Documenting a tragedy: Global Strike historian recalls Khobar Towers

  • Published
  • By Joe Thomas
  • Air Force Global Strike Command Public Affairs
“Our Nomads have Ceased Their Wandering.”

The epitaph, etched into a monument at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, refers to the 33rd Fighter Wing Airmen who lost their lives in the terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia.

Yancy Mailes, the Air Force Global Strike Command historian, was a 27-year-old staff sergeant at the time. It was June 25, 1996, and he had been the wing’s historian for three months. With little training and less experience, he found himself as one of the key contributors to documenting the tragedy.

“I had been a weapons guy for eight years,” Mailes said. “I was looking to do something different and I knew I liked history, so I applied for this career field.”

Several months later, Mailes found himself scribbling furiously to capture every detail of the attack as bits of information came through the command post. He often found himself rescuing documents from the shredder, an act of forethought that would save information for future historical works.

“I was working 18 hours a day and I was terrified,” Mailes said. “I knew I was going to miss something. So I put everything I could find in paper boxes -- message traffic, (situation reports), anything, just stacking it. Later, I would sort it and organize it according to topic. I didn’t know what was important. All the information I gathered was used for so much later, such as awards, decorations and memories and also contributed to some historical works on the attack.”

Unlike garrisoned operations, where historians gather information slowly and write annual histories, deployed historians archive events on the fly and submit histories once a month, a task that can easily absorb 12-14 hours of effort a day. Mailes quickly found himself performing duties like a deployed historian.

“I had been to tech school, which taught me how to write, but not 7-level school which teaches you how to serve as a deployed historian,” he said. “I was a 5-level, so I hadn’t received that level of training. As a result, I didn’t really know what questions to ask, especially when it came to recording oral histories of the attack. It was all really discovery learning on my part.”

Mailes conducted 30 interviews with victims of the attack and others who played a role in mitigating the disaster. Although he lacked required training, the young historian knew he had a mission to accomplish for the sake of future generations.

“I’m in the forever business,” Mailes said. “As historians we don’t just document the past, we preserve the here and now for our grandchildren’s grandchildren. So here I am as a young Airman thrust into this position and I’m not sure what questions to ask. I would usually begin by saying ‘just tell me what happened,’ and they would. Those who experienced the attack would break down emotionally and it was very sobering.”

Mailes shared some of their stories, which are still preserved in the 33rd FW’s archives.

“One Airman described the event as an out-of-body experience. He said he could see the shape of his silhouette from behind, as if he were looking at his back,” Mailes said. “He tried to use a flashlight to find survivors, but the light couldn’t penetrate the cloud of dust and debris so he had to follow blood trails. Another Airman said he could only hear water running, wires snapping and people crying.”

These one-on-one sessions proved challenging and involved skills outside the scope of Mailes’ training as a historian. However, he recognizes that his listening served as an essential piece of the healing process.

“These people were shattered,” Mailes said. “They were just crushed spiritually. We tend to think of this attack in terms of those who died or were wounded, but these people were scarred emotionally. Several sobbed uncontrollably, but they always regained their composure and asked me if I needed anything else, almost as if they knew how important this was. All I could do was sit and listen. I’m not a chaplain or a psychologist, but soon the word got around and more and more people would come to me. I believe it was very cathartic for them.”

Despite the challenge of becoming an inadvertent caregiver, Mailes knew he had to press forward as a historian and an Airman. The oral histories he collected would serve as a crucial piece in the book, “Khobar Towers: Tragedy and Response,” by Dr. Perry D. Jamieson, a historian who mentored Mailes.

“He had a lot of patience with me,” Mailes said. “He sort of took me under his wing. I was able to do a lot of ground work that helped with documenting the attack, but there were so many other historians that contributed and took the lead for larger works. I was just in the unique position of not having higher education or extensive formal training.”

Shortly after the attack, then-Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman visited Eglin AFB to meet the survivors as they arrived back to the U.S. Mailes and others stood with him as he did.

“Here I am as a staff sergeant standing next to the chief of staff of the Air Force,” Mailes said. “I watched as he made time for every single person as they came off the plane. He gave so much of himself; very kind and compassionate.
The experience of documenting the disaster at Khobar has not only shaped the way Mailes approaches his work, but also how he sees historians in general.

“Credentialing by itself doesn’t make you a historian,” he said. “It’s a key part, but you have to have a passion for actually documenting history. The things our Airmen are doing today are just as important as what has been done in the past. If we don’t document what we do, if we don’t have someone on the ground witnessing and collecting documents, then it won’t be considered a part of our heritage 25 years from now.”

Mailes has since earned his master’s degree in history and currently serves as command historian for AFGSC where he is part of a team responsible for maintaining archives on all things nuclear and long range strike. Mailes continues his love for collecting, preserving and presenting history. The Office of the Command Historian plays a crucial role in current operations and documenting the important AFGSC missions for posterity.

“I am never a doer, but rather a watcher,” Mailes said. “I am a witness to history. It’s my responsibility to make sure that these events are captured and that the memories of these people live on.”