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Today’s post is written by Daniel Dancis, an archivist at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland.
As most of the eastern seaboard is experiencing record setting low temperatures this week, it is timely to look back at a letter written by then-Senator Joseph R. Biden, Jr. to the Office of the Sergeant At Arms of the United States Senate.
In the letter, dated November 30, 1983, the Delaware Senator gives precise details about the uncomfortably low temperatures inside the Boggs Federal Building, where he and his staff perform their duties. He goes on to diagnose the problem and request a solution. A follow up letter from the General Services Administration explains the temperature settings and action taken in response to the Senator’s letter, including correcting a drafty window.
This letter struck a chord with me as I came across it while working in the temperature-controlled stacks at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) building in College Park, MD. Controlling temperature and humidity is very important for preserving records and extending their lifetime, something that is given a lot of attention at NARA. It can also lead to energy savings as detailed in this paper by our Preservation Staff.
While this might be of little comfort to Senate office workers from 1983, I am warmed by the thought that every effort is made to protect our nation’s records, even if it means that I wear an extra layer of clothing when I’m processing them.
This correspondence and other congressional correspondence can be found in Reading Files Pertaining to Congressional Correspondence of the Office of Congressional Affairs, 1979-1983 (Entry A1 28), RG 269: General Records of the General Services Administration (GSA), 1922-1989, 1994.
Today’s post was written by Dr. Greg Bradsher and Dr. Sylvia Naylor, archivists at the National Archives in College Park. This post is also featured on our Rediscovering Black History blog.
In April 1945 the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion received orders to move to the West Coast for a special assignment. Members of this all African American unit hoped to finally see combat during World War II in the Pacific Theater of Operations.
The battalion had its origins in a recommendation made in December 1942 by the Advisory Committee on Negro Troop Policies, chaired by the Assistant Secretary of War, John J. McCloy. Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall approved the committee’s recommendation for a black parachute battalion. He decided to start with a company, which resulted in the constitution of the 555th Parachute Infantry Company on February 25, 1943. Headquarters, Army Ground Forces authorized the activation of the company as an all-black unit with black officers as well as black enlisted men on December 19, 1943. All unit members were to be volunteers from other organizations, with an enlisted cadre to be selected from personnel of the African American 92nd Infantry Division (the Buffalo Division which went on to serve with distinction in Italy in 1944 and 1945) at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. The company was officially activated on December 30, 1943 at Fort Benning, Georgia. In mid-July 1944, after several months of training, the company departed for Camp Mackall, North Carolina (south of the town of Southern Pines). It was reorganized and redesignated on November 25, 1944 as Company A of the newly-activated 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion. This battalion, under the command of Capt. James H. Porter, consisted of ten officers and 155 enlisted men.
16 Soldiers who recently became paratroopers of the 555th at Ft Benning (NAID 535719)
In December 1944, the organization was instructed to detail to the Parachute School, Fort Benning, Georgia, for parachutist qualification training. Training took place during December and the early months of 1945.
While battalion members were undergoing training at Fort Benning during the winter of 1944-1945, the War Department was facing a new Japanese threat to the West Coast. The Japanese military had begun launching incendiary-bearing balloons from Japan, which were carried eastward by high-altitude air currents. By early December 1944, there had been several discoveries of balloons on American soil, including:
- the recovery of a rubberized-silk balloon from the ocean near the coast of California on November 4
- the recovery of a paper balloon from the water near Hawaii on November 14
- the report of a mysterious bomb explosion in Wyoming on December 6
- and the finding of a second paper balloon in Montana on December 11
Officials of the U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation began an investigation of the source and purpose of the free balloons, which determined that the balloons had come from Japan and carried bombs and incendiaries. On January 29, 1945, the Assistant Chief of Staff, G-2 issued “General Report No. 1 on Free Balloons and Related Incidents,” in which it was noted that there had been found in the United States, Canada, Alaska, and Hawaii ten balloons believed to be of Japanese origin and that a number of other incidents and sightings possibly related, had been reported.
While the military authorities were trying to figure out how to deal with the balloon threat, the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion received orders in March from higher headquarters to have some of the personnel undertake eight weeks of training for a probable combat mission.
