by Tom Thompson-
The United States Transportation Command (USTC) at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois, is the single manager for all Department of Defense transportation. As such, the organization manages the worldwide day-to-day logistics movement of thousands of military shipments on aircraft, ships, truck, and rail. The USTC Research Center is the corporate memory of the command. I spoke with Dr. Jay H. Smith, Center Director, about the roles of this office. We spoke about three main topics: maintaining and utilizing historical records, historical displays, and leading an annual history study.
The Research Center’s goal is to retain not just the factual history of the organization but also context and the issues that it faced. This is important because there is frequent turnover of people to and from the organization. To solve the corporate memory problem, some military organizations write a unit history periodically. In the case of USTC, oral histories are used for this purpose. For instance, when each commander, who is a four-star general, leaves, an oral interview is recorded.
The organization creates an enormous amount of information in the course of everyday business. How do they know what to keep? Dr. Smith said that he had to develop a feel for it over time. He has to stay in tune with the organization and its activities. When deciding what history to retain he tries to imagine what questions people will ask ten years from now. He tries to eliminate administrative details and concentrate on retaining decision-making and operational information.
The Research Center is also responsible for artwork, artifacts, and displays that depict the command’s mission and history. For instance, throughout the buildings there are photos of past and current military operations that have been supported by USTC. In the common lobby areas there are historical artifacts and timelines of the history of the organization. The goal of these displays is twofold. First, the information educates newcomers or visitors on the history and mission of the organization. Second, the organization is made up of members of all United States services. These people may not have worked outside of their own military service before. Therefore, the displays accentuate the multi-service mission of the organization and with a goal of building esprit de corps within the command.
The place where Dr. Smith’s work is closest to public history is his role to further the professional development of staff officers in USTC. The primary event is the “Vicksburg Campaign Staff Ride.” This is an annual study of the Civil War Campaign at Vicksburg. This particular event was chosen for several reasons that relate to its similarity to challenges faced by USTC in executing its mission daily:
- As a campaign, not just a single battle, it involves both strategic and tactical planning
- The campaign had logistics challenges in terms of moving men and material long distances by several transportation modes
- There is an expeditionary element since the North was fighting far from its source of supplies
- Other issues are always in play; politics, economics, technology, and doctrine
Examining this event is broken into three parts; initial study, site visit to walk the grounds, and integration session to close the study. Each participant takes the role of one of the main persons involved in the Vicksburg Campaign. By hosting the Vicksburg Staff Ride the Research Center is working to use the lessons of the past to instruct the logistics leaders of today.
The USTC Research Center has a large role in the preservation, display, and education of history to USTC employees. Thanks to Dr. Smith for taking time from his busy schedule to talk with me.