Saturday, November 22, 2014

History Matters is back!

Yes, I realize that over five months have passed since my last post on History Matters--the longest hiatus in blog writing I have ever had since I started this site in January 2009.  Trust me, all of this has been for good reason.  A mere day after my previous writing here I was offered a full-time History Instructor position at Penn State Altoona.  I am ecstatic to be embarking upon this new adventure of my life within the realm of something that means so much to me.  Simultaneously, the summer of 2014 was essentially the first one in many years that afforded me some leisure time to travel and work on manuscripts.  This time was put to good use.  (Did you notice that the blog has a new look?)  The same week I accepted my new position, a colleague and I headed to Indiana to celebrate a friend's wedding.  Along the way we relished numerous historic sites--including the First Infantry Division Museum (above) near Chicago, on the 70th anniversary of D-Day no less.  Below is a brief rundown of some of my adventures in the last months.

Although this was the first summer since 2009 that I was not a full time employee of Gettysburg National Military Park, I was still able to return here and there throughout the year wearing the green and gray--including the 151st anniversary of the battle.  On the evening of July 3, I delivered a presentation on Pickett's Charge in historical memory--chronicling the powers that have shaped our perceptions of that defining moment of the Civil War.

The past several months have also afforded innumerable opportunities to participate in the ongoing Civil War sesquicentennial commemorations throughout the country.  Along with my brother and friends, we traversed the battlefields of New Market, Monocacy (above), and Cedar Creek on their respective 150th anniversaries.  We look forward to attending more in the coming months!

A great joy of settling down is that I once more have a greater opportunity to experience and contribute to historical sites in my own area of Central Pennsylvania.  I find myself able to enjoy programs and special events at places such as Fort Roberdeau (above), Baker Mansion, the Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum, and the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site.  In my many travels, I constantly see that citizens tend to take their local historical resources for granted.  I shall endeavor not to find myself within that scenario.

In September, I also had the chance to return to my old stomping grounds at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park to assist in the annual Schoolhouse Ridge program that educates and entertains some 700 schoolchildren from that region of West Virginia.  Discussing various aspects of 19th century life, we had a fun and meaningful experience on the battlefield heights above the historic town.  Here, I stand alongside fellow rangers Stan McGee and Casimer Rosiecki.

Perhaps most interestingly, some additional free time allowed me to develop and grow my own WWII reenacting organization.  Entitled the Furious Fourth, the squad seeks to interpret the experiences of the average GI serving in the 4th Infantry Division from 1942-1945.  This hobby has provided all manners of unique and insightful adventures--including me rotating the propellers of a vintage B-17 Bomber prior to its takeoff.

Most importantly, my undertakings as an educator in the classroom have enabled me to learn more about American History and academia.  Hopefully, a degree of the enthusiasm I have for the study of the past will be imparted to my students.  In this respect, I seek to nurture such appreciations both in and out of the classroom.  In October, I took a handful of students to Gettysburg to participate in the park's landscape restoration initiative.  It was the first visit to the park for many of the students but hopefully it will not be their last.

A final point of noteworthiness I would like to address deals with my next book: Images of Modern America: Altoona.  Taking a critical, visual look at my hometown since 1945, the book will chronicle the downfall and continuing resurgence of this classic Pennsylvania city.  Scheduled for release this coming spring, I will be providing more commentary on this project and others in the coming weeks.  In the meantime, thanks for your continued support--especially considering that this blog has surpassed 100,000 hits!

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

"Ok, Let's Go!"

Trekking Omaha Beach
The chronicles of my Normandy adventures continue this week--the 70th anniversary of D-Day--as we finally reach the shores of Omaha Beach.  The coast seems an otherworldly place at times.  The eerie solitude of the memorials and incoming tides are contrasted with WWII-themed cafes, synthetic touristy venues, and beach houses dotting the landscape.  After indulging in some truly authentic French Fries at the nearby "D'Day House" cafe in St-Laurent-sur-Mer, I walked across the square to the First Division Memorial pictured above.  Luckily for our caravan, the weather this day was one of the nicest during our expedition, although the blustery Channel winds felt anything but pleasant.  The Musée Mémorial d'Omaha Beach up the adjacent Av. de la Liberation proved much to be desired.  After being snowed in and confined to hotels, museums, and a bus for several days, I was ready to hit the field.  Living up to Ike's famous maxim of June 1944, I said, "Okay, let's go!"

