Finding My Grandfather in the Archive

My maternal grandfather, Richard Nolan was a pilot in the Air Force. He flew reconnaissance planes in Vietnam.

A few weeks ago, I taught a lesson on soldiers’ experience during the Vietnam War. To connect the history to my students’ lives, I asked them if anyone in their family served in the war. Six students raised their hands. They all knew that their grandfather’s served in some capacity but they had never asked them about their experience. My students’ homework was to go home and call their grandfathers and see if they were willing to share their story.

Both of my grandfathers served in the Vietnam War but neither are still with us. Thankfully, they were both fairly open with us and with my parents about their service, so I grew up knowing a little about their experiences. However, I still wanted to know more. Not having the option of talking to them, I turned to google. I searched my paternal grandfather’s name: Thomas Austin, and the title of his position during the war.

My paternal grandfather, Thomas Austin. He was the Senior Advisor of the Phuoc Tuy Province in Vietnam.

To my delight, I found a book that not only references my grandfather, but references several reports he wrote during the war. My grandfather was a graduate from West Point, and by the time he was deployed to Vietnam, too many of the men from his graduating class had died in combat that he was not allowed to be in a combat zone. Instead, the Army sent him to learn Vietnamese and in 1976 he became the Senior Advisor of the Phuoc Tuy Province. As part of his job, he submitted monthly reports on his province. I read some of his direct quotes in the text and immediately flipped to the footnotes to see where these materials were located. I found the following footnote:

LTCOL Thomas Austin, ‘Province report — Phuoc Tuy Province — period ending: 29 February 1968 (2), Box 1575, A1 731, RG 472, NARA.

I went to the NARA website, searched for the reading group and started digging through the finding aid. What I found is that the NARA website and their finding aids are extraordinarily confusing and difficult to navigate. It was seemingly impossible to find where the files were located or how to request them. I ended up reaching out through their contact page and am hoping to hear back.

My dad followed in his father’s footsteps and served in the military. He reveres my grandfather’s service and seeing those reports would mean a great deal to him. NARA holds military personnel files that are accessible for family research, but it is these more detailed primary documents of a person’s work that I think can provide the opportunity to really connect with a family member’s impact on history.

A page from my grandfather’s scrapbook

My grandfather returned from Vietnam he put together a scrapbook of photos from his time in Phuoc Tuy and the people he met with. These scrapbook pages have lived in my parent’s secretary desk, along with other family albums. But when I saw them recently, I thought back to the book where I originally found my grandfather’s records.

Another scrapbook page, filled with photos taken by and of my grandfather.

In the book, my grandfather is just another Army official whose records were consulted, but these scrapbooks tell a different history of his service in Vietnam. These accounts are filled with his personal interactions with South Vietnamese provincial leaders and citizens. His personal papers made me think of all of the family papers that exist outside of archives that would make our histories so much richer. How can we write a history of the experience of the Vietnam War without these rich sources being organized in a repository? Will these stories ever make their way to an archive? I am not sure what the answer to that question is, other than to continue to encourage my students to learn their own family history and emphasize how important their stories are to our collective national history.

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