Center of Military History, Unit Historical Documents and Programs: Preserving Your Unit's History
Collecting historical documents and using them as part of an active unit historical program can benefit a unit in many ways. Not only does the unit keep a detailed record of its accomplishments, but it also will have the documentary evidence necessary to draft unit award recommendations. Unit historical collections also can provide source material for published accounts of the unit's Soldiers in combat that can appear in a variety of publications including Soldiers Magazine, Army Magazine, and Military Review. The noteworthy achievements of many Soldiers and units have never become widely known, in part, because units did not document their actions.
Without documents, there is no real proof of what happened. Commanders have a central roleperhaps the most important rolein overseeing the collection of unit historical data. They alone have the authority to designate a unit historian as an extra duty so that one individual is the central point of contact in the unit for unit history. Commanders also provide their staffs and subordinates with the task, conditions, and standards for unit records and historical programs. Through their continued command emphasis, they can document their unit's achievements and make them a useful source of unit pride and morale.
Key Historical Documents
The first step commanders must take is to ensure that key documents are collected and preserved by their staffs and their subordinate assigned and attached units. History produced by the Army relies heavily on documented events rather than personal experiences or memoirs, so it is critical that key documents are preserved. Unit historical narratives can capture the details and significance of key combat actions, but they can only do this if the unit keeps documents that reflect those events. Some of these documents list the names of Soldiers involved in operations, show the various intelligence reports used in a mission, and highlight both the planning and execution of military actions. These documents form the basis for a detailed historical narrative of events. A unit historian can also collect and use documents to keep a running chronology of his unit's operations. These chronologies will assist the unit historian in writing a more detailed narrative after his unit returns to home station. The unit chronology should be updated on a regular basis and include information about what the unit's headquarters is doing and the missions and accomplishments of subordinate elements.
Useful documents for historical collection
Unit historians and visiting military history detachments from higher headquarters can make use of a wide variety of personnel, administrative, intelligence, logistical, and operational documentation to compile a detailed narrative.
These key documents include but are not limited to the following:
Although many of these documents may not be directly referenced in historical narratives prepared in a unit or in support of a unit award, they will serve as extremely informative supporting attachments for future historians as they undertake writing the official history of a campaign or operation. They will also accomplish the additional Headquarters, Department of the Army requirement of saving and retiring a unit's official files and records.
Unit Historical Programs
Unit historical programs can consist of measures to create historical narratives, collect operational/administrative reports and records, or a blend of both approaches. Deployed units that have produced solid narrative histories in the Global War on Terrorism include the 3rd Infantry Division during the attack to Baghdad in 2003 and the 2nd Brigade Combat Teams of the 10th Mountain and 25th Infantry Divisions in 2004.
These narrative accounts are very important for a number of reasons. First, the accounts generated at the time by the units themselves are often more accurate and useful than later accounts prepared from memory. Second, commanders and their staffs have intimate knowledge of operations and actions far beyond what is reflected in their briefings and documents. To leave more flexibility for subordinate commanders, some of the key documents, such as OPORDS and FRAGOS, are short and succinct and leave out many implementing and other important details. But a unit narrative history or even just a thorough AAR prepared soon after the event will capture those details while they are fresh and will serve as the basis for future historical reports, studies, and books.
Military History Detachments
Many divisions and brigades will have military history detachments (MHD) with the mission of collecting historical material assigned to them or their higher headquarters. This situation does not relieve unit commanders from keeping their own documents and writing their own AARs, but MHDs can assist in the process of capturing history as it is being made. It is in the long-term best interests of the unit commander to assist the MHD whenever he can.
MHDs are small units consisting of a unit commander (major or captain), a noncommissioned officer (NCO), and an enlisted Soldier with the mission of collecting copies of historical documents; photographs; oral history interviews; and sometimes, museum artifacts. They try to gather as much historical data as they can, but given their small size and the large size of the battlefield, they cannot collect everything. That is why a regular unit record and document retention and retirement program is so important. MHDs will show up on occasion and gather copies (not the originals) of your historical documents to help future historians write about the unit. They are trained to assist the commander by collecting documents quickly without interfering in unit operations. MHD personnel also conduct oral history interviews with key personnelespecially those involved in planning or executing combat operationsto focus on capturing specific events. Commanders should help the MHD talk to the right people and gather copies of the right documents.
Deployed MHDs do not have the resources or time needed to cover a large organization in comprehensive fashion. Nor do MHDs create finished products such as a narrative unit history. They are collectors. Therefore, it is in the interest of deployed units to designate a commissioned officer or qualified NCO (preferably with some college-level training or interest in history) to serve as the unit historian as an extra duty. Unit historians should be selected well in advance of the unit deployment date so they can begin preparing to capture the deployment of a unit while it is happening and not spend their time playing "catch up" later.
Unit historians should be selected at all levels of command starting at division level and going down to the brigade-, battalion-, and if appropriate, separate company-level. The unit historian from one level feeds reports and information to the unit historian at the next highest level, while keeping unit-specific documents and reports at his location. Unit historians can even begin to compile a rough unit chronology while assisting visiting military historians and MHDs. Although the position of unit historian is an extra duty of the individual selected, it is an important position critical to the success of any unit history program.
Unit historians are normally members of the division, brigade, or battalion staff; although, separate detachments and subordinate companies who lack a staff can also appoint a unit historian. Unit historians working with the staffs and headquarters of organic and attached units compile unit narratives and submit them along with supporting historical material to their next higher headquarters up to division. Divisions normally do not submit historical material to higher headquarters but retain reports and records when they redeploy to home station.
Units approach the task of preparing unit histories in many different ways depending on the preferences of the commanders. While recently, historical officers in several divisions (such as the 1st and 42nd Infantry Divisions) have concentrated their efforts on organizing documentary material submitted by subordinate elements, the 101st Airborne Division's historical officer in Operation Iraqi Freedom I took the process one step farther by combining that material into a division-level written narrative. Either way, a quality product or collection of key documents will require sustained command emphasis at all levels. Only with command emphasis will unit historians and staff elements of that unit and subordinate assigned or attached units cooperate to ensure that they preserve the documents necessary to produce complete and accurate account of a unit's accomplishments.
Command emphasis encourages the production of written narratives or AARs but also ensures unit historians or MHDs (when attached or visiting) are accorded full access to operationally relevant documents, key leaders, coalition partners, and individual Soldiers who may have had a significant role in a particular engagement. Leaders at all levels must maintain interest in historical reports by being personally involved at all levels and inspecting brigade-,battalion-,and separate company-level historical reports, historical officer updates, quarterly historical in-process reviews, and AARs after combat missions. As the commander, the history of your unit and the story of your unit's accomplishments depend on your involvement.
Last Reviewed: May 18, 2012