Saturday, January 29, 2011

Right Under My Nose The Whole Time

As many of you know, I've been scratching around for some time trying to dig up the origins of the Military Grid Reference System (MGRS). I recently became interested in it in light of the fact that the US Geological Survey and Department of Homeland Security have adopted MGRS as the grid standard for the continental US (they're only 60 years late, but who's counting!).

I had some old friends at Fort Bragg who are involved in the mapping & charting field root around and they came back with the opinion that development of MGRS was likely tied to NATO and NATO standard agreements (STANAGs as we used to call them). There is probably some truth to that, but there were still several pieces of the puzzle missing. One of those was just when the US Army adopted MGRS.

For the past several months I've been scouring eBay, purchasing early copies of US Army map reading and land navigation manuals. The first official, general issue map reading manual came out in 1938 (Basic Field Manual Volume 1, Chapter 5, Map and Aerial Photograph Reading) and was quickly followed by updates in 1941 and 1944 as FM 21-25.

Tucked away in the back of my 1944 copy of FM 21-25, Elementary Map and Aerial Photograph Reading were two changes that I never paid much attention to. 'Changes' in Army parlance were updates to manuals or other documents. The Army would publish a change in the form of an addendum and distribute it throughout the Army. It was the individual unit's job to make sure all the changes were 'posted' (this usually meant you physically attached the change document to the base document by some means, like stapling). That's how the military managed publication changes before this internet thingey came along.

Today I was giving this manual a close read and decided to pay attention to the change documents. To my surprise one of the changes (Change 2) was dated November 1950 and was summarized as follows:

"Principal changes are in methods of giving grid references. These changes are made to comply with AGAO-S 061.3 (28 Dec 49) CSGID-M, dated 29 December 1949, which establishes the MILITARY GRID REFERENCE SYSTEM as official for the Department of the Army"

So there you have it. The Army adopted MGRS in December 1949. Part of the mystery solved!

So now I know the why and the when. What's still missing is the how.

MGRS is based on the Universal Transverse Mercator Grid (UTM), which was developed by the Army Map Service sometime right after WWII.  What I need to find now is the original description of UTM and MGRS, the document prepared by the Army Map Service describing how MGRS is calculated and constructed, and how it should be implemented.

My guess is that these founding documents are buried deep in the archives of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (the descendant of the Army Map Service).

Anybody know someone at NGA who can spend a lunch hour digging around for this info?


Sunday, January 23, 2011

Inter-American Geodetic Survey

NOTE: This is an older version of my posting on the IAGS. All the material for this blog, to include an updated version of this post, is now available on my new WordPress blog site at

You can access the new version of this post at


- Brian


The Inter-American Geodetic Survey (IAGS) was one of those extremely successful, yet little known, US Army (and later, Dept. of Defense) programs established after WWII.

The IAGS was created specifically to assist Latin American countries in surveying and mapping their vast internal regions that were either poorly mapped or entirely unmapped. The IAGS was established in 1946 as part of the Army Map Service and was headquartered at Fort Clayton in the Panama Canal Zone. The Army Map Service set up a complete survey, cartographic and map reproduction school at Fort Clayton and over the next 30 years trained thousands of military and civilian personnel from most Latin American and Caribbean countries. Attendance at the IAGS school at Fort Clayton was seen as right of passage for many up and coming officers in Latin American militaries, and it was common to run across senior officers - colonels and generals - from South American countries who talked fondly of their time spent at Fort Clayton, taking surveying or cartographic classes (one infamous graduate of the IAGS schools just happens to be Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, who attended the cartographic school in the 1960s).

The IAGS didn't just provide training.  It also provided the equipment and personnel to assist the participating countries in establishing their own self-sufficient mapping and surveying programs.  The goal was to provide the training, equipment and technical support but have the individual countries take over their own mapping efforts.

Now, I'm not going to pretend that the IAGS was all altruistic good-will on America's part.  We learned the hard way during WWII that many Latin American countries were at best reluctant allies, at worst active sympathizers with the Nazi regime.  At the end of WWII the political systems in these countries ranged from shaky democracies to hard line dictatorships.  The US Government became concerned about the effects of political unrest and Communist influence in the region, and instituted a number of programs designed to bring Latin America firmly under American influence and to foster democratic principles and improve economic conditions.  The IAGS was just one of many programs created as part of this effort.  One extremely important benefit the IAGS provided back to the US was that we were able to get American personnel on the ground in these countries to make detailed evaluations of local conditions (after all, that's what surveyors and cartographers do, right?) and we got maps that were created to US standards for vast areas of Central and South America.

