In the Government Know: The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)

The right to understand what transpires in our government is essential to democratic principles. Voting citizens recognize that their elected representatives, government appointees, and various programs produce an enormous quantity of records and other information. All of said information is categorized under strict laws affording it protection for national security or commercial reasons. However, releasable information can still provide insight on how public servants work to make the government transparent. Inherent with the right to vote is the right to know what happens inside an agency or department and the documents therein. This is the basis for one of the most significant pieces of legislation created in the last sixty years: the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The Freedom of Information Act allows people to request specific information regarding agency operations, records, and government transparency. The act also establishes specific criteria for determining a record’s eligibility for public release pending a review process. The lifespan and accessibility of records change between agencies and each have their own additional criteria in addition to basic FOIA requirements. This is done to guard against the release of any sensitive, personal, or national security information. The act is also used to describe ‘opening up the government’ by letting the public see how it operates. In a famous court case, Fielding F. McGehee vs. CIA, the Washington DC Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in its closing statement that having an informed voter is essential to a functioning democracy:

“It has often been observed that the central purpose of the FOIA is to “open … up the workings of government to public scrutiny.” One of the premises of that objective is the belief that “an informed electorate is vital to the proper operation of a democracy.” A more specific goal implicit in the foregoing principles is to give citizens access to the information on the basis of which government agencies make their decisions, thereby equipping the populace to evaluate and criticize those decisions.”

McGehee v. CIA, US Court of Appeals, Washington DC Circuit, January 4, 1983
U.S. Representative John E. Moss (D-California) led the charge for implementing FOIA and the restructuring of information security levels (Image courtesy of U.S. Congress)

California Representative John E. Moss made it his congressional career to passing FOIA and signing it into law. He would ultimately spend twelve years garnering support and shepherding it through various committees. In the late 1950s, government classification of documents was being mishandled and accidental leaks were problematic. Representative Moss chaired the Government Information Subcommittee and took it upon himself to upgrade security classifications and draft rules on accessibility. On July 4, 1966 a hesitant President Lyndon Johnson signed bill S1160 into law. Johnson recognized the need for the law, but gave additional measure to protecting military interests and allowing government officials to discuss things frankly without having to mince their words and actions with the overarching specter of public investigation constantly overheard. [Statement by the President upon signing the ‘Freedom of Information Act, July 4, 1966] The law was initially repealed following a revision of Title 5 of the US Code, but a new version was eventually drafted and signed with the effective date of July 4, 1967, just one year later.

Since 1967, FOIA underwent numerous revisions and amendments strengthening, limiting, and reclassifying information security. The most impactful occurred with the increasing scrutiny on national security and the War on Terror. Today there are nine exemptions when a person files a FOIA request:

  1. National security and foreign policy classified by executive order
  2. Internal personnel rules of an agency
  3. Specifically exempted from disclosure
  4. Trade secrets, commercial, and financial information
  5. Interagency memorandums not subject to litigation
  6. Personnel and medical files of government employees
  7. Records relating to ongoing law enforcement and federal investigations
  8. Supervising agencies on financial institutions
  9. Geological information relating to wells and water tables

Agency employees still have to be conscious of what is in a document that’s being requested under FOIA rules. Redactions still take place to ensure no personal information is being leaked. This can sometimes cause confusion as the general public sometimes assumes that a FOIA requests means they can ask for anything unredacted. This is incorrect. FOIA requests generally take around twenty to thirty days to process depending on the agency and even then, FOIA officials or subject matter experts still review the packet before it goes to the requester. They are sometimes classified as ‘Government Information Specialists.’ This screening process can cause frustration as the included information becomes more complex. Rarely do federal agencies meet this twenty to thirty day deadline because of the steps involved to release public and redact private information.

While the FOIA request process is not a perfect one, the legislation itself is remarkably important to maintaining a transparent government that allows people to ask questions about its function and policies. An informed electorate is powerful in a representative and democratic government and FOIA is the best legislative tool to be in the know.

Oklahoma Bat: The Military History of Fred Laverne Richardson

For as long as I can remember, hearing stories about my grandpa’s World War II service was part of my childhood. They were my first history lessons outside of school. I spent many weekends and holidays with my grandparents and often heard older relatives bring up his time in the Philippines, Japan, or just talk casually about the war. Hidden at the top of one of grandma’s bookshelves was a thickly bound brown book with large white lettering; ‘WARPATH’, showing a Native American wearing a war chief’s headdress. It was a chronicle of the 345th Bombardment Group and its achievements in the South Pacific. On many occasions, I grabbed it off the shelf and thumbed through the pages looking for grandpa’s face. I knew which unit was his and when I found the respective section, no headshot or group photo. Family lore did say that in one photo taken from behind showing two men rushing out to check on a damaged plane, he was one of them (recognized by his flipped up hat bill, before Gomer Pyle made it fashionable). He very rarely shared some personal war stories and for a long time, all I told others at school or work was he served in the Pacific as a tail gunner in a B-25 bomber over the Philippines.

He passed away in 2006 and that was when I began to learning more. He received medals he never mentioned before and soon there was a cache of old photos and documents filling in the gaps. Since working for the National Archives stirred my history passions and learning about military records, I spent last year and all two months of this year putting together a narrative of his military service. An unexpected miracle happened yesterday when in a vain attempt to find his discharge documents (see the 1973 National Personnel Records Center fire) finally paid off. I randomly placed a call to the Garfield County records office in Oklahoma asking if they had any copies. To my surprise they did! Returning WWII veterans normally filed a copy of their discharge documents with the county they returned to in order to receive VA or other government benefits. Thankfully his was still intact and that completed the narrative. My grandpa’s war record here is the best that I have researched with all the available materials. While some information will be lost forever because of the 1973 fire, this is an obstacle facing all military history and genealogy researchers.

Technical Sergeant Fred Laverne Richardson (Service Number 38563209) served in the U.S. Army Air Force from July 20, 1943 to January 14, 1946. Throughout his World War II service, Fred served with the 499th Bombardment Squadron under the 345th Bombardment Group in the V Bomber Command with the 5th Air Force. While overseas, Fred was stationed in Biak, the Philippines, and Ie Shima, participating in aerial combat operations throughout the South Pacific and Sea of Japan. At the end, Fred took part in a handful of major battles in the Pacific Theater of World War II and in the American occupation of Japan. He was twice decorated with the Air Medal for heroic achievements in aerial flight and was later awarded multiple medals for his part in the liberation of the Philippine islands. 

Researching World War II-era service records presents a unique challenge because a significant number of records were destroyed in a massive fire in 1973 at the National Personnel Records Center. Approximately 80% of Army records from 1912 to 1960 were affected with varying degrees of damage. Fred’s record was substantially affected by the fire and only a handful of documents survive attesting to his military service. The information given here is extracted from surviving records in Ancestry, Fold3, FamilySearch, Army unit records, local county records, and WWII reference materials. 

Fred Laverne Richardson was born on April 26, 1925 in Enid Oklahoma to Fred Richardson and Millie Pearl LeGrand. They lived at 508 N. 9th Street and Fred was a senior at Enid High School when he registered for the draft. Local Board #1 in Garfield County recorded his entry the day after his eighteenth birthday on April 26, 1943. Sometime in June 1943, he received a draft notice and was ordered to report to Oklahoma City, where he was formally inducted into the U.S. Army on July 20, 1943. During World War II, inductees were required to serve for the duration of the conflict, plus six months after. This meant that for as long as the war went on, Fred remained in the Army unless he was dishonorably discharged, critically wounded, or killed. Following induction he was transferred to the Enlisted Reserve Corps and was placed on active duty on August 3, 1943. According to family history, he completed basic training at Amarillo Army Airfield in Amarillo, Texas. Aerial defense, air artillery, and forward observing courses were taught at Amarillo AAF and if Fred was later assigned to an Army Air Force unit, he would have received physical and aerial warfare training there. The airfield trained recruits on B-17 Flying Fortresses; four engine long range bombers capable of flying hundreds of miles and dropping thousands of pounds of bombs individually. 

Aerial combat training was tremendously harsh and a small percentage completed the physical battery. Those who passed went onto flight education and armament training. Fred’s recently discovered Notice of Separation (discharge summary) shows he attended two service schools: Aircraft Armament Training School at Lowry Field, Colorado, and Aerial Gunnery Training School at Fort Meyer, Florida. One family story is that his aerial gunner training consisted of shooting skeets with shotguns out the back of a moving truck. Service schools offered specialized training for enlisted personnel. Enlisted men did not serve as pilots, navigators, or bombardiers. Commissioned officers served these roles. 

Fred completed all training by approximately July 1944. From family photographs taken before shipping out, he received his assignment to the U.S Army Air Force and was promoted to the rank of Corporal. This is shown by the chevrons on the sleeve and shoulder patch. The separation document lists his military occupational speciality as Airplane Armorer Gunner. The job duties included inspecting, repairing, and maintaining all aircraft armament, including bomb release mechanisms, airplane cannons, machine guns, and auxiliary equipment. He made daily inspections and repaired equipment such as bomb racks, bomb release mechanisms, aerial gun sights, flare racks, and chemical carrying release mechanisms. He also installed armament equipment on airplanes, and placed bombs in bomb racks. The last portion was to man a machine gun position if combat occurs during flight. 

Family history states that Fred was originally ordered to report to the European theater and while in New York, his orders changed and was transferred to the 345th Bomb Group. Fred traveled to Camp Stoneman near San Francisco, California. This was a staging area for servicemen joining their units in the Pacific. On October 17, 1944, Cpl. Fred Richardson departed the United States.  By the autumn of 1944, the U.S. had pushed the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy out of the southern Pacific and began prepping for the liberation of the Philippines. The country had been under Japanese occupation since May 1942 after the Battle of Bataan. Invasion plans had been in the works since 1943, but the outlying territories needed to be retaken first. 

