JBM-HH historian retires
March 15, 2013
It's not the end of history, but close. When Kim Bernard Holien retires from civilian service March 15 after 18 years as the Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall historian, the position itself will disappear.
Holien, the son of an Army medical officer, originally wanted to be a foreign service intelligence officer, but he always had a passion for history.
"I grew up at the dinner table [in Alexandria] hearing stories about foreign service," he explained. "My dad had been on occupation duty in Germany from 1946 to 1948 and was stationed from '53 to '57 on Eisenhower's White House medical staff, so the dinner conversation was always international affairs and Washington politics. I got the inside skinny on how Washington really worked."
As the 1950s grew into the 1960s, "International Affairs were so intense, with the Cold War and the dynamic of what was going on with the Berlin Crisis and the developing situation in Southeast Asia and the Cuban Missile Crisis," he said. "Between that and the dinner talk at the house at night, [the career path] was kind of a natural."
Holien's undergraduate degree from Bethel University in Western Tennessee was in a broad area of social science, including course work in geography, history, government, anthropology and diplomacy. He also got a double minor in history and psychology. He has a master's degree in American History from George Mason University and also attended Army Management Staff College at Fort Belvoir.
Holien has worked a variety of jobs during his career, including, among others, stints as an administrative assistant at the Navy Annex, as a historian at Army Materiel Command and as a teacher at Archbishop John Carroll High School in the District of Columbia.
After getting his undergraduate degree in 1970, Holien went to work at the U.S. State Department in 1971. It took six months for him to get the requisite security clearance because of his having been born in Stuttgart, Germany, as an Army Family member. He entered a top secret program in which he was responsible for 29 foreign posts. Two retired U.S. ambassadors served as his official mentors, grooming him for a career in the foreign service.
"They were there to show us the ropes, teach us tradecraft and take off the rough edges," Holien explained.
Holien next went to work at the General Accounting Office. "Because I had a background in military and State, I was assigned foreign cases and veteran cases," he said.
In 1975 he began working for the National Archives at a large government warehouse working on declassifying records from 1940-1955.
"One day they pulled a group of us aside and said, 'Well, we've just been delivered all these boxes with no labels on them, so we don't know what's inside of them,'" he related. "'Each of you will be assigned x amount of boxes to go through.'
"One of the boxes I got -- the size of a standard records box … which could hold up to 2,500 pages of material -- the only thing in it was a manila mailer at the bottom. In the left hand corner it read: War Department. Well, the War Department ceased to exist in 1947, when it became the Department of Defense. [The envelope] had been in there since 1947."
"I very gingerly picked the envelope up. All the glue had become dried out," he said. "I turned it over and spread [the contents] out, and there were all these 10x14 brown, sepia-toned X-rays. I took one X-ray off the top, and held it up by the corners to the light. I was obviously a dental X-ray, and in the lower corner it read: 'A. Hitler.'"
Holien said some GI probably picked it up at Hitler's residence in Munich, passed it on to a superior who placed it in an envelope where it sat since 1945.
"Working at the Archives was a very enriching experience each and every day," he said.
In 1979, Holien went to work for the Army Center of Military History as a reference historian.
"I had to be a jack of all trades, because you never know what was coming in on the next phone call, walk-in or letter," he said. "I handled everything from Caesar's 10th Legion through Star Wars [the missile defense system]."
Holien said he even fielded a call from an Indiana kid who had deserted the Army.
"We would get phone calls from the operators, saying, "'I've got somebody on the line here. I don't know where else I can put him within the Department of Defense. Can I give him to you and you can figure it out?'" he said, explaining the circumstances. Holien counseled the youth on the phone for an hour and got the youth to turn himself in and get his life squared away.
After the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait during Desert Storm, Kim got an urgent phone call from the vice chief of staff of the Army.
He said he was asked, "'Kim, how much water per man, per day in the desert?'" A few hours later he got a similar call from the surgeon general of the Army, and then another one from the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Logistics.
"I immediately went to the library at the Center of Military History and pulled out the books from the official history of the British 8th Army in North Africa in 1941-43," Holien related. "I gave the facts and figures to the three offices on the Army staff that had called me, and they figured how much water per man per day, based on human consumption, hygiene, medical … and then they added in the cooling off of computers and the cleaning of all the jet and vehicle engines. They came up with a factor of 10 gallons per man per day in the desert. So when you saw these huge ugly khaki water bags laying around in the desert [during the Gulf War] that were bigger than a truck … that's what I was involved with."
"When I was at the Center of Military History," he summarized, "I felt like I was an information cop at a very busy intersection. And if I didn't know the answer, I knew who did know the answer. That proved very helpful to a lot of people at a lot of times."
In 1995, the position of the Fort Myer Military Community historian was created. There was already an Old Guard historian position on the installation who served as The Old Guard Museum curator and MDW command historian. Kim said he likely got the job because of his experience at the Center of Military History and because he grew up in the area and knew its heritage and history. "They didn't have to bring me up to snuff," he said.
"When I first got here I basically built the history program up from a few file drawers of miscellaneous paperwork that [the garrison commander] gave me," Holien recalled. The commander retired a week after Holien came on board. "When I walked in to be introduced, he said, 'Oh you're the historian. Good. Here's a file cabinet of papers for you. That was my introduction to the history archives."
The week after Holien got here, a Soldier came to his office carrying a box labeled "Wright Brothers" that he found in a throw-out bin while conducting a building survey.