By the spring of 1945, there was growing concern regarding the Japanese balloon threat in the American West. The Military Intelligence Service reported 17 balloon incidents in March and another ten in April. On April 7, the Commanding General, Army Service Forces (ASF) wrote the Assistant Chief of Staff, G-3 (Operations Division) with proposals for combating forest incendiaries caused by Japanese balloons in the United States. The Assistant Chief of Staff, G-3 wrote the Commanding General, ASF on April 21 that the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion would be assigned to fire-fighting duty. Thus, after four weeks of a scheduled eight-week combat training program, the battalion was notified that it was being given “a security mission in the western portion of the United States.” They were not informed of the nature of the mission.
On May 2 the Assistant Chief of Staff, G-3 informed the Commanding General, ASF that the request of the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service for the use of military personnel for the purpose of combating forest fires from on or about June 1 to October 30 had been approved. The 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion would be utilized in accordance with certain instructions, including continuing combat training when not engaged in fire-fighting. In May the War Department designated “Firefly Project” as the short title for the military assistance to Federal and State Forest Fire Protective Agencies in the control of forest and grass fires in accordance with current Service Commands Fire Fighting Plans and the Western Defense Command-Fourth Air Force-Ninth Service Command, “Joint Air and Ground Assistance Forest Fire Fighting Plan.”
The 555th was scheduled to leave Camp Mackall for the Pendleton Army Air Field, Oregon, on May 5. That same day around 5:20pm, ten miles northwest of Bly, Oregon, on Wooded Ridge (in the Quartz Pass area) Mrs. Elaine Mitchell, her husband, five children and two employees came across a balloon while on their way to Fishing Stream. The bomb attached to the balloon exploded when one person unwittingly kicked or dropped it. The explosion killed Mrs. Mitchell and the five children. An investigation determined that the balloon was grounded approximately one month before recovery.
On May 5 the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion departed for Pendleton. The battalion was assigned the mission of the recovery and destruction of Japanese balloon bombs, with the added mission of the suppression of forest fires started by the bombs, as part of the “Firefly Project.”
Parachuting civilian personnel into areas to fight forest fires was a relatively new fire-suppression technique. “Smoke jumping” had been first proposed in 1934 by a Forest Service Intermountain Regional Forester, as a means to quickly provide initial attack on forest fires. By parachuting in, self-sufficient firefighters could arrive fresh and ready for the strenuous work of fighting fires in rugged terrain. The smoke jumper program began in 1939 as an experiment in the Pacific Northwest Region, and the first fire jump was made in 1940 on Idaho’s Nez Perce National Forest.
On May 7 the Secretary of War wrote the commanding generals of all the major American Commands, the commanding officers of all appropriate posts, camps and stations within the Seventh and Ninth Service Commands, and the Provost Marshal Generals that:
Japanese balloons have been appearing over the western part of the continental United States during the last several months. It is probable that these mechanisms will drop quantities of incendiary bombs in the great forest regions and the watershed areas of Alaska and western Canada and the United States. Unless controlled, the resulting fires will cause great damage to vital natural resources and impede seriously the war effort of the nation.
The Secretary of War reported that the Forest Service was fully aware of the hazardous potentialities of the balloon-dropped incendiaries and that it had informed the War Department that the most critical season for forest, brush, and grassland fires could be expected to extend from May 15 to October 30. Additionally, the various Federal, State and local forest fire protection agencies were normally prepared to cope with such fires, but during the coming fire season of 1945 these agencies would not be able to adequately discharge their responsibility, “particularly in the face of the increased hazard resulting from Japanese incendiaries.” This was due to several reasons, including the loss of personnel to the war effort and below normal precipitation in the threatened areas, which resulted in an extremely flammable condition. Thus, the Secretary of War laid out the policies and procedures for the U.S. Army to work with the Forest Service during the forthcoming fire seasons.
The 555th arrived at the Pendleton Army Air Field on May 12 and was assigned to Headquarters Ninth Service Command, Fort Douglas, Utah. From May 12 to May 22, the battalion was engaged in a minimum of military training, as the battalion’s freight arrived at Pendleton some two weeks later. In anticipation of carrying out its mission assignment, the battalion placed renewed emphasis on physical conditioning, leadership, first aid, and map reading.
The battalion was located on an army air base, and there was a severe lack of training facilities for any type of ground-troop training, such as firing ranges, training areas, and parade grounds. During this period, the 555th coordinated with other “Firefly Project” agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service, Ninth Service Command, and Fourth Air Force, in an effort to establish procedures regarding the use of the battalion in fighting fires.
