Tales of the Country

How Tokyo Rose, "Machine Gun" Kelly, and Amelia Earhart are endangered by money-saving moves at the National Archives in San Bruno

You know immediately upon seeing it that the Leo J. Ryan Federal Building in San Bruno houses something official. Nestled at the end of a short street, surrounded by a cyclone fence, the building, which opened in 1973 and is home to the National Archives and Records Administration's offices for the Pacific Sierra Region, is really a bunker designed for the specific purpose of holding important government files. It is fireproof, climate-controlled, and relatively isolated; the federal government owns the land behind the building for possible expansion, and there are no other government tenants at this location. Particularly since the federal building in Oklahoma City was destroyed by a bomb, NARA officials do not want their irreplaceable records housed near other agencies, especially agencies that have enemies.

Walking into the records rooms at the NARA center in San Bruno is a bit like strolling into the last scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Aisles are surrounded by 14-foot-high shelving for as far as you can see, filled with neatly stacked boxes of files identified by plainly typed tags on the outside. Small hygrothermographs sit on shelves around the room, recording the climate. The temperature is always 70 degrees, with 50 percent humidity. The only sound is the ticking of automatic timers on light switches, marking out the seconds until they can return the room to its preferred state of darkness.

There are about 200 million records from 110 different federal agencies on these shelves. Also on these shelves are 10,000 records from the federal courts of this region — with no practical way to search them. A point of bureaucratic idiocy has left the only index to the records in the hands of the courts.

Somewhere within these records are the legal papers and exhibits of Iva Togura D'Aquino (aka Tokyo Rose); labor leader Harry Bridges, who was investigated by the FBI for alleged communist activity; kidnapper Caryl Chessman; entertainment genius Walt Disney; and Robert Stroud, “The Birdman of Alcatraz.” Somewhere inside these files is the patent for the riveted pockets on Levi's bluejeans, and the design for cable cars, both of which were subjects of federal court challenge.

Here's what else you can find in Uncle Sam's attic: records relating to Japanese internment camps and seized property; photos and immigration records of picture brides; the communications records, charts, and search information relating to Amelia Earhart; Navy records and photos documenting the bombing of Pearl Harbor; surgeon general reports on the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake; gold certificates; government property disposal records; contracts for Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose aircraft; maintenance records on former President Richard Nixon's “Western White House” in San Clemente; and accounts of negotiations in the 1934 San Francisco Longshoremen's strike. There are even remnants of the U.S. Food Administration's advertising campaign to remind citizens to conserve comestibles during World War I, including photos of an Oakland billboard that read: “That sugar in the bottom of your cup is Pro-German.”

All the records in this building — important and interesting, arcane and dull — are under siege.

Long ignored by the rest of the federal government, the National Archives and Records Administration has both space and funding problems. To save money, Washington officials would like to close several of the agency's 18 regional centers, possibly consolidating their records into a giant federal cave in Lee's Summit, Mo. Officials have yet to decide which regional archives, if any, will remain open. As they ponder, historical records age and disintegrate.

The NARA consolidation project has raised the ire of researchers, historians, scholars, and genealogists, as well as ordinary patrons, who have given government officials an earful on the subject of the San Bruno archives. It is an intensely personal and passionate issue, especially for the people in charge of the files themselves.

In 1987, about the time Neil Thomsen answered an ad in the San Francisco Chronicle aimed at “history buffs,” the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service turned over its alien case files from the Chinese Exclusion Act era — that is, from 1882 to 1943 — to the National Archives. Thomsen inherited the job of making sense of them.

The Exclusion Act severely restricted Chinese immigration in response to concern about the large numbers of Chinese who came to the United States to work as laborers on the first transcontinental railroad lines. Under the act, Chinese immigrants were able to re-enter the United States only if they had been in the country before 1880. And new immigration was restricted to those Chinese who could prove they were merchants, teachers, students, or travelers.

As a result, Chinese immigrants had to document their personal and professional identities through drawings, photos, birth certificates, marriage certificates, and whatever else they might have. Many of those items remain in the government's immigration files. And because most of those files concern people who came through the Angel Island immigration center, they're housed in San Bruno.

This is no museum collection. There are hundreds of beat-up old cardboard boxes containing files identified only by number (most relating to ship berth and ticket numbers). There is no index. Although he had no background in Chinese history, Thomsen's work on organizing the files has made him a bit of an expert. And if he has had little time to search or preserve those files, his job is not without its exciting discoveries.

