualified historians for the detachments broke down badly as the war dragged on, as did direct contact between OCMH and the detachments. In January 1952, the theater historian consolidated all eight detachments in Korea at a centralized location, a move that greatly impeded the ability of the units to conduct interviews. Administrative burdens proliferated, more than doubling the time required to complete a report. The other major problem during this war involved the lack of support from line units, which had to be educated about the utility of history before they became fully responsive.

The end of the Korean War witnessed the inactivation of all of the detachments in Korea and the refinement of a new table of organization and equipment. Beginning in 1963, additional detachments were formed leading to a peak strength of thirty-five detachments within the Regular Army by the end of the decade: four in Europe, one in the United States, twenty-six in Vietnam, and four others elsewhere in the Pacific. The new table abandoned the Korean era experiment in tailoring and instead created a two-man detachment: an officer-historian and a clerk/driver. The detachments' primary mission continued to be gathering materials for OCMH, including using a bulky tape recorder for oral interviews, but they could occasionally prepare narrative monographs. All detachments were nominally assigned to the theater commander under the operational control of the theater historian.


In Vietnam, as in the previous wars, reality differed from the theoretical ideal. OCMH at-


tempted to provide training for individual officers prior to their assignment, and conducted a regular program of liaison visits and correspondence with the detachments in the field. The workings of the personnel system in Vietnam, however, frequently resulted in officers receiving assignments without the prior training. The judicious selection of enlisted men with historical backgrounds to fill the clerk positions helped to ameliorate this problem, as did periodic visits by OCMH historians. A far more significant issue was the tactical deployment of the detachments themselves. Policy called for each corps, division, separate brigade, armored cavalry regiment, or equivalent headquarters to have one detachment attached to it. Each major commander was therefore able to determine the tasks the detachment carried out and to place it anywhere he chose within his headquarters. Some detachments were

Field Interviewing, 18th MHD, Cambodia, 1970.

used merely as additional personnel within the Operations (G-3) sections; others were ignored. A lucky few received command support and worked through the commands' chiefs of staff. Depending on these variables, the quality of the product ranged from excellent to poor, and the size of a detachment could be anywhere from two to eleven persons. As in World War II, much depended on the initiative of the detachment commander.

Since Vietnam, the Army has revised its program yet again. Only one military history detachment is currently maintained at full strength in the Regular Army, with two others in Europe nominally active but unfilled. These are backed by a dozen detachments formed in the Army Reserve in 1967 and 1968, and by four others in the Army National Guard added in 1980. Each detachment now has one officer and two enlisted personnel.

What Needs To Be Done

The present military history detachments are the product of forty years of evolution. They retain their original mission: collecting and preserving the data the Center of Military History needs for official histories. The detachments ensure written records prepared by individual units are complete and are retired through proper channels. They also identify gaps in those records and fill them with interviews, after-action reports, and monographs. The mission is clear, as is this program's value to the Center and the Army.

On the other hand, military history detachments continue to face many of the same problems that surfaced in previous wars. The Center of Military History needs to maintain quality control and direction of the historical program. Yet each detachment must have access and information which can only come if it becomes an accepted part of the organization for which it is responsible. In World War II and Vietnam decentralization met the second need, but produced uneven results. Overly tight control in Korea proved worse.

The Army assumes that each separate unit down to the brigade level will need the support of a military history detachment. Deployment plans will use the present seventeen detachments in initial phase, and form others in a full mobilization. Current Army plans "pool" several detachments meets at the corps or army level under the supervision of the theater historian. This approve creates two immediate problems. Pooling, as Korea demonstrated, robs the detachments of direct contact with combat units. It also prevents a detachment from concentrating its peacetime training on any specific set of probable operations, such as mechanized combat, rear area logistics, or airmobile operations. The lack of specific assignments also leads to low deployment priority and prevents the detachment from establishing a working relationship with the combat units, both important factors in avoiding the gaps in coverage that occurred at the start of earlier conflicts.

We need to refine Army planning for military history detachments. Existing detachments should be aligned with specific early-deploying units and train closely with them in peacetime. Attachment to the supported unit-but retention of operational control by the theater historian-produces the balance missing in earlier conflicts. Furthermore, we should return to the Korean-era


concept of tailoring. The current detachment, possibly augmented with a second officer and modern tape recorders, can adequately support units up to the division-level. A slightly larger one would cover a corps headquarters and coordinate the detachments working with corps units. Each theater army requires more specialized support. A detachment with three officers, a warrant officer, and five enlisted men working directly for the theater historian provides manpower for theater-level coverage, as well as experts to assist the subordinate detachments in technical areas.

The theater army-corps-division arrangement solves more than the lingering question of adequate historical coverage. By identifying specific needs, it opens the door for a more efficient use of personnel resources. It enhances the value of the current Forces Command/Center of Military History training cycle, especially if a new field manual is issued to cover military history detachment operations. Using the lessons of the past will provide the Army with a capability it has sought since 1943: trained, professional historians working on the battlefield to support battlefield commanders and their colleagues at the Center of Military History. The people are out there; their skills need only to be properly organized and used.

Dr. Wright is a Center historian and commander of the 116th Military History Detachment, Virginia Army National Guard.