(Fred while on furlough. He left shortly thereafter to join the 345th BG)

History of the 345th Bombardment Group

Air warfare changed drastically since the First World War. Technological innovations created larger and faster planes with increased carrying capacity. Long and medium range bombers were capable of dealing out tremendous damage. The new B-25 Mitchell debuted in 1941 and the Army Air Force was eager to use it in combat. It was a medium range bomber equipped with twelve .50 caliber machine guns, a 75mm cannon, and could carry up to 3,000 pounds of bombs and incendiaries. Each plane carries five crew members; pilot, navigator / bombardier, gunner / engineer, radio operator / waist gunner, and tail gunner. On November 11, 1942 the 345th Bombardment Group was activated under the 3rd Air Force and trained until April 1943 when they moved to Camp Stoneman and entered combat in New Guinea in June 1943 where it became part of the 5th Air Force. The group comprised of four squadrons:

From Left to Right: 498th Bomb Squadron ‘Falcons’, 499th Bomb Squadron ‘Bats Outta Hell’, 500th Bomb Squadron ‘Rough Raiders’, 501st Bomb Squadron ‘Black Panthers’

The unit was intended for service in the European Theater of Operations, but U.S. Army General George Kenney specifically requested them to redeploy to the south Pacific following successful bombing campaigns near Australia. New Guinea and the Bismarck Islands were the first stage of the 345th’s campaign. Their actions performing reconnaissance missions, dropping supplies, and attacking Japanese ships through the Bismarck Sea arguably prevented a serious threat to Australia. Between April 1943 and July 1944, the 345th relentlessly attacked the Japanese garrisons and ships running through the sea. The triple approach of high level bombing, heavy machine gun strafing, and skip-bombing (bouncing the bomb off the water similar to skipping a stone across a pond) was effective in breaking Japanese control and opening the way for the liberation of the Philippines. 

(Fred and his squad mates; he is on the far right with the cigarette in hand)

They took to the skies again from July to November of 1944 hitting targets in the southern Philippines. Biak was the next step in the unit’s path and after taking the island, could run missions over the Celebes Sea. The Japanese knew that the United States would reclaim the country and the 345th made it a point to cut a path to Luzon and clear the war for the American recapture. Mission after mission, the 345th lost hundreds of crews and bombers as they were shot down by Japanese fighter planes or hit by flak from enemy ships. During the Battle of Leyte Gulf, a kamikaze hit a group of 345th personnel stationed on the ground before they could get airborne. By the beginning of 1945, the 345th began bombing missions as far north as the Sea of Japan, hitting shipping and communication lines down through China and southeast Asia. Destroying such targets were necessary for military planners as operations were drawn up for the long anticipated invasion of the Japanese home islands (Operation Downfall). Both the United States and Japan knew that the cost in human lives would be astronomical. Intelligence analysts at the time estimated that casualty figures would easily reach into the millions as the Japanese military and civil defense organizations prepared for invasion. 

(American pilots and aircrews were issued chits like these wearing them on their jackets. If they bailed out or were shot down, this would message any friendly persons that they were an American pilot and needed to return to their outfit. Fred had this one and was pinned in his WWII photo album.)

By July 1945, the 345th was positioned on Ie Shima in the Okinawa island chain ready to receive new combat orders. On August 6th and 9th when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were hit with the first atomic bombs. Emperor Hirohito announced the surrender six days later on August 15th and now the 345th had a different set of orders: to escort the Japanese emissaries for the formal surrender before General MacArthur. Three B-25s and fighter planes were ordered to escort the Japanese detachment to the Philippines where they began discussing the terms of surrender and allied occupation of Japan. The escort was not without some hiccups though; hard-line nationalists in the Japanese military wanted the escort shot down because tradition held that surrender was worse than death. These fears were assuaged as the 345th escort mission formed a bracket around the Japanese planes and chaperoned them safely to Manila. Surviving airmen of the 345th remained stationed on Ie Shima until they received orders to rotate back to the United States and on December 29, 1945, the unit was deactivated.

Throughout the Pacific campaign, the 499th squadron carried out its own specific missions. Fred left the U.S. on October 17, 1944 and arrived in the Pacific theater on November 23, 1944. The 499th conducted operations between Biak and the Philippines attacking Japanese shipping convoys and battleships. Between December 1944 and July 1945, Fred and his squadron flew from San Marcelino and Clark Air Fields hitting targets all over the Philippines. The longest range mission that they ever carried out was an attack on Saigon in southern Vietnam in April 1945. It was by far the most dangerous mission they ever undertook, but it earned them a Distinguished Unit Citation. 

(Billboard of the 499th Squadron. These were common at the airfields to show each unit’s war record and list of battles)

While in Ie Shima, Fred became part of the occupation force following Japan’s surrender. An old family photo album containing pictures from WWII includes some unique ones; photos of the Japanese surrender delegation. The images are quite small, but when seen through a magnifying glass, one can see the Japanese wearing traditional garments and presenting instruments of surrender. Unfortunately there are no captions on the reverse side of the pictures making it hard to determine when or where the photo was taken, but from judging the content, many pictures were taken in the Philippines and Ie Shima. Cultural landmarks and buildings place some early pictures in Manila. Fred took a lot of pictures of local people and he even collected a large amount of foreign currency and Army scrip. 

Between Fred Richardson’s personal achievements and assignment with the 499th Bombardment Squadron and 345th Bomb Group, he received a substantial number of awards, both U.S. and foreign awards. The following are the most complete listing of awards he is entitled to from World War II.

Aerial Gunner Badge: this military aeronautical badge was given to those who qualified and endured hazardous conditions as an aerial gunner. A winged bullet fixed on the standard observers badge, Fred received this badge for his military occupational specialty as an Airplane Armorer Gunner a B-25 bomber. 

Air Medal: Established in Executive Order 9158, the Air Medal recognizes acts of heroism or meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight. Flight conditions, combat missions, and the number of sorties were taken into account when determining who received the Air Medal. Between October 1944 and December 1945, Fred received the Air Medal twice, giving him an Oak Leaf Cluster. Both awards were issued by a General Order from 5th Air Force HQ for meritorious service with the 345th Bomb Group. 

Good Conduct Medal: The Good Conduct Medal recognizes servicemen who served honorably for a specific amount of time. Criteria for the Army Good Conduct Medal has changed via executive orders in subsequent presidencies. The medal was also established during World War II and each service branch has its own version. The medal can also be awarded to any servicemen who completes at least one year of honorable service while the United States is at war. Fred met this criteria and received the Good Conduct Medal. 

American Campaign Medal: Established in Executive Order 9265, the American Campaign Medal is awarded to all service members who were stationed in the American Theater of Operations (ATO). This includes the continental American territory and the surrounding waters of both North and South America. Servicemembers must have served at least one year within the continental limits of the U.S., 30 days outside the continental U.S. within the ATO, or 60 days onboard a vessel in American waters. Having served at least one year within the continental limits of the U.S. while stationed at Fort Sill, Fred received the American Campaign Medal. 

Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal: Established in Executive Order 9265 along with the American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal is awarded to all service members who performed military duties in the Asiatic-Pacific Theater (APT). This includes air, naval, and ground operations. Service stars denote participation in a campaign. Because air operations were ongoing from the beginning to the end of the war (with the exception of some isolated campaigns) Fred received service stars for the following campaigns:

Air Offensive, Japan (5 June 1943 – 2 September 1945)

China Defensive (5 June 1943 – 4 May 1945)

New Guinea (5 June 1943 – 31 December 1944)

Bismarck Archipelago (15 December 1943 – 27 November 1944)

Leyte (17 October 1944 – 1 July 1945)

Luzon (15 December 1944 – 4 July 1945)

Western Pacific (17 April 1945 – 2 September 1945)

China Offensive (5 May 1945 – 2 September 1945) 

World War II Victory Medal: Created by an Act of Congress on July 6 1945, this service medal recognizes all personnel who served in the U.S. Armed Forces from December 7 1941 to December 31 1946. No minimum time in service is needed to award the World War II Victory Medal. Over 12 million service members are eligible for the award, making it the second-most awarded medal in the U.S.; the most being the National Defense Service Medal created in 1953. Having served in World War II, Fred automatically received the subsequent victory medal. 

Army of Occupation Medal: Established by the War Department in 1946, the AOM recognizes personnel who participated in any duties in occupied countries following the cessation of hostilities in both Germany and Japan. At first the medal was only for ground forces, but it was later amended in 1948 to include any Army Air Force units. The medal has an accompanying clasp for where the service member was stationed. The 345th Bomb Group served for six months on the island of Ie Shima, technically considered occupied enemy territory. This entitles Fred the Army of Occupation Medal with the ‘Japan’ clasp. 

Philippine Liberation Medal: The liberation of the Philippines was a major moment during the war in the Pacific. They were the first major U.S. possession to fall to the Japanese and thousands suffered as POWs. In commemoration of those who took part in the campaign, the Philippine government created the Philippine Liberation Medal. Initially only a ribbon, a medal was created later in July 1945. The PLM also included service stars similar to the APCM. Stars were awarded for the following criteria:

  1. Participation in the initial landing operation of Leyte and adjoining islands from 17 October to 20 October 1944. 
  2. Participation in any engagement against hostile Japanese forces on Leyte and adjoining islands during the Philippine Liberation Campaign of 17 October 1944, to 2 September 1945.
  3. Participation in any engagement against hostile Japanese forces on islands other than those mentioned above during the Philippine Liberation Campaign of 17 October 1944, to 2 September 1945.
  4. Served in the Philippine Islands or on ships in Philippine waters for not less than 30 days during the period.

The 345th did not participate in the initial landing operation on Leyte on October 17-20 (Fred was also en route to Biak from Camp Stoneman). Fred does meet the other three criteria so he received three service stars on the PLM. 

Philippine Independence Medal: After the Japanese surrender, the Philippine government wanted to recognize all those who served in both the initial defense of the nation and the subsequent liberation. The Philippine Independence Medal was created to recognize those who took part in either one of the conflict stages. Because Fred took part in the liberation campaign, he received the PIM. 

Presidential Unit Citation: President Franklin Roosevelt created this unit citation, (originally entitled the Distinguished Unit Citation) via Executive Order 9075. A unit citation was a new type of award for the U.S. military; it was meant to recognize the gallantry and heroism of a unit that endured dangerous conditions. The 499th received three PUCs for its entire wartime service; Fred served with the squadron when it received its third citation and his only one for actions over Indochina. 

