Prologue Magazine


Recovering and Breaking the U.S. Army and Army Air Force Order of Battle Codes, 1941–1945

Fall 2000, Vol. 32, No. 3

By Lee A. Gladwin

keypunch operator
A keypunch operator of the Thirty-sixth Machine Records Unit in Belgium enters data from morning reports onto cards. (NARA, 111-SC-196472)

What was the current strength of the U.S. Army and Army Air Force each month during World War II? What were the numbers of casualties and prisoners of war? How many more men would have to be drafted, trained, and sent overseas? The answers were vital to the war effort. The authorized and actual numbers of officers and enlisted men for specific units was classified as "top secret" and were reported monthly in the Analysis of the Present Status of the War Department Troop Basis, large, thick reports circulated only among those with a right and need to know. Only eighty-six copies were printed for distribution. Not even President Franklin D. Roosevelt received a copy.

Tracking the men and material needs of the U.S. Army ground and air forces was a daunting task. In order to quickly and accurately tally actual versus authorized strength, the War Department's Adjutant General's Office (AGO) relied upon IBM data-processing equipment. Members of the AGO's Machine Records Units keypunched raw data onto eighty-column IBM punch cards, which were then fed into various machines that tallied the figures and printed reports. For the purpose of identifying specific units, three fields had to be punched: Type of Organization, Parent Unit Number, and Parent Unit Type.

The Type of Organization identified the kind of unit to which the serviceman belonged: e.g., "Heavy Bomber (B17 or B24)" or "Field Artillery 105MM Howitzer." The Parent Unit Number was the actual unit's number. Parent Unit Type indicated whether the unit was, for example, a group, squadron, regiment, or battalion. Most of the punch cards containing troop basis-related codes were destroyed after the war, but one collection remains: the World War II Prisoners of War Punch Cards, Record Group 389, Records of the Office of the Provost Marshal General, 1941 - . It contains the records of 143,360 POWs. But for the actions of War Department personnel, later army records managers, and some perceptive army archivists, these cards might have been branded "nonarchival" and relegated to the lost treasures of the world. Thanks to them, the evidence of the War Department's pioneering effort in encoding the troop basis and estimating man and material needs now resides in the National Archives and Records Administration's electronic records.

Researchers who need copies of their personal records or those of family members who were prisoners of Germany or Japan during World War II usually write to NARA. They may use the information to support a claim for benefits or to complete a genealogical history. Until a couple of years ago, reference staff conducted manual searches of the printouts of some of the records that they had created for reference purposes and, if a record were found, composed a letter to the researcher that incorporated the field names and their values from the record. The following data fields may appear in any record: Serial Number, Name, Grade alpha, Grade Code, Service Code, Arm or Service Code, Date Reported (DDMMY), Race, State of Residence, Type of Organization, Parent Unit Number, Parent Unit Type, Area, Latest Report (DDMMY), Source of Report, Status, Detaining Power, Camp, Repatriation Status, and, in a small subset of the records, data on Ship Sinkings.

Many of these fields use alphanumeric codes to record the data. To interpret the coded data, NARA staff had to turn to the codebooks included as part of the documentation for the electronic datafile. After years of manually searching printouts and codebooks in order to write responses, the entire collection of punch cards was migrated to a digital format, and the thirteen data files composing this POW collection were recently loaded into an Access 2.0/97 database along with separate tables containing all of the codes and all available meanings. At the start of the project, the Type of Organization, Parent Unit Number, and Parent Unit Type code values had not been found. The Access database includes not only the raw data from the electronic records but also additional fields to hold the code meanings. Happily, I recently found many, though not all, of the meanings of the Type of Organization codes, and they were added to the documentation package for the electronic records file and also to the Access database.

This is the saga of how IBM punch cards and the War Department's Machine Records Units helped win World War II. It is also the tale of how, nearly sixty years later, the Type of Organization codes were partly discovered or broken through the application of quantitative methods and recently discovered code documentation.

