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Historians document, preserve AMC story

  • Published
  • By Jodi Ames
  • Headquarters Air Mobility Command Public Affairs
Stop for a moment and imagine an aging gentleman wearing a tweed jacket with patches on the elbows. Perhaps he's also wearing horn-rimmed glasses and smoking a pipe as he toils away on a relic of a typewriter and thinks historical thoughts.

If this image had you conjuring up visions of an Air Force historian surrounded by stacks of dusty books, you're probably not alone--not because this is an accurate portrayal of historians, but because it is a commonly held perception.

Have you ever wondered what exactly historians do, aside from thinking historical thoughts?

Air Mobility Command's history office recently pulled back the curtains to reveal an in-depth look at the vital role of Air Force historians.

Led by Ellery Wallwork, AMC's history office is charged with establishing policy and overseeing the command's history, as well as its museum and art programs.


As the command historian, Wallwork and his staff manage historian programs for 18 subordinate wings, as well as the Air Force Expeditionary Center, the 618th Air Operations Center and 18th Air Force.

The historian office is responsible for the publication of AMC's annual history, books and special studies conducted throughout the command. Currently, the team is researching and compiling a set of appendices and a chronology covering 25 years of Air Mobility Command.

Since 2004, the team has also facilitated the deployment of AMC historians in support of contingency and humanitarian operations throughout the world.

"We're in kind of a unique situation, where we have civilians who are actually in the AEF buckets," Wallwork explained. "We are one of the few that are still left in the four-month cycle. They are tasked and assigned just like any active duty person would be."

Wallwork noted that deployed historians are important assets who are primarily assigned to a specific unit when they travel on missions to capture, document and preserve military history as it happens.

According to AMC Senior Historian John Murphy, who also serves as the functional area manager for deployments, civilian historians must be prepared to deploy and embed with military units at a moment's notice in order to document every aspect of a mission.

"Our folks have to be ready to deploy throughout the military," Murphy said. "For example, with Haiti, there were folks deploying a couple of days after the earthquake. We had historians that were part of those missions. They literally left with the military and had less than 24 hours' notice."


The documentation and preservation of AMC missions entails writing about the good, the bad and the ugly, Murphy said. Each year, the team writes and publishes an annual book for the previous fiscal year, which is normally about 800 pages long. This collection of reports provides an archive of historical data that senior leaders are able to reference when making decisions that will have long-term impacts.

Mark Morgan, who primarily covers operational history, explained that historians advise commanders and leaders based on a repository of information that covers missions, personnel, aircraft, basing issues, diplomacy issues, threats and lessons learned.

"When something happens in the world, we're among the people and staff the commander calls," said Morgan. "We are often asked, 'When was the last time this or something like it happened? What was involved? What worked, and what didn't work?'"

Being able to answer those types of questions using archived historical data allows the commander and his staff to figure out how they're going to respond to a variety of situations, including natural disasters, war and attacks. This also allows leaders and subject matter experts to anticipate what could happen in exotic parts of the world and develop plans to address a full spectrum of challenges.

"In a vast majority of circumstances, we have to provide specifics and guidance right away," Morgan said.

Kathy Gunn, whose expertise is in documenting the history of acquisitions and upgrades, emphasized the historian office's primary objective of providing leaders with past operational perspectives, which enables them to make fully educated decisions based on solid information from the past. 

A recent example is the acquisition of the KC-46.

"It's kind of a unique contract, and by recording that, I'm hoping that we can use it as a model for other acquisition products in the future," Gunn said. "Every time a plane is acquired, we have to go before Congress and justify it. Every capability we want to have requires an analysis of alternatives. We have to be able to grow from decisions of the past and move forward in a more educated way."

Certainly, this is a significant contribution and responsibility that is not lost on Gunn and her teammates.

"It's important to be able to collect documentation and history for everything that the command does ... The materials I collect can help with high-level acquisition decisions in the future," Gunn added.


In fact, it's these kinds of projects that allow others to see the broader perspective of what AMC and the Air Force contribute in terms of peacekeeping missions and humanitarian aid.

"Working at AMC has allowed me to see how much humanitarian work the Air Force does--that was so eye-opening for me," Gunn explained. "It's such a huge part of what we do, and probably the least known. Every campaign we're involved in, we're following it up with humanitarian aid."

That includes AMC's total force delivering humanitarian relief and enabling rescue operations in the wake of natural disasters like the earthquakes in Haiti, Pakistan and Nepal, tsunamis in Japan and other disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.


Many of these stories are now being preserved and displayed through the command's museum and art programs.

AMC has one museum located at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, and two heritage centers located at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington and Travis Air Force Base, California.

"We provide the oversight and help manage these locations," Wallwork said. "They each have their own curators at those museums who actually do the hands-on work.

Airparks and static displays are also a major part of displaying AMC's history.

"We have airparks all across the command. Almost every base has at least one aircraft. There are also static displays of materials, which may be a Medal of Honor or outstanding unit awards. Historians get those set up and displayed within the headquarters or within the museum or a heritage center," Wallwork explained.

For Jeff Michalke, who manages the AMC archives, airparks can provide some of the most worthwhile experiences for history officers.

"We drive by every day and see the airpark out there. But that's where a lot of the maintainers, the flyers or anybody associated with the aircraft will come up and tell you, 'I flew that aircraft' or 'I worked that aircraft," Michalke said. 

He recalled one specific story while serving as a historian at Hurlburt Field, Florida.

"We had a gentleman from World War II who said we had a C-47 in our airpark with the wrong tail number. The gentleman also said to check under the wings: it flew in [Operation] Market Garden, and there should be some battle damage under the wings.

"Sure enough, under the left wing, there were some patches. When we got up into the cockpit, we found the data plate with the radio call sign and the right tail number," Michalke recounted.

"We sent this back to the national museum, and they said, 'Yeah, you're right. We had the wrong tail number.' Then two gentlemen came down. One was the pilot, and one was his radioman. We got pictures of them, met their spouses and got to talk with them for about an hour," he said.  "The emotional attachment they have to the aircraft is really neat. When you actually get to meet the people that flew them and crewed them and have them tell you a story about the aircraft--that's interesting."

Part of Kathy Wilcoxson's job is verifying the history of flying units and assigning heritage scores, which is determined by factors like years of activation and campaign involvement.

"There's a points system, and it enables us to keep the highest heritage scores, which means those squadrons are going to have lots of streamers hanging on their guidon," she said.  "We have to rack and stack them, and it's a fair way that the Air Force has devised to rank flying squadrons. It's completely impartial."

As emblem program manager, Wilcoxson works to help units design and establish emblems under a stringent set of standards that most people are unfamiliar with.

"I review emblems to make sure they comply with the strict criteria, and then I submit it to Air Force Historical Research Agency for approval," Wilcoxson said. "Emblem submissions can be a concept. The heraldic artists belong to the Army's Institute of Heraldry, and are mandated to draw all DOD heraldic drawings. I can submit a concept, the artists draw it, and they send it to the commander for review."

Despite the scope of the command historian program and the requirements the team manages in recording AMC's history, each member of the staff plays a significant role in documenting, archiving and preserving the stories that solidify Air Mobility Command's place in history.

Morgan said working as an AMC historian is more interesting than most people realize.  

"It is so much more than sitting and poring over old manuscripts and working in parchment while a bunch of Gregorians chant in the background. It is a daily, changing, fascinating job. And we get to see it all and write it up."