Philippine Presidential Unit Citation: Similar to the U.S. Presidential Unit Citation, the PPUC was awarded by the Philippine government to recognize the meritorious service and heroic achievements to those who participated in any Philippine operations. Because Fred served with the 499th which operated in the Philippines, he received the PPUC. 

All U.S. Army, Army Air Force, Navy, and Marine personnel who were honorably discharged also receive the Honorable Service Lapel Button, nicknamed the ‘Ruptured Duck’. This was given to all those that were honorably discharged during World War II. The award had a twofold purpose: to show proof of military service while wearing civilian clothing [the lapel button was not worn with military uniform] and to receive recognition from agencies and private companies that the wearer was a veteran and could receive benefits such as reduced fares or free services. Since Fred completed his service honorably, he received the Ruptured Duck. A diamond shaped cloth patch was also issued for a veteran that could be worn on their Class A uniform for a subsequent 30 days.

Fred’s separation document (discovered February 18, 2021) shows that he also received a weapons marksmanship badge. Recruits are tested on their weapons proficiency during basic training and are scored on accuracy, technical skills, and speed. There are three categories of badges; Marksman, Sharpshooter, and Expert. Individual weapons bars are attached on each badge denoting the level of proficiency with that weapon. Fred was awarded the Sharpshooter badge with the Carbine bar on October 7, 1943. 

Fred returned to the U.S on January 3, 1946 and was sent to Fort Leavenworth for separation. The Army was demobilizing thousands of troops a week, sending them to various locations across the country to expedite the process. On January 14, 1946, Fred was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army Air Force. His wartime service was over. He served for two years, five months, and twenty-five days; a year and two months of which was overseas. 

According to family oral history, he completed forty-two missions with the 499th and made it out physically unscathed. The path he traveled took him across the United States, the entire width of the Pacific Ocean, and to foreign countries that a regular kid from Oklahoma might never have seen in his lifetime. Seven months after his discharge, he married Roberta Davis on August 18, 1946 and began a career with the Frisco Railroad. On 25 June 2006, Fred Laverne Richardson died from natural causes at the age of eighty-one. Four years later, Roberta joined him; together they both completed ‘well-finished lives.’

Jim Crow Followed us to England: The Battle of Bamber Bridge

Nearly every World War II history buff knows the story of the racial segregation faced by black soldiers and sailors. The U.S. Armed Forces were not racially integrated, resulting in many all black units and regiments. Integration wouldn’t happen until Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981 in 1948. Their work responsibilities were also limited to support roles in logistics, janitorial, and food services. Many did not see combat action with the exception of a few armored units such as ‘Patton’s Panthers’. As Black History Month continues, many historians have re-investigated covered-up stories of racial violence and intolerance in the WWII era. Even as the nation fought to preserve democratic nations, the denial of civil and equal rights in the black community became a sticking point in the ‘Double V Campaign.’ Volunteer service by blacks skyrocketed during WWII; they had served in nearly every U.S. conflict since the American Revolution and did so to prove their worthiness of citizenship and freedom. Resistance from some senior white officers and institutional racism within service branches led to unequal access to facilities in military posts, bases, and airfields in the United States. The story was different in Europe. The British and French welcomed them with open arms and couldn’t reconcile with the segregationist policies placed on black servicemen. They were all there to defeat the Axis powers; that alone should make them all equals.

In the 1980s, maintenance workers in Bamber Bridge, England carrying out remodeling work found what appeared to be bullet holes. They weren’t recent and stories emerged from some of the locals who lived in the area during the war. It was the Battle of Bamber Bridge. The Axis never invaded the main British Isles, but what transpired in the small village over forty years ago?

“Negro soldiers draw rations at the camp cook house at their station in Northern Ireland. Detachments of Negro troops were among the latest arrivals with the American forces in Northern Ireland.”, ca. 8/1942 (Records of the Office of War Information, 1926 – 1951, NAID 535544)

In 1943, the tide of war was beginning to change for the Allies. German forces were expelled from North Africa and Italy was the next target. U.S. troops arrived in England and began establishing bases of operation and prepared for the coming invasion of France. During this preparatory phase, soldiers, sailors, and airmen conducted training drills, firearms proficiency, and classroom instruction. Not all took part in this endeavor though. Black servicemen were primarily assigned to logistical roles in quartermaster companies, food service, and mechanical work. Coinciding with these was the unequal treatment and denial of access to specific facilities in base and when servicemen were on leave. Local villagers and townspeople in England welcomed black servicemen and were befuddled by the ‘Jim Crow’ atmosphere practiced by their white comrades. Black servicemen, who were routinely discriminated against in the U.S. enjoyed a new degree of freedom in Europe where no racial codes or institutional racism against blacks were practiced by locals. Despite that, their white counterparts and superior officers brought many of the Jim Crow attitudes with them. Military police designated certain businesses and services for blacks only and did not allow them to integrate with white servicemen in town. Differing opinions on race between soldiers and civilians though produced deadly results.

On the evening of June 24, 1943, black servicemen from the 1511th Quartermaster Truck Company arrived at Ye Olde Hob Inn, a pub near the edge of town. The 1511th was assigned to the 8th Air Force that operated multiple airfields in England and their primary duties consisted of making deliveries between posts. That evening, a small group of truck drivers on leave went to the pub for drinks and socializing. As the evening progressed, two white military policemen from the 234th Military Policy Company passed by the pub and spotted the group. They immediately barged in and pointed at Private Eugene Nunn. They noted he was wearing the M1941 field jacket and not his Class A uniform. Army regulation at the time stated that a soldier has to wear their Class A’s while on leave in a public place. They also charged him with going AWOL (absent without leave), but they all had their passes with them. Many of the pub tenants defended the them saying they weren’t causing any trouble and were in fact behaving civilly towards everyone. A black staff sergeant diffused the situation, but while the MPs departed, beer bottles were thrown at them (they did not see the suspect who threw the bottles). They called back to their superior officers who ordered them to bring in those who were ‘resisting arrest’. Shots were fired between the 1511th and the MPs which turned the incident deadly; Private William Crossland was shot in the back and died shortly thereafter.

“Pvt. Jonathan Hoag of a chemical battalion, is awarded the Croix de Guerre by General Alphonse Juin, Commanding General of the F.E.C., for courage shown in treating wounded, even though he, himself, was wounded. Pozzuoli area, Italy.” 3/21/1944 (Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, 1860-1985, NAID 531182)

Local villagers were left in shock. A racially charged incident like this leaving one person dead was frightening to them and they did not know what to expect next. Some black servicemen safely returned to the nearby airfield and when news spread of what happened at Ye Old Hob Inn, others began arming themselves with pistols and rifles. Their commanding officer, Major George Heris and Lieutenant Edwin Jones (the regiment’s only black officer) persuaded the men that they would seek justice from the white MPs for Crossland’s death. Around midnight, a small group of MPs arrived in jeeps and an armored vehicle with the intent to ‘put down a mutiny’ as described by a British police constable. A four hour firefight broke out between the 1511th and the MPs, leaving seven injured, but no additional fatalities.

A court-martial convicted thirty-two black servicemen guilty of mutiny and were dishonorably discharged. Some white officers wanted to cover up the violence quickly to prevent any drop in morale before the invasion of Europe, but others were not so quick to cast off this racist event. General Ira Eaker, commander of the 8th Air Force, squarely put the blame on the racist behavior of white MPs and their inexperienced, racist superiors. General Eaker conducted a thorough purge of 8th Air Force units, expelling any documented offenders of racist acts and integrated MP patrols. Despite his best efforts, news of the Bamber Bridge Riot was heavily censored both in England and the United States. Just a few days before, race riots in Detroit left dozens dead and wounded following months of socio-economic tension between whites and blacks. News of race riots in the U.S. overshadowed an incident like Bamber Bridge and memory of the fiery exchange faded with time.

Popular historical interest in the Bamber Bridge riot resurfaced when that maintenance worker found those bullet holes. Since then, scholars and historians have researched the history of racial antagonisms in the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II. While President Truman’s executive order integrated the military, racist behavior by whites towards blacks was and still remains a unresolved problem between all the service branches.

“Volunteer combat soldiers prepare for a day’s training in preparation for shipment to veteran units at front lines in Germany.”, 2/28/1945 (Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, 1860 – 1985, NAID 531357)

Persons of Exceptional Prominence: Celebrities in the Military

How would you react after discovering someone you served alongside with in the armed forces became a famous celebrity? Maybe a senator, writer, astronaut, or actor? That would be quite a story to say, ‘I served with John Glenn in the Marines’ or ‘I knew Isaac Asimov when he was in the Army.’ How amazing would it be to make that claim?

World Heavyweight champ Joe Louis (Barrow) sews on the stripes of a technical sergeant—to which he has been promoted (Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the Office of War Information, 1926 – 1951) View Joe Louis’ OMPF in the NARA Catalog.

The U.S. Armed Forces attracts people from all walks of life. Many took career direction during their service. Some even put aside their professional careers to enlist in the armed forces. When a veteran achieves some type of public notoriety, their service record becomes the subject of special interest. The National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) retains the Official Military Personnel Files (OMPF) for individuals labeled ‘Persons of Exceptional Prominence’ (PEP). This simply means that well-known public figures, i.e. politicians, scientists, celebrities, etc., have their records open to the public. Anyone can view these documents after following specific guidelines. You won’t see the original record due to preservation and security reasons, but the archival staff does reproduce the record.

Records for Persons of Exceptional Prominence are classified are Specially Protected Holdings (SPH). This constitutes an additional layer of security due to either the nature of work they did or the notoriety the attained in private life. Their military record becomes valuable and in order to prevent theft or vandalism, PEPs and SPHs receive distinguished protection.

