Documenting Navy fleet oral history

For the past 29 years, an elite group of Reserve Sailors attached to Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) have crisscrossed the globe to document and record fleet oral history for future generations.

Playing an integral part of our Navy by influencing its numerous traditions, missions and policies, the NHHC strengthens the Navy’s effectiveness by collecting, preserving, analyzing and interpreting the service’s hard-earned experiences. As the institutional memory of the Navy, NHHC has a small footprint of active duty enlisted and officers working alongside 30 Navy Reservists who serve as fleet historians.

Since 1991, these Reserve fleet historians have staffed the Navy Combat Documentation Unit (NCDU). The Reserve team — made up of civilian pilots, scientists, state federal employees, high school teachers, lab technicians and even a part-time stand-up comic — provides routine and mobilization support in documenting both combat and peacetime operations.

Because the mission is quite dynamic, unit members often travel to far off places such as Jordan, the Philippines, Sicily and Norway, sometimes on urgent assignments. For example, an away team recent flew to Oslo, Norway to catch USS Iwo Jima (LHD-7) to document preparations for operating in cold weather and large seas, after almost 20 years focusing on operations in the hot, flat seas of the Arabian Gulf.

“This is no ‘Sleepy Hollow’ assignment,” said Retired Rear Adm. Samuel J. Cox, who today serves as the NHHC director in a civilian role. “But, hey, riding around on strike groups is a lot more fun than sitting at a desk.”

These Reserve historians also facilitate the completion of the annual Command Operations Reports (CORs) assigned to their fleet or command, which include Fleet Forces, Submarine and Naval Surface Forces, several numbered fleets, Atlantic and Pacific Fleets, Naval Air Forces and SEAL Team 17. CORs provide a chronology of significant events and operations that occur during a given year. The Reserve team ensures the activities of the commands will become a permanent detailed part of the Navy’s historical record.

“We make history relevant — understanding the past, informing the present, and guiding our decisions about the future,” said Capt. Bryon T. Smith, a former NCDU commanding officer.

Naval history is gathered and recorded, then filed at NHHC, and eventually housed in the National Archives. An abstract is written to facilitate pulling data in the future. The daunting, but thrilling goal is to gather first-hand information that historians or leadership would want to know 20-30 years from now.

For example, fleet historians aboard the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75), focused on the ship’s recent Arctic operations; the first time in decades a U.S. carrier has gone above the Arctic Circle.

Having historians on scene is important because “each interviewee had a different take on the Arctic operations,” said Caitlin Nowak, NHHC’s Deputy Curator Branch Head. “Supply Officers delved into getting the right equipment, food and other supplies; the Commanding Officer spoke to the research performed and the numerous baseball bats purchased to break up potential ice build-up; and the commander of the air group got into how much the elements taxed the flight line crews.”

Sometimes it is hard to know exactly what information will be used in the future, while other nuggets like baseball bats to break ice is easy to flag as memorable. And being on the team also serves up unique memories for the members.

“This was my first time on a carrier and learning how to get around, reading the bull’s eyes, was critical,” Nowak said. “It took a bit to acclimate to the sounds of the jet blast deflectors and catapults, often running in the middle of the night, and to the lack of sunlight. Overall, it was a fantastic and memorable experience, one I’ll never forget.”

“Guardians of the Past” first appeared in The Navy Reservist magazine, Volume 2020 Issue 2. To read more visit: www.dvidshub.net/publication/929/the-navy-reservist