Office Automation Goes to War

Before 1939, neither the War Department nor any of the twenty-four European war ministries served by the International Business Machines European Headquarters in Geneva showed much interest in machine-readable records. Administration, military or otherwise, was viewed as a "'necessary evil' of little importance for the defence of the country," wrote J. W. Schotte, IBM's general manager for Europe. This attitude changed abruptly after the German occupation of Austria and Czechoslovakia. Germany's preparation for war included "internal organization," or the "organization of the second front." Newspapers were filled with stories of the "necessity of having in all phases of life behind the front an organization, which would remain intact and would function with 'Blitzkrieg' efficiency in times of general mobilization and war."1 Confronted by German expansion, the war ministries of Yugoslavia, Romania, Hungary, Poland, Sweden, Holland, and France ordered "punch card equipment" in an effort to overtake the German lead. Late in 1939, Germany seized most of IBM's equipment within its area of influence for use by its own installations.2

Punch cards, keypunch machines, and mechanical sorters had been introduced by Herman Hollerith in time for the tabulation of the 1890 U.S. population census. Having proved their effectiveness in recording, storing, and manipulating large amounts of records, they were soon adopted by business and some federal agencies. Their acceptance and use gained ground during the New Deal era as a means of implementing its social policies and tracking payroll deductions and unemployment insurance.3

Incredibly, the War Department had not fully embraced current business machine technology, with the exception of the typewriter. Nevertheless, before World War II, the army's Adjutant General's Office used punch cards to maintain officer and enlisted strength statistics. In fact, the Surgeon General's Office used punch cards as early as World War I to maintain records of the sick and wounded and annually tabulate medical statistics. A very few machines were allowed the Army Signal Corps and the Office of Naval Intelligence for cryptological work. Two ordnance arsenals and two engineer districts employed business machines to process payroll and accountingrecords.4

Following the outbreak of war in Europe in September 1939, the Adjutant General's Office of the War Department was confronted with the eventual need to account for men and materials on a massive scale. There may have been some who remembered events during World War I, when the effort to "maintain locator cards and keep track of changes in status of units and individuals broke down completely under the deluge of so-called 'snow flakes' or change slips which showered the Adjutant General's Office from overseas."5 Despite the Roosevelt administration's encouragement of the use of IBM basic punch-card machines for civilian purposes, that characteristic enthusiam and urgency was lacking with regard to military preparedness. An isolationist Congress may have thought that buying fewer business machines would keep America out of war. As late as April 23, 1940, the Adjutant General's Office could boast of only one "Hollerith punch card system" being used in its Enlisted and Reserve Divisions.6 When it was announced that some money might be available from the President's Contingency Fund, the Adjutant General's Office requested $200,000 for the "complete modernization and mechanization of the administrative system of the army." It was proposed to use such funds for establishment of a central machine records section in the office of the Adjutant General, in each corps area and department headquarters, at air corps general headquarters, larger army posts, and at least "one experimental unit at an army headquarters in the field, to develop procedures for tactical purposes." The AGO proposed to staff these units with civilians so as to free military personnel from administrative duties.7 To buttress their argument for funding, they pointed out that by placing the "administrative system of Army on a mechanical basis," the office could more quickly handle a mass of personnel records while reducing the number of personnel. The AGO predicted that one set of machines could replace sixty men.8

The announced purpose of the system was to "shift the burden of personnel administration from tactical units (company, regiment, division, corps and army) to installations of corps area service commands through the establishment of machine administration service units, as part of corps area service commands." While "normal channels of communication" would continue to be used for general administrative purposes, machine records units (MRUs) would convert personnel accounting records into "punched card records."9 An MRU was to be established at each corps area and departmental headquarters; auxiliary units were set up at air corps general headquarters and at locations with the heaviest personnel administrative load. Additionally, an "experimental" mobile unit was to serve an army headquarters, and funding was found for nineteen such units.10 The army hoped to put mobile MRUs as close to the action as possible.11