Persons of Exceptional Prominence can also be exempt from some of the archival rules with the NPRC. When a service member has been separated from the military for 62 year from the date of final discharge, their record is categorized as archival. This means that now their service is public record and anyone can view it. This rule applies to all personnel records, not just PEPs. For example, you can request a complete copy of George S. Patton’s WWII service record, but not David Petraeus’ record; he was fully discharged in 2011. You could request a complete copy of Desi Arnaz’s service record (Ricky Ricardo of ‘I Love Lucy‘) but not MC Hammer’s service record since he was discharged in 1983 (Yes, the rapper and pioneer of hammer pants is a U.S. Navy veteran).

Identification photo of Bea Arthur. Before she was a ‘Golden Girl’ she was a staff sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps Women’s Reserve in World War II. View Bea Arthur’s OMPF in the NARA Catalog

Some records are more accessible than others. The National Archives manages a number of digitization projects. Scanning all types of records and documents are a priority for the agency. OMPFs for a select few personalities are fully digital and available for online viewing. A full listing is posted on the NARA website, but here is a snapshot of PEP service records that are fully digitized:

  • Charles Addams (Cartoonist, creator of ‘The Addams Family‘)
  • Spiro Agnew (U.S. Vice President and Governor of Maryland)
  • Alvin York (World War I Medal of Honor Recipient)
  • Maxwell Taylor (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Ambassador to South Vietnam)
  • Ruth Streeter (U.S. Marine Corps Women’s Reserve Director)
  • John Philip Sousa (Musician and composer of American military marches)
  • Margaret Chase Smith (U.S. Representative and Senator from Maine; joined service while serving in Congress)
  • Francis Scobee (U.S. Air Force colonel and astronaut; died in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster)
  • Theodore Roosevelt Jr. (Assistant Secretary of the Navy, son of President Theodore Roosevelt)
  • Lafayette Ron Hubbard (Science fiction writer and founder of Scientology)
  • Jackie Robinson (Professional athlete, first black baseball player to play for Major League Baseball)
  • Ernie Pyle (Journalist and war correspondent; killed in action during the Battle of Okinawa)
  • Josephine Bowman (Superintendent of the U.S. Navy Nurses Corps)
  • Robert Peary (Artic explorer who reached the North Pole)
  • John Dillinger (infamous bank robber and Public Enemy No. 1 during the Great Depression)

OMPFs for PEPs contain all the same information as any other personnel records. Enlistment contracts, training documents, transfers, disciplinary actions, citations, and more are held in said files. For more information on how to view PEPs, visit the National Archives website; Persons of Exceptional Prominence.

Brigadier General James Stewart. After going to Washington as Mr. Smith, Jimmy Stewart enlisted in the Army Air Force, served with distinction in Europe during World War II, and retired at the rank of brigadier general in 1968 (Image courtesy of the U.S. Air Force)

European Roots: How to Research Immigration and Naturalization Records

Human beings are mobile creatures. We’re always moving in some form or another; a walk around the block, driving to the store or a friend’s house, or traveling for business and pleasure. Uprooting one’s life to start anew elsewhere is a journey unlike anything else. What opportunities await and what dangers lie ahead? Those questions and more faced Europe immigrants arriving in the United States since the first settlers of the 17th and 18th centuries. Immigration and naturalization records are a window into such experiences.

Immigration to the United States can be described as cyclical. Large influxes followed by a period of doldrum. Reasons for immigration are varied; economic opportunity, escaping religious or ethnic violence, joining family members already in country, etc. Millions from Europe immigrated to North America since the colonial period. Family history and genealogical research routinely incorporates information from immigration and naturalization records. These are critical because it allows us to trace when and where people are moving and settling. Tracking movements can illustrate how their particular fortunes change and motivating factors for migrating. For many Americans who are descended from immigrants, these records are invaluable in constructing a family narrative. We first ask ourselves broad questions on how we access and interpret said records. Where do we begin and how far back does the documentation extend?

German immigrants boarding a ship for America in the late 19th century (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

Many genealogists and historians will tell you to gather as much firsthand information and primary documents as possible. They provide a vivid window into your ancestor’s journey. Journals, diaries, and letters are excellent sources, but consider yourself lucky if these survived multiple generations. The physical condition of paper records can deteriorate rapidly unless properly curated. Families who preserved genealogical records and wrote family histories are sometimes held in local local libraries. Immigrants that first settled a region are normally the subject of historical preservation. With primary documents and oral history, you can construct a chronological framework of an ancestor’s immigration and motives.

When researching European immigration, an important reference point is the Steerage Act of 1819. Congress required all foreign and domestic ships to produce manifests and passenger lists with demographic information. This information was then collected by the local customs office. Why is this law important? First, it produced a record of any taxable revenue for the customs office. For genealogists however, it marks official recordkeeping of immigration to the United States. If your ancestors arrived in 1820 or after, a physical record of their arrival exists. Immigration records prior to 1820 are significantly more difficult to acquire, but not impossible. Most libraries with genealogical offices keep a copy of William Filby’s Passenger and Immigration Lists Index: A Guide to Published Arrival Records of … Passengers who Came to the United States and Canada in the Seventeenth, Eighteenth, and Nineteenth Centuries. This annotated index provides a wealth of pre-1819 information on immigration to North America. This aid can provide leads to passenger lists and the national origin of ships. Ship manifests from 1820 onwards give the name, date of arrival, port of arrival, and national origin. In addition to the Filby work, publications by Carl Boyer and Michael Tepper compiled passenger lists by region, such as the following:

[Ship Passenger Lists, National and New England (1600-1825), New York and New Jersey (1600-1825), Pennsylvania and Delaware (1641-1825), the South (1538-1825)] [New World Immigrants: a Consolidation of Ship Passenger Lists and Associated Data from Periodical Literature, Passengers to America: A Consolidation of Ship Passenger Lists From the New England Historical and Genealogical Register, Emigrants to Pennsylvania, 1641-1819: a Consolidation of Ship Passenger Lists from the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Immigrants to the Middle Colonies: a Consolidation of Ship Passenger Lists and Associated Data from The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record]

European immigration occurred via oceanic crossings. Handfuls of immigrants found it more economical to travel to Canada or Mexico first and then to the United States. Border crossings were not as well documented before the mid-20th century though. If you believe this might be the case, there are numerous resources referencing ships, crew lists, and ports of entry in wider North America. Determining when and where your ancestors came forms an essential component of writing a family history. Dates and names are always subject to different ranges and spellings in websites such as Ancestry or FamilySearch. Searching by trial and error is necessary; it eliminates possible misspellings or wrong dates. Narrowing a search helps reduce the number of unrelated entries. Persistence is a good trait with genealogical research. If spelling on a name is off or a date range too large, revise and submit again!

Once you have sufficient returns on researching immigration records, the next step is learning how your ancestors became U.S. citizens. Naturalization records provide information on how immigrants became citizens. Prior to 1906, any court of law granted U.S. citizenship provided that resident aliens met residency requirements. After filing a ‘declaration of intent’ anyone could petition the most convenient courthouse and be granted citizenship. These include country, state, appellate, and circuit courts. The Naturalization Act of 1906 revised that practice. Beginning on September 27th 1906, only Federal courts were allowed to oversee the naturalization proceedings. This benefits modern-day genealogists in defining the parameters for searching naturalization records. An ancestor’s location at the time of naturalization is key in locating the appropriate archives that hold their information. Knowing where they lived will direct you to what state archives will hold those court documents. Archival holdings can vary by state so be sure to read up on their website on the research process. Post-1906 naturalization records can be searched through the National Archives (Naturalization Records). All Federal court systems periodically have records transferred to the archives and depending on when your relatives became citizens that will aid in your research. Copies of naturalization certificates are not kept by the archives; one goes to the recipient and another is filed with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). When submitting a naturalization request from the National Archives, the most basic information needed is the following:

Name of individual (including known variants)
Date of birth
Approximate date of entry to the US
Approximate date of naturalization
Where the individual was residing at the time of naturalization (city/county/state)
Country of origin

Census records are another valuable resource connected with researching immigration and naturalization. The census can reveal a wealth of information on relatives, including basic demographic information and national origin. If they immigrated, their year of arrival is listed. For more information, make sure to visit the National Archives – Census Records.

Wilson’s naturalization laws of the United States, showing how to become an American citizen; including U. S. Constitution, Declaration of independence, department regulations, forms, circa 1913 (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress)

The COVID-19 pandemic forced much of the history and genealogy field to adapt. While in-person research was abruptly halted, online and digital services exploded. More households began some form of family history work and websites like Ancestry and DNA ancestry recorded a major uptick in usage. Fortunately much of the industry was already moving in this direction. What does this mean for the researcher who purchases physical copies of immigration and naturalization documents? Until normal research practices resume, digital services are being reconfigured to help with their researching backlog. Hundreds of professionally managed and volunteer websites combine information and share resources on immigration and naturalization. Here are a list of excellent European immigrant research tools and databases:

  1. Guide to Immigration Records
  2. Passenger Arrival Lists, National Archives, New York
  3. US Immigration Passenger Arrival Lists, FamilySearch
  4. Arrivals at US Ports form Europe
  5. Library of Congress
  6. FindmyPast
  7. Archion
  8. Castle Garden (New York immigration records from 1820-1892)
  9. Ellis Island / Statue of Liberty Foundation
  10. National Archives – Immigration Records
  11. National Archives – Naturalization Records
  12. Citizenship Reference Reports
  13. Fold3
  14. Library and Archives, Canada
  15. Ships and Passengers (The UK National Archives)

A final piece of advice when it comes to researching immigration, naturalization, and other genealogical records; be patient. This type of work is a massive time commitment and not all resources are uniform. Frustration can easily set in if you find certain documents aren’t available online. There are literally millions of documents that are yet to be digitized and only a handful of institutions are conducting such work. This means that more information is being posted every year. Your researching process can evolve as a result. You may spend years searching for one name or document, but when you finally find it, the reward is well worth the effort and patience.