One day, Thomsen remembers, he located the immigration file of Dr. Sun Yat Sen, whom historians refer to as “the father of modern China,” after years of chasing the official's papers across the country. Dr. Sun overthrew the Manchu dynasty to found the Republic of China in 1911 (a Nationalist movement that predated the Communist People's Republic of China). The file documents one of Dr. Sun's successful arrivals in America, during which he posed as a native-born resident of Hawaii to collect money and drum up support for his revolution.

But often as not, the truly compelling stories in these archives involve not the noted or famed, but one or another of the faceless thousands of individuals who have landed over time on America's Pacific shores. [page]

Leon Shee looks up from a small square black-and-white photo. The picture was taken more than 90 years ago, when she was 22 years old and applying to enter the U.S. Her face seems innocent and frightened underneath an arch of razor-cut bangs. The puzzle pieces of her immigration file tell this story:

Leon Shee was a seamstress; her parents were dead, and she lived in China with an aunt. (“Shee” indicates “from the family of Leon.” There is no record of her first name.) A man, working on behalf of someone in the United States, paid her aunt $260 to bring Leon Shee to Mexico. There, she was married to another man, an ethnic Chinese who was a legal U.S. resident. The pair sailed to San Francisco together aboard the S.S. Aculpulco. When they arrived at Angel Island, Leon Shee was detained by immigration officials and interrogated repeatedly. Hers was a familiar story: Women, seeking marriage and a new start in America, were instead sold into prostitution. The transcripts of her interrogation are painful to read.

“[D]on't you know that you are being brought here to this country to be sold as a slave girl?”

“I didn't know that. … If you don't believe that we are married, just look at our marriage certificate.”

“… If he wants to sell you in a house of prostitution, you will go, will you?”

“Yes, if he is hard up and wants me to go to a house of prostitution, I will go … when we are married, we must do as our husbands want us to; if he wanted to kick me to death he could do so ….”

“Did [the man who brought Leon Shee to Mexico] tell you why he was bringing you to this country?”

“He told me to come and live as a housewife.”
“Didn't he tell you you would be sold as a slave girl?”

“Did you know that this man who claims to be your husband was not going to keep you as his wife?”

Leon Shee was deported to China on Sept. 4, 1906, after nearly five months on Angel Island. Her picture remains in San Bruno, part of the alien documents thrust into the limelight recently when the INS announced it wanted to move all such records into the government's cave in Missouri.

Chinese-American scholars and community leaders lobbied hard over the San Bruno documents. Last month, a compromise was reached: Alien case files will remain in San Bruno until those related to the Chinese Exclusion Act have been indexed and archived. Only about 70,000 of the 250,000 Chinese Exclusion Act files have been opened and indexed.

Indexing the files is an archaeological dig into humanity. Worn photos, letters — even a wallet — are stuffed in the files. About one in every 30 holds a particular type of family treasure: a tissue envelope, faded from red to nearly pink, hand-decorated with gold glitter or brightly colored ribbons, which holds a tissue-paper chart that folds out to reach several square yards in area, with characters meticulously drawn in black ink. These tissue-paper documents are family trees, customarily presented with a bride to prove her worthy of marriage.

Last year, the federal government significantly tightened its restriction on providing medical and welfare benefits to resident aliens. Many elderly immigrants found themselves without proof that they were legal residents entitled to government benefits. The archive staff was hit with requests from panicked families, churches, and social workers, seeking to prove that immigrants were entitled to the Medicare benefits they had been receiving.

In some cases, the proof in the unindexed alien case files of San Bruno is all that exists.

Inside a group of plain manila folders, housed in nondescript institutional gray boxes, are the life stories of the men who lived in the custody of the United States government on Alcatraz Island. Some of them are famous, the subject of major motion pictures even. Others remain largely unknown, yet they are no less interesting. The events and adventures of life on “The Rock,” from 1934 until the penitentiary closed in 1963, are tucked away inside shelf after shelf of those gray boxes.

Events that include the morning of July 31, 1945, when a prisoner named John Giles very nearly became the first man to escape from Alcatraz.

At the time, Giles was 50 years old, and had lived on the Rock for a decade. The youngest of four children, he left home in Tennessee when he was 15 years old to make his own way. Giles moved from place to place, never staying anywhere long. He worked as a surveyor's helper in the U.S. Reclamation Service for about four years, and also worked as a surveyor in Canada.