"That was the original Wright Brothers film taken in 1909 here at Fort Myer," Holien said. "Immediately, I knew he had a treasure, but I did not realize how great a treasure it was until it got transferred onto a VHS tape and I could view it.
"When I saw it, here were the Wright Brothers flying at Fort Myer. And you could see them going by TOG headquarters and flying down Sheridan Avenue and flying past post headquarters … and along Arlington National Cemetery, landing and taking off," he said. "I knew it was a treasure. I knew it was critically important.
"I went over to the Air and Space Museum, put [the video] in their machine. The [Smithsonian] fellow is sitting there with me, looking at me, going, 'Ho-hum, ho-hum,' because the tape was not continuous. It was obviously a cut up tape in sections from two different cameras with two different angles filming the same event. All of a sudden he jumped up and ran to the wall phone and called his boss and said, 'Boss, you better get down here right away.' "It turns out that cameras A and B had been used to film this. The film footage from A had been saved completely, and everybody knew that, but the film footage from B … had been lost from 1909 until 1995. I turned the original over to the National Archives and kept a copy here at Fort Myer.
"It's just been one of the great hits of the past 18 years, because in 2008 and '09 we had the centennial of the Wright Brothers flying here at Fort Myer. This was the birth not only of Army aviation and the U.S. Air Force. World military aviation all starts right here on Fort Myer in 1908/09."
Holien was also instrumental in preserving Bldgs. 20 and 21 on Fort McNair when they were slated for destruction. Bldg. 20 had historical significance as the site where the conspirators in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln were tried.
One elusive quest, Holien's white whale if you will, is the historian's search to discover Civil War cannons believed to be buried somewhere on Fort Myer's Summerall Field. While cannons and cannon balls were discovered by Directorate of Public Works employees in 1984, additional artifacts have not been found, despite the employment of sophisticated detection devices and test excavations.
Holien remembers first contributing to the Pentagram around 1997, submitting extensive features on battlefield anniversaries and other subjects that eventually led to his bi-weekly history column in the newspaper.
"I wanted them to be learning lessons," Holien said of the column. "To me, Army history is a constant learning book. You just page through it and there are lessons learned in leadership, logistics, joint force operations, battlefield discipline, preparation for combat and training -- it's all there."
As the FMMC historian, Holien conducted staff rides and worked on DoD legacy projects, like the restoration of the 1887 Meigs House, one of the few remaining examples of early Army housing built for noncommissioned officers. He also created a series of historical markers on Fort Myer and Fort McNair recognizing the Buffalo Soldiers presence on Fort Myer and women war workers who perished in a munitions factory explosion in 1865 on Fort McNair.
"It was a 100 percent challenge to be the first ever historian here, because there was no information resource base to build on," he said. "If I had gone to be the post historian at Fort Benning, Ga., or Fort Riley, Kansas, there would have been a well established history program, the files would have all been in place, the historical photographs, the film footage, the maps, the documents, the programs from ceremonies and functions, all of that would have been lined up, and none of that was here.
"While I was constantly answering inquires, and walk-in and emails and phone calls and quick hurry-ups from VIPs, I had to be backpaddling and try to build up this information resource base to enable me to answer these requests and questions."
In his job, Holien has provided source material and documentation to various books and facilitated the making of documentaries and feature films. He has conducted VIP tours, helped Family members navigate a labyrinth of bureaucracy in trying to obtain old records and lent a sympathetic ear to veterans who visit his office, including notables like retired Col. Jack Hyde, who saved Gen. Patton's life in the Battle of the Bulge, and Col. Melvin H. Rosen, a young artillery officer in Bataan who survived three and a half years in a POW camp.
The most rewarding part of the job, he said, is bringing Army history to life and helping people with important questions.
After retirement, Holien plans on pursuing a doctorate. He has six books he'd like to write. The book he's currently working on is "Manassas: The First Battle," which is two thirds complete. He plans to continue serving as a Civil War re-enactor, something he's been involved with for 50 years. He also hopes to travel more.
Holien has a knack for bringing history to life. Even those who aren't history buffs speak of how he can make a subject vivid by providing anecdotes about the personalities in a period and quoting relevant historical figures along the way.
He said he tries to focus on "flesh-and-blood people making flesh-and-blood decisions that are very similar and very relevant to the decisions that have to be made today.
"We've been lucky to work with him. He shows a lot of enthusiasm. His presentations are never dull or dry," said Tom Dickenson, vice president of the Arlington Historical Society about the historical tours Holien has provided over the years. "He has a great reputation in the community. We have been very lucky to work with him. He can answer any question. He'll point out where [Gen. George] Patton lived and where the Wright Brothers took off from."
Dickenson said the tours Holien provides generally attract 70 to 80 people and that they're usually oversubscribed because of their accessibility. Holien has a gift for engaging people.
"When you have a five-minute conversation with Kim, it turns into a half hour," said Tom Sherlock, the retired historian for Arlington National Cemetery. "I mean that in the most positive way. One thought turns into another and another…"
"Military history is critical. You can't understand any aspect of history without understanding military history," he emphasized. "When you look at all the vast technological developments during World War II and everything that followed … the whole world is built upon the World War II era. It's the same with all the political ramifications we live with today, all the problems in the Middle East can basically be traced back to the Treaty of Versailles following World War I."
"A nation that forgets its past has no future," Holien said, again quoting Churchill.