A Bonanza of New, Computerized, Primary Sources for the History of the Vietnam War
With what has been going on in the world today, it seems as though I am here talking about the wrong war, but I have long held that misinterpretation of the Vietnam War's lessons and errors have led to many of the problems in the world today.
My name is Steve Sherman. I served with 5th Special Forces Group in Vietnam in 1967-68. You've heard Vietnam described as a quagmire. Well about ten years ago I let myself be sucked into the study of Special Forces history in Southeast Asia and I've been wading in deeper and deeper ever since. I have certainly spent more time in my study than I had in-country.
Ten years ago, I began gathering copies of documents related to Special Forces in South East Asia and learned that these papers pointed me into some rather interesting directions. I would like to share with you what I learned, some lessons on how to tap the available resources and how you might use what you find. I also hope to find kindred souls among the audience and perhaps learn from them what others are doing that may have escaped my notice.
I am not a historian. I am an Archivist. I collect the documents and other information that will help a historian get a broader picture of what he is studying. Writing a book is a different skill than assembling an archive. I freely assist those authors who are able to demonstrate an honest interest in the events for which I have collected information. My contribution is that I am building this archive now, not a hundred and fifty years after the fact. I'm trying to put all those sources together so that when an interested party comes around, he can use this archive as a starting point.
I use the term “Entrepreneurial Archivist” to distinguish my activities from those of the Institutional Archivist. The Institutional Archivist wants to preserve the primary source material. The system, both academic and governmental, supports his effort, as it should. The Entrepreneurial Archivist is usually a self-appointed “Unit Historian” for a group of veterans with whom he served. I consider the term “Unit Historian” to be a misnomer in most cases. The Unit Historian is usually the Unit Archivist. Being Entrepreneurial is essential to this effort.
The Professional Historian relies on the Institutional Archivist for the documentary records, one of his two primary sources. The Historian's second primary source consists of the oral histories of the participants, both living and dead. This source is also preserved by the Institutional Archivist.
*The Entrepreneurial Archivist produces additional original data from both these original sources. By making it available and by doing the grunt work of collecting, validating and organizing the data, he saves the historian enormous time. He gleans the essential information from the paper records and uses that information to locate living participants in order to find additional records and to confirm the evidence of those records. The Historian can turn to the Entrepreneurial Archivist to supplement the Institutional Archivist, not only for primary records and the newly created original source data the Entrepreneurial Archivist has produced, but also to locate living participants and other experts whom the historian can contact in the process of researching, interviewing, analyzing the events and writing his narrative. We are not entrepreneurial because we charge the Historian a fee for our services. Usually we help the Historian, gratis, because he is, as we are, working to preserve the history of the troops with whom we served. We are Entrepreneurial because of the methods we employ to do our work.
I would like to give you some examples of what I do, why it is different, what value it has, how to use people like me in your study and how to organize your own work to preserve a unit's history.
Right Now is a unique moment in time for the study of the Vietnam War. There is a window to that war that has opened in the last few years and will close again soon. *Today, thanks to a telecommunications revolution, we can find people who served at every level and juncture of that war, who can tell their stories to you in their own words with some of the insights gained by reflection over time. Tomorrow, these sources will disappear as we join our comrades who have passed on either on the battlefields of Vietnam or in the fullness of time.
The study of a war of small unit actions requires access to something more than the After-Action Reports and the narrative summaries of both military and academic historians. A small unit is an aggregation of individuals, i.e., that basic element of the military -- the soldier. The Army, in its infinite wisdom, wants to make sure that the soldier is both fed and paid. However, to do this, there is someone, somewhere, who will not feed or pay the soldier without a piece of paper. As a result, there is a lot of paper for the individual soldier. Each piece of paper often contains multiple names; if you can locate the other soldiers whose names appear, you can find more paper. I have created a database containing as much information as I can obtain on each individual. [Handout 1 is a list of the fields contained in my database and a description of their use.] Each of the fields represents an element gleaned from the documents I have received or as a by-product of the search for the individual himself.
I built the database primarily from rosters, awards and other orders which I have collected over time. There are three major components of the database: documents relating to the individual*, his awards*, and his assignments*. These three components interact*. An awards order, say for meritorious service, will give me a name, a period of service, and maybe even a specific unit of assignment. A roster will often augment or modify that information, by providing effective assignment date, duty assignment and DEROS. With the individual's full name, sometimes assisted with the first three digits of his SSN (after 1968) I might be able to locate him on switchboard.com or a CD version of the same, and ask him to expand his assignment list and send me orders and rosters he has carried around for many years, which in turn provide more names.