After that, Giles spent most of the rest of his life incarcerated for increasingly serious offenses. When he was 20 years old, Giles was imprisoned in Washington state for four years for robbery. Shortly after his release, he was convicted of murdering a deputy sheriff during a robbery that went awry. He served 15 years of a life sentence — the last eight on limited security for good behavior — before escaping from an Oregon state prison. (Giles would later tell prison officials that he believed his application for having his sentence commuted had not been given proper consideration because he had no money, so he left to get some.)

Within a year, Giles and another man attempted to rob a mail train in Salt Lake City. They escaped a gunfight on the train without any of the mail, and were immediately captured. That's how Giles found his way to Alcatraz: He'd been deemed a flight risk. [page]

But by all reports after he got there, Giles was a well-behaved, quiet, intelligent man, who devoted a great deal of his time to reading and writing. In fact, he actually sold a few short stories to magazines while doing time. He also filed two patents for inventions he'd designed: a safety razor and something called a “booby trap for Teller mines.” The letters documenting his quest for free-lance writing work and his patent applications are in a manila folder in a gray box in the National Archives. So are his writings — poetry, short stories, and articles discussing prison reform — and the details of his next adventure.

By 1945, Giles was working in the laundry at Alcatraz, which also handled the U.S. Army's wash. Methodically, over some period of time, Giles stole pieces of clothing until he had created a full U.S. Army technical sergeant's uniform that fit his thin, 5-foot, 10-inch frame. He also managed to find a blank pass left in a pocket.

Shortly before 10 a.m. on that July morning in 1945, Giles donned his uniform, and filled out the blank pass with information matching that of his stolen identification tags. He moved under the dock, where the boats transporting people and laundry came and went, and jumped to the cargo hatch of the steamer Frank H. Coxe. Were it not for two things, the remainder of Giles' life might have been significantly different: The boat was not headed to San Francisco, but to Angel Island. And, by coincidence, a random personnel count was taken on Alcatraz about the same time he left. Giles was noted as missing. All boats were notified.

Giles was apprehended when he reached Angel Island. An hour after he left Alcatraz, John Giles was back, about three more years tacked onto his remaining 25-year sentence. His prison mug shots follow a dark-haired young buck as he turns into a bespectacled, middle-aged man and, finally, an aged, balding convict. Among them are poems and letters from Giles' mother, begging for a chance to visit her son, which was always denied. Giles was transferred to Oregon State Penitentiary in 1952, and paroled in 1955. He went on to work as a technical editor for an Air Force defense contractor.

Joe Sanchez is one of the few people who knows about John Giles. A cheerful, former military man with a friendly face, Sanchez is one of the NARA staff members charged with the care of Alcatraz records since they came into the agency's possession in December 1995. He indexed the files of the more than 1,500 men who passed through the Rock, including those of one of the penitentiary's first residents, George R. “Machine Gun” Kelly. The job has made Sanchez a veritable expert on the stories, mysteries, and myths of Alcatraz residents.

Down in the crowded basement room filled with Alcatraz history, Sanchez screens the files for people who want to see them, taking care not to reveal information on anyone who is still alive. The Bureau of Prisons doesn't consider people dead until 100 years after they were born. However, the National Archives and Records Administration pronounces death after 75 years, unless there is evidence to the contrary. So the Alcatraz records are accessible only because they are now the property of the archives, and most of the Alcatraz prisoners were born more than 75 years ago. (Interestingly enough, three former Alcatraz residents are still incarcerated in federal penitentiaries. Their records remain sealed from the public.)

The files themselves have their own set of problems. For instance, Al Capone's Alcatraz file is missing. The files that accompanied Capone into Alcatraz from other incarcerations are there, but the Alcatraz files — with mug shots — never made it into the archives. Similarly, the files of Robert Stroud, who became known as “The Birdman of Alcatraz” for his prison collection of homing pigeons, are photocopies. The originals are nowhere to be found, which is just the sort of thing that sends archivists into a tailspin. Historians consider everything but original records subject to question.

And then there's the lingering controversy around Frank Morris and Clarence and John Anglin, who apparently escaped by swimming off Alcatraz and were memorialized in a Clint Eastwood movie. Because their bodies have never been found, the U.S. Marshals Service still considers them to be at large.

The federal government estimates that records in storage will exceed current capacity by 2007. The space situation is complicated by a federal mandate to reduce the size of all government agencies. So NARA has begun looking at consolidation.

Under an as-yet-unfinished plan, microfilm rooms would remain at the San Bruno facility, where people could view copies of census and other records. Microfilm, however, is a controversy all its own. It would take 40 people about 100 years to microfilm everything that is currently in the NARA center in San Bruno. So some level of selection is required. Adding to the controversy: Historians, scholars, and genealogists are quick to point out that no one has yet figured out how long microfilm lasts without deteriorating.