A series of punch cards was even then being printed. The statistical card would record such personal information as the individual's height, age, and date and place of birth. Other cards included the status card, report of change (personal and unit), a medical card to record the serviceman's medical history based upon morning and sickness reports, locator cards, rosters and returns, and casualty reports.12

Despite the October conference and initial funding, financial support remained a problem into 1941. As Europe and the Far East plunged ever deeper into war, in January 1941 the Adjutant General's Office pleaded for parity of funding with other services as it defended "the necessity for the Reorganization of the Army Personnel System and the installation of Business Machines for the handling of personnel matters for the Army."13

The necessary note of urgency was struck at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. At the Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff, G-1, the staff worked through the night. They had to quickly "compute the defense reserves of equipment then in the overseas departments, particularly in Hawaii and the Philippines, which had been established on punched cards."14 Following the attack upon Pearl Harbor, thousands of patriotic young men descended upon army recruiting centers across the country. Area commands were confronted with more servicemen than their current MRUs could handle and cabled the Adjutant General's Office for assistance.15

Demands for punch-card machines and men to operate them far exceeded initial supplies. By July 31, 1942, there were forty-four machine records units serving the U.S. Army, and more keypunch machine operators, tabulating machine operators, and card-punch-sorting machine operators were desperately needed. The shortage of experienced keypunch operators was described as "acute." MRUs were ordered to search their collections of qualification and status cards for qualified enlistees, and training programs were conducted on a massive scale that summer.16

Construction of the mobile trailers apparently began during the winter of 1942-1943. Each mobile unit consisted of two truck-trailers mounted on rubber shock absorbers. The machines contained within them were powered by two generators producing eighty horsepower. Following construction, the trailers were sent to the International Business Machine Corporation's Engineering Laboratory at Endicott, New York, for installation of the punch-card machines. Huge as they were, these trailers were mobile enough to follow the troop landings in every theater from Sicily and Normandy in the European theater to the islands of the Pacific. At least one mobile machine records unit was attached to every army corps. Of the more than one hundred MRUs, thirty-three received unit citations.17

Punch cards recorded personnel and unit information. These cards and their related reports allowed the army chief of staff to monitor troop strength as printed out in the troop basis or its monthly analysis. The reports compared authorized and actual strength for the purposes of drafting, training, and replacing service personnel.

Preserving the Punch Cards on Electronic Media

In 1959 the army transferred boxes of punch cards to the National Archives and Records Service as part of the wholesale transfer of the army's World War II archives. They were assigned to Record Group 389. No effort was made to convert them to a digital format until the late 1970s, when the Veterans Administration borrowed some of the punch cards and migrated these records to digital format as two files copied to nine-track, reel-to-reel tape. These two files were known as the U.S. Military Prisoners of War (POW)— World War II, Military Personnel Returned Alive from the European and Pacific Theaters files in the Records of the Office of the Provost Marshal General. In 1998 the Center for Electronic Records, in collaboration with the Textual Archives Services Division and the Information Technology Branch of the Office of Human Resources, arranged for the conversion of eleven additional files to magnetic media. As a result, all of the World War II POW punch cards were migrated to a digital format. There are thirteen files containing 143,000 records.

In Quest of Meaning: Finding the Documentation, 1970 - 1999

Without documentation for coded data fields, individual data records often have little or no meaning. In coded data, much of the information exists only in code; e.g., a number "1" in the Race field stands for "White." No documentation for the punch card records was identified directly by the army when it transferred the cards to the National Archives. However, we now know that the code values and the card formats are defined in textual records from the Machine Records Units and these, too, are preserved in the National Archives. Documentation is absolutely essential for using the data in any way. The documentation identifies the names of the fields, their sizes, and type (whether alphabetical, numeric, or alphanumeric). For those seeking to understand the codes in the records, codebooks are a vital part of this documentation.

Top Secret, Part 2

Meanings of Type of Organization Codes

Lee A. Gladwin is an archivist with the Electronic and Special Media Records Services Division of the National Archives and Records Administration.




Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.