Sometimes the Records Tell Different Stories

Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher, Senior Archivist at the National Archives at College Park

History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon.

 Napoleon Bonaparte

The History of our Revolution will be one continued Lye [lie] from one end to the other. The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklins electrical Rod, smote the Earth and out sprung General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his rod—and thence forward these two conducted all the Policy, Negotiations, Legislatures and War.

Letter, John Adams to Benjamin Rush, April 4, 1790

The past is the past. History is what someone says about what happened in the past. Historians, and others, consult textual records, oral histories, non-textual records, and artifacts to find evidence of the past. Needless to say, persons writing about people, places, and things observe and/or record those things from their own perception and sources at hand, which might be their own eyes and ears. Thus, it is understandable that two people witnessing the same thing might have a different view of what they saw or heard. To some degree, this should be just common sense to everybody, but it is useful to be periodically reminded of this.

Just look at the stories regarding Judas Iscariot in the New Testament. Almost no two accounts agree on his motivations, his actions, the circumstances of him receiving thirty pieces of silver to betray Jesus, and the circumstances of his death. Of course, the authors of the Gospels were writing many decades after the events they recorded, and we do not know what their written and oral sources were.[1] I found in doing research on the death of Adolf Hitler that rarely do those in the Berlin bunker with Hitler during his last days, consistently record or relate what happened. And what they related was often weeks after the events. As a result, I wrote what I thought most likely happened and when it happened.[2] I did so keeping in mind what was written almost sixty years ago: “The historian can rest satisfied even when his explanation is not absolutely probable, provided he has shown that it is significantly more likely than any of the comparable alternatives.”[3]

When faced with conflicting accounts regarding the discovery of Nazi gold reserves in the Merkers Mine in Germany in April 1945, I ended up writing in my article about the subject:

Early the next morning [April 6], two military policemen guarding the road entering Keiselbach from Merkers saw two women approaching and promptly challenged and stopped them. Upon questioning, the women stated that they were French displaced persons. One of the women was pregnant and said she was being accompanied by the other to see a midwife in Keiselbach.[4]

These women related information about a mine in Merkers holding treasures. In researching for the Merkers Mine article, I found three reports about the above incident, all written within 48 hours of the events they recorded. There were inconsistencies regarding the nationalities of the women, which direction they were headed, and whether one of them was a midwife. I selected to use the one that seemed the most likely.

Again, in writing about the capture of one of Hitler’s couriers who was able to escape Berlin with copies of Hitler’s personal will, political testament, and his marriage license, I ran into vague and conflicting information about how the individual, SS Col. Wilhelm Zander, was captured. In my Prologue article I gave a barebones account:

The Americans captured Zander and his documents (including the original marriage license of Hitler and Braun, and the handwritten transmittal letter from Bormann to Doenitz) with the assistance of British intelligence officer Maj. Hugh Trevor Roper, in Bavaria on December 28. [5]

In a blog, dealing with the Hitler documents and the capture of Zander, I was more detailed. I wrote:

With the lead to Aidenbach, Trevor-Roper, accompanied by Weiss, and apparently a CIC officer named Rosener, in a jeep set out from Munich on the night of December 27 for the 90-minute drive to Aidenbach. Clearing through the Regional CIC office and the Degendorf Sub-Regional Office, where an agent named Brickmann joined them, sometime between 3am and 4am on December 28 they found the farmhouse where Zander was supposedly staying. Trevor-Roper posted an American soldier with a revolver at each corner, and knocked on the door. There was no answer. Trevor-Roper ordered a German policeman to climb through the window and open the door. Inside, they found a man in bed who claimed to be a merchant named Wilhelm Paustin. With him was Ilsa Unterholzner. Both were arrested. Trevor-Roper made them dress, and then, with Weiss, drove them back to Munich for interrogation.[6]

If one looks at my footnote citation to the above information it will be seen that I relied on some dozen sources to tell the story. Each source provided somewhat different versions of events. For example, CIC agent Arnold H. Weiss, who was with Trevor-Roper later recalled that as the Military Police broke down the door, a shot rang out from the house. The Military Police found the startled Zander naked in bed with a woman and quickly overpowered him. Weiss grabbed Zander’s Italian Beretta-a memento he kept. Weiss told Zander they had come to arrest him and asked him his name. He said Paustin produced an identity card. Weiss said it was a fake and he was taken into custody and taken to Munich. [7] This account, recalled sixty years after the event, is more dramatic than the other accounts, which were written shortly after the events occurred. Some or all of Weiss’ account may be true, but I decided to tell the story based on a blending of other evidence, which was less dramatic. Continue reading

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Nikita Khrushchev’s Memoirs: Fallout?

