If you apply yourself in high school, you too could snag the title of Chief Administrator of the National Archives and Records Administration. NARA is an independent agency of the US government that is responsible for preserving and documenting all historical records in the National Archives. On your first day on the job as Chief Administrator, you would be informed that you are now the Archivist of the United States.
In addition to maintaining our National records, the NARA Chief Archivist is responsible for overseeing the official publication of all acts of Congress, presidential proclamations and executive orders as well as maintaining the original documents. If that’s not enough for you, NARA transmits votes of the Electoral College to Congress. Oh! You’re also responsible for safeguarding the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights. The current Archivist of the United States somehow has time for a blog. Really, the nerve of some people.
Wayne C. Grover was Chief Administrator of NARA from June 2nd, 1948-November 6th, 1965. He held the position for 17 years, which is the longest term in NARA history. Four incredible Presidents came through on Grover’s watch: Truman, Eisenhower, JFK, and LBJ – during which the USA experienced…oh, I don’t know…almost EVERYTHING.
Here’s a small taste of what happened from 1948-1965:
- The establishment of the CIA
- The formation of NATO
- The Korean War
- The McCarthy Hearings
- The invention of the T.V. remote control, Velcro, modems, “AA” batteries, zipcodes, cassette tapes, Legos and Scrabble
- Nautilus, the first nuclear-powered submarine, is launched.
- Sony, a brand new Japanese company, introduces the first pocket-sized transistor radio
- TV color broadcasting begins
- Sputnik I becomes the first man-made satellite
- The Cuban Missile Crisis
- The start of the Vietnam War
- MLK delivers his “I Have a Dream” speech
- John Glenn became the first U.S. astronaut to orbit the earth
- The first Ford Mustang is released
You think your workplace accumulates paperwork? Try keeping up with the bureaucratic droppings of two (almost three) wars, four presidents and 6 different variations of Congress.
On the other end, Trudy Huskamp Peterson sat the shortest term. March 25, 1993-May 29, 1995. She served under Bill Clinton. I wonder what happened there?
I know all this because instead of seriously digging into the archives, I spent a morning poking around the U.S. National Archives & Records Administration’s website. The homepage of NARA has 50+ links on it, any one of which is a rabbit hole you could lose yourself down for hours. Clicking on the Explore link took me to a page with 20 more avenues for information. Other than a family tree project for my 8th grade Social Studies class, I’ve haven’t completed one shred of genealogy research. I snoozed my way through the mandatory college seminar at UNCG on “The Library – Your Friend”. To consider whatever research skills I had managed to absorb as “rusty” is an understatement. It would be fairer to say “completely corroded”.
However, I had a name, an Army Serial number and a full pot of coffee. What better place to start?
The name John P Jones and the number 34881692 show up on two artifacts from the suitcase. I also have a letter addressed to J. Paul Jones, so I am assuming Paul is his middle name.
First, the front of an envelope. That’s not just descriptive…I only have the front. The rest has been torn or cut away along the folds.
A handwritten version of the same name and number appears on the cover of an official Army-issued stationary set that contains a dozen almost transparent sheets of writing paper, each with a delicate, United States Army letterhead printed in blue ink at the top.
Before I launched my browser and landed at archive.gov, I placed these items to the left of my computer keyboard. On the right, my new notebook. This notebook had been carefully selected from the throng at the Office Depot the previous night, and keeping it company was a new ballpoint pen. I believe only through the transformative power of virgin stationary will a project get off on the right foot. You can’t just throw any old scrap of paper and crappy old pen together and hope for the best. That would be ridiculous.
I picked up the pen and wrote: Who is John Paul Jones, 34881692? at the top of the first page.
I looked back up at the computer screen. Out there, somewhere in the 10 billion pages of textual records and 133 terabytes of electronic data held at the National Archives, could be a document that went part-way to answering my question.
I bookmarked the page and got the hell out of there.
Fortified by another cup of coffee, I decided it might be wiser to punch my own weight. My next stop was Google.
As it turns out, John Paul Jones is a pretty common name. I was fairly convinced that I did not have my hands on the personal effects of either Revolutionary War hero, John Paul Jones (July 6, 1747 – July 18, 1792) or more recent hero, the bassist, keyboardist, and co-songwriter for Led Zeppelin (whose given name was John Baldwin, anyway). No results returned when searching his name in combination with his serial number.
My first two attempts at armchair-research had hit both ends of the spectrum. The National Archives, which is the most intimidating Choose-Your-Own-Adventure ever assembled and Google, with its friendly search bar (so simple!). Both attempts ended prematurely.
It was a week before I dug through my bookmarks and once again loaded the National Archives page. It turns out I was gun-shy for no reason, as 45 minutes later I found my first major discovery.
The Electronic Army Serial Number Merged File, ca. 1938 – 1946 is a compilation of 9 million individual enlistment records. It includes basic information such as serial number, name, residence at the time of enlistment, the year at birth and birth state. Additional information such as marital status, education, and civilian occupation lends the file some personal flavor.
As pleased as I am to share this small amount of facts with you about the man from the suitcase (and I promise I will in this post), there’s an even more intriguing story to be told.