Naturalization ceremony of Albert Einstein. He became a U.S. citizen in 1940 after emigrating from Germany in 1933. He feared the rising power of the Nazis and fascist policies of the German government (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Witness to the Fall: A Review of ‘Decent Interval’ by Frank Snepp

Utter chaos. Left behind. Hellish destruction. No hope. Thousands of South Vietnamese civilians and soldiers lived in perpetual agony of whether or not Americans would rescue them from the approaching North Vietnamese Army (NVA). The ensuing battle would be catastrophic if Communists and remnants of the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) fought in the streets of Saigon. Meanwhile, fragile agreements, empty promises, and diplomatic false flags swirled around the globe in negotiating a compromise to save what was left of South Vietnam. To say that there were miscommunications and misunderstandings between parties is a definitively gross understatement. Between October 1972 and April 1975, a CIA analyst worked furiously on deciphering North Vietnamese plans while navigating a labyrinth of bureaucratic stonewalling and intelligence mismanagement. Despite signals of non-negotiable settlements and an almost willful denial of reality by senior leaders, Frank Snepp and others did their best to rescue at-risk Vietnamese civilians and military personnel. In 1977, Frank Snepp published ‘Decent Interval‘ chronicling the events leading up to Saigon’s collapse in 1975 and giving stark, graphic details of how competing military and political ideas created a quagmire of biblical proportions. Controversy surrounded Snepp’s book from the beginning as the CIA sued him over breach of contract, ultimately leading to a Supreme Court decision (United States vs. Frank W. Snepp, III). Despite losing his case, Snepp’s testimony sheds light on the tarnished integrity of CIA and U.S. political actions in South Vietnam. ‘Decent Interval‘ is, therefore, essential reading for anyone desiring to know what transpired in the last days of the Vietnam War.

Before delving into specific features of the book, the title phrase ‘decent interval’ references a theory that the Nixon Administration orchestrated plans to allow for a peaceful withdrawal from South Vietnam and avoid a military defeat. The Republic of Vietnam could not survive according to sources in the administration, including National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, stating:

‘Our terms would eventually destroy him.’ [‘Him’ referring to South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu]

“Richard Nixon and Henry A. Kissinger on 6 October 1972”. Presidential Recordings Digital Edition. University of Virginia.

Presidential, political, military, and Vietnamese scholars debate this practice and while Kissinger denied the ‘decent interval’ concept, the fact remains that while the United States remained committed to South Vietnam in public, a mirage of hope prevailed privately that many Vietnamese clung to but never came to fruition. President Nixon privately pledged to Thieu that if his country was ever threatened again by North Vietnam, U.S. air power would retaliate with full force. Following Nixon’s resignation from the Watergate scandal, Communists reasoning on U.S. re-intervention changed overnight. Without Nixon or the hope of an aerial defense, the NVA could launch a final assault on the south and finally reunify the country. The south’s fate was essentially sealed. Snepp’s accounting chronicles the events and people who took part.

The Paris Peace Accords of 1973 signed for the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops, a repatriation of POWs, and a general ceasefire. POWs returned home, the last regular army troops left in March 1973, but a handful of security and contractors remained behind to guard American consular offices. The ceasefire, however, was never honored and fighting resumed within days of the accords’ ratification (Image courtesy of the New York Times)

Frank Snepp (featured in Ken Burns’ documentary series The Vietnam War and the film Last Days in Vietnam) separates the book into sections; the bloody cease-fire of 1973, the piecemeal conquering of South Vietnam, and the final two days of Saigon’s life. The book reads as a play-by-play recalling actions with startling detail of various CIA, State Department, military, and civilian agency operations. In many ways, Snepp wrote the most complex after-action report one could ask for about the Fall of Saigon. The reader can expect to see familiar names reappear consistently and recognize the increasing anxiety as the enemy inched closer to victory. From the outset, ‘Decent Interval‘ sets a bleak tone on what the CIA did during the Vietnam War. This extends to the challenges faced by the Defense Attaché Office (DAO), the State Department, and the United States Information Agency (USIA). Intelligence gathered by CIA sources and surveillance of the South Vietnamese government painted a bleak picture of the ARVN’s capability to combat a serious invasion from the north. A principle actor who exerted disastrous influence was U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin. Martin entered South Vietnam in June 1973 with the goal of retaining South Vietnamese independence by any means necessary. He was a resolute old guard Cold Warrior determined to keep U.S. aid flowing. As Snepp repeats throughout the book, Martin was more concerned with conforming information and news to his worldview rather than taking facts to heart from trusted sources. His relationship with the media was not stellar either. These facets proved fatal for the South Vietnamese and remaining Americans who became increasingly frustrated with the Ambassadors’ actions. Snepp doesn’t kid gloves in his critique of Martin’s intransigence. Martin refused to even cut down a tamarind tree in the Embassy courtyard to allow for helicopter liftoffs; stating that it would hurt morale and incite panic. By that point, frenzied crowds of frightened Vietnamese should have signaled the oncoming doom. Saving the tamarind tree was akin to throwing furniture off the sinking Titanic.

Critiques about President Thieu’s regime were also harsh and the South Vietnamese army struggled to hold onto to key points in the country. Snepp describes his task to escort Thieu out of the country following his resignation. The unceremonious departure (and potential smuggling of valuables in his luggage) illustrates how reading the writing on the wall came too late. Leaders tried desperately to mount defenses on their own, but over-reliance on the U.S was an Achille’s heel after 1973. The ARVN was plagued with corruption, low morale, and with the evaporation of U.S. financial and military aid, they ran out of money and bullets. That same corruption extended to the government where competing factions constantly jockeyed for power. Disagreements became part of the everyday narrative in South Vietnam, but now with Communists only days away from unifying the country, they assumed larger importance with political settlements. Thieu’s military leadership emphasized a ‘light at the top, heavy at the bottom’ strategy where northern provinces bordering North Vietnam were abandoned in order to reinforce more populous centers in the south. The result was mass panic and confusion as Americans still in those provinces struggled to coordinate evacuations and destroy classified information. Disheartening reports about the collapse of ARVN divisions and hit-and-run tactics by the Viet Cong flooded into Saigon, forcing more Embassy staff to prepare for the worst. Snepp cites the DAO’s Colonel Bill Legro as a principle architect for the Saigon evacuation. Pre-arranged rendezvous points around the city would pick up Americans with proper credentials. South Vietnamese, through a mash-up of bribery and American largess, thrusted themselves into the evacuation even if official policy did not include them. Ambassador Martin and for some time, Thomas Polgar, CIA Station Chief, held out hope for a negotiated settlement arbitrated by the Soviet Union and China. As Snepp describes it, the CIA and U.S. Embassy botched a great deal of the evacuation prep work due to misconceptions on intelligence validity.

A U.S. Marine Security Guard watching as South Vietnamese attempt to enter the U.S. Embassy grounds. By the time the evacuation of Saigon began, many U.S. personnel believed that it was too late to rescue everyone who wanted to flee (Image courtesy of UPI)

Snepp evaluates the actions of many people in the last days of South Vietnam. Throughout the book, his criticisms Thomas Polgar increase exponentially over his handling and interpretations of intelligence sources. For a brief time, Polgar shared similar views as Martin concerning a negotiated settlement with the Communists (a tip from Hungarian associates in the ICCS [International Commission of Control and Supervision]). As time progressed and NVA forces captured Xuan Loc and cut communications out of Saigon, hopes of negotiation evaporated into nothingness. Hovering over the Embassy was the political front centered on the U.S. Congress who had the final say on authorizing military and aid funds to South Vietnam. Martin, Kissinger, and others desperately needed Congress to act. If South Vietnam were to fall, Congress, not the White House, State Department, or CIA, should take the blame. Snepp interprets Congressional machinations and their impacts in the broader context of how the U.S. handled foreign relations with South Vietnam. If the U.S. government was unwilling to move proactively in warding off a disaster, people on the ground needed to act swiftly.

April 1975. The month and year where all hell broke lose in Saigon. ‘Decent Interval‘ is only half of the book’s title, but the latter aptly describes the landscape: ‘An Insider’s Account of Saigon’s Indecent End Told by the CIA’s Chief Strategy Analyst in Vietnam‘. No one who wasn’t there couldn’t have described it as vividly as Snepp did. Between April 6 and April 29, the NVA hit major points around Saigon, including Tan Son Nhut Air Base and Vung Tau. Evacuation plans were still in disarray as senior leaders argued over how many personnel should be lifted out and when. Americans needed to be rescued, but determining at-risk Vietnamese was problematic and time consuming. Peace was still a far-flung hope, but Snepp cites this the principle obstacle in coordinating a withdrawal:

My imbroglio with Polgar left me bitter and frightened. As long as he and Martin refused to accept the inevitability of a Communist assault, it seemed likely they would continued to subordinate the evacuation effort to their peace gambit. In my anxiety I resolved to try to signal to Washington once again (as I had earlier through Moose and Miessner) how far off-trach I though they were.”

Snepp, Decent Interval, ‘Worst Case’, pg. 369
President Ford discusses the worsening situation in South Vietnam with from right to left, Brent Scowcroft, Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs (partially pictured); Graham Martin, United States Ambassador to the Republic of Vietnam; Army Chief of Staff General Frederick Weyand; and Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger. In the weeks leading up to the Fall of Saigon, the White House, Congress, Departments of Defense and State debated the best course of action, all while Snepp and his colleagues clandestinely move vulnerable Vietnamese out of the country (Image courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, White House Photographic Office Collection (Ford Administration), 12/6/1973 – 1/20/1977)

Snepp intimately recalls how he and his colleagues worked outside the system and broke convention to get desperate Vietnamese out of the country. Some whom they knew personally. These chapters and sections make ‘Decent Interval‘ a heart-wrenching read. One is immediately placed in the hot, humid, and bullet ridden Saigon city blocks. Snepp intricately weaves descriptions of civilians facing harsh decisions and finding creative ways to escape the country. Americans with proper credentials were collected at pre-arranged rendezvous points, but many Vietnamese were left behind upon realizing that they would be left behind. On April 29 1975, the North Vietnamese initiated the assault on Saigon. Intelligence reports drafted by Snepp revealed how the Communists were determined to drive onto the city and claim it by Ho Chi Minh’s birthday on May 19th. Cargo ships, commercial airplanes, and military airlifts were swamped with frightened civilians carrying their life possessions. The Ford Administration emphasized evacuating all Americans and their Vietnamese dependents, which resulted in an explosion of Americans claiming ‘dependents’. Since no official evacuation order was implemented due to hopes of a settlement, the best way to describe the scenario was haphazard. The worst description was a shit-show. Operation Frequent Wind, the official military directed evacuation, was initiated the day before, but without guidance from Ambassador Martin or the DAO, the military airlift had to improvise flying in helicopters and ferrying them out to Task Force 76 fleet in the South China Sea. CIA pilots and civilian contractors flying their own helicopters rescued Americans and at-risk Vietnamese as well. The famous image of a CIA officer helping civilians up a narrow ladder on top of 22 Gia Long Street into an Air America chopper was a defining image of the Fall of Saigon. Polgar by this point radically changed his view on the military situation. He scrambled to save personal Vietnamese friends and destroyed classified information. Incinerators ran around the clock destroying burn bags filled with shredded documents. His final cable to Washington D.C. resonated with historic implications:

“It has been a long and hard fight and we have lost…This experience unique in the history of the United States does not signal necessarily the demise of the United States as a world power. The severity of the defeat and the circumstances of it, however, would seem to call for a reassessment of the policies of niggardly half measures which have characterized much of our participation here despite the commitment of manpower and resources which were certainly generous. Those who fail to learn from history are forced to repeat it. Les us hope that we will not have another Vietnam experience and that we have learned our lesson.”

