Through Historian's Eyes

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Zachary Cacicia
  • 436th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
As famed Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian, David McCullough, once said, "History is who we are and why we are the way we are."

Academically and publically, this quotation easily applies to levels of history that are on the scale of general topics such as the world, Western Civilization, the United States and the Air Force. There are many historians that have devoted their entire professional careers to studying these large wide-ranging topics.

It equally applies to more local histories such as those of Kent County, Delaware, the city of Dover, Dover AFB and the 436th Airlift Wing. But when it comes to these smaller areas of study, there are not normally completely devoted historians. Furthermore, smaller entities such as the 436th Airlift Wing are not particularly well-known outside the local area and Air Force community.

Questions such as, "why do Americans generally speak English?' or "how important was Thomas Jefferson during the American Revolution?," can easily be answered via a plethora of books, articles, journals, documents and if need be, Wikipedia, by the general public. But what if questions arise like, "What missions did the 9th Airlift Squadron conduct during the summer of 1975?" or "Who was named the 436th Security Force Squadron Airman of the Month for November, 1963?" Those types of questions tend to be more difficult and tasking, to the point where the average person does not have the time or resources to answer.

This is when Dr. Andrew Wackerfuss, 436th AW historian, comes to the rescue.

"The wing historian's purpose to create the enduring record," said Dr. Wackerfuss. "We do this through statistical and anecdotal information."

The 436th Airlift Wing History Office is a one-person operation responsible for exactly what it sounds like, the wing's history. Even though the wing's history is small in relation to that of the Air Force as a whole; this does not make it any less important or any less deserving of attention, said Dr. Wackerfuss.

Dover AFB and the 436th Airlift Wing can trace their respective histories back to World War II, when Dover AFB was Dover Army Air Base, and the 436th Airlift Wing was the 436th Troop Carrier Group, where its first operational mission was in support of Operation Overlord, the allied invasion of Normandy. With this rich history, there is no doubt that a devoted wing historian is a valuable asset.

Dr. Wackerfuss, a native of suburban Chicago, received his Bachelor's degree from Northwestern University, focusing his studies on history and journalism. Upon completion of his degree, he moved to Washington, D.C. to work at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, where he contributed with work on the museum's online encyclopedia of the Holocaust.

"This was my first taste of government history, or public history as it's known in the profession," said Dr. Wackerfuss.

He then began his graduate studies at Georgetown University, receiving a Master's degree in German and European studies, followed by a doctorate in history. His dissertation, "The Stormtrooper Family: How Sexuality, Spirituality, and Community Shaped the Hamburg SA," explained the attraction of Nazi stormtroopers in the city of Hamburg. It argues that social networks and personal relationships were the primary means of recruiting and integrating new members into the Nazi movement.

Earning a doctorate degree in history on average takes an individual eight to nine years, which is exactly how long it took Dr. Wackerfuss.

"It can take a long time, but it's incredibly fulfilling and a really great opportunity to have," said Dr. Wackerfuss. "I loved every minute of it."

In addition to his primary focus on German history, his pre-Air Force career saw him dabbling in the histories of bullying in Victorian era schools, videogame depictions of World War I and air combat simulators of World War I.

While continuing on at Georgetown as an adjunct professor in their history department, he was approached by the Air Force History Program, who was looking for qualified historians.

At first he was a little baffled, being unaware that the Air Force even had historians.

He began work in 2010 at the Air Force Historical Studies Office, located at Joint Base Anacostia Bolling, in Washington, D.C., where he worked for three years prior to coming to Dover AFB. This office functions slightly different than at wing level History Offices, where it focused primarily on the "big picture," of the entire Air Force, rather than at the wing or base level. There they also answer inquiries from the public-at-large and the Headquarters staff.

"When I first started at Bolling, I was surprised at how many answers we are able to find to questions that when I was new I thought, oh there's no way," said Dr. Wackerfuss.

Questions like, "What happened to my grandfather when he was shot down during World War II?," were able to be answered.

"You may think, well how are we supposed to find that out?," said Dr. Wackerfuss. "Well we all have that stuff; we have the daily, weekly, monthly reports that were produced by the groups at the time."

Dr. Wackerfuss explained that these types of questions are a very standard inquiry.

"I even found my own great uncle's, my grandfather's brother's, missing aircrew report; and he survived," said Dr. Wackerfuss. "Everyone wants to know more about their family history."

After a three-year stint working in Washington, he received orders directing him to Dover AFB to work as the 436th Airlift Wing historian.

Being on the job at Dover since May, 2013, Dr. Wackerfuss has worked closely with not only Team Dover's leadership and its Airmen, but also with the Air Mobility Command Museum, which is located on base.

"Historians track the activities of the wing and/or the base, making sure that all of the information is preserved for the historical record," said Dr. Wackerfuss. "We do this in the form of annual reports that then becomes the historical record."

Today's historians face a challenge that comes with the analog to digital changeover in information and data. Dr. Wackerfuss and other historians like him are a little alarmed by this and find it "scary and dangerous."

"We have more information than ever, things happen quicker than ever and they are also more disposable than ever," explained Dr. Wackerfuss.

Because of this perceived disposability, Dr. Wackerfuss fears that heaps of information is being lost all the time.

"Every time I have to clear my outlook inbox, I have this moment of terror, where I visualize every single computer on base and somebody sitting in front of it hitting the delete key over and over," said Dr. Wackerfuss. "And I wonder what is getting lost."

He wonders if future generations will be able to answer questions about today's Air Force, which we currently can about the Air Force and its predecessors from 70 years ago.

"Whether in 50 years when somebody's grandkid comes along and asks what happened to their grandfather or grandmother in 2014 at Dover Air Force Base," said Dr. Wackerfuss. "Are we going to be able to answer that at the level of detail that we can now answer questions about World War II?"

He believes that we will be able to for the big things, but the nature of the digital environment makes it all a bigger challenge now, than it was 70 years ago.

Dr. Wackerfuss also finds himself straddling on edge of a fence, being that he has the only civilian position on Dover AFB that is deployable, as a condition of employment.

During the last deployment exercise, Dr. Wackerfuss found himself the only person not in a military uniform while proceeding through a mock deployment line, to the slight confusion of those who were working it.

"During the DEPEX, it was kind of funny," said Dr. Wackerfuss. "I got up to the first table and they looked at me and said, 'what are you doing here?'"

Unsure of how to process him, Dr. Wackerfuss was instructed to stand off to the side until the confusion could be resolved.

"I wound up sitting in the penalty box for most of the day just watching the whole line walk by," said Dr. Wackerfuss. "Pretty much every single person that saw me was like, 'what is this guy doing here?'"

Dr. Wackerfuss is excited on the prospects of a deployment and is currently scheduled to deploy this upcoming January for four months to a yet, unknown location.

In addition to research, archiving and responding to inquiries, the History Office is responsible for the approval for all unit emblem creation and modification.

Dr. Wackerfuss currently has his dissertation in the final stages of pre-publication, and will be coming out in book form in early 2015. He also continues to teach an online class through Georgetown University.

"I remind myself that I am lucky to be a working historian," said Dr. Wackerfuss. "I'm doing something that I'm interested in and it's something that a lot of people care about and are invested in."