By Matt Cheser, Naval History and Heritage Command, Histories and Archives Division
When the United States entered the World War I in April 1917 the realities of modern war forced the nation to adapt. The U.S. Navy expanded exponentially and adopted new organizations, tactics and technologies to address the emergency. The service conducted joint operations with the U.S. Army and combined operations with its allies on an unprecedented scale. The Navy was keenly aware that the knowledge and experience gained from its participation in the war were invaluable and endeavored to preserve those lessons. When the War Department contacted the Navy Department on June 3, 1918, requesting that Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels contribute to a future analytical history of the war, the Navy used the opportunity to establish a new section specifically tasked to preserve materials related to naval aspects of World War I and produce the history. On June 22, 1918, Secretary Daniels formed a historical section in Washington D.C. under the Office of Naval Intelligence.
The primary goal of the Navy Historical Section was to prepare an analytical history of American naval operations during the war so that future generations of Sailors and policy makers could learn from the Navy’s experiences. Led by Rear Admiral (ret.) William Wirt Kimball, the Historical Section attempted to collect the records of operating units to use as source material for the planned War Department analytical history. In August 1918 Secretary Daniels ordered all Navy commands to assemble and forward their World War I records to the section in Washington, D.C. With operations against the Central Powers ongoing, however, the materials arrived slowly.
After the signing of the November 11, 1918 armistice that ended the fighting, the Department made record collection a priority. In London, Vice Admiral William Sims, Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Operating in European Waters, appointed Capt. Dudley Knox to lead a separate historical section to organize papers located in Sims’s headquarters, the nerve center of U.S. Naval Forces in Europe. The section in London spent one year collecting documents before shipping them to Washington and dissolving itself. Meanwhile, Daniels named the Historical Section in Washington the official depository for all files and materials that would contribute to the writing of the planned history. These materials included documents, photographs, unit histories and war diaries. Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt successfully argued for a congressional appropriation to fund the Section’s work. On July 1, 1919, the Section merged with the existing Office of Naval Records and Library, with the officers in charge of the Historical Section presiding over the combined offices. Two years later, Captain Knox, newly retired from active service, took the helm of the Historical Section.
The work of collecting and processing World War I records took a modest staff over ten years. In an ironic twist, the history that the Historical Section was slated to produce was never completed. Changing national priorities and a lack of congressional support in an era of economic retrenchment shelved the project in the early 1930s. The Historical Section’s work, however, proved invaluable as Dudley Knox and others preserved the documentary record of the U.S. Navy. The section processed and archived approximately 800,000 World War I documents, produced seven smaller scale histories on diverse naval activities during the war, and assisted with several outside histories. The section later expanded its activities, first in 1923 by beginning to archive naval documents from earlier eras. In 1930 the Navy named Knox the curator of the Navy, expanding the Section’s mission to conserve the service’s material culture. By preserving the Navy’s “vanishing history and traditions,” Knox fulfilled his section’s founding purpose, to safeguard the lessons and experiences of the Navy for the use by later generations.
One hundred years later the Naval History and Heritage Command, descended in part from the World War I Historical section, continues this important mission. Today the command consists of more than 300 employees at 13 sites across the United States. The various branches of the command fulfil the different aspects of Dudley Knox’s vision:
The archives branch continues to collect and preserve the Navy’s records, accessioning command operations reports (CORs) and other Navy records much like the post war Historical Section. The Navy Department Library preserves an extensive collection of naval literature as it has since the early 19th century. The Museums Division safeguards the Navy’s material culture as laid out by Captain Knox during his tenure. The Histories Branch continues the WWI Historical Section’s mission of producing historical products for analytical and commemorative purposes split between three sections. The Documentary History Section is currently assembling a documentary edition of World War I documents begun but left unfinished by Knox and his section. The Emergent Response section engages questions from the public and other stakeholders and preserves the Navy’s past through oral histories and the upkeep of The Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships (DANFS). Research and Writing produces analytical works directly addressing issues that the Navy faces today.
The past remains as relevant today as it did one-hundred years ago when the Navy’s Historical Section was founded. Now, as then, the Navy’s history professionals remain committed to preserving and sharing the service’s history.