History (sort of) in the making

Edgar L. Jones

February 27, 1991|By Edgar L. Jones

IN AN Other Voices article Jan. 14, historian and journalist J. Herbert Altschull presented a dream sequence purporting to show what it would be like when an Army historical unit went into ground action in the Persian Gulf war with video camera, floodlights and lap-top computer. Altschull contended that history is not something that can be recorded instantaneously, since it takes time to gain perspective, weigh one's impressions and draw lasting lessons for others.

I may be able to offer some perspective on Army historical activity, albeit from limited experience in 1944. After I returned home from driving an ambulance in the North African campaign and was classified 4F, I became a civilian member of the Chemical Warfare Service's historical branch, headquartered in Baltimore. The selling point for me was that President Roosevelt wanted completely factual, objective accounts of successes and failures in all branches of military service to prevent repetition of past mistakes.

The writing staff in our historical branch did not have very imposing credentials. Apart from an author of historical books who resigned soon after I signed on, the group consisted of two former fiction writers, a sports reporter, an archivist whose specialty had been Italian literature and myself, the youngest member. But more than enough creative style and showmanship was displayed by our chief, a man of imposing stature who wore tailor-made uniforms with at least four rows of battle ribbons. Known to us as "The Major," he had been a boy opera star, a World War I hero in the first British tank battalion and had lived for many years at the Hotel Astor on Times Square. He played the role of Broadway insider and raconteur.

The Major seemingly knew everyone of importance everywhere.

He got us roomettes on the Commodore Vanderbilt when the train was supposedly booked solid. He arranged for us to have complimentary box seats at the Chicago Opera and a private tour of the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, and, of course, a visit to a Hollywood filming. He managed to get instant accommodations at the best hotels.

While this may sound like all play and little work, the historical team was not unproductive during this period. We gathered information on officers' training at Edgewood and troop training at Camp Sibert in Alabama. We produced readable summaries of chemical warfare research at Columbia and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, examined a large, dull warehouse in Chicago and spent a discomforting three weeks in mid-summer at the Dugway Proving Ground in the Utah desert. In addition, we traveled extensively to fulfill The Major's belief that our history should include all the ports of embarkation, since that was where troops headed for battle zones were issued gas masks and instructed on their use.

The one thing The Major could not do, even if so inclined, was persuade commanding officers at various installations that our history should include shortcomings and miscalculations as well as accomplishments. Essentially, we worked from the records and documents that the military was willing to have read by outsiders, and this did not constitute a comprehensive, impartial assessment. I tried to get a little first-hand experience into our work. At Camp Sibert, for instance, I crawled with the trainees in the Alabama mud under rows of barbed wire while machine guns fired overhead. But this provided only personal impressions, not the makings of objective history.

It was at Dugway I soured on the job. So much testing of gases, smoke screens and incendiaries was in progress, and we were (( only skimming the surface of what it all meant. My fault was having been naive enough to suppose that responsible military officers in wartime would be candid about their operations or concerned with what might have future historical value. Our needs were not theirs. The way out for me was to write a "help" letter to the man who had steered me to the historical branch in the first place: the late Edward Weeks, then editor of the Atlantic. He replied that when proper arrangements had been made, I would become the magazine's war correspondent in the Pacific.

Meanwhile, back at the branch, we finished up the Dugway assignment, and The Major said that he and I would cover the last of the embarkation ports -- the ones on the West Coast. The writing part of the trip was routine, but there was a romantic side that made it special. With time running short, I called a young advertising woman in New York whom I had been courting fervently, mostly by mail, and proposed that she join us with marriage in mind. We were wedded in a Seattle church with The Major as best man, and he arranged the press coverage, one-day cruise on Puget Sound and Pullman trip eastbound through the northern Rockies.

After I returned many months later from Iwo Jima and Okinawa, I inquired what had become of our historical efforts. I was told that higher authorities had decreed that the ports of embarkation belonged in the transportation services' history, so our port reports were destroyed.

There went the taxpayers' money, but the marriage has lasted more than 46 years.

Edgar L. Jones is a retired editorial writer for The Sun and columnist for The Evening Sun.

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