Today’s post is written by David Langbart, an Archivist in the Textual Records Division at the National Archives at College Park. 

Three previous posts discussed the publication of the two volumes of memoirs by Nikita Khrushchev, the second volume appearing in mid-1974. The journalist Strobe Talbott served as editor/translator for both books. It appears that Soviet officials may have viewed his participation in that publication negatively.

In October 1974, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger set off on a 2-week trip that took him to Moscow, New Delhi, Dhaka, Rawalpindi, Kabul, Tehran, Bucharest, Belgrade, Rome, Cairo, Riyadh, Amman, Damascus, Jerusalem, and Tunis. A group of journalists designated by various media outlets travelled with the Secretary. The group included Nicholas Daniloff (UPI), Bernard Gwertzman (New York Times), Marvin Kalb (CBS), Ted Koppel (ABC), Murray Marder (Washington Post), Strobe Talbott (Time), and Richard Valeriani (NBC), among others.

In the following urgent telegram, the Department of State informed the U.S. embassy in Moscow, the first stop on the trip, that the Soviet embassy in Washington had refused a visa for Strobe Talbott and asked the embassy to contact the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Although the records provide no definitive answer, coming so soon after the publication of the second volume of Khrushchev’s memoirs, the connection seems almost certain – the move against Talbott was fallout from his involvement with that project. Continue reading

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NO ATOMIC TARGET: Picking the Air Force Academy Location

Today’s post was written by William Carver, Archives Technician at the National Archives at Denver.

Amazon intends to unveil the selection of its new HQ2 location sometime in 2018. The buzz that has surrounded the selection process, and the various offers presented by states and cities, drew a lot of attention over the last year. The desire to lure Amazon drove many locations to offer the company extensive tax breaks and other benefits. Some locations went above and beyond in their attempts. Tucson, Arizona sent Jeff Bezos a 21 foot tall saguaro cactus as a way to illustrate their room for the company to grow. Stonecrest, Georgia de-annexed 345 acres and renamed the land “Amazon.” Even local companies tried to bolster their city’s bids, like Primanti Bros. in Pittsburgh that offered free sandwiches to every Amazon employee if Pittsburgh was selected.[1]

This was far from the first time cities presented competing offers in hopes of bringing economic development to their back yard and cities have historically found interesting, and sometimes quirky, ways to promote themselves. The records of the Air Force Academy’s site selection provides an opportunity to look at what Amazon may have been offered if the company had existed 70 years ago. Much like the drive to score a deal with Amazon, cities across the country developed proposals detailing why they would be the best fit for the nation’s newest service academy.  These records, found in Reports Regarding Proposed Air Force Academy Site Selection, 1950-1950 (NAID 2580022) National Archives Record Group 341, Records of Headquarters U.S. Air Force, provide an interesting look at what cities considered important when attempting to entice development to their area in the late 1940’s.

Denver’s Beauty and Genius

Denver, Colorado presents one of the larger proposals preserved in the records. In addition to the braggadocios claims made in attempts to brand the city as the best choice for the Academy site, the documents from this proposal provide a look at how Denver has changed in more than half a century. The report compiled by the Denver Chamber of Commerce proposing the city as the Air Force Academy’s site stated that, “unlike other large cities Denver is not crowded or congested…” and “there is room in Denver, room to breathe the pure, fresh mountain air for which it is famed.”[2] The same sentiments may hold true today, though it may be hard to convince anyone stuck on I-25 during their commute. Where words may fail to properly illustrate the increased bustle of the Denver area, photographs may provide the better example. Denver’s proposal is luckily filled with wonderful photographs of all that 1950’s Denver had to offer. The prints provide a look at how far the city has come since they were taken. One photograph shows a Denver that would be completely alien to newer residents if not for landmarks like Mount Evans and the capital building. The pictures show a sparsely populated stretch leading up to the foothills and the absence of Denver’s currently robust skyline.

Despite not being selected, Denver had and still maintains a worthy appeal. With all the natural beauty and recreational opportunities that continue to draw visitors to the area, it should be no surprise that such topics were used as selling points in 1950. Scenic photographs were included with Denver’s proposal in an attempt to sway the selection process with majestic beauty. Perhaps scenes like these did influence the decision to place the Academy in Colorado. Denver did at least get the consolation of hosting the Academy at Lowry Field until construction was completed in Colorado Springs.[3]

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The Radium Girls at the National Archives

Today’s post is written by Zachary Dabbs, Processing Archivist at the National Archives in College Park.

