Not all Air Force heroes and heroines are pilots, and a few are not even
military personnel at all. One such unsung heroine, Sarah B. Clark, made
an invaluable contribution to the preservation of Air Force history.
The extent of her contribution is still felt today, nearly 90 years
after she entered government service.
Clark spent her 39-year federal career managing the research,
development, and test records created by managers, engineers,
scientists, test pilots, and acquisition personnel at McCook Field,
Wright Field, and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.
Miss Clark was born Sadie B. Clark in Ft.
Wayne, Indiana, on August 11, 1887. She graduated from Ft. Wayne High
School in 1907 and then attended
International Business College in Ft. Wayne where she studied
stenography and general business. From 1908 until 1918 she worked as a
stenographer at S. F. Bowser & Co. in Ft. Wayne.
the U.S. entered the First World War in 1917, Miss Clark revealed
considerable self confidence and unabashed ambition on her application
for Civil Service employment when she described the position she was “most
qualified for” as that of an “executive.” She wasted little time
realizing her ambition.
Clark took her government oath of office on January 10, 1919, and went
to work at McCook Field in north Dayton. She was assigned to the
Production Engineering Department
of the Bureau of Aircraft Production at McCook Field in downtown Dayton.
Her first job title was “Production Expert” in the civilian
organization charged with acquiring badly needed military aircraft for
the Army Air Service during the war. The Production Engineering
Department was soon reorganized into the Army Signal Corps’ Airplane
Engineering Division at McCook Field. Miss Clark was named Chief of
Central Files, only nine months after entering federal service.
remained in this job, under several job titles and organizational
realignments,1 until her retirement. Sadie B. Clark changed her name in
the official record to Sarah B. Clark in 1927. All references refer to
her as “Miss Clark,” suggesting that she never married. Miss Clark
was responsible for the management of a staff of analysts and clerks
charged with collecting, indexing, filing, storing, preserving,
retrieving, and referencing all files generated by management and
research offices at McCook and Wright Fields. When McCook Field closed
in 1927, Miss Clark and the Central Files moved to Wright Field, east of
Dayton. In 1941 she had a home address in the heart of downtown Dayton.
This was probably a hotel or YWCA. The address was directly on the
trolley line out to Wright Field. Housing in Dayton during WWII was at a
premium, and Miss Clark’s 1941 address was definitely not in a
The Army Adjutant General’s Office around 1914, charged with the task
of standardizing Army correspondence and other records, adapted the
Dewey Decimal System of library book classification to produce the
Central Decimal Filing System.2 Miss Clark used this system in her early
days at McCook Field to index the Engineering Division’s central
files. She spent the rest of her career expanding and improving that
system. As the Air Service became the Army Air Corps, then the Army Air
Forces, and finally
the U.S. Air Force, the volume of files, records, and reports generated
by the R&D organizations at Wright Field exploded, especially during
the massive military buildup during World War II.
The Central Files repository relocated several
times as it expanded. The collection contained documents ranging from
general correspondence detailing management of the Engineering Division
and of Wright Field to research and development files, drawings and
photographs generated by the Wright Field engineers, scientist and test
personnel. During the period of Miss Clark’s management of the Central
Files, the boundaries of aeronautical technology evolved from its
infancy through the maturity of propeller driven aircraft and into the
jet age. Much of the
innovative technologies developed during this was produced and
documented by the personnel at the Engineering Division, information
that ended up being collected, managed and preserved by Miss Clark’s
Central Files team.
collection also contains tens of thousands of official photographs taken
at Wright Field. Each was carefully numbered and filed with indexes
created to match the photograph
number with its appropriate caption.
Sarah Clark managed the Central Files Branch
with firm discipline requiring that detailed lists be prepared
indicating the complete title of every folder in each box. These box
lists today serve as the key to locating information.
Wright Field Central Files, like those of other
federal agencies during World War II, grew so large the local office
could no longer manage the volume of material. In 1955, Sarah Clark
reported 63,000 cubic feet of files in her custody. The huge volume,
coupled with a drastic draw down of personnel in the post-war era, left
her, and thousands of other records managers throughout the nation, with
a mountain of paper to maintain and fewer people to care for it.
The Air Force addressed the problem by changing
records management policy. Microfilming of records was encouraged,
followed by destruction of the paper records (a practice no longer
observed today). Also, Wright Field Central File areas were to be
dramatically downsized and USAF files dispersed to Federal Records
Centers in Kansas City, St. Louis and Suitland, Maryland. Sarah Clark
began planning for the changes, but she undoubtedly had mixed emotions.
Although maintenance of the collection had become nearly impossible
because of its size, the Central Files represented her life’s work
and, far more importantly, the complete record of research and
development in the Air Force from 1917. She probably also had
reservations about the standardized USAF filing system that was mandated
throughout the Air Force, replacing the Central Decimal Filing System
she had worked with and maintained throughout the years. Sarah Clark
retired in 1956 at the age of 69.
As Air Force records managers and archivists
processed this unique collection of documents they realized the files
contained a wealth of information on the evolution of aviation
technology and the early days of aeronautical research and development.
Additionally, records managers were impressed by the enormous quantity
and meticulous order of the files and the extensive box lists that
accompanied them. They were so impressed, in fact, that organizers of
the fifth United States Air Force Records Management Conference took the
extraordinary step of naming the entire group of records the “Sarah
Clark Files.” The certificate designating the “Sarah Clark Files”
was signed by every USAF MAJCOM commander in 1960 – an unprecedented
honor accorded her by the fighting personnel and support organizations
that recognized Wright Field’s contribution to the USAF and Miss Clark’s
contribution to saving the historical record.