For the next several hours our band of students, alumni, and friends of Shepherd University embarked on a sand-filled odyssey across the entire width of Omaha Beach.  This unusual sculpture by Anilore Banon, commissioned by the French government, symbolizes the wings of hope, freedom, and fraternity.  If they say so.  Regardless, the most impressive quality about this site is the beach itself.  Our arrival fortuitously coincided with a low tide on the beach--much as how it was when Allied infantry began landing here shortly after 6:30 a.m. on June 6.  As a matter of fact, geography played a major role in determining the difficulties faced by Americans on Omaha.  The widest of all the landing zones, significant portions of Omaha were outlined by bluffs that made for difficult movement and easy defense.  Like almost any battlefield, you truly cannot comprehend what happened there until you walk it yourself.

To simulate some of the hazardous conditions GIs found themselves in on the morning of June 6, our group of twenty or so gathered in small columns of three--symbolizing the formation many Americans were in on their landing craft before hitting the shores.  Our guide, Bill McQuade, noted that the officers and radioman often stood in the front rank with the intention of leading their men ashore.  Rather, these men at the bow became the first casualties while everybody else on board was left leaderless and without communication.  Furthermore, the men were completely waterlogged and seasick by this point.  While the Navy had fine intentions by feeding the men heartily that morning, the large breakfasts consumed before disembarkation did not help them in the choppy Channel waters.  As combat medic Jack Fox later recalled, "The noise of the shelling was deafening.  The smell of sulfur, vomit and fear was permeating.  I was just praying that I would not die until I was on land"  (Van Der Vat, D-Day, 89).

Among our group were several WWII reenactors, including Chris Herr, who wore his authentic GI roughout shoes during our trek.  Upon hitting Omaha, the initial wave of the real landing parties encountered a haunting silence.  Moving several dozen yards inland, many no doubt may have believed some of the German fortifications had been dismantled by the massive naval bombardment.  They were wrong.  The enemy defenders were merely waiting for the beach to fill--ensuring a "turkey shoot" of the most lethal form.  Seeking protection behind the beach obstacles, officers and NCOs quickly realized that to stay on the shore was a death sentence.  The only place of remote safety was "off that God-damned beach."  Private Harry Parley of the 116th Infantry confirmed such exclamations, noting, "As our boat touched sand and the ramp went down, I became a visitor to hell."  At that same time, LCVP gunner Jack Hoffler of North Carolina had the unpleasant task of rolling dead bodies off the boat ramp to make way for the evacuated wounded.  Their "longest day" had begun.  (Van Der Vat, D-Day, 94-96).

Four heavily-guarded inlets blocked the American advance up Omaha from the Normandy countryside.  Like many major battles throughout human history, armies converge where there are roads.  Despite the advancements in armored warfare and air capacity, WWII is no exception.  Above, I offer the "V for Victory" pose at a German bunker at Vierville-sur-Mer--one of these four major exit points for American troops from the beach.  (This is where Tom Hanks waded ashore, right?)  Granted, many of the men fared little better than was depicted in Saving Private Ryan.  Amidst this misery, nineteen-year-old Thomas Herring of the 5th Ranger Battalion found himself immersed in a world of pain.  His 135 pound body was buckled to ninety pounds of gear, ammunition, and weaponry.  Nearly drowning before he reached the water's edge, the "carnage on the beach was indescribable."  Somehow, they had to make the mad dash up the bluff.

As one would surmise, that task proved anything but simple.  Hitler's Atlantic Wall was built with such precision and engineering skill that many of the bunkers remain to this day--and will for many decades to come.  The above installation, also located at Vierville, overlooks a wide swath of the Dog Green sector of Omaha.  With many Germans in such close proximity to the American advance, they could not but help to hit anything that moved.  Corporal Heinrich Severloh manned an MG-42 above the beach, mowing down over 2,000 Americans before being captured.  Known as the "Beast of Omaha," Severloh was haunted by this this blood on his hands for the rest of his days.  He recalled a terrified GI only yards away from him, attempting to reload his rifle.  Severloh took careful aim at his chest and sprayed a burst of fire across to the soldier's forehead.  The man's "helmet fell and rolled over in the sand," Severloh reflected. "Every time I close my eyes, I can see it."

With this view from the interior of the bunker previously pictured, one can easily see how Americans became bracketed by artillery and machine gun fire.  By triangulating such lethal power, the Germans could command the entire beach from two or three primary positions.  The perspective here is an overwhelming one.  The crossfire was unbelievably intense and inescapable.  That said, the Germans fared no better by day's end.  Franz Gockel, stationed at nearby Coleville, planned on celebrating his eighteenth birthday on June 6.  He was not expecting the Allied armada to come kickoff the party.  Shot in the hand later that day, one of his comrades remarked, "This is your shot home."  Many were not as lucky.