That I was able to access an enlistment record at all is due to the outstanding diligence of both the Bureau of the Census and the computer programmers at NARA. The 1.5-page document that was submitted to my inkjet via a wireless connection and landed on the printer tray in under 20 seconds, took 30 years to compile.
In 1973, a devastating fire at NARA’s National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis destroyed 18 million military personnel files, including 80% of military records for servicemen discharged between 1912 and 1960. Not only were these records of great value to the United States Armed Forces, but they were vital to veterans and their families. Official proof of military service is required for veterans to apply for benefits and receive recognition for their services. The proof is also required before a veteran can be buried alongside his or her fallen family in a military cemetery, as is their right.
After the fire, requests for records continued to arrive by the thousands each month. The archivists at NPRC, deprived of their most requested resource, had to look to other documents in order to piece together a veteran’s military history and provide an official Certification of Military Service. They turned to NARA for alternate sources, one such source was a series of microfilms of computer punch cards.
During the enlistment process, a punch card was completed to compile statistics about the enlistee. Using this data, statistical tables were developed in order to analyze the occurrence of certain characteristics of the enlistees. This process was no more than simple data collection; a gathering of information that the Army planned to use to develop a demobilization strategy after the war was over. In 1945, over 12 million men and women (more than 7 million of them stationed abroad) were brought home based on a point system that favored length and certain types of service. The data that fueled that plan was collected, punch-card by punch-card, by the men and women at enlistment offices across the nation.
The original punch cards were destroyed as soon as they were recorded on 16mm microfilm in 1947. After the fire, the NPRC was given a copy of the microfilm to help them in their efforts to piece together the destroyed military records. However, while better than nothing, the microfilm was cumbersome. For starters, there were over 1,500 rolls of the stuff and they were organized not by the enlistee’s name, but in numerical order according to enlistee’s serial number. Shockingly, this was the resource (among others) that NPRC used for almost 20 years before they contacted NARA for help. They received approximately 1 million requests for military records annually, and the manual process did not cut the mustard. They needed electronic records.
In response to NPRC’s plea for help, NARA’s Center for Electronic Records contacted the Bureau of the Census, who had successfully developed a computer system to extract data from a microfilm of censuses. Another promising sign, the Film Optical Sensing Device for Input to Computers (FOSDIC for short) had recently been modified for a punch card project. In 1994, FOSDIC converted almost 90% of the microfilm rolls into a digital file, which they handed to NPRC.
Sounds great, right? Surely, when you start with 1,500 individual rolls of 16mm microfilm that cannot be searched by name, there’s nowhere to go but up, right?
FOSDIC’s capability to interpret data had limitations. The program would ‘read’ a single punch card 10 times. If any results were garbled on the first read, the subsequent read would be a second attempt at interpreting the faulty information. This sounds reasonable, except the second read would only capture the individual letter or code it missed the first time, not an alternate version of the entire card. Repeat this process 9 more times. This could result in one punch card having 10 records, each card recording only a smattering of information, some of which could be ‘interpreted’ differently on more than one card. A composite record of the card was not provided.
An improvement over 1,500 rolls of microfilm? Yes. A usable system? Not quite. NARA attempted to write a merge program with little success and the logistical nightmare stayed in place at NRPC for 8 more years.
In 2002, inspired by the digital archive movement, NARA resolved to get the 23 million records created by FOSDIC, merged into one data file per original punch card. Programmers were able to make a single record from the first and second “read” only. An algorithm that ventured beyond the second scan was too complicated to write (although, I am sure they’d welcome any new submissions). Even so, 23 million records were collapsed down into 9 million records, which make up the contents of the file I accessed on the National Archive website.
Pause a moment and reflect on the gargantuan wringer this data has been put through. Consider first the initial reason for the punch cards. They were for the collection of statistical data only; capturing an accurate enlistee name wasn’t the top priority. Secondly, the microfilm was not in the best shape, FOSDIC was unable to interpret even one single piece of data on over 100,000 individual cards. The cards FOSDIC did read successfully were re-interpreted multiple times, and only the first two readings made it into the final digital file. It’s almost impossible to determine whether the final version (ignoring the serial number) is accurate…or when the error occurred.
This data is my best shot at finding out about John Paul Jones. I suppose it’s time to tell you what I know. So here it is, via punch-card to microfilm – one in 23 million records to one in only 9 million – and now from me to you.
The below is a snippet of the information found in the Electronic Army Serial Number Merged File, ca. 1938 – 1946.
Based on the all the information in the merged record, here’s what I’ve got:
John Paul Jones was born in 1912, the year that both New Mexico and Arizona joined the Union, the Titanic sank and the US saw it’s first Dixie Cup. He was born in Michigan.
31 years later, while living in Nashville, he joined the Army as a conscientious objector. The year was 1943, two years after the United States declared war on Japan after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. World War II would last another 4 years.
He was a married man, with 4 years of college education.
As with this type of research, new discoveries only lead to more questions: Why did he move to Nashville? Was he drafted, or did he volunteer? What was his belief system that categorized him as a conscientious objector?
It might not be much, but it’s a good place to start.