Digitized Radioactive Documents Concerning Radium Dial Painters now in the National Archives Catalog

Early in 2016, the Electronic Records Division of the National Archives and Records Administration received an unusual collection of donated electronic records. The original paper records, found to be radioactive, were discovered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) during cleanup operations at the Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania Safety Light Corporation Superfund site. Donated by the Safety Light Corporation and scanned by the EPA, these electronic records document the perspective of the United States Radium Corporation (USRC) and its predecessor, the Radium Luminous Material Corporation (RLMC), on the story of the radium luminous paint dial painters, popularly known as the Radium Girls. These digitized records are now available in the National Archives Catalog as Records Related to Radium Dial Painters, 1917-1949 (National Archives Identifier 40978844).

Following Marie Curie’s discovery of the element radium in 1898, scientists and entrepreneurs sought to understand and exploit the element’s properties. One such was Dr. Sabin von Sochocky who found that by using a minute quantity of radium in combination with zinc sulfide he could produce a paint with a soft glow visible in the dark. In 1917, his RLMC established a plant in Orange, New Jersey to manufacture and apply this luminous paint, sold under the name Undark, to watches and instrument dials. “Radium dial” watches were one of the company’s most successful products, valued in the trenches of World War I and considered fashionable in the United States.

To apply its paints the RLMC, like other companies manufacturing radium dials, established several dial painting studios staffed primarily by young women. The process involved mixing the paint, provided to the workers as a powder, and using a fine brush to paint each number and arm in the dial. To keep a fine point on the brush the painters used a technique known as lip pointing, placing the brush between their lips, and as a result ingested a minute quantity of radium with each dial. Meanwhile, the powdered paint proved pervasive in RLMC plants; in later years former dial painters would recall their hair and clothes glowing softly after the day’s work. Continue reading

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Passports and Travel Documents for Pilgrims: Gold Star Travel

Today’s post is written by David Langbart, an Archivist in the Textual Records Division at the National Archives at College Park.

On March 2, 1929, President Calvin Coolidge signed PL 70-952.  That law authorized the War Department to arrange for trips, designated as pilgrimages, by the mothers and widows to the overseas graves of soldiers, sailors, and Marines who died between April 5, 1917 and July 21, 1921.  Congress later expanded eligibility to include the mothers and widows of men who were buried at seas or whose place of burial was unknown.

After World War I, more than 30,000 American dead from that conflict remained overseas, buried in U.S. cemeteries.  The passage of the law resulted from the work of the mothers and widows of those servicemen and their supporters who pushed for the pilgrimage to the gravesites at government expense.  International travel was not as common as it is now and the cost of such travel was beyond the means of the families of many of the dead.

The War Department prepared and submitted to Congress a list of the mothers and widows it identified as falling under the provisions of the law.  The report was arranged by state and thereunder by county.  In addition to the name of the mother or widow, the list indicates the relationship to the deceased service member, the name of the decedent along with rank and service organization, the cemetery, and an indication of whether the mother or widow desired to make a pilgrimage in 1930 or later.  The House of Representatives published the report as an official House Document.

138 Gold Star Mothers[34

Report from the House of Representatives on a List of Mothers and Widows of American Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines Entitled to make a Pilgrimage to the War Cemeteries in Europe

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The Beginnings of the United States Army’s Japanese Language Training: From the Presidio of San Francisco to Camp Savage, Minnesota 1941-1942

Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher, Senior Archivist at the National Archives at College Park

The United States Army, realizing the need for Japanese language specialists, in 1908, began a language program in Tokyo, with four officers, including George V. Strong. When they completed their program in 1911, a new group began that year followed by another in 1914. By 1917, eleven Army officers had graduated from the program. No officers were sent to Japan during the 1915-1918 period, but in 1919 the program was begun again. By the end of 1932 eighteen more officers graduated from the program, including Rufus S. Bratton and John Weckerling. Two other officers, Joseph Twitty and Sidney Mashbir, also received language training in Japan. During World War II, Twitty would command the Joint Intelligence Center Pacific Ocean Area and Mashbir became the head of the Allied translation work in the Southwest Pacific Area. Bratton would head the Far East Section of the Military Intelligence Division, Strong served as Assistant Chief of Staff, G-2, and Weckering served later as Chief, Intelligence Division, in the Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff, G-2.[1]