From May 22 to June 6, personnel were introduced by the Forest Service to the scope of the technique of foreign fire suppression and the use of Forest Service maps. From June 8 to June 15, bomb disposal personnel from the Ninth Service Command conducted a “bomb disposal school.” From June 18 onwards the battalion took part in jumps, some of which were in heavy timber. Emphasis was put on training of six officers and ninety-four enlisted men to be placed on detached service at Chico Army Air Field in California. This was accomplished and the detachment departed Pendleton via military aircraft, and arrived at Chico on July 7. The Chico Detachment (as the detachment was designated) was assigned the mission of covering California, western portions of Nevada, Arizona, and the southern portion of Oregon.
“Smoke Jump” training for the remainder of the battalion continued through July 14, by which time, the majority of the battalion was qualified as “Smoke Jumpers.” This training continued, with improvements made in “Smoke Jumping techniques.” When eighty percent of the personnel had been thoroughly trained, the members of the 555th working out of Pendleton battalion were assigned the mission of covering Montana, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington.
The first fire call for the Pendleton group came on June 21, 1945. Fifty men were sent to Deschutes National Forest and they remained there until June 25. Fifty men were sent to Wenatchee National Forest on July 3 and another fifty to Chelan National Forest on July 8. On July 13, 100 men were sent to Wenatchee National Forest and on July 20 another fifty-five men were sent to Meadow Lake National Forest. Two days later fifty-four men were sent to Colville National Forest and on July 28, 104 men were sent to Chelan National Forest. The battalion would respond during August and September to twelve more calls for help, including Bitter Root, Cabinet, Salmon, Fayette, Siskiyou, Whitman, Mt. Baker, Chelan, and Wallowa National Forests.
General Order No. 9, 7/23/1945
General Order No. 9, 7/23/1945
Reports from two August operations should give the reader a sense of the battalion’s activities. At 5pm on August 21 the battalion received a call for help with a fire at Mt. Baker National Forest. The next morning, thirty-four enlisted men and two officers, under the command of 2nd Lt. Walter Morris, dropped into a meadow, 1,000 yards from the fire. Three men were injured. After evacuating the injured men, one officer and twenty-five men departed for the fire line at noon on August 24, and returned to camp at 5:30pm. Rations arrived by pack train from the meadows. Rain that night and the next day was enough to cool the fire down. A fire line was completed on August 25 and the next day at 6pm they were relieved from their assignment. At 6:30am on August 27 the group marched out of camp. By 4pm they had marched twenty-three miles to the end of the trail, where they got on a bus that took them to Paine Field, Everett, Washington, arriving there just before 8pm. They were assigned quarters and given rations at Paine Field. They departed via a C-47 from Paine Field the next morning at 9am and arrived back at the Pendleton Army Air Field at 11am.
While the above operation was underway, another began. At 9pm on August 22, the battalion was alerted about a fire at Chelan National Forest (which then also included the Okanogan National Forest). At 3pm the next day one officer (2nd Lt. William F. Buford) and twenty-one enlisted men dropped in a drop zone some eight-hours march from the fire. Several of the men were injured in the drop. At 6am on the following morning the group marched eight hours up “impossible mountainous terrain” before arriving at a camp site. They left behind two men injured on the jump and one man suffering from acute indigestion, who were picked up two days later by a pack train.
Upon arrival, the men discovered that there was no food or bed rolls waiting for them. This food and equipment was supposed to have been dropped the morning of August 24. The men were deployed in two groups and immediately set out to curb the fire. Breakfast and supper were served in the fire camp, once food was brought up by pack train. For two nights the men were forced to sleep in the driving rain without cover. Two men were injured the evening of their arrival at the fire camp, and were sent out the following morning by pack train. The majority of the men were fighting the fire in Canada in an effort to prevent the fire from coming into U.S. territory. The fire was actually under control two days prior to their departure. However, the men were sent out every day in mopping up operations and on August 28 three men were selected to go deep into Canada along some ridges to make a ground reconnaissance of the fire. “This was an extremely hazardous and fatiguing operation.” At 8:15 on August 29, the men proceeded 15 miles on foot, accompanied by three horses, to Pasayten airport. They arrived back at Pendleton Army Air Field at 6pm that day.
