(images/top, USMC Archives; bottom, NYT)
I was having a conversation with someone last night who noted how many of the images I have used recently on the blog have come from the Library of Congress. I try to mix up the sources, but indeed most of the best photographs for recent posts have come from the LOC’s extensive collections. As a librarian myself, I understand how valuable these resources are to our nation. Not only have I used the library’s image collections, I have utilized the Library of Congress manuscript collections for my book projects as well. And the best thing is, with the internet at our fingertips many of these resources are available to us regardless of where we live or work. They do such a great job, we almost–almost–take it all for granted. Well today I had the good fortune to go with the Hayfoot to the Jefferson Building to see Echoes of the Great War: American Experiences of World War I. The curators did a fine job not just discussing the battles, but the economic, political, and social consequences of the war as well. With our country facing so many issues and uncertainties in our own historical moment, it is comforting to know that we as a nation have weathered times of uncertainty in the past. The challenges vary only in the details.
It is hard to believe the the World War I Centennial Commission Trade Show was three years ago this week, and right here in Washington D.C. no less. Approaching others is not something that comes easily to me, but I made certain at that event to talk to the representatives at every table. I remember having discussions with staff from various museums and cultural institutions, including some people from the Library of Congress’s Veterans History Project of the American Folklife Center. The friend with whom I was speaking last night lost his father, a veteran, not long ago. His father was buried in a military cemetery in a Southern state. I was telling my friend that waiting for my bus in Manhattan yesterday morning I struck up a conversation with a man wearing a WW2 cap. He too was waiting for the bus and was headed to Bethesda to see his daughter and her family, presumably for Father’s Day Weekend. Over our coffees I asked him if he had fought in Europe or the Pacific and he said Europe. He said he was nineteen when he entered the war, which would put him now in his early 90s. He looked more like seventy-five at the oldest. I told him I wrote my master thesis on Dwight Eisenhower and he told me he met the general one time. Eisenhower had come to speak to his unit of about 100 men to explain in person why their transport ship home would be delayed for a week. I know my WW2 well enough to know that troop transport delays homeward immediately after V-E Day were a major snag, though I didn’t say that to the veteran that at the coffee shop. Hearing the man tell the story was an incredible experience I will never forget.
I say all this because I noticed in the outstanding exhibit today that the curators incorporated a good deal of material from the Veterans History Project into Echoes of the Great War. Frank Buckles was the last of the American WW1 veterans, and he himself died over six years ago. If you have a chance, make sure to check out the Library of Congress’s outstanding Echoes of the Great War, which runs through January 2019.
My gosh, was it six years ago that I posted this originally? Even 2011 when I penned this seems like forever ago. My step-grandmother’s brother parachuted into France on D-Day and ended up stuck on the roof of a French family’s house. I wish I had had the chance to talk more with him when I was growing up, but that’s the way it goes. As I wrap up with mu morning coffee I am wondering how many people will mention it to me over the course of the day. We shall see,
I could not let the 67th anniversary of D-Day go unnoticed. When I was younger this was a much bigger deal than it is today. It is only a bit of a stretch to say that I have measured the events of my life according to the anniversaries of the Normandy invasion. In June 1984 I was still in high school, getting ready to start my senior year at the end of the summer. Ten years later I had graduated from college, but was unsettled and still trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. By 2004 I had gone to graduate school and moved to New York City. Now I am married and in full middle age.
The arc of D-Day presidential ceremonies, or lack thereof, paints a fascinating portrait of the postwar decades. In 1954 President Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander of the invasion a decade earlier, skipped France altogether and instead vacationed at Camp David. His only public comment was a small proclamation about the Grand Alliance. For the 20th anniversary Ike did record a television special with Walter Cronkite entitled D-Day Plus Twenty Years: Eisenhower Returns to Normandy. The footage of the journalist and the retired president was filmed in August