As relations worsened with Japan during early 1941, the need for an increased number of Japanese language specialists to engage in translation and interrogation work became more apparent to the United States Army. Questions were being raised at this time about the possibility of using Japanese-Americans, or Nisei, with language skills, in the Military Intelligence Service (MIS). The turning to Nisei was the result of the Army learning that the number of Caucasian personnel qualified in the language were dishearteningly few, and with the crisis rapidly approaching, there was little time to train additional Caucasian personnel.[2]

In 1940 there were 127,000 persons of Japanese ancestry residing in the continental United States and 158,000 residing in Hawaii. Two thirds of them were American citizens by birth; the others were mostly parents of these citizens who had resided in America 20 to 40 years but who had been denied naturalization due to their Asian ancestry by the 1922 Supreme Court decision of Ozawa v. U.S. (260 U.S. 178).[3]    

On the mainland approximately one in eight of all Nisei were Kibei.[4] (term often used to describe Japanese Americans born in the United States who returned to America after receiving their education in Japan). Many Nisei in Hawaii received language training because parents often insisted they be exposed to Japanese culture and language.[5] Some parents sent their children from Hawaii to Japan to better learn the language and attend school. One such student recalled that they did not do well because such students spoke to each other in English. But, it has been suggested the subsequent overwhelming success of the Military Intelligence Service Language School was the presence of large numbers of Kibei in the program. They were, according to one source, the most fluent linguists.[6] Continue reading

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Myrna Loy: Her World Beyond Hollywood, Part II 1950-1993

Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher, Senior Archivist at the National Archives at College Park

On February 4, 1950,  Howland H. Sargeant, then Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs wrote George V. Allen, then U. S. Ambassador to Yugoslavia, that “Miss Myrna Loy has been here for the past week…doing more things than you can shake a stick at. Myrna appeared before the Executive Committee of the National Commission and I understand made a very eloquent and persuasive presentation which will result in further developing our work with the Hollywood Committee and the Hollywood people. She is certainly a charming person.”[1] The next day, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper wrote about a rumor that Loy may run for Congress.[2]

During the spring of 1950, Loy worked for her friend, Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas’ campaign for the Californian Democratic nomination for the United States Senate, hosting fundraising parties.[3]  But politics would be temporarily put aside for an increased UNESCO role. On April 19, the Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs wrote Loy that she was being appointed to membership on the National Commission for UNESCO for a term starting April 16, 1950, and ending at the conclusion of the annual meeting of the National Commission in 1953, as one of the fifteen persons chosen at large.  She was informed that the National Commission advised the government and served as a link with national private organizations in matters relating to UNESCO.[4]


Letter from Edward Barrett to Myrna Loy, 4/19/1950


Letter from Edward Barrett to Myrna Loy, 4/19/1950

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Myrna Loy, Her World Beyond Hollywood, Part I 1905-1949

Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher, Senior Archivist at the National Archives at College Park

Myrna Loy was an American actress whose 129 movie career made her a household name for decades.  A New York Times reporter wrote in November 1987, that “During the many years Myrna Loy reigned as one of America’s leading movie stars, millions of fans idolized her as ‘the perfect wife,’ a paragon of charm, sophistication and intelligence whose sly sense of humor never deserted her no matter how outrageous the circumstances-or her husband’s behavior.”[1]   Despite the stardom, Loy’s life extended well beyond Hollywood.  She also carved out a role as a highly respected spokesperson for international social issues and she worked tirelessly for the United Nations, liberal political candidates, and Civil Rights legislation.

publicity photo of Myrna Loy

Myrna Loy publicity photo

Myrna Loy (Myrna Adele Williams) was born in Montana in on August 2, 1905.  Her acting career began with a few minor roles in silent films. She appeared in the first European-American co-production (the silent film Ben Hur); the first film with a score (Don Juan); the first talkie (The Jazz Singer); and, the first filmed operetta (The Desert Song).  In 1934, she starred in the MGM smash hit Manhattan Melodrama, along with Clark Gable and William Powell.  This was the first of fourteen films Powell and Loy made together.  Her career took off with another 1934 MGM movie, The Thin Man, based on the novel of the same name by Dashiell Hammett.  The film, in which she and Powell played the jaunty, charming, and witty husband-and-wife detective team Nick and Nora Charles, was a box office hit, and nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. It would quickly spawn sequels, beginning with After the Thin Man (1936).