Saigon. Signing off.

Final Message of CIA Station Chief Thomas Polgar, April 29th 1975.

Late into the evening of April 29th, Snepp and the last of the CIA personnel made their way to the embassy roof helicopter pad, boarded a CH-47, and swiftly flew out to sea, landing on the USS Denver. Below them were throngs of civilians clamoring for salvation. Time and again they were reassured that helicopters would pick them up, but they were empty promises as only Americans were evacuated. Within 24 hours of landing on the USS Denver, Snepp finally heard the news he knew was coming; Saigon capitulated and was renamed Ho Chi Minh City.

Personally, this massive tome was startling. Snepp’s inside accounts and direct knowledge of Communist operations made me re-think a few things. First, what I was taught in my U.S. and the Vietnam War class in undergraduate was severely watered down and glossed over the finer points of Kissinger’s double-dealing, the sheer stupidity of Graham Martin, and the South Vietnamese government’s practically non-existent democratic institutions. The enormously perplexing situation inside the U.S. Embassy makes no wonder of why evacuation plans were constantly outdated or rendered useless. Above all, Snepp laments for the thousands of left behind Vietnamese who worked for the U.S. and faced prison, re-education, and execution by the Communists. In testimonies before Congress, Martin claimed that the evacuation was an astounding achievement of American planning and execution. Snepp disagreed:

‘Some legislators, however, were not so sure. Although none disputed the difficulties the Ambassador had faced, there lingered widespread suspicion that he had brought a great many of them on himself. Far from expediting the evacuation during the first weeks of April, he had, it seemed, helped to stall if off-partly by fostering the notion (with Kissinger and Weyand’s help) that one more aid appropriation might avert disaster…Even then it was less Martin’s ingenuity than the imagination and initiative of subordinate staffers that kept the operation rolling along. Without General Smith’s “inspirations” there probably would have been no evacuations at all…the improvisatory and haphazard nature of the evacuation of course had its cost.’

Snepp, Decent Interval, ‘Internal Hemorrhaging’, pg. 564, 565

Every bit of intelligence pointed to a non-negotiable Communist victory. Hanoi would not suffer compromise under any circumstances. Why couldn’t Kissinger, Martin, or Polgar understand this notion? Why wait until the last minute to make a crucial decision on saving lives? Snepp points to far flung hopes for negotiated settlements through Soviet channels and constant pressure for Congressional appropriations to foreign aid. Following Watergate and the passage of the War Powers Act, senators and representatives were unwilling to approve any more aid. Reluctance after years of anti-war protests pushed Congress and the White House to focus on domestic issues such as inflation, unemployment, and foreign relations in the Middle East. No one cared for Vietnam any longer.

Decent Interval‘ was an exploration of the mind for any concerned person living in Saigon on April 30th 1975. In later testimonies, Snepp laments the loss of so many Vietnamese who weren’t evacuated. In a way this book memorializes the Vietnamese left behind in the U.S. Embassy. Rescued families were the lucky ones and would always remember the time as ‘Black April’ in their life. ‘Decent Interval‘ set a new bar for my own understanding of the Vietnam War. At great personal sacrifice, Snepp brought to light what many Americans tried to forget and still try to today; so much went wrong with the evacuation of Saigon. Had it not been for a brave, enterprising people, so many more would have lost their lives.

‘Operation Frequent Wind’ – Marine pilots and members of the flight deck crew aboard the USS Hancock, assist Vietnamese refugees from CH-53 helicopters during the evacuation of Saigon (Image courtesy of the National Archives, Records of the U.S. Marine Corps)

Here Come the Scots: Burns Clubs, Clan Organizations and St. Andrew Societies in North America

*Note: the following article is an abridgement taken from my MA thesis on Scottish cultural history and heritage in the United States; an oral and public history project undertaken at Emporia State University between 2014-2016.

Flashy tartans, loud bagpipes, and thickly exaggerated brogues are just something to assault the eyes and ears when attending a Scottish event. In North America, hundreds of Highland games, Scottish festivals, and Burns dinners are held to highlight Scottish-American heritage. Scots settled the continent long before the American Revolution and promptly banded together for survival. Modern Caledonian groups, St. Andrew societies, Burns clubs, and clan organizations provide an educational service: public forums on information sharing, membership networking, and educational activities.  These groups are essential in the dissemination of historical and cultural knowledge of the Scots. They are repositories through their members’ contributions, communications, and cultural events. They reflect historical traditions and heritage. Social groups grow through the active participation of members who have become aware of their history and ancestry through self-education. As a result, members contribute to the overall growth of public and historical memory through their association within the Scottish-American community.

The Order of Scottish Clans was a fraternal organization founded in St. Louis in 1878 aimed at providing relief for widows and families. Chapters sprang up across North America, but the group was defunct by 1971 where it was assimilated by the Independent Order of Foresters.

Modern cultural organizations are framed around institutions that were prevalent in the 18th and 19th centuries. Early Scottish societies functioned primarily as charitable groups addressing a community’s needs.  What many practiced was maintaining their cultural hegemony in foreign areas.  Building outreach and charitable groups modeled on a shared cultural identity allowed for their community to develop simultaneously.  St. Andrew societies were established for this purpose. St. Andrew societies (named after the patron saint of Scotland) adopted educational goals for their members. Today, St Andrew society activities include assisting in genealogical research, sponsoring cultural events, and educational outreach.  Societies regularly participate in public events and engage with similar groups in practicing cultural and historical preservation. These connections are important in promoting openness and outreach, which foster relationships within the Scottish-American community. 

Cultural groups remain open to dialoguing over different methods of leaning and teaching heritage.  As more people discuss Scottish history and heritage, shared public memory is stimulated, prompting increased individual self-education.  Participation has been integral in historical and cultural preservation.  The key is active public engagement founded on learning and teaching about Scotland.  St. Andrew societies maintain their repertoire of historical information through their own records and the knowledge produced by their memberships. 

Highland games and Scottish festivals typically open with a ceremony entitled ‘Calling of the Clans’ where representatives announce their clan’s presence to the audience.

Modern Scottish clans are centered around a forum for sharing genealogical and historical information encompassing the clan itself and members. The global network that stems from these associations provides people with a common knowledge base and opportunities to cultivate shared heritage practices. This includes learning about the clan’s history within the broader Scottish narrative. By joining clan groups and accessing materials and members, they can augment their research and incorporate additional historical narratives into their genealogies.  Such practices also contribute to the collective sense of joining a cultural community.  Clan organizations regularly conduct social events, participate at Scottish public events, sponsor educational programs and scholarships, and network with international chapters and share information globally.  Throughout these exchange, historical dialogue is exchanged through references to clan heritage, cultural practices, and individual genealogical research.  Drawing connections between the clan historical narrative and the genealogical narrative of the researcher himself constructs an integrated narrative.  This can be instrumental in revealing additional connections between ancestors and investigating the associated history in deeper detail. 

Prominent St. Louis businessman William K. Bixby sponsored the Burns Cottage at the 1904 World’s Fair. Afterwards, he and other Burns enthusiasts founded the Burns Club of St. Louis, which still meets today with a very selective membership.

How do these all contribute to public learning of Scottish history and heritage?  They consolidate and streamline historical, cultural knowledge, and heritage practices into public perspectives building a collective consciousness.  Group meetings, reunions, and more act as forums encouraging an exchange of ideas and knowledge people utilize for their research. Heritage groups are also important in orchestrating cultural networks and outreach. Their visibility and transparency is central to attracting the general public’s attention in garnering interest.  The Burns Club of St. Louis is an example of garnering public interest in sharing Scottish heritage and history.  Founded in 1904 following the World’s Fair, the organization was established for the purpose of discussing literature by the Scottish poet Robert Burns. Aside from hosting annual Burns suppers, the club was actively engaged in collecting Burns manuscripts, hosting lectures, and networking with other Scottish organizations. By focusing on a central figure in Scottish history, these club members were accomplishing two goals; they augmented their knowledge of Burns literature and second, they were educating themselves on the accompanying history through heritage practices. Historical memory is influenced by these groups because as they acquire new members and exchange of historical knowledge, public interpretation of that specific cultural group and its associated history can fluctuate dramatically.  Scottish organizations are therefore indispensable in coordinating cultural and historical knowledge for public education.  

The upper room of the St. Louis Burns Club. The original building where the club held meetings was demolished, but the organization still meets (although current sources have been tight-lipped about their status)

Humanity in the Ocean: The SEALAB Program and Capt. George Bond, MD

Dr. George Foote Bond envisioned people living in the ocean. Not just in submarines or diving bells, but in fully furnished environments where a person can eat, sleep, and work for weeks at a time. Much of what the ocean offered in terms of scientific research was immense in the mid-20th century. Underwater explorers only glimpsed what was beneath the waves. Pioneers like Jacques Cousteau who led conservation efforts and developed novel aquatic technology like the ‘aqualung’ were a new generation of scientists exploring the ocean. The barrier to expanding these horizons was overcoming the physical and psychological limitations of the human body. Dr. Bond would spend his entire Naval career researching the answer.

