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After Action Reports and Research at the National Archives.
After Action Reports stored at the National Archives are historical records that document the combat operations of U.S. military units from WWI through Vietnam. During hostilities, military units within each branch of the armed services including Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps, were required to prepare After Action Reports as a way to analyze tactics and improve performance in battle.
These records were transferred to the National Archives for storage once they had outlived their usefulness for the purpose of strategic planning. Today, the After Action Reports can be viewed in person at the National Archives by those conducting historical research.
Because After Action Reports document battlefield activity and were written shortly after the events transpired, they can help us to gain a better understanding of the wartime experiences of individual veterans who were assigned to combat units from WWI through Vietnam.
After Action Reports and Research of Individual Veterans
While the After Action Reports are an excellent source for understanding the contribution a veteran made to the overall war effort, they rarely mention individual veterans by name. Army After Action Reports typically exist at the battalion level or above. During WWII a battalion was composed of five companies. Each company was comprised of roughly two hundred men.
Since individual veterans were assigned to units at the company level it is necessary to begin research with the company level records which are known as the ‘morning reports’ before accessing the After Action Reports. Once you have your veteran’s morning reports those records will provide you with the exact dates your veteran was physically present on the battlefield. This in turn will allow you to access the relevant After Action Reports for those specific dates.
In many ways, the After Action Reports are the final piece of the puzzle when researching an individual veteran.
Researching the After Action Reports of Your Veteran’s Unit
Once you’ve ascertained your veteran’s unit and know exactly when they were physically present on the battlefield, you will be ready to access the After Action Reports for that specific time period. It is important to note that not all units kept a standardized set of After Action Reports. You may find that your veteran’s unit only has fragmentary sets of After Action Reports documenting only portions of their time in combat. If this is the case for your veterans unit of assignment, it may be necessary to substitute unit journals, histories and other operations reports to fill these gaps. Conversely, you may find that there are a massive amount of records documenting the battlefield participation of your veteran.
It is not uncommon to find boxes containing hundreds of pages of After Action Reports for just one military unit. The level of documentation often varies greatly depending on a number of factors, so the only way to find out whether After Action Reports exists for your veteran’s time in combat is to begin your research journey!
Let’s take a look at examples of after action and operations reports from WWI through Vietnam.
WWI After Action Reports
After Action Reports of units that engaged in combat during WWI are open to the public and can be viewed in person at the National Archives. Forty-three U.S Army Divisions participated in combat actions during WWI as part of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe and Russia. Marine Corps units served under the control of the Army while U.S. Naval vessels were utilized primarily for mine clearing and troop transport.
Aside from the standard After Action Reports and unit histories this series also includes operations reports such as maps and order of battle for American units which served in the Great War. When combined with the military service records and morning reports of your veteran, these records can help you to better understand the actual combat experiences of the WWI veteran you are researching.
WWII After Action Reports
WWII After Action Reports are included among the National Archives’ broader group of operations records from the war. In addition to the narrative style combat reports and unit journals which we refer to as After Action Reports, this record series includes veteran interviews from various units, order of battle records which outline unit structures, and maps – some of which were actually utilized in the field during combat. Army, Air Forces, Marine Corps, and Navy each maintained operations reports during WWII and these records are all accessible today at the National Archives.
Korean War After Action Reports
After Action Reports from the Korean War are stored at the National Archives as well. Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps all maintained a wide variety of action reports from the conflict which cover combat operations on the Korean Peninsula and at sea. Just like the operations reports from WWII, the available records from the Korean War include a wide assortment of documents covering combat operations. These include: After Action Reports, journals, Command Reports, and lessons learned as well as resources such as maps and order of battle for combat units.
Vietnam After Action Reports
Many of the After Action Reports for American units which saw action in Vietnam are available at the National Archives. After Action Reports from Vietnam often include a summary of combat operations, intelligence reports, casualty reports, and recommendations for tactical improvement in future battles. This series often includes maps and photographs as well depending on the unit being researched.
Interestingly, the Vietnam era After Action Reports sometimes provide documentation on the effectiveness of psychological warfare as well. Some records from Vietnam are still classified which can complicate the research process. The privacy of veterans who served in Vietnam is also a concern. Because the military began using social security numbers instead of serial numbers in the late 1960s, it can be challenging to research veterans and their units from this time period. Over the coming years, these records will become more available just as the records of WWI and WWII are almost entirely open to the public at this date.