Myrna Loy, William Powell, and dog Skippy from the Thin Man

Myrna Loy and William Powell as Nora and Nick Charles from The Thin Man movies

By the mid 1930’s Loy was so popular with the movie-going public that she had become one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood and in a December 1937 poll in the United States and Canada, Loy and Clark Gable were voted by 20 million moviegoers as “The King and Queen of Hollywood.” [2]  She was President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s favorite actress; her films were often shown at the White House.[3]   Roosevelt’s secretary wrote: “the President’s favorite actress was Myrna Loy. He plied Hollywood visitors with questions about her, wanted very much to meet her, and to his great regret, when she at last came to the White House for a March of Dimes celebration, he was out of the country at an overseas conference. ‘Well,’ he asked when he returned, ‘what was she like.’”[4]  She also became a personal friend of Eleanor Roosevelt.[5]  President Harry Truman also enjoyed her movies.[6]

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So, what did the U.S. Army do with the Prussian Regimental Flags found at Bernterode?

Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher, Senior Archivist at the National Archives at College Park

During 2013 I published in Prologue an article about the disposition of the caskets of Field Marshal and Weimar President Paul von Hindenburg and of his wife, Frederick the Great, and Frederich Wilhelm I, that had been recovered in April 1945 by the Monuments Men at a salt mine at Bernterode. While I explained the fate of the caskets and cultural property recovered at Bernterode, I made only a few references to the over 200 Prussian regimental flags found in the mine. I did not explain what ultimately became of them. Over the past years, on several occasions, I have been asked the question, what did the U.S. Army do with the Prussian regimental flags found at Bernterode? This post answers that question.

During March 1945, the German Army placed the caskets of the four notables in the mine at Bernterode, in the northern reaches of the Thuringian Forest, about 18 miles southwest of Nordhausen. Regimental flags were hung above the coffins, and others were placed in a room hanging unfurled from specially built racks. Still others were stacked beside the casket of Frederick the Great. There were over 200 German regimental flags in all, some painted and some embroidered, dating from the early Prussian wars and including many of the WWI-era. Many of the older ones were torn and mounted upon netting. The entrances of the cache holding the caskets, flags, art works, and other items, were sealed with brick and mortar on April 2. The items were not concealed for long. By the end of April the mine treasure would be in American hands and not long afterwards the caskets, paintings, and flags would be stored in Marburg, awaiting political decisions as to what to do with them.[1]

Captured German Flags

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The Adventures of American Diplomat Walter William Orebaugh in Italy 1942-1944, Part II

Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher, Senior Archivist at the National Archives at College Park

Part I of this blog was previously posted here

It was late March when Orebaugh heard he was being actively sought by the Fascists and Germans. They had learned from Captain Bice Pucci, one of the Italian officers with whom he had had dinner at San Faustino in January that Orebaugh was the driving force behind the patriots and that he had been successful in raising money to finance them. He, presumably in order to protect his family’s property interests in Umbertide had, when subjected to pressure, turned informer. His betrayal and that of another informer, gave the enemy ample evidence to justify the death sentence for all of them in the event of their capture.

On March 30 Orebaugh was informed by Captain Ramsey that a message had been received by Captain Fitzgerald from Fred Foster at Cagli recommending that he and the other officers in the Umbertide zone should proceed to the Tenna Valley where repatriation facilities would be available.  Inasmuch as Orebaugh was not a military man, and as Ramsey was disposed to remain behind, Orebaugh agreed to this suggestion, and on April 2, at 430pm, accompanied by Giovanni Marioli, who had accompanied him as an armed escort on scores of night rendezvous and long walks while engaged on the business of the organization, set out on foot on a journey to the Tenna Valley.  Giovanni’s pocket bulged with hand grenades. Orebaugh carried an Italian army pistol tucked under his belt.

Disregarding the danger of traveling by main highways they accomplished the second lap of their journey on bicycles, traveling, in the space of one evening and night, from Pietralunga, a mountain town in the northern part of the Province of Perugia, to a point south and west of Gubbio.  Thence they walked to Branca, a place nine miles south and east of Gubbio on the Apennine Railway.  Thoroughly exhausted upon their arrival there, they slept through all the daylight hours of the following day not resuming their journey until 430am on April 4. This next leg of the journey was made by horse-drawn cart and brought them to a point below Fabriano. Continue reading

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