A special plaque commemorating her “efficient
and orderly collection of document files representing billions of
dollars in technical knowledge” was presented to Miss Clark by Maj.
Gen. Joseph R. Holzapple, Commander of the Wright Air Development
1 Airplane Engineering Department, Aviation Section, Office of
the Chief Signal Officer, U.S. Army, established October 13, 1917.
Redesignated Airplane Engineering Division and transferred to Bureau of
Aircraft Production, August 31, 1918. Redesignated Technical Division, January
1, 1919. Redesignated Engineering Division, Air Service, May 13, 1919.
Redesignated Materiel Division, Air Corps, October 15, 1926. Redesignated
Materiel Center (MC), Army Air Forces (AAF), March 6, 1942. Redesignated Air
Force Materiel Command (AFMC), by General Order 16, MC, April 6, 1942. New
organization, designated Engineering Division, established under AFMC by
Notice 103, AFMC, June 7, 1942. AFMC redesignated successively Materiel
Command, April 15, 1943; AAF Materiel Command, June 15, 1944; AAF Materiel and
Services Command, summer 1944; AAF Technical Service Command, September 1,
1944; Air Technical Service Command, July 1, 1945; and Air Materiel Command (AMC),
March 13, 1946. Engineering Division transferred from AMC to Air Research and
Development Command (ARDC) by Notice 77, AMC, April 3, 1951. ARDC redesignated
Air Force Systems Command (AFSC); and Engineering Division redesignated
Aeronautical Systems Division of AFSC, effective April 1, 1961, by Letter
AFOMO 590M, Department of the Air Force (DAF), March 20, 1961. This
organizational history comes from the Guide to Federal Records in the National
Archives of the United States, Records of United States Air Force Commands,
Activities, and Organizations (Record Group 342) on the Web.
2 Mabel E. Deutrich, “History of the Decimal Filing System
in the War Department,” National Archives Seminar [Paper] on Recordkeeping
Practices, September 14, 1956, MS, National Archives Library, National
Archives at College Park, Maryland.
3 We are indebted to Wright Patterson AFB historians, NARA
subject specialists, and NASM Reference Archivists for their assistance in the
preparation of this article.
Sarah Clark Collection
Since 1917, nearly all research and development activities required to
equip the U.S. Air Force and its predecessors (U.S. Army Air Corps, U.S.
Army Air Force) with aircraft, engines, propellers and equipment was
conducted or managed by the Engineering Division of the U.S. Air Force
Material Command. These ongoing R&D efforts produced a voluminous
collection of data in two forms:
Decimal Correspondence Files, 1917-1951, that consists of incoming
and outgoing letters, memoranda, messages, reports and other like
material relating to R&D activities; and
Project Case Files, 1921-1953, created by various laboratories and
units of the Engineering Division and consisting of studies, test
reports, technical instructions, drawings, photographs, project
record books, and the like.
Collectively, these files document the beginnings of aeronautical
development in the U.S. and represent the investment of billions of
dollars on aerospace technology.
In the 1960s, a
change in Air Force records management policy resulted in the collection
being broken up and moved from Dayton, Ohio, to several Federal Record
Centers. Most of the files eventually found a permanent home at the
National Archives and Records Administration II (NARA) at
College Park, Maryland. These documents, drawings, photographs and
microfilms occupy more than a mile of shelf space.
Researchers have made extensive use of the
Correspondence Files and found it to be an extremely valuable resource
for all things related to the development of Air Force equipment. The
R&D Project Case Files complement the
Correspondence Files by providing many of the actual reports, drawings,
photographs and charts mentioned in the correspondence.
Together, the Correspondence and R&D
Project Case Files constitute what is probably the single most important
resource in the U.S., perhaps in the world, for the study of the history
of aircraft technology. This is the real stuff – the actual day-by-day
record of the Engineering Division’s activities. It is full of
technical detail and rich with accounts of innovation. It is the kind of
source material that forms a basis for serious study of U.S. Air Force
materiel development prior to 1950. The files include: records of
meetings and conferences that give broad overviews of technology,
philosophies, politics and policies; memoranda giving account of
specific programs and studies; records related to the development of
aircraft, engines (reciprocating, gas turbine, pulsejet, ramjet and
rocket), propellers, superchargers (both engine driven and
turbo-superchargers), magnetos, fuels, lubricants, carburetors and fuel
injection; full transcripts of the Truman Committee’s investigation of
Curtiss-Wright during WWII; inspection reports on captured German and
Japanese engines with detailed pictures and analysis of the overall
engines and the parts that comprised them; various manuals for specific
aircraft, engines, and equipment, and more.
The files contain detailed accounts for nearly
every airplane ever proposed or built for the Air Force. There are
hundreds of boxes filled with project information. For proposed projects
there are manufacturers’ specifications, drawings, pictures, and
proposal evaluators’ notebooks, which allow insight into how the
winners were picked. For the projects that were funded, there are status
reports, flight test reports, type test reports, project final reports,
production reports, problem reports, operational reports and other
reports that detail the trials and tribulations that are part of any
complex development program.
In April 2005, the Aircraft Engine Historical
Society (AEHS) launched a project to build an interactive electronic
finding aid by scanning all 8,400 images on the Microfiche. They have
transcribe these records into electronic form that
has been incorporated into a searchable database. This database and finding aids can be found in the AEHS Engineering Division Catalog located at: