The National Archives’ Arthur Evarts Kimberly and the Allied Translator and Interpreter Section’s Document Restoration Sub-Section, 1944-1945

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

The linguists with the Allied Translator and Interpreter Section (ATIS) of General Douglas MacArthur’s General Headquarters, Southwest Pacific Area (SWPA) were responsible, at ATIS headquarters in Australia and, attached to units in the field, for translating captured documents and interrogating Japanese prisoners of war.

One of the difficulties encountered by these linguists in translating Japanese documents, which had been found to be an excellent source of intelligence, was the condition in which they were often received.  Coming from battle fields, crashed aircraft, graves, sunken ships and foxholes, many of them were bullet-ridden, torn, defaced, water-soaked, soiled and charred, as well as often being covered with blood, body fat, and human excreta. This made them difficult or impossible to read.  Only 30 percent of the captured documents needed no treatment; the rest needed cleaning, drying, and/or other conservation treatment.  Colonel Sidney F. Mashbir, the ATIS commander, recognizing a Document Restoration Section would have to be established to facilitate the work of his translators, in the late spring of 1944 had a message sent to the War Department requesting an officer be assigned to the SWPA to oversee the document conservation work.  The War Department decided the officer that best met Mashbir’s needs was Captain Arthur Evarts Kimberly.

Kimberly, born in Brooklyn on August 7, 1905, had received his B.S. degree in Chemistry from George Washington University in 1927, and become a paper expert with the National Bureau of Standards before joining the National Archives in October 1935, where he became chief of the Division of Repair and Preservation. By the time he entered into military service, in September 1942, he had authored “The Repair and Preservation of Records in the National Archives” (in the May 1938 issue of Chemist and the July 1938 issue of the American Archivist).  This article on methods of fumigating, cleaning, flattening, and repairing records was revised and published as National Archives Staff Information Paper No. 4 (1939).  He had also authored “Treatment of Water-Soaked Records,” National Fire Protection Association Quarterly (Vol. 33 April 1940).

About the time Kimberly received his orders to report to the SWPA, Eleanor C. Voorhees, of the Fogg Museum of Art, on July 21, 1944, wrote Paul J. Sachs, associate director of the Fogg Art Museum and a member of The American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas, suggesting the commission recommend Kimberly to the War Department for a position as a Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives specialist officer.  She indicated that he was known to the museum’s Department of Conservation for some years and was then serving as an officer with the U.S. Army.  “If available,” she wrote, “he would certainly be an extremely well qualified candidate.”   By the time Sachs made Kimberly’s name known to Maj. Gen. John H. Hilldring, chief of the War Department’s Civil Affairs Division, Kimberly was busy at work in the Pacific Theater.

In July 1944 Kimberly was sent to ATIS for the purpose of organizing a sub-section to clean and restore documents making them more readily legible. Upon arriving in Australia Kimberly helped to establish the Document Restoration Sub-Section.  He also quickly learned that because of the long hours the translators worked that many of them were suffering from eyestrain. He got the idea that in addition to restoring charred and soiled documents it would also benefit the translators if he could make the documents easier to read. Along with the use of chemicals and ultraviolet light to make the illegible documents readable, he also set up a simple process of sponging and ironing the pages of all documents on which the writing was decipherable. To assist Kimberly, Mashbir requisitioned six WACs [Women’s Army Corps] who had been former laundry workers, as well as procuring an electric ironer, and a few electric hand irons. Before Kimberly left, four months later, this group was ironing out about 20,000 pages a day.  Mashbir, impressed with Kimberly’s work, initiated his promotion to major and recommended him for the Legion of Merit.

To assist the units in the field deal with captured documents needing treatment, ATIS created a Document Restoration Kit.  Among other things, it contained a household electric iron; an ultra-violet lamp; various chemicals; a soft, camel’s hair brush; a spatula; a small sponge; an atomizer; and, a dissecting needle.  ATIS also published a “how-to” handbook on conservation treatment of captured records, entitled Restoration of Captured Documents: Manual for cleaning, deciphering and chemically restoring illegible captured documents (ATIS Publication No. 10, June 28, 1945). This handbook, co-authored by Kimberly contains chapters on such subjects as the rehabilitation of dirty records, deciphering illegible wiring, and treatment of charred documents. The complete text of the manual can be found via the Combined Arms Research Library Digital Library.

One of the most important and interesting aspects of the work of the Document Restoration Sub-Section occurred during April and May 1945, when records were recovered from the sunken wreck of the Japanese heavy cruiser Nachi, which lay at the bottom of Manila Bay.  The ship, which had been sunk on November 5, 1944, by aircraft from the aircraft carriers USS Lexington and USS Ticonderoga, had carried significant documentation, including detailed information relative to the composition and command structure of the entire Japanese Imperial Fleet as well as a large body of documents relating to codes and naval operating doctrine and procedures.  The documents, retrieved from the sea by U.S. Navy divers, arrived at ATIS soaked and in a condition of decomposition that was a challenge to the Documents Restoration Sub-Section.  They were, however, sufficiently restored to permit ATIS translators to translate them and publish a limited-distribution translation for the Chief of Naval Operations, Washington, D.C. (ATIS Limited Distribution Translation No. 39, in twelve parts; April 22-August 18, 1945).

Kimberly would eventually serve with the 13th Air Force in the Philippines, where he was crediting with saving many of the Philippine Government records during the war.  He was discharged from the military on February 19, 1946, and returned to the National Archives. While working at the National Archives, on October 22, 1946, he organized the 113th Aircraft Control Squadron of the Washington D.C. Air National Guard.  On December 1, 1951, the unit became part of the regular Air Force, under Squadron Commander Lt. Col. Kimberly.  He would remain on active duty until June 1959.  He passed away on April 5, 1986.

Perhaps some of the conservation techniques Kimberly practiced in the Southwest Pacific Area and put forth in ATIS Publication No. 10, may not be found acceptable to conservators today.  But, at the time, under wartime conditions in the Southwest Pacific, working under pressures to get documents ready to be translated and working with limited resources, it seems he did the best he could.


ATIS Publication No. 10 Restoration of Captured Documents: Manual for cleaning, deciphering and chemically restoring illegible captured documents June 28, 1945, and other ATIS publications, can be found in the following series:

  • World War II Operation Reports, 1940-1948 (Entry NM3-427A, NAID 305275), RG 407 Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1905-1981
  • Publications, Reports, and Translations (G-2 Library File), 1942-1952 (Entry A1 143, NAID 1223554), RG 554 Records of General Headquarters, Far East Command, Supreme Commander Allied Powers, and United Nations Command, 1945 – 1960
  • Publication Files (“P” File), 1940-1945 (Entry NM-84 79, NAID 1557240), RG 165 Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs, 1860 – 1952
  • XL Intelligence Reports, 1941-1946, (Entry NM-54 19A, NAID 6056356), RG 226 Records of the Office of Strategic Services, 1919 – 2002.

Additional information about captured Japanese records can be found in the publication Japanese War Crimes and Related Topics: A Guide to Records at the National Archives.

4 thoughts on “The National Archives’ Arthur Evarts Kimberly and the Allied Translator and Interpreter Section’s Document Restoration Sub-Section, 1944-1945

  1. Greg—thank you for posting this! I would love to see this manual but the link appears broken. Was this a link to a scan of the manual?

  2. It’s fascinating to read this manual from the 1940s on recovering damaged documents and deciphering faint text. In conservation, knowledge of materials and how they will respond over time to various physical and chemical treatments has grown with research and experience. So read this manual with gratitude for past efforts, but do not flatten your documents with an iron!

  3. A wonderful post! It is always interesting and informative to learn the connections between NARA and early conservation efforts and achievements. While the field has matured many core tools remain the same.

  4. Ironing 20,000 pages a day is quite impressive! Maybe we need some WACs to do digital prep (just kidding). Yes, we would no longer use chemicals to enhance faint text, but I agree with the conclusion that getting the strategic information from captured records as quickly as was paramount during wartime.

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