1956 - 2009, Celebrating  over 50 Years of Service
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Sarah Clark
A Different Sort of Air Force Heroine

     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. 
    
Sarah 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.
    
When 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.
    
Miss 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.
    
She 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 residential area.

Sarah Clark’s Contribution

     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.
    
Her 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 Center.3

Footnotes

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.

 

About the 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:

  1. Central 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 

  2. R&D 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:

http://www.enginehistory.org/narasc/rdpcf_search.php

 

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