It was useful to have some framework upon which to operate. *I was fortunate that the late Al Gleim agreed to copy more than 8,000 pieces of paper from the National Archives at 5 cents per page over the then 10 cent a page copying costs. I had a complete set of General Orders for my unit, which yielded over 24,000 individual entries into my awards file, which has since been supplemented by another 21 thousand other awards and badges for which I have received orders.
I have over 20,000 names in my database, about a third of which I have been able to account for, filling almost 30,000 individual assignments in SE Asia.
If I get a call from a family member of one of our people, I can usually identify and locate someone who knew that person well and has been waiting more than a quarter century to share his recollections with that family member.
Since I'm bullish on the importance of award orders, let's look at them for a moment. [Handout 2 is a discussion of award authorities and *Handout 3 is a list of orders that are at the National Archives.] Based on my experience with my own unit awards, I estimate it would take 50 man years to process the whole lot of these. The good news is that a divisional unit could divide the pile equally among three brigades and a headquarters element and then share the results. There are also other files in the National Archives, including USARPAC orders which have a lot of early awards and DA General Orders which need to be recreated for distribution in an electronic format. As indicated by Handout 2, some of the early awards will be found in USARPAC, MACV and USARV files, so we need those files organized for everybody's use. The higher awards, DSC's and MOH's, fortunately, have already been identified and you should be able to get copies of the applicable citations for your unit. Also, there is an electronic database for MACV HQ awards after mid-1968, which, if we could combine it with the physical award orders, would be comparatively easy to flesh out. [I failed in my FOIA lawsuit to get an electronic copy of these award orders because of the ineradicable presence of SSN's on the computer image files.]
There is an on going argument among Vietnam veterans about the validity of these awards. Yes, if you read some awards, the elements upon which the award was based appear to be quite dubious. And lots of people who deserved awards did not get the level of award they deserved and in many cases, did not get any award at all. But rarely can we find an award for heroism in which the awardee was not present at all. So at the worst case, we still have a record of who participated in a particular action (or alleged action).
*Besides these awards, sometimes a foreign decoration or a badge provides special insights. In studying the FANK program, the Cambodian government issued Cambodian National Defense Medals to most of the participants. I was able to obtain the award orders covering over 1000 troops, which provided a good basis for the study of that program.* Things like CIB/CMB orders, jump wings, RECONDO school attendance records are helpful. *In the case of CIB/CMB's, these are issued in bulk (up to 50 at a time, on unit Special (rather than General) Orders. When I had about 1/3rd of the anticipated number of those awards, *I published a list of the recipients, almost immediately I got another 1/3rd of the orders and they are still trickling in. It is a matter of pride with many of us that our CIB's be included more than almost any other award.
After the awards, the next best source of names is rosters.* Sometimes rosters appear in the archives, but most often you are dependent upon someone who hoarded a roster from his unit all these years. You would probably be quite surprised at the nature and extent of such hoarding. I certainly have been impressed. Very often, commanders keep copies of rosters to write their memoirs. The rosters come in different forms; telephone directories, radio call sign lists, morning reports, PCS/TDY orders, emergency alert procedures, graduation lists for specialized training.
Another great place to find names and specific duty assignments are unit periodicals. Many units had a newspaper or magazine which heavily reported the names of assigned personnel. *One of my first projects was to collect a complete set of my unit magazines, index them and reprint them. They were very well received. With scanners and CD ROM's the process would be a lot easier, and much less capital intensive, today. (I'll talk more on publishing later.)
At this juncture, I should emphasize the importance of documentation. There are an incredible number of phonies in this world.* Here is a DD-214 offered to support an application to the Special Operations Association. Bronze Star with “V” and two Purple Hearts, five years in SF, 2 years plus in Vietnam including 45 days as a POW. *When his records were obtained from St. Louis, it turned out he was born in 1957 not 1948 and served less than two months in military service, dropping out in Basic Training. I don't accept DD-214's, unnumbered award citations or individual certificates of any kind as evidence to support any claim. I want numbered award orders or documents obtained from third parties with multiple names that can be verified. *Fortunately we have B.G. Burkett and his Very Important Book, Stolen Valor. One time a guy came to me with the names of all the people in his detachment, from his recollection. None of the names appeared in my database. It later turned out that he was a wannabee and the names were variants on people he served with in another unit that he was trying to pass off as being in our unit. My books are used to vet the wannabees.*
You have already collected all those memoirs and histories written about your unit. These are useful to supplement the assignment information you have. Usually, you have a name assigned to the company level. The unit history might tell you he was an assistant squad leader with Nth Platoon. Certainly these assignments changed frequently, but you are tightening up your information. You should also develop a list of named operations in which your unit was involved. If there is a sequential numbering system, so much the better. As you build this list, compare it with the awards for valor and purple hearts. If you see a cluster of these awards without a comparable action, you should look further for an action that corresponds to the awards or the reason why the awards were made.
