WASHINGTON NAVY YARD
Story by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jalen Walton, Naval History and Heritage Command
The pungent smell of jet fuel overwhelmed his senses, and the constant whirring of machinery throughout shipboard compartments was almost audible outside the hull of the ship. “You can almost hear them yelling as they [Sailors] try to communicate,” said Capt. Bryon Smith, recalling the events of a taped interview.
Smith, now the Deputy Division Director of the Histories and Archives Division at the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC), served as the commanding officer of the Navy Reserve, Navy Combat Documentation Unit (NCDU) from 2017 to 2019. Immersing himself in the memories of others was a part of his job.
Smith remembered how a Sailor described the feeling of cold air rushing around him as he was winched above USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) in the aftermath of the destroyer’s 2017 collision at sea. The recounting is so vivid, he said, that it felt accurate enough to live in for a moment.
Through the elaborate descriptions of another Sailor’s memory, it was almost as if he, the listener, experienced the collision himself.
“It’s almost like magic, said Smith, his eyes exploring paperwork on his desk, “You are in that moment, and when they [Sailors] start to finish the story, you start to realize you're coming out of it. You're like, ‘oh, yeah,’ we're doing an interview.”
Initially established in May 1987 as Naval Reserve Combat Documentation Detachment 206, the unit’s assigned mission was to deploy documentation teams to U.S. Navy, joint, and combined commands worldwide to conduct oral history interviews, collect historically significant artifacts and records, and document operations—decades before Smith would experience the magnitude of that mission firsthand.
Combat documentation detachments were first stood up by Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz early in WWII. Consisting of historians with Naval Reserve commissions, such detachments have existed in some form ever since.
Inheriting the unit’s mission years later, Capt. Anna Boyd, relieved Smith as commanding officer of Navy Reserve, Naval History and Heritage (NR NHH) in March 2021, just before the unit’s most recent name change.
“This unit is definitely among the most important that I have been in, in nearly 17 years in the reserves,” said Boyd. “We provide a direct link between NHHC and the fleet.”
After more than 30 years, these teams of fleet historians act as keepers and collectors of history and individual experiences of those in uniform around the globe. NR NHH has served behind the scenes, on the front lines, and in the face of danger during many of the Navy's operations. The information the unit collects is sourced directly from those serving throughout the fleet.
“Without this unit, the Navy would not be able to capture history in the way it currently can,” said Boyd. “Without trying to be hyperbolic, the existence of [NR NHH] could mean the difference between capturing the history to be preserved for eternity… or not.”
Navy Combat Documentation Teams (NCDT) are composed of five members, including officer and enlisted personnel, and deploy across the fleet to shore and sea commands each year.
Speaking on how the unit captures topics, Boyd said, “It is a joint effort between the unit and Histories and Archives Division. We came up with a list of things we thought would be worthwhile oral histories.”
That list included milestones and events, such as the first woman commanding officer of a nuclear aircraft carrier, the first deployment of the Ford-class nuclear aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78), and interviews with the commanding officer of Naval Air Station Pensacola during the attack in 2019.
Boyd noted that capturing history is more than jotting down notes to have them archived in museums or books.
“Knowing what considerations and decisions go into battle planning today informs battle planning in the future,” said Boyd. “It is critical that our wartime leaders have at their disposal all of the information they can to make good decisions.”
Along with their collection obligations, NCDTs provide a full range of training and assistance on the submission of command operations reports (COR) and deck logs. A COR is a detailed recounting of a Navy command’s operations, training, and events. Unlike a deck log, which traditionally records technical military operations, the COR gives a comprehensive narrative of the command and its events over the calendar year.
Throughout the unit’s existence, NCDTs have deployed to capture key moments in Navy history, including the military dog teams deployed to Syria in support of Operation Inherent Resolve and USS Carl Vinson’s (CVN 70) involvement during the 2018 Rim of the Pacific Exercise. They also gathered oral interviews of damage control efforts aboard USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) and the Navy hospital ship USNS Mercy’s (T AH 19) COVID-19 response mission in 2020.
His eyes and arms widen to emphasize the scope of the stories he has heard as Smith compares his experiences to being transported back to a moment in time, as if the confessions of service members NCDTs interviewed were a form of time travel.
“We had a couple of reservists fly in the middle of the night and land in Somalia to a forward-deployed base,” he said, describing an NCDT’s flight during a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) attack. “There was, no kidding, ordnance in the air. They [NCDTs] flew in, conducted a few interviews, observed what was happening, and then flew back out. And that was just a segment of what we were able to accomplish.”
Cases like these, no matter how dangerous, are opportunities to collect oral histories and to learn from them. The personal connection of the people who tell their stories can yield depth and subject matter expertise for future leadership to inherit.
Thoughts on the lasting impact of the NR NHH’s efforts are captured in the unit’s motto, “What we do today echoes through eternity.”
For more information on efforts made by Naval Reserve, Naval History and Heritage, visit https://www.history.navy.mil/content/history/nhhc/about-us/organization/functional-specialties/ncdu.html.
Naval History and Heritage Command, located at the Washington Navy Yard, is responsible for preserving, analyzing, and disseminating U.S. naval history and heritage. It provides the knowledge foundation for the Navy by maintaining historically relevant resources and products that reflect the Navy's unique and enduring contributions through our nation's history and supports the fleet by assisting with and delivering professional research, analysis, and interpretive services. NHHC comprises many activities, including the Navy Department Library, the Navy Operational Archives, the Navy art and artifact collections, underwater archeology, Navy histories, ten museums, USS Constitution repair facility, and the historic ship Nautilus.
For more news from Naval History and Heritage Command, visit www.history.navy.mil.
NHHC, located at the Washington Navy Yard, is responsible for the preservation, analysis, and dissemination of U.S. naval history and heritage. It provides the knowledge foundation for the Navy by maintaining historically relevant resources and products that reflect the Navy's unique and enduring contributions through our nation's history and supports the fleet by assisting with and delivering professional research, analysis, and interpretive services. NHHC is composed of many activities, including the Navy Department Library, the Navy Operational Archives, the Navy art and artifact collections, underwater archeology, Navy histories, 10 museums, USS Constitution repair facility, and the historic ship Nautilus.
Note to Media: For more information, contact the Naval History and Heritage Command Public Affairs Office
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