George Bond was a well-loved doctor in North Carolina. He was profiled by the American Medical Association for his services in rural counties and was proclaimed ‘Doctor of the Year’ by the community of Bat Cave, NC where he lived. In 1953, Bond joined the U.S. Navy’s medical corps and was certified as a diving and submarine medical officer. It was during these early years that Bond became enamored with diving and undersea exploration. At the Naval Medical Research Lab (NMRL) in Connecticut, Captain Bond collected data on the effects of underwater pressure on the human body and novel diving techniques. One practice called the ‘blow-and-go’ was a method for endangered submarine crews to safely exit the craft if it sustained damage. Bond was obsessed with his theory of ‘saturation diving’. Bond argued that as divers descended deeper underwater and their bodies absorbed the maximum amount of gas molecules, their decompression time would remain static. An underwater habitat pressurized to the appropriate depth was needed in order to allow divers to live in that environment. Under direction from the Secretary of the Navy and the NMRL, Bond and his colleague Walter Mazzone began the Genesis Project.

Capt. George Bond (far right) instructing Navy divers on the various parameters of the Genesis Project. They needed to be extremely accurate in their data findings in order to ensure their theory of saturation diving could be proven in real-world practice (Image courtesy of the Office of Naval Research)

Genesis’ goals were developing a safe breathing mixture in a pressurized environment for divers and determine the amount of time needed for decompression. These two puzzles were crucial to Bond’s saturation theory. Mazzone developed a gas mixture comprised primarily of helium with small levels of oxygen and nitrogen. After various trials with test animals (the first batch dying from oxygen toxicity), the project moved onto human testing. Volunteers were observed inside the pressure chamber conducting experiments for specific lengths at time. Between 1957 and 1963, the Genesis Project gathered a mountain of data on atmospheric and environmental conditions. Test subjects and Navy divers Robert Barth, Sanders Manning, Raymond Lavois, and John Bull endured a battery of varying breathing mixtures, but after their longest endurance of 12 days at 198 fsw (feet of seawater, or 7 atmospheres of pressure), saturation diving became a proven concept. A person could live underwater in a controlled environment indefinitely. In an article in ‘Environmental Health’ Bond presented his findings:

As a result of some six years of animal and human studies involving closed ecological systems, elevated pressures, and synthetic atmospheres, the stage has been set for operational application of the work. It would now appear that we can safely station men at any point on the submerged continental shelf, with a reasonable expectancy of useful performance for prolonged periods of time.

New Developments in High Pressure Living‘, 1964

With atmospheric testing completed, constructing a suitable habitat was the next step. Bond and his team searched through shipyards and found two old depth charge sweepers. These cylindrical structures were the perfect size. Welders and engineers improvised in joining the shells and produced a long, cigar shaped habitat. They outfitted it with bunk beds, kitchen appliances, a bathroom, and a workspace for recording scientific data. While the setup seemed crude, it was all the divers needed.

SEALAB I. This relatively simple design was the first step in the man-in-the-sea program showing that a person could live on the ocean floor, circa 1964 (Image courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

In July 1964, SEALAB I and its crew were sent to the coast of Bermuda to test the new habitat. During this preparation, they received an unexpected boost in public profile; Malcolm Scott Carpenter. The decorated Navy commander and Mercury astronaut who recently completed an orbit around Earth, became interested in Bond’s research. His interest in oceanic research was sparked by Jacques Cousteau while attending a lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Carpenter looked forward to participating in the first SEALAB expedition, but an motorcycle accident days before sidelined him. On July 20, the habitat was lowered almost two hundred feet into the ocean. The four divers (Robert Thompson, Lester Anderson, Robert A. Barth, and Sanders Manning) spent their days swimming in the surrounding waters, recording data, and documenting the issues with the SEALAB capsule. Problems arose concerning the internal temperature, humidity, and communications, and the divers sometimes improvised repair work on the seafloor. Ominous tropical storms approached Bermuda eleven days into the project, cutting their schedule short. In that time however, Bond and the diving team proved that a person could work and live in an underwater pressurized environment. Bond finally proved his theory of saturation diving.

Shifting the focus from SEALAB to the broader historical context, Bond’s research was crucial in the United States’ competition with the Soviet Union. The Cold War influenced scientific research with the U.S. Armed Forces and researchers embarked on a flurry of defense work to gain advantages. Confrontations were most likely to occur at sea and with modern navies transitioning to nuclear-powered ships and submarines, the race for oceanic dominance progressed. Deep-sea diving was given high priority as the potential for underwater rescue crews increased. Geopolitical factors now played a role in the success of research like Bond’s and SEALAB needed to perform flawlessly.

With the success of SEALAB I, the Navy immediately authorized Bond to begin work on SEALAB II. Bond received an enormous increase to his budget from the Navy (along with the Legion of Merit medal) following the success of SEALAB I. The design and construction of the second habitat comprised a full year and made improvements on the previous schematics.

Commemoration of the SEALAB II facility and crew. Scott Carpenter is standing in middle of front row in a dark suit (Image courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

Heating coils and air-conditioning were added to regulate temperature and humidity, refrigeration to store perishable foods, and a larger laboratory. Fully recovered from his accident a year before, Scott Carpenter joined the SEALAB team in La Jolla, California ready to become an aquanaut. The first team of divers moved into the habitat on August 28, 1965 along with Carpenter. Two separate teams worked fifteen days each in the habitat, but Carpenter remained for the entire thirty day duty. This world was totally different from the warm waters of Bermuda. Freezing temperatures and pitch black darkness obscured the diver’s work. Marine life posed dangers too; jellyfish, pufferfish, and others could penetrate wetsuits and leave painful welts. Despite these challenges, the SEALAB II team made headlines for their achievements, including a celebratory phone call from President Lyndon Johnson. In addition to collecting more data on saturation diving and pressurization, SEALAB II tested electrically heated wetsuits and conducted salvage operations off the California coast. The team also welcomed a new addition, but it wasn’t a diver or new equipment; a bottlenose dolphin named Tuffy. The Navy’s Marine Mammal Program (MMP) trained animals to assist Navy personnel in rudimentary tasks and in the case of SEALAB, Tuffy was trained to ferry supplies between divers and the habitat. The results were mixed, but well enough to retain Tuffy for the next project. SEALAB II completed its mission on October 10, 1965 and the future looked bright for George Bond and his crew. Underwater exploration and deep-sea diving operations began to assume even greater importance in Cold War context. Humans were going further than had ever though possible.

CDR Carpenter performing inspections inside SEALAB II. His experience with SEALAB sparked a lifelong dedication to oceanography and marine conservation (Image courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

These accomplishments, however, did not cement SEALAB’s permanence and shelter it from outside forces. As the Vietnam War consumed an ever-climbing cost of men and resources, funding for programs like SEALAB were given low priority. Experienced sailors, divers, and engineers were transferred to the South China Sea and left Bond’s program in disarray. It wouldn’t be for another four years before enough funding and materials became available for SEALAB III. Always wanting to improve upon the past, Bond upgraded the SEALAB II habitat in order for divers to conduct salvage operations and fishery studies. From these optimistic goals though, problems constantly set the SEALAB team back. Construction delays caused the majority of problems. New types of seals, gaskets, pressurized containers, and electrical lines were changing specifications on a constant basis. The result was ill-fitting parts causing air leaks in the main cabin which if left unresolved would have resulted in divers asphyxiating. The project exceeded budget and costs, further irritating Bond and his superiors. A date for submersion was finally set for February 15, 1969; five teams of divers would serve twelve day rotations off the coast of San Clemente Island, California. Another sudden change caught the SEALAB team off-guard; the depth of the habitat was increased to an unprecedented 600 feet (18 atmospheres of pressure). Bond became concerned since all previous tests had not occurred at that depth so the likelihood of failure was elevated. The divers were lowered into the water, but their insulated suits were not adequate enough to keep them warm. The crippling cold waters sapped their strength and when they arrived at the habitat, more problems arose. An interior neoprene seal failed causing helium to leak from the chamber. Unable to raise the habitat back to the surface, the diver needed to repair the seal themselves. It was during this repair that SEALAB experience its first human fatality. Berry L. Cannon, an electronics engineer, began convulsing and struggling to breathe. Other divers like Robert Barth tried forcing their breathers into his mouth, but muscle contractions prevented Cannon from opening his mouth. They moved back into the diving bell trying to resuscitate Cannon, but it was too late. His body was transferred to the San Diego Naval Hospital where the final autopsy report indicated the cause of death as carbon dioxide poisoning. An inquiry board was established to evaluate the events leading up to the tragedy. They learned that Cannon’s diving rig was not functioning properly; the carbon dioxide baralyme scrubber was empty meaning that carbon dioxide couldn’t be expelled from the system. This caused a backlog in the breathing mixture, thereby resulting in CO2 poisoning. Hypothermia was viewed as a contributing factor also given the extremely cold water.

The SEALAB III habitat being transported through San Francisco Bay in 1969. After four years of research and development and millions of dollars over budget, the structure was ready for testing. It still came plagued with problems from the beginning (Image courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

Berry Cannon’s death foreshadowed the death of SEALAB. As family and fellow teammates mourned this loss, potential culprits were never prosecuted. Officially the U.S. Navy ruled his death as an accident, but outside geopolitical forces arguably prevented them from arresting anyone at fault. A year prior, on January 23 1968, the USS Pueblo was captured by North Korean forces, marking a major incident in the Cold War. John Craven, head of the Navy’s Deep Submergence Systems Project, claimed that any other negative press about the U.S. Navy wouldn’t be tolerated. With Cannon’s death and coupled with the escalating war in Vietnam, the SEALAB program ended and scrapped the SEALAB III habitat.