The Chico Detachment answered its first fire call at Klamath National Forest on July 14 with fifty-four enlisted men and two officers. This detachment covered seventeen fire calls from July 14 to October 10 in the Klamath (July, August), Trinity (August, September, October), Modoc (August, October), and Mendocino (August, September) National Forests. Its largest operation was at Trinity National Forest from October 6 to 10, when 75 men participated.
In all the battalion completed 36 missions involving 1,255 jumps. An accident resulted in the death of one of the men, a medic, who died on August 9, while attempting a let-down from a tree at Siskiyou National Forest near Roseburg, Oregon. More than thirty suffered injuries.
Click here to view a video of the 555th Training Exercises. National Archives Identifier 14605, RG 111.
On September 2, 1945, the Western Defense Command notified the War Department that it was curtailing defensive operations against the Japanese balloons. Two weeks later, the War Department informed the Western Defense Command that activities against Japanese free balloons in areas of Seventh, Eight, and Ninth Service Commands would be limited. Future actions would involve the recovery of all balloons or parts thereof which were discovered and the disposal by qualified bomb disposal personnel of Japanese bombs and other explosive elements which had been dropped from, or landed with, the balloons.
The Forest Service greatly appreciated the help of the military in fighting fires during the summer of 1945. In his fiscal year 1946 annual report, the Chief of Forest Service noted that his agency had been severely handicapped by the fact that national forest-fire organizations were seriously weakened by the shortage of trained men and fire-fighting labor and by deterioration of equipment kept in operation during the war years beyond its normal life. He added that
Generous assistance from military forces helped to offset some of these difficulties. The ‘firefly’ project, in which the Army cooperated with Forest Service and State protection forces by assignment of parachute troops, was a valuable aid. The project was set up on the west coast to meet the threat of Japanese incendiary balloons. The Japanese abandoned their balloon barrage before the season of greatest fire danger, but the ‘firefly’ project proved invaluable in strengthening the fire-fighting forces of the west coast when fire conditions became critical. The project was disbanded late in the fall of 1945.
In his fiscal year 1945 report, he stated that the Japanese incendiary bombs had “caused no fires of consequence.” In a press release prepared early in 1946, the Army’s Bureau of Public Relations noted that of some 9,000 balloons had been released by the Japanese, the last being on April 20, 1945. A total of 191 paper balloons and three rubberized-silk balloons, all of Japanese origin, were found in the United States, Canada, Alaska, Mexico, and the Pacific Ocean area during the period from November 1944 to February 1946. In addition, there were 89 recoveries of small fragments of paper or other balloon parts, too incomplete to be classed as a balloon. The press release stated that “negligible damage was caused by the incendiaries’ the only fires resulting being one or two small grass fires,” and stressed the following:
The Japanese expected that information on damage caused by the balloons would be available from normal press channels and radio broadcasts. However, after the first mention of the original balloons found, the press and radio of the United States and Canada maintained a very complete voluntary censorship at the request of the Army and navy through the Office of Censorship, and thus denied the Japanese information as to the numbers of balloons arriving and the landing points.
The press blackout regarding the balloons also had the effect of diminishing the news about the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion’s mission and activities. Nevertheless, the battalion was proud of its accomplishments on the west coast. “We didn’t win any wars, but we did contribute,” Former 1st Sergeant Walter Morris recalled in 2000. “What we proved was that the color of a man had nothing to do with his ability.”
In October 1945, the battalion returned to Camp Mackall, and was assigned to the 27th Headquarters and Headquarters Special Troops, First U. S. Army, Fort Bragg, North Carolina. In December the battalion moved to Fort Bragg and was assigned to the 13th Airborne Division. The division was inactivated on February 26, 1946. The combat personnel, including the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, were transferred to the command of the elite 82nd Airborne Division, under Maj. Gen. James M. Gavin, who one former member of the battalion described as “perhaps the most ‘color-blind’ Army officer in the entire service.”
