Reclaiming Stolen History
Fall 2017, Vol. 49, No. 3
By David S. Ferriero
Archivist of the United States
The National Archives and Records Administration’s primary mission is to provide access to the records in our control. We recognize that these records are of incalculable value to people looking to understand their history, seek out evidence, and document rights. That value, though, also makes them targets for theft.
Earlier this year, our staff and the Office of Inspector General discovered that artifacts and documents had been stolen from World War II military records. On June 9, 2017, investigators executed a search warrant at the residence of a researcher and historian, Antonin DeHays. There they found and recovered identification tags and other documents stolen from National Archives at College Park, Maryland.
I appreciate the efforts of our Office of Inspector General and the National Archives staff who have been assisting them and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for their efforts in this ongoing investigation.
The Acting United States Attorney for the District of Maryland filed a federal criminal complaint against DeHays on June 13, 2017. If convicted of the theft of government records, DeHays faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.
DeHays had repeatedly visited the National Archives over an extended period and stole ID tags and documents of U.S. servicemen whose airplanes had crashed during World War II. DeHays sold the stolen tags, often called dog tags, and in one case even traded a tag assigned to a Tuskegee Airman to a museum in exchange for a chance to sit in a Spitfire aircraft.
The records DeHays pilfered were created during World War II by the German military. When Allied airmen crashed into Nazi-occupied territory in Europe, the Germans recovered the tags of deceased airmen and confiscated dog tags from airmen who survived the crashes. They then placed those tags into files with downed Allied aircraft reports. Allied forces seized these records at the end of the war, and the U.S. Army transferred them to the National Archives in 1958.
That the records stolen were so personal to the deceased servicemen is especially distasteful. Long after their years of service, veterans often hold on to their military ID tags as mementos. I keep one of my own Navy tags with me on my keychain to this day.
The theft of our history should anger any citizen, but as a veteran I am shocked at allegations that a historian would show such disregard for records and artifacts documenting those captured or killed in World War II.
In 1955, Archivist Wayne C. Grover signed the Archivist's Code to guide National Archives staff in making professional decisions. In it, he states “The Archivist must be watchful in protecting the integrity of records in his custody. He must guard them against defacement, alteration, or theft….” He goes on to say “The Archivist should endeavor to promote access to records to the fullest extent consistent with the public interest, but he should carefully observe any established policies restricting the use of records.” There is a fine balancing act we all must face in this profession between protection and access to the records.
As I have stated since I became Archivist of the United States, the security of the holdings of the National Archives is my highest priority. Any theft of our nation’s records is an irreplaceable loss. We safeguard those records in many ways, but it all begins with our shared commitment to security. Although we have heightened security around our holdings in recent years and have implemented a number of measures to deter theft, this latest incident underlines the constant threat posed to our holdings and the importance of our commitment to holdings protection.
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