NARA officials are set to decide on a space plan, including which regional centers are to be closed, early next year.

The entire budget of the National Archives and Records Administration is little more than $250 million, about one-tenth of 1 percent of the defense budget. The Pacific Sierra Region of NARA runs on about $1 million a year. The San Bruno archives receive more visits — 15,800 — and its staff pulls more records in a given year than any other regional archive center in the country, in part because the Chinese Exclusion Act records are so popular. Staffers make 100,000 photocopies a year (that number doesn't include copies people make themselves). It is the Nordstrom of government agencies. The staff here exists to connect people to records. They devote hours to job-related activities off the clock and pay for their own business cards. [page]

There are just seven full-time and three part-time employees in the archives side of the records center, and they have almost no time to preserve or research the records in their care. Their backgrounds are a mixed bag of everything from military service to graduate degrees in history.

“You have to have a passion for history, a passion for the mission of records and archives, and a passion for public access to work here,” says Daniel Nealand, who has spent 25 years handling the government's history, most recently as coordinator of the archival operations of the NARA center in San Bruno. Nealand has all three enthusiasms in spades. So do his staffers, most of whom seem to carry an astonishing number of instantly retrievable names, places, and dates in their brains.

At a moment's notice, Kathleen O'Connor, who works mostly with Navy records, pulls the thick glasses off her face to stick her nose into a worn picture of a fire at Pearl Harbor and readily identifies which ship is burning in the background. Then comes a quick dissertation on the events of the day, and why that particular ship was docked in that particular berth. Then she disappears to accomplish something else.

And Bill Greene, another archival staffer, becomes visibly nervous when he sees a reporter taking notes. “Um … we don't use pen around the records,” he says. Pens can leave accidental ink marks, Greene explains, handing over pencils in the same way that your mother might make you take your shoes off before stepping onto the living room rug.

And how many federal agencies are supported by rabid volunteers? Jack Higginson is one of about 25 active volunteers at the San Bruno center; they outnumber the government's paid staff by 3-to-1.

“I'm the Tuesday guy here,” says Higginson, a slight man with big, square glasses and the pleasant energy of a schoolchild, who volunteers in the center's genealogy room. A retired shipyard worker, Higginson first came to the archives more than a decade ago with his wife to research her family. He got hooked on the place, and after his wife died, Higginson became a permanent fixture. He arrives at 7:30 every Tuesday morning and stays until about 4:30 in the afternoon.

And if you need information on your family, you'll be lucky if you need it on a Higginson Tuesday. After 11 years, Higginson knows the records like the back of his hand. And there are a lot of different kinds to know. All of the regional centers, including San Bruno's, contain microfilm census information for the entire nation. And Higginson can help the genealogical researcher find military records from a handful of wars, naturalization records, and more obscure documents, such as those of the Board of Commissioners for the Emancipation of Slaves.

During his Tuesday work, he's made a lot of friends; he even met a woman who was researching a family name that crossed into his own tree. “First-timers are the best,” he says. “They always find something, and they're very excited.”

The government is slowly losing its memory. There is neither the money nor the manpower to do much preservation of the records at the National Archives in San Bruno. Meanwhile, papers, photos, exhibits, drawings, and other materials that document the government's activities are withering, crumbling to dust, and, in some cases, providing a feast for bugs.

There is a preservation lab at San Bruno, and for some years, a conservationist worked there on documents for this and other regions. Last year, however, that position went by the wayside with the decision that preservation work could be done more efficiently from the agency's headquarters in Washington, D.C. Shipping original records back and forth takes archival records out of circulation for about two years. Meanwhile, the preservation lab sits empty in the basement in San Bruno.

“It became a funding issue,” says Sharon Roadway, NARA Pacific regional administrator. “Preservation is a major problem. We do things based on need, try to do the worst documents.”

Here's the life span of government records: Every federal agency has a schedule — a document retention and destruction plan — that determines how long the agency keeps certain records. After some period of time, records (still considered temporary) move into NARA buildings for storage, though they belong to the agency that created the records.

How quickly federal records move into storage varies wildly. Income tax returns from this region can land in San Bruno within days after taxpayers file them, but district court records don't get there for years. After records arrive at a NARA facility, they are stored for another specified period of time — as long as 25 to 30 years. Then, most of the records are destroyed.