On the morning of December 15, 1947 the battalion was ordered to march to an area designated for the 82nd Airborne Division. There, according to Charles Stevens, a former member of the battalion, they were to participate in one of the most significant milestones in military history. In battalion formation they were informed that they were being inactivated and that most of its personnel would be assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division’s 3rd Battalion, 505th Airborne Infantry Regiment. “Everybody was crying,” Stevens said. “I think we were crying for two different reasons. We were glad that segregation was leaving the Army and we were sad we were losing our Triple Nickle colors” ["Triple Nickles” was the nickname given the battalion]. It was not until seven months later that President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981 (NAID 300009), establishing equality of treatment and opportunity in the Armed Services for people of all races, religions, or national origins.
The efforts of the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion have been recognized by various means over the past two decades. In 1994, several surviving members of the battalion were honored as guests on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. during a celebration for Smokey Bear’s 50th birthday. In June 2000, at Redding, California, surviving members took part in the 60th anniversary commemoration of the establishment of the Smoke Jumpers. In 2005, when General David Petreaus became commander of the Combined Arms Center and Fort Leavenworth, he proposed a tribute to the battalion. The result was a monument dedicated to the battalion, located by the Buffalo Soldier Monument. In the dedication ceremony on September 7, 2006, General Petreaus said “These great paratroopers walked point for their race and for our country, facing down discrimination by standing in the door as one and jumping into our nation’s history.” Along the sculpture’s base is that statement, along with the 17 original members’ names. In February 2013, the Forest Service honored the 555th by naming a conference room after the Triple Nickles in its newly renovated Yates Building, the agency’s national headquarters office in Washington, D.C.
The 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion personnel, like most African American soldiers during World War II, faced various forms of prejudice and discrimination. The unit personnel overcame these hurdles and proved themselves to be excellent paratroopers and soldiers. This story is covered on numerous websites, including the Center of Military History; the official website of the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion; and “How Black Smokejumpers Helped Save the American West,” a National Public Radio blog published January 22, 2015. An article by Don Thompson in The Seattle Times on June 25, 2000 entitled “First black paratroopers fought racism, fires” and the article “Jumping into History: The Army’s First African American Paratroopers,” in the February 3, 2014, issue of Soldiers: The Official U.S. Army Magazine.
File: Japanese Free Balloons (NAID 1410829), Subject Correspondence File 1942-1945, G-2, Section, General Staff, Records of Army Ground Forces, Record Group 337
File: INBN-555-03, Narrative, Unit Data-555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, 25 November 1944-November 1947, World War II Operations Reports, 1941-1948 (Entry 427, NAID 305275), Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1917-, Record Group 407
File: INBN-555-(1), General Orders-555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, 1944-1947, World War II Operations Reports, 1941-1948 (Entry 427, NAID 305275), Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1917-, Record Group 407.
Various files filed under the decimal AG 452.4 in the Classified Decimal File 1943-1945, Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1917-, Record Group 407.
“A Report on Japanese Free Balloons,” Joint Army-Navy Release, For Release on February 9, 1946, Press Branch, Bureau of Public Relations, War Department, File: 000.7 Press Releases, Newspaper Clippings, and Releases, Vol. II, Central Correspondence, 1942-1946, Wartime Civil Control Administration and Civil Affairs Division, Western Defense Command and Fourth Army, Records of U.S. Army Defense Commands (World War II), Record Group 499.
Report of the Chief of the Forest Service 1945 (Washington, D.C.: United States Department of Agriculture, 1945)
Report of the Chief of the Forest Service 1946 (Washington, D.C.: United States Department of Agriculture, 1946)
TAGS 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion
, Advisory Committee on Negro Troop Policies
, Bitter Root National Forest
, Cabinet National Forest
, Capt. James H. Porter
, Chelan National Forest
, Chico Detachment
, Colville National Forest
, Deschutes National Forest
, Fayette National Forest
, Firefly Project
, Forest Service
, Fort Benning
, Greg Bradsher
, Japanese Balloon Bombs
, Japanese Fire Balloons
, Japanese Free Balloons
, Japanese Free-Flight Balloons
, Klamath National Forest
, Meadow Lake National Forest
, Mt. Baker National Forest
, Nez Perce National Forest
, Parachute School
, Salmon National Forest
, Siskiyou National Forest
, smoke jumper
, smoke jumping
, Sylvia Naylor
, Wenatchee National Forest
, Western Defense Command
, Whitman National Forest
Today’s post is written by Cody White, an archivist at the National Archives at Denver.