Even further above the bunker at Vierville, I climbed amidst the remnants of the German defenses atop the bluff.  The view was utterly captivating and humbling.  Yet, I found the serenity almost disconcerting, having trouble contrasting it with the absolute chaos there seventy years earlier.  As military historian Antony Beevor has suggested, "The Battle for Normandy was horribly savage. Despite the assumptions of many historians, the German losses per division engaged there were twice as high as the overall average on the eastern front. And the 225,000 Allied casualties were almost as high as the German total of 240,000....The divisions facing the Allied onslaught were driven by a fanaticism and bitter hatred that led to the most brutal fighting of the war."  The remnants of this destruction remain quite evident seven decades later.

Just for a moment, I imagined myself among the GIs heading up the beach.  "I don't have a chance," I thought to myself.  Meanwhile, the faint echoes of French children playing in the soupy sand nearby brought me back the 21st century.  Mike Rippeon, an Army vet and member of our travel group, commented how some of his comrades were offended that French citizens played and sunbathed on these hallowed shores.  His reply: "We fought in France to give it back to the French.  Local kids playing on the beach is one of the greatest memorials of why we fought here in the first place."  I was not one to disagree.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Adressing the Issue

Rebirth in Ken Burns's The Address

As a recent extra credit opportunity for my students, I encouraged them to watch and consider the most recent of Ken Burns PBS documentaries entitled The Address.  With me teaching a class on the Battle of Gettysburg and its innumerable legacies, the program was extremely timely in its debut and offered considerable food for thought.  In the film, focus is given to a group of students who attend the small Greenwood School in Putney, Vermont--an institution that aids young male students with learning needs and behavioral issues.  These pupils do not face mental challenges.  In fact, their IQs are superior to most public school students.  Their main obstacle is their difficulty in effectively expressing their words and talents.

To allow these students the opportunity to prove themselves in front of their parents and fellow classmates, the Greenwood School initiated an annual tradition in which these young men must learn, interpret, practice, and recite the Gettysburg Address.  Enter filmmaker Ken Burns, based out of neighboring New Hampshire.  In a documentary unlike any he has ever produced, Burns chronicles the transformation and edification of these students with subtlety and respect.  The immense personal challenges of these boys to memorize a two and a half minutes speech is contrasted in vignette form with the even greater dilemmas confronted by Abraham Lincoln and the nation in 1863. 

In occasional snippets narrated by the students themselves, the audience is transported to the more traditional mode of Ken Burns storytelling featuring panning shots of black and white photos coupled with background sound effects.  For the vast majority of the film, however, we do not see the front line of combat.  We begin to see and comprehend the front lines of education in America.  As a result, we gain a new sense of profound appreciation for these students and their teachers alike.

In a narrative that rather brilliantly coincides with the universal definitions of the Gettysburg Address, the major theme apparent is the notion of rebirth.  By understanding and memorizing a 150 year old speech, these young adults prove something to themselves, redefining their world outlook amidst their transitions into adulthood.  Their adolescent perspectives are remade against the backdrop of the nation's greatest self-making speech.  In its embrace of all theses social and historical themes, the finale of the film makes for a highly emotional and thought-provoking moment.  (The equally moving end titles feature the trademark song "Ashokan Farewell" from Burns's 1990 film The Civil War.)

One of the most unique elements of this documentary is the promotional and educational campaign that coincides with it.  In a nationwide initiative entitled Learn the Address, all Americans--but especially educators and their classrooms--are encouraged to memorize and recite Lincoln's words.  To serve as models of inspiration, Burns acquired a wide assortment of impressive examples including presidents, comedian Stephen Colbert, and ESPN talking heads.  I find this a wonderfully engaging means of encouraging citizens to reflect upon words still so resonant to the world.

The Address is undoubtedly Ken Burns's most contemporary film in regard to current social commentary.  As the film states at the outset, the Greenwood School is a final refuge, a place of last resort for students and families who have tried all other learning options.  Many of the boys featured in the film openly discuss their inability to blend into public school settings because of constant harassment from their fellow schoolmates who neither understood or cared about their condition.  While I was watching The Address, I felt as if I was viewing the sequel to the equally dramatic documentary Bully--which chronicles the endemic bullying and oppression in America's schools.  As both that film and The Civil War reveal to us, there seem to be few limits to the extent of human cruelty.  In this sense, too, historical parallels serve as a means of recognizing and confronting dilemmas we face in the present--whether they be education or bullying.  Do not these factors fall within the long term scope of Lincoln's "unfinished work" as well?