Bond’s dream of underwater living did not die with SEALAB though. In following years, other governments and the private sector took the lessons gained from Bond’s work and applied it to their own. Saturation diving meant that people could function underwater for extended periods of time and opened novel ways of working in the ocean. Today, the Office of Naval Research and its Undersea Medicine Program relies heavily on Bond’s work with their experiments in testing human endurance in underwater environments. Marine conservation groups rely on saturation diving to document natural and man-made disasters in the ocean and promote oceanic health. When it comes to exploring the ocean, scientists and divers can thank George Bond and the SEALAB team for blazing a trail to the bottom of the sea and opened up new ways of looking at our world.

Aquanauts for SEALAB II. Scott Carpenter is positioned in the front row, second from the left (Image courtesy of the Office of Naval Research)

‘Some People Have To Get Killed’: CIA Operations during the Korean War

You’re a Korean refugee on an island in the Pacific Ocean. A shadowy American tells you that you’re going to be trained to infiltrate Communist-controlled Korea. Technicians teach you basic survival skills–albeit through an interpreter since he can’t speak Korean–and assign you to codenamed teams [White Tiger, Yellow Dragon]. A short time later, you’re parachuting in the darkness over enemy territory and if the briefing intelligence holds true, you can expect to lead guerrillas and resistance groups against the Communists. Underlying this operation though is a catastrophe waiting to happen. Falsified intelligence, poor preparation, and administrative failures lead to your capture, interrogation, and likely death. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) conducted numerous paramilitary operations on the Korean peninsula during the Korean War (1950-1953) and the majority ended in failure. Contemporary analysts and modern historians agree that the CIA’s first ‘hot war’ was not its finest hour.

The CIA was only three years old by the outbreak of the Korean War. The National Security Act of 1947 established the agency and the National Security Council, all with the goal of enhancing the United States’ international security. With eyes on the U.S. leading the post-war world, the CIA needed to act. Sources inside North Korea and China were severely limited however. Much of the agency’s personnel and financial resources were centered on Europe, believing that was the more imminent Communist threat. Any high level information from the Far East was procured by South Korean President Syngman Rhee or the Chiang Kai-shek regime and was at best, marginally truthful. Old State Department files provided additional, albeit outdated, information. The lack of intelligence officers and sources in Korea left the U.S. perilously unprepared for the North Korean invasion. Gen. Douglas MacArthur stonewalled the agency from conducting paramilitary operations, but the Director of Central Intelligence, Gen. Walter Bedell Smith (a decorated WWII general who served as Gen. Eisenhower’s chief-of-staff) directed agents to provide tactical intelligence to UN forces. A special group within the Office of Reports and Estimates focused solely on Korea as a way to increase the agency’s analysis. What followed however were a series of intelligence failures that embarrassed the agency.

Hundred of CIA agents and trained guerrillas were parachuted into North Korea, but many were captured within days of landing. Hundreds of operatives were tortured and executed by the Communists (photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, 1860 – 1985, ca. 1951)

The first was the agency’s assessment of Chinese intervention. In an dispatch to President Truman and General MacArthur’s Wake Island conference, the CIA argued that the Chinese would not attack the Korean peninsula. Two sources inside the Tokyo station disagreed however, claiming that hundreds of thousands of enemy troops were poised to cross the Yalu River. These reports were ignored and when the Chinese launched their assaults in November 1950, Bedell Smith was stunned. Having misread the enemy, the CIA needed to re-prioritize its operations and intelligence analysis. Deputy Director of Plans, Allen Dulles (future Director of Central Intelligence) and Smith quarreled over the effectiveness of covert missions. In declassified documents from 2002, Smith received vague and circular answers from his deputies on the status of overseas operations. This opaqueness resulted in unending frustration that plagued the CIA’s role in the Korean War. Most paramilitary operations were described as, “not only ineffective but probably morally reprehensible in the number of lives lost.” Peter Sichel, the Hong Kong station chief described these efforts as “… suicidal and irresponsible. They were sent to supply nonexistent or fictitious resistance groups.” As events on the battlefield transpired, the agency explored options in gathering solid intelligence and inserting moles into the Communist bloc.

Frank Wisner, chief of covert operations, was a giant in the early days of the CIA. Having conducted numerous operations in Europe, he embarked on a similar approach to Korea. Pitching millions of dollars to creating an agent training center in Saipan, many of the same lessons taught by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during WWII were applied in Korea. A problem however was the lack of geographical, historical, and economic information available to the deployed officers. The Eurocentric focus left many ill-suited on Far Eastern scenarios. Tim Weiner, a CIA historian, writes that this deficiency had bloody consequences for the agency:

These men [CIA agents] were thrown into battle with little preparation or training. One among them was Donald Gregg, fresh out of Williams College. His first thought when the war broke out was ‘where the hell is Korea?’…. Gregg took tough Korean farm boys plucked from refugee camps, brave but undisciplined men who spoke no English, and tried to turn them into instant American intelligence agents. The CIA sent them on crudely conceived missions that produced little save a lengthening roster of lost lives.

Tim Weiner, Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, p. 55

The world of covert intelligence gathering and operations requires a high level of scrutiny to determine the accuracy of information. Checking the validity of sources and having reliable contacts are pillars in making judgements for operations. In Korea though, fabricated reports and outright lies were commonplace. Enterprising men who approached agency officers with ‘insider information’ were later revealed to have been con men trying to insert themselves into the Rhee regime or CIA payroll.

DCI Smith (left) and President Truman (right) discussing over a large globe. DCI Smith was seen as an innovator who modernized the CIA, but operational and intelligence failures in Korea plagued him constantly during his tenure (Image courtesy of the CIA, circa 1950-1953)

One notable example involving the fabricated intelligence deception occurred with the activities of three brigades under OSS veteran Hans Tofte. Between April 1951 and September 1952, thousands of Korean exiles were dropped into North Korea with missions to serve as intelligence gathering teams, carry out guerrilla warfare tactics, and rescue captured American pilots. Hundreds of these exiles were captured and executed, but those who survived were sending back a flood of radio traffic detailing Communist operations. To the Seoul CIA station chief, Albert Haney, these operative were making progress by leaps and bounds. Providing valuable intelligence that could change the course of the war. Many of these reports became too fantastic to believe and Haney’s successor, John Hart, thoroughly reviewed these reports. It was odd that despite having two hundred officers in Seoul, no one spoke Korean. What Hart discovered was that nearly all Korean operatives were actually feeding manufactured intelligence supplied by the North Koreans and Chinese. Another large portion were outright lies by operatives themselves. This intelligence had already been passed up the chain of command and used as a foundation for covert and military operations, but it was faulty from the start. The damage was done and irreparable. But how to emerge from this debacle without publicly tarnishing the CIA?

Deputy Director of Intelligence, Loftus Becker, was sent to assess the Seoul station’s ability to conduct uncompromising intelligence gathering, but quickly concluded that enemy penetration was too easy. No reliable reports could be generated and it was evident that the CIA would have to start over in the Far East. No one was able to infiltrate the North Korean regime and the agency was being deceived at every turn. In a meeting with senior agency leaders, Frank Wisner stated:

We are all aware that our operations in the Far East are far from what we would like… We simply have not had the time to develop the quantity and kind of people we must have it we are to successfully carry out the heavy burdens which have been placed on us.”

Legacy of Ashes, p. 58

What directed many of the CIA’s policies was its emphasis on Europe. Asia was normally considered a secondary theater that did not pose a significant danger. Allen Dulles reinforced this ideology following his promotion to DCI and subsequent intelligence failures in China and Indochina. The legacy of the Korean War for the CIA was one of recurring disappointment. The best that could be said was that Bedell Smith’s restructuring of agency offices and command chain is still used today, but nothing can salvage the cost of human lives that were lost trying to combat the Communists in Korea.

The First Landing: The Navy / Marine Corps Expeditionary Medal

Picture this: gigantic waves crash against a ship’s hull causing it to pitch back and forth. Far off in the distance is an enormous, sandy beach. Lowered into the water are smaller transports and rope ladders stretching down from the deck. Dozens of men clamor their way down and the transport ferries them to shore. It pulls into shallow water at low tide, the causeways open, and soldiers quickly file out. They’re prepared for anything the moment they hit the beaches. They’re the vanguard of an expeditionary force for the U.S. Marine Corps brought there by the U.S. Navy.

(L) Navy Expeditionary Medal, (R) Marine Corps Expeditionary Medal

Continuing with the ongoing series of U.S. Armed Forces awards and decorations, the Navy and Marine Corps Expeditionary Medal (NEM, MCEM) are two of the oldest actively awarded medals. They also hold the distinction of being the only two whose retroactive criteria extends back into the 19th century. Established by an Act of Congress in 1919 (MCEM) and 1936 (NEM), both can be awarded to any Marine or Navy personnel who participated in an expeditionary operation on foreign soil dating back to 1874. Qualifications for the NEM and MCEM include the following:

  • Participated in a landing on foreign territory
  • Engaged in operations against a hostile enemy force
  • Operated under circumstances that warrant special or meritorious recognition

In a prior post on Navy and Marine Corps medals, the two branches share the same awards. The NEM and MCEM are exceptions though. Only veterans in either branch are eligible to receive that respective award, i.e. only Navy veterans can receive the NEM. Additionally, the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal (AFEM) can be awarded to Navy and Marine Corp personnel in lieu of the NEM or MCEM, provided they meet specific criteria. The AFEM has been authorized for over forty military campaigns since 1958 and a minority include operations that doubly qualify for a NEM or MCEM. More recent operations such as Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom, and Inherent Resolve are campaigns qualifying only the Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal (GWOTEM). Unfortunately, with each foreign nation where U.S. operations are ongoing having their own campaign medal and newer awards like the GWOTEM, issuance of the NEM and MCEM have declined.

The veteran’s Official Military Personnel Folder (OMPF) typically lists the name of the operation that qualified them for the award. In some cases however where the nature of said operation is classified, that information is omitted and what remains is only the order authorizing the award. This is especially important for Navy review boards overseeing changes to OMPFs or providing duplicate copies of awards and decorations.

For a complete list of authorized Navy and Marine Corps expeditions that can receive the NEM and MCEM, visit the Naval History and Heritage Command webpage: Navy/MC Service and Campaign Awards.