You can find after action reports* in the National Archives. Other copies/versions appear in Carlisle Barracks, and Ft. Leavenworth. A participant might have written it up as a course paper in his Advanced Course at Ft. Benning or one of the other Branch schools. Other units and other services may have records which complement your unit's perspectives on a particular event. When CNN misreported Tailwind, I was impressed how we were able to draw in Marine helicopter pilot awards, Air Force FAC awards, AF bombing/ordinance records, SAR communications logs and other such documentation to flesh out the picture of an otherwise “secret” operation. The total number of personnel involved surprised even me, and CNN is paying the price for the paucity of its research.
As a result, I have been working with other units to get copies of their awards for particular actions, particularly the aviation assets, both fixed-wing and rotary. I look forward to coordinating with you as you build your archives.
Putting it Together
I'd like to show you one of my efforts of which I am quite proud. *As a subsection on this CD-ROM, I was able to collect an amazing assembly of information on a ten day period in history, the Montagnard Revolt of 1964. I started off with the well known National Geographic cover story*, for which I paid for reprint rights. I was able to find After Action Reports, *from MACV, *from the Special Forces headquarters, and *from two of the Special Forces “A” Detachments which were most involved. One of those reports came from the original draft and contained paragraphs which had been excised in the file copy. I received *newspaper and magazine articles which had been carried around for years and found a good raison d'etre here. And I was referred to documents published by several of our South Vietnamese* and Australian Allies and even from the North Vietnamese.* I was able to obtain photographs and testimony from individual participants, from oral histories, memoirs, letters to family* and friends and statements offered from memories written down on my request. Assembling all this is a good start, but it still needs the historian's talents to analyze it and put it into perspective.
Unit History on the Internet
One of my fellow SF troopers, unfortunately now departed, told me that there was no use my collecting all this stuff only to have it get lost upon my demise. He encouraged me to publish or otherwise make the results of my research available as a work-in-progress. Following his advice, I began publishing my *Who's Who series in paper form, which I sell, (remember the key word Entrepreneur). Usually this was a sub-unit of 1-3,000 people. When I published Who's Who from MACV-SOG, covering 6,800 people and almost 600 pages, I started looking for other media. I am beginning to use CD's which hold even more information. *My first CD ROM, which was on Project DELTA, contains about 1500 pages of after action reports and two hundred photos. (I have since learned to increase the photo count to over 1000, without significantly losing resolution*, and I've added in short video clips.) Not everybody in your unit has a chance to get to the archives to get copies of AAR's and we can often append other information to the AAR which is not in the Archives.
The proceeds from these publications, while it in no way keeps me in a style to which I would like to be come accustomed, provides sufficient revenue to allow me to experiment with new ideas and technologies such as map software and video, and to foot the cost of copying thousands of pages from the Archives and hiring typists to work on whatever cannot be optically scanned by OCR. (Optical Character Recognition, by the way, has come a long way in the last few years.)
*I now have a website (mapped in Handout 4) not only to sell my books, but to get input on my work-in-progress. The site has some 18,000 names organized into 200 operational detachments and headquarters staff sections* so that we can use it to remember the guy who we can see in our mind's eye, but haven't been able to put a name on, much less locate. The website has recently been expanded to offer forums* in which each of those elements have their own message boards through which to communicate without my intermediation, which is a big relief for me.
*A new project is a listing of small recon actions keyed to a bulletin board, where I am hoping to get the participants to provide first hand details on the operations in which they took part.
The next step involves the collection of photographs and, perhaps later, movies. Because of the effort involved, I only accept photographs on current projects and these must be accompanied by detailed captions. I am starting to disseminate an SOP for preserving photographs (see Handout 5) so that individuals with technical expertise can help me out by digitizing their own collections. The movie thing is coming up quickly. *People need to get their super-8 films converted to video, just to preserve the footage. The next step will be to provide them with instructions for adding a voice over narration, because most of the video is silent. And the final step will be to produce a digital video archive of that footage.