Strolling the two Western American Art galleries at the Denver Art Museum one can see several examples of famed western artist Charles Marion Russell’s depictions, in both paint and bronze, of the American West, but Russell’s work can also be seen in our collection as evidenced by two recent and otherwise unrelated finds.
In 1941 the Office of Price Administration (OPA) was created to control prices and rents while the country was at war. The OPA had the authority to place ceilings on the prices of goods, except agricultural commodities, and to ration supplies of other items such as tires, cars, nylon, gasoline, and foods such as meat and sugar. Record Group 188, Records of the Office of Price Administration, is comprised of case files, correspondence, and other administrative documents that helped the field offices ensure compliance with price regulations. Along with the formal documents, however, is ephemera sent along to the agency as evidence, and it is in one such instance where we see several examples of Charles Russell’s sketches. The Rainbow Hotel in Great Falls, Montana, where Russell’s studio and home were located, used various Russell drawings along with a short biographical note on their lunch and dinner menus. The three examples seen in this blog entry were sent to the OPA on April 5, 1946.
The Park Saddle Horse Company, at one time the sole horse and outfitting concessioner at Glacier National Park, didn’t survive the lean WWII war years and folded shortly after, but their vibrant company letterhead survives in our collection today. With a grand western motif typical for many companies here in our region at the time, the Park Saddle Horse Company adorned their letterhead with not only a western image but one drawn by Charles Russell. This letter can be found in Record Group 75, Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and was sent to the Flathead Indian Agency concerning payment of leases. According to a 2006 book Russell designed this letterhead himself for the Park Saddle Horse Company and shortly thereafter the company’s president, G.W. Noffsinger, used the very first copy to write a thank you letter to Russell. He opened with “My dear Charley: Well here it is and isn’t it a winner” and went on in his post script to note how he felt the poem went with the drawing so well but didn’t know if Russell had written it.
RG 188 Records of the Office of Price Administration, “Helena District Office Case Files, 1943-1946” Box 66, Series NAID 1104455
RG 75 Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Flathead Indian Agency “Subject Files, 1907-1945,” Box 106, Series NAID 583581
Today’s post was written by Dr. Greg Bradsher, Senior Archivist at the National Archives in College Park.
As December 1944 ended and January 1945 began, the German counteroffensive in the Ardennes (Battle of the Bulge) was two weeks old and the Allied forces had stopped the German effort to cross the Meuse River and capture Antwerp. But the German forces were not defeated and were not withdrawing back to the Siegfried Line in Germany, from whence the attack had been initiated on December 16. On January 3, 1945, the First U.S. Army attacking from the north of Belgium and the Third U.S. Army attacking from the south of Belgium, from the Bastogne area, started their own counterattack to push the Germans out of the salient they had created in Belgium. During the fighting around Stavelot and Malmedy in mid-January further destruction was visited upon these towns. Both had already faced devastation in mid-December.
At the end of January the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFA&A) specialist officers with the First U.S. Army, Captain Walker K. Hancock and Captain Everett P. Lesley, Jr., who spent the whole month in Belgium, visited both Stavelot and Malmedy to inspect damage to cultural property. They found, as they would note in their monthly report, that the center of Malmedy had been completely destroyed by artillery fire and that they were told looting had been prevalent. As for Stavelot, they noted that looting and wanton damage took place, but they had found it impossible to ascertain by what troops, at what time. In their report, dated February 1, 1945, Hancock and Lesley observed that the post-occupational situation at Stavelot and Malmedy, had brought into sharper focus more than ever before certain very basic problems common to MFA&A work: it was geographically and chronologically impossible for the officers working in the field to cover, prior to, during, and after operations, all the monuments [e.g., historic buildings] falling within their jurisdiction. Certain responsibilities had, they wrote, devolved upon Corps and Division G-5 (Civil Affairs) Sections, and Civil Affairs Detachments assigned to given localities, but that the fulfillment of the responsibilities in an emergency, or during rapid movement, must often wait upon other, more urgent matters, such as public health, public safety, food and transportation. Yet, by the time a given military situation has subsided sufficiently to make possible the posting of “off-limit” signs to buildings, writing of reports, and other duties required by handbooks and instructions, much irreparable damage may have been done.