According to all the accounts I've read and my own direct experience with the IAGS in Central and South America, the program was a great success. The goals of the IAGS were warmly embraced by most countries, who realized they utterly lacked the resources and training needed to map their own territories. IAGS liasion personnel were permanently assigned to each country, working out of the US embassies, and developed deep and lasting ties with government, military and business leaders.  IAGS personnel were very highly regarded in most countries, and I've heard more than one old-timer talk about how whenever they flew into a country to work and the local customs agents saw the distinctive IAGS logo on their luggage they were swiftly and courteously passed through customs without inspection or interrogation.

My introduction to the IAGS came when I attended the Defense Mapping School's Mapping, Charting & Geodesy Officer's Course at Fort Belvior, Virginia back in 1982.  By then the IAGS had been, or was in the process of transforming into, the Defense Mapping Agency International Division (I'm running on memory here, so please forgive any errors). However, the IAGS logo was visible throughout the building, and we received a short orientation brief on IAGS operations.  My next contact came in 1990 while working in Honduras as part of an airfield construction task force.  My team's job was to conduct route reconnaissance and terrain evaluation of large sections of southern Honduras.  We made contact with the Honduran IAGS liaison officer, Emory Phlegar.  Emory was a long time IAGS hand who had 'gone native' - he married into Honduran society and seemed to know everyone and everything that was going on in that small, poor country.  He provided us a wealth of information and with a simple phone call opened a number of doors for us with the Honduran Instituto Goegrafico Nacional (National Geographic Institute).

Three years later I was stationed at Fort Clayton, Panama, and headed up the geographic analysis team supporting US Army South and US Southern Command.  This job put me in close and frequent contact with the last remnant of the IAGS in the old Canal Zone. Southern Command and the Defense Mapping Agency (DMA) ran a joint map warehouse on Albrook Air Force Station.  The Air Force took care of ordering, stocking and issuing standard US maps to all US military operating in Central and South America.  In the same building the Defense Mapping Agency ran a small but very interesting and critical 'local products' warehouse that received and stocked maps printed by the different countries who had been part of the IAGS.  By agreement, DMA received 100 copies of every map printed by the participating countries. Quite often these maps were the only representation of Central and South American land areas available to the US military, and we relied heavily on this map supply. In fact my unit acquired an early large format Xerox copier specifically to make copies of these maps for Army use so as not to draw down the limited stock kept by DMA.

Additionally, DMA continued to operate a topographic and survey instrument repair shop out of the building.  This was a one man show, employing an instrument repairman who fixed or calibrated any equipment that had been loaned to countries participating in the IAGS.  Much of the loaned equipment was simply too big to pack up and send back to Albrook to be worked on, so this lone repairman spent a lot of time on the road traveling from country to country repairing equipment.  Most of what he worked on was obsolete by US standards, but was still perfectly serviceable and suitable to the Latin American countries that couldn't afford anything more modern. As such, his workshop at Albrook was a fascinating mix of spare parts bins and machine tools.  Since he dealt with a lot of obsolete equipment I'm sure he had the skills and equipment needed to fabricate any broken or worn part.

Unfortunately there is very little information about the IAGS on the web.  Not even Wikipedia has a dedicated page, and only catalogs indirect references to the agency. This is a shame, because the IAGS was a landmark cooperative effort that yielded enormous benefit for all countries involved, and its story needs to be out there for everyone to read. Somebody at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (the successor to the Defense Mapping Agency) or the Corps of Engineers needs to write up a short history of the IAGS and its accomplishments while the participants are still around to tell their stories.

But for now it is You Tube to the rescue!  I found this film, part of the Army's 'Big Picture' series, covering IAGS operations:



Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Happy Birthday Dad!

 Guess who's having a birthday!

The original leatherhead!

Eighty two years old and still going strong!

There are very, very few people in this world I look up to and admire, and my Dad is at the top of that short list.

Happy Birthday Dad!  We all love you and wish we could be with you to celebrate.

Brian, Roberta, Liz and Aileen

Monday, January 17, 2011

Grab A Real Strong Cup of Coffee And Watch This

One of the hundreds and hundreds of instructional films created by the Army that did more to cure insomnia among the troops than anything else, but still fun to watch.  It sticks with our theme of compasses and land navigation.  I like a lot of the old-timey touches in the film - M-14 rifles, bright yellow name tapes and enlisted uniform stripes, burlap covers on the helmets (nobody ever did that in the real Army), poncho rolls on the pistol belts, fatigue shirts without cuffs on the sleeves (apparently one of McNamara's cost saving initiatives - geeze) and the classic and ever popular M-1951 field jacket.

So here you are, from 1966 and straight from Stump Neck, Maryland, US Army Training Film 3721, Basic Map Reading:

(Don't worry, I'll flash the room lights twice when the film is over so you know when to wake up.)