Work of archivist on World War II data touches lives, garners recognition

Federal Workers

December 22, 2006|By Melissa Harris

The query was one of the most obscure that archivist Timothy Mulligan had ever received.

A Reston, Va., woman wanted to know whether her father knew of her birth before he died at the helm of a German U-Boat in the spring of 1943.

Carrying only the captain's name and boat number on a sheet of paper, Mulligan was able to find a paragraph-long U.S. naval intelligence intercept of her birth announcement amid 530 miles of shelves at the National Archives' behemoth records center in College Park.

"It was the most gratifying moment of my career," the 56-year-old Baltimore native said.

Even more remarkable, it took him only a "couple of hours" to accomplish.

Mulligan, who plans to retire in January, was awarded the agency's highest honor last month for his nearly 34 years of work there - much of which he spent writing brief descriptions of millions of Nazi records captured during World War II.

Compiled into guides, these books on American and German history took years to complete. Once the cataloged records were transferred onto microfilm, the originals were returned to Germany.

"His three guides describing microfilmed German Navy records are outstanding examples of precision, clarity and detail," Archivist of the United States Allen Weinstein said during the award presentation Nov. 30. "They are a testament both to the archivist's knowledge of records, filing schemes and arrangement, and to the historian's insight into subject matter."

That is how he knew exactly where the war diary from Capt. Hans Karpf's U-632 was stored. The diary pointed him to a gray box containing hundreds of American intercepts from the U-boat's last patrol southwest of Iceland before the ship was bombed by a British plane.

Analysts at the precursor to today's National Security Agency had translated his daughter's birth announcement onto a sheet of legal paper on March 13, 1943. Eventually, copies of the intercept were bound in a volume, transferred to the National Archives and declassified.

"You can never catalog down to the level of detail in these records," Mulligan said, pointing to a hand-drawn schematic of the ventilation system and battery capacity of U-505, which became the only German U-boat captured and salvaged during the war. U.S. sailors had boarded the damaged submarine after it surfaced off the West African coast in 1944.

"No matter how much technology advances, there's nothing that can replace the need for researchers to go through records," he said.

Mulligan has a knack for remembering abstract dates. For instance, he said he continued seeing his Baltimore dentist until 1973 - 15 years after his family moved from Baltimore to the Washington suburbs when his father got a promotion with the Civil Service Commission. He said his love of history began in 1955, at the age of 5, when his parents took him to the site of the Battle of Gettysburg.

An only child, whose parents met while working at the Social Security Administration, Mulligan is the first member of his family to earn an advanced degree, working full-time at the archives while earning master's and doctoral degrees from the University of Maryland in diplomatic history.

His mustache is a bit gray, but in general, Mulligan, who lives in Lanham, does not give the impression that he is old enough to retire. His words clip with energy as he opens boxes filled with black-and-white photos of U-505, charts and maps in the archives' sleek, sunlit reading room.

Most of Mulligan's work has not been as emotionally compelling as providing comforting information to a woman who never knew her father or cataloging photos of American sailors boarding U-505.

But the significance often comes after Mulligan has spent days typing series of numbers, dates and mundane descriptions.

From 1994 to 1998, he supervised volunteers building a database of Nazi Party membership from 40,000 rolls of microfilm. He also analyzed, arranged and wrote descriptions of the contents of the film.

Those lists, archives spokeswoman Miriam Kleiman said, have been used to prevent former top Nazi leaders and members of the SS and Gestapo from entering the United States.

They also have uncovered individuals who had claimed to have played only minor roles in the Nazi campaigns.

Among the most critical pieces of history Mulligan has relied on is a copy of a secret speech Heinrich Himmler gave in October 1943 to high-level Nazi leaders. The copy includes Himmler's handwritten annotations, Mulligan said.

"In it, he openly talks about the extermination of the Jews," he said. "No one can deny it."

The writer welcomes your comments and feedback. She can be reached at melissa.harris @baltsun.com or 410-715-2885. Recent back issues can be read at baltimoresun.com/federal.

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