But some special records — the 3 to 5 percent of the government's records that agency heads and archivists determine have permanent historical value — move onto the shelves in the archives. After they are opened, indexed, and placed in acid-free files, they become available to the public.

The records — particularly those records that attract significant attention, such as the Alcatraz files and declassified government documents — arrive en masse, often following some lobbying effort to get them released. So all other work gets put on hold to process those files to meet public demand.

Meanwhile, the bugs continue to munch and the pages continue to crack and fade away on the vast majority of records that just sit, waiting in their boxes to be rescued.

Jason Newman has been making the drive back and forth from his home in Davis to the National Archives in San Bruno at least three times a week for more than a year now. Newman is working on a doctoral dissertation on the tribal history of a particular Indian reservation in Northern California. [page]

“I found more than I thought,” he says.
NARA is home to records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, dating back to the late 1800s. The files contain official reports, correspondence, and documentation. They also hold a random assortment of photos, drawings, essays, and reports from the boarding schools where Native American children were taught. There are letters between home and school, and between tribal members and the government.

“I'm trying to find the Indian voice,” Newman says. “You can't do original research without original records. Ninety-nine percent of the time that's all that exists.”

For instance, there are 150 boxes of stuff pertaining to the Round Valley Indian Reservation. They hold a wealth of information about a particularly dark part of American history. A 1902 letter from a commissioner at the Department of the Interior's Office of Indian Affairs to the superintendent of the Round Valley Indian Reservation reads:

“The wearing of long hair by the male population of your agency is not in keeping with the advancement they are making, or will soon be expected to make, in civilization. … On many of the reservations the Indians of both sexes paint, claiming that it keeps the skin warm in winter and cool in summer; but instead, this paint melts when the Indian perspires and runs down into his eyes. … Persons who have given considerable thought and investigation to the subject are satisfied that this custom causes the majority of the cases of blindness among the Indians of the United States.

“You are therefore directed to induce your male Indians to cut their hair, and both sexes to stop painting. … Employment, supplies, etc. should be withdrawn until they do comply and if they become obstreperous about the matter a short confinement in the guard-house at hard labor, with shorn hair, should furnish a cure ….

“The wearing of citizens clothing, instead of the Indian costume and blanket, should be encouraged. Indian dances and so-called Indian feasts should be prohibited. In many cases these dances and feasts are simply subterfuges to cover degrading acts and to disguise immoral purposes. You are directed to use your best efforts in the suppression of these evils.”

Dan Nealand is eating his lunch at the desk where he always eats his lunch, surrounded by puddles of paper in the shadow of a computer monitor. He's also holding court on the subject of the government's memory, as is his wont.

“You can't really be accountable unless you have these records that can say how these programs affected people,” the coordinator of the National Archives in San Bruno says, growing more passionate with each word. “For instance, the Santa Barbara oil spill in 1969 birthed the whole citizen environmental movement. We only have 11 little, measly files on this whole incident that started the entire environmental movement.”

Nealand is not just an archivist. He's a living poster of an archivist, from the gray curly hair that sits in no particular order, along for the ride with his brain, down to the well-worn, comfortable shoes. He shuffles. He comes in early. He shows up when he's supposed to be on vacation. He knows the date that everything of any consequence in history happened. And he is annoyingly methodical, constantly overcome with the frustration of trying to do the right thing in a system that is not set up for it.

“For every 10 records we process there are 10 more waiting and 10 more behind them ….” Nealand is off and running on this dissertation.

“If you're going to provide — and you're supposed to provide — information to the public, you have to have a handle on that information you've got,” Nealand says, winding up again, and then pausing. “I guess we're the last bastion of idealists.”

Among the documents that wait are Army Corp of Engineers' maps and reports on the floods of Northern California history, sitting in a box in San Bruno, virtually unread. Yet every time a major storm hits California, government officials act as if it's never happened before.

There are research files from NASA's Ames and Moffitt laboratories on ceramics and other technology developed for the space program. There are documents that detail how the Department of Agriculture launched the frozen food industry. In fact, it's all but impossible to read anything in the files of the National Archives without learning something.

Perhaps the most important record in the San Bruno facility is one of the agency's own documents. It is titled “The Strategic Plan of the National Archives and Records Administration.” Part of it reads this way:

“The National Archives is not a dusty hoard of ancient history. It is a public trust on which our democracy depends. It enables people to inspect for themselves the record of what government has done. It enables officials and agencies to review their actions and helps citizens hold them accountable. It ensures continuing access to essential evidence that documents the rights of American citizens, the actions of Federal officials, and the national experience.

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