In search of history
January 30, 2009
KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa — Listening to James Burrett is like watching a documentary on the History Channel.
The man can deliver trivia about the 18th Wing one moment and the next moment shift into anecdotes, like his recent discovery of a World War II observation bunker at Hospital Cave.
As Kadena Air Base’s historian, such tidbits are his specialty, a childhood passion he’s parlayed into a career. It makes him responsible for documenting everything from the October plane crash of a government-owned Cessna in Nago to the recent arrival of F-22 Raptors from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia for training.
"I’m like a spider in the middle of the web pulling all the stuff in and weaving it together," he said.
During a recent interview at his office, Burrett spoke about the mystery surrounding the Daniel "Chappie" James dining facility, dedicated in 1979 to the Tuskegee airman and the Air Force’s first black four-star general.
In researching base history for Black History Month, he’d come across photos taken at the facility’s unveiling.
"But the thing was, I couldn’t find this building," Burrett said.
Like a detective, Burrett relied on the photos to track down the sidewalks pictured and soon discovered the vacant lot off Doolittle Avenue where the building once stood.
A painting of James shown in the photos, however, has yet to be found, he said.
Burrett’s job is a meticulous undertaking that involves taking notes, interviewing commanders and staff, and poring through reams of statistics, flight schedules and equipment lists. He’s constantly reviewing newspaper clippings and service documents.
Significant dates, training exercises, weapons systems are analyzed and shaped into a volume the size of a college textbook. He’s currently finishing the 2007 and 2008 histories.
More importantly, Burrett said, the compiled narratives serve as references for military leadership.
"It keeps them from reinventing the wheel," he said.
Woven between the numbers and facts are reflections from airmen that breathe life into the data, the story of the 18th Wing, Burrett said.
"It helps us get our story out," he said. "The good, the bad, the ugly and the very ugly."
Today’s Air Force histories reflect a shift away from mundane diaries of daily operations and lists of exercises, and now include airmen’s observations, accomplishments and failures, and the service’s impact on the local community.
"The new historian is trying to nail down everything. Government and community relations, big issues with this base, local politicians, wing commander — it’s all there," he said.
Burrett also helps collect information for a seven-volume deployment history, "Airman at War," being developed by Air Force historians worldwide. It will cover Middle East conflicts, beginning with the Persian Gulf War in 1991. Most of the base’s histories are unclassified and are primarily used for official use, although Burrett fields queries from Okinawa professors and civilians curious about the base, particularly its "haunted sites."
"I tell them that’s out of my realm of history," he said.
Burrett, 49, took the position in July after a stint as a historian at the Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M. He started his career as an Army tank crewman and served for two years before joining the Air Force in 1981 as an inspection technician.
Burrett said his job matches his curiosity about military history.
"What I discovered was that, while the equipment was interesting, it was the people that developed it, used it, or created tactics to employ it that made the story of the object come to life," he said.