They observed that it would not be advantageous to increase the dissemination of printed matter regarding MFA&A activities to the Civil Affairs Detachments, which already had more printed matter than was convenient to handle, and it was manifestly impossible for a single officer attached to an entire Army to prepare breakdown lists of monuments to cover all the constantly changing unit areas. They added:
There remains only one means by which the MFA&A Specialist Officer in the field can, in a measure, prevent the reoccurrence of such incidents as those of Stavelot and Malmedy. He must be free to work, for longer periods at a time, with the commanders of Corps, Divisions, and Regimental Combat teams, in advance of and during operations. There he could make preliminary pinpointing, in conjunction with tactical commanders at lower echelons, of monuments within their areas and accompanying, if feasible, the commander of these echelons during operations, in order to post, protect, appraise, or inventory monuments. As an answer to the problem of covering an entire Army area during a rapid operation we further suggested the feasibility of designating a particular member of the Corps G-5 Staff to consult with the MFA&AA office to pinpoint monuments in the anticipated corridor of operations.
In order to accomplish this, they added, more latitude of movement was absolutely necessary, and observed that:
The MFA&A officers represent a service both unparalleled and unprecedented in the U.S. Army, one which cannot easily be processed through traditional channels. It is unrealistic to assume that the duties so uniquely theirs will or can be carried out by others. The need for the MFA&A Specialist Officers is to be on the spot at the time danger to monuments is imminent, or damage is taking place. All tactical commanders with whom the undersigned have conferred are unanimous in agreeing that the place for the MFA&A Specialist Officer is in the advance, not rear, of tactical operations.
Several days after writing their report, the commanding general of the First U.S. Army, gave Hancock and Lesley the latitude of movement they had urged be given.
In his report on the work of the Monuments Men during January 1945, British Lt. Col. Geoffrey Webb, in charge of the Supreme Commander Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) MFA&A operations, wrote that “The most insistent problem facing this Section [G-5, SHAEF] in January had been the billeting question-especially in Belgium.” He observed that the reports of First U.S. Army, especially those dealing with conditions in Malmedy, Stavelot and at the Chateau de Modave, showed the nature of the military use and billeting problems in its most aggravated form. Webb noted that Hancock and Lesley had come to the very natural conclusion that little help could be expected from non-specialist Civil Affairs officers dealing with the conditions such as those which prevailed in Malmedy and Stavelot and, that in such circumstances, the only course was for the MFA&A officers to be well forward themselves. He added that the directives, under which the MFA&A officers with Armies worked were formed to give wide scope for such adjustments, and the officers with First U.S. Army availed themselves of this latitude to initiate a practice [i.e., being on the spot to take corrective action with respect to unauthorized billeting in historic buildings] which it was hoped would go far to prevent such unfortunate occurrences in the future.
At the end of January, Lt. Gen. Omar N. Bradley, head of the 12th Army Group, wrote the G-5s of his four Armies (First, Third, Ninth, and Fifteenth) regarding the MFA&A Specialist Officers. After referring to the various handbooks, directives, and instructions, and mentioning their attachment to G-5s for MFA&A work, he instructed that G-5s would utilize these officers to the best advantage in the areas for which they were responsible. These officers, he wrote, to be informed, would need to make inspections of the listed and other important monuments and collections in the areas of the commands to which they were assigned or attached, and to keep acquainted with conditions in such areas from the time of occupation by elements of such commands. These officers, he instructed, would advise the G-5s, concerning monuments and collections not on the Official List of Protected Monuments which need to be exempted from military use or to have special protection.
Bradley also wrote that as a measure contributing to the eventual restitution of works of art and objects of a scientific or historical importance which may have been looted from United Nations governments or nations, the MFA&A officers would investigate all information of such nature and inspect all repositories of such works falling within the area of the command to which they were assigned or attached, and report their findings. Of course, in January, the Monuments Men were not, with the exception of the Aachen area, in a physical position to seek out looted cultural property, nor German cultural treasures that had been evacuated eastward for protection. That would change in February 1945, as the Allies began their drive to the Rhine River, and cross it in March.
Subject File Aug 1943-1945 (Entry UD-55B, NAID 612714), Monuments, Fine Arts & Archives Section, Operations Branch, G-5 Division, General Staff, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF), Record Group 331: Allied Operational and Occupation Headquarters, World War II.