*We are just entering into a new phase of information sharing – digital maps. I have 1:50K maps and larger scale maps of North and South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos and access to mapping software to use them in an integrated setting. The system includes the ability to make overlays which can be emailed between users of the same mapping software. That expands the opportunity for discussion of a spatial dimension which will become 3-D as soon as some of our more technically adept users tell us how to work the features already programmed.
Unfortunately, support problems preclude me from distributing these maps to individuals outside my unit. But as we develop a network of people who have similar approaches to the unit archivist's role, the network will be able to provide these maps to members of their unit, while obtaining funds to cover the costs of their own research efforts.
Most of what I do is only of primary interest to members of my unit. There are a small number of people in the general population who have an interest in what I do. The good thing about the internet is that they can find me if they look hard enough. I have already learned that it is too expensive in both time and money to try to find them by advertising and other mass media approaches. One of my current projects is to have access to the *Vietnam portions of the Foreign Relations of the United States Series published by the State Department Historian. While the material is available on the internet and at public libraries, the indexing leaves a lot to be desired. I have produced a limited number of CD's using the available electronic material. My own use of the material warrants the effort I put into them, but I am selling them to the people who hear that I have them. (It may not be good business sense to ignore your potential markets, but even an entrepreneurial archivist has a limit on the number of things he can do at once.)
What remains to be done?
The job of the Archivist is never-ending. It can be facilitated by cooperation, because many of the techniques and tools that we use are being re-invented by each of us. My wish list includes:
a) Programming support for the database to facilitate security and input and to make it easier to create the data on the website. The database itself should be amendable to any unit that wishes to use it.
b) Making the bulletin board system easier to find and use by visitors to the website.
c) A system that would encourage website visitors to keep their personal contact information current, perhaps with a system of passwords and cookies.
d) An OCR Program capable of handling Vietnamese and Montagnard language material by turning off the speller and using a character set, like Portuguese, that has all the accents required.
e) A photo and video cataloguing system that could easily be shared as freeware.
f) Microfilm and microfiche scanning-to-OCR capability that could be shared.
g) Automated transcription of oral histories.
h) Getting the general orders, that I previously failed to obtain by suing DA, into the public arena as well as other documents, such as DA and USARPAC General Orders.
i) Establishing a network of unit archivists.
I have specific ideas on all of these, which I would be happy to discuss with interested parties.
There are also many little projects that get thrown off by this kind of effort. I think that many items come up which would be useful for students such as those at Texas Tech to use as potential subjects for papers. If there is interest, we could create a web-page with suggestions on such projects.
At Handout 6 is a style manual composed by Gordon Rottman, which is one example of a useful resource project to be shared.
I also said that I want to leave the job of writing the history to others. In keeping with the aphorism those that can do, those that can't teach, and those that can't do either criticize, I offer some comments on writing the history of the Vietnam War at Handout 7.
Where do we go from here?
Another important element in our job is maintaining continuity. Al Gleim, who assembled the authoritative information on DSC's, died intestate, without heirs and without a plan for maintaining the integrity of the work he had assembled. This is a great loss, but as my mother always said, it may not be good for anything else, but it's always good as a bad example, like the guy who went off to join the Taliban. She was talking about me, and I've taken the lesson to heart. I have put a codicil in my will specifying a process for selecting a successor and turning my collections over to him or her. Also, as I put my collection on CD ROM, a file copy goes to specific archives, including Texas Tech. As I feel more comfortable about electronic records, I'm planning to turn over some of the paper versions to Texas Tech. Before you leave here, I'm sure Jim Reckner will give you the pitch.
Finding participants in a particular battle is the easy part. As we use the internet and other means to communicate, we are providing the historian of today and tomorrow a priceless source of primary evidence which cannot be ignored.
I look forward to working with you and answering your questions.
Handout 1 - Personnel Database Fields
Handout 2 - Vietnam-era Award Authorities
Handout 3 - General Orders by Issuing Unit
Handout 4 - Special Forces Website
Handout 5 - Your Pix
Handout 6 - Vietnam Style Manual
Handout 7 - Four Glaring Errors Often Made by Historians
Panning for Gold in the Attic
How You can Use
the Entrepreneurial Archivist and His Computer
to Study Vietnam War History