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In our connected world, we can put written histories in the palms of our hands with a few keystrokes. Yet, to get truly close to historical events nothing beats digging through primary source information. For those who want to research American military history, the gold can be found at the National Archives and Record Administration (NARA) in College Park, Maryland.

NARA preserves the vital documents and materials our nation produces in its proceedings, so that “we the people” can unearth the chronicles of our history. The mammoth facility in College Park houses contemporaneous records and makes them available for research. NARA welcomes curious amateurs as well as professional researchers.

Son, Paul, examining records at NARA
My son, Paul, at NARA

The ease of access and quantity of firsthand documents can astonish anyone on an initial visit. Within an hour, one request for information about a single World War II regiment produced fourteen boxes of documents. Each box held a rich collection of field orders, maps, overlays, after action reports, casualty lists, etc. Some documents describe routine activity. “F Co. and Hdqs Co. moved into town to receive the usual quota of champagne, cognac, bread and fruits.” In contrast, other records expose the chaos of an unfolding battle. “Mtr-cycle machine gun Bn opposing us. Our location on 340024.”

The archives offer a peek into history at a granular level rather than the bland, superficial passages we read in our high school textbooks. Furthermore, the researcher can see orders, overlays and journals that commanders and staffs created on the spot. A careful reader can catch the truth of the situation from these documents that, sometimes, casts a different light on the rosy pictures spun in later accounts.

Plan a Research Visit

NARA provides helpful information on how to plan a visit to their College Park location. Be sure to review their guidelines on what to do and what not to do at their facility. To learn more visit the National Archives website