Activity Reports and Related Records, 1945-1950 (Entry A1 517, NAID 3725266), Munich Central Collecting Point, Records Concerning the central Collecting Points (“Ardelia Hall Collection”), Records of the Office of Military Government (U.S.) OMGUS, Record Group 260: Records of United States Occupation Headquarters, World War II, Record Group 260, National Archives Microfilm Publication No. M1946
Today’s post is written by Cody White, an archivist at the National Archives at Denver.
In February 1939, the Superintendent of Carlsbad Caverns National Park Thomas Boles wrote to Robert Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” and Floyd Gibbons’ “Headline Hunter” radio program about what he considered to be an unbelievable story; a ranger had fallen into the 754 foot elevator shaft at the park and survived! The Associate Director of the National Park Service in Washington D.C. quickly squashed the publicity, pointing out that it was “highly unadvisable” to report such an accident that was due to “the carelessness or negligence of the park personnel.” Boles, whose 19 year tenure as the superintendent was filled with such efforts to gain the park more attention and publicity, complied and so the story was buried in the National Park Service records, only to be now found here at the National Archives at Denver.
To properly preface the story one must go back to 1923 when the Carlsbad Caverns National Monument was established. Shortly thereafter the National Park Service set to work creating trails throughout the main rooms of the cave and in 1930 when the monument was elevated to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, plans began to develop for an elevator that would connect the surface directly to the Big Room, bypassing the natural cave entrance and its numerous steps. On December 29, 1930, around the clock excavation began both at the top and bottom of the proposed shaft and by December 23, 1931, the elevator was finished. At the time second in height to only the Empire State Building elevators, it took 12 tons of explosives to clear out the 4,000 cubic yards of material for the 754 foot double elevator shaft. The entire project cost $88,292.43 and was celebrated at a grand opening on January 23, 1932. The state of the art elevator, capable of bringing throngs of tourists to the Carlsbad Caverns Big Room at 700 feet a minute, would be the setting for Ranger Leslie Thompson’s remarkable story.
Official elevator opening day, January 23, 1932 (Fourth from left Arthur Seligman, New Mexico Governor, and seventh from left Thomas Boles, Carlsbad Caverns National Park Superintendent)
It was January 25, 1939 at 12:31 PM. Ranger Thompson was working the elevator that day and had just returned to the surface where Ranger Dave Heib was selling tickets to a group of 11 visitors. Assistant Electrician Claude Carpenter stepped into the elevator building and told the two rangers he needed to bring the chief clerk and the auditor down ahead of the tourist party. Thompson acknowledged Carpenter and strode over to the oil heater to warm up while awaiting the tourists. The Otis elevator car whooshed down.
With the tickets all purchased, Ranger Thompson began his prepared speech to the assembled tourists. He opened the elevator door (there was no failsafe to prevent this when the car was not there) and turning to the crowd stated “Let me see your tickets” while he backed in. A woman shrieked “Look out” but it was too late; Thompson plunged into the abyss.
Elevator Interior, at lobby level, circa 1932
Thompson knew the elevator and quickly realized the cables were his only hope. He grabbed on and thanks to the thick cable grease he was able to slow his decent while preventing severe friction burns. After falling nearly 100 feet and sliding an additional 40, Thompson found himself clinging to the cable in the dark elevator shaft. Calling out for help to the glimmer of daylight far above him, Hieb and two other employees brought a second car down the parallel cable, inching ever so slowly to where Thompson was still hanging on in the shaft. While pulling him in the men found Thompson “none worse for the experience other than a well greased uniform and a few blisters on right hand and a friction burn on left arm.”
There is no evidence in the records Thompson was reprimanded for his safety error; by his own admission he stated to the effect “that was a damn fool thing for me to do. I knew that elevator had been taken down just a few minutes ago.” In a safety report ordered by the Washington D.C. headquarters the deficiencies in safety locks on the elevator door were noted and slated to be fixed. As Superintendent Boles wrote in his official report, Thompson “is free to admit that his guardian angel was on duty that day” and so perhaps cheating death was punishment enough.
Ranger Thompson’s report of January 25, 1939, events.
Ranger Hieb’s report of January 25, 1939, events.
All images, quotes, and source material comes from the two RG 79 Records of the National Park Service series; Southwest Regional Office “Correspondence Relating to the National Parks, Monuments, and Recreational Area, 1927-1953,” Box 249, NAID 602229, and Carlsbad Caverns National Park “General Correspondence Files, 1930-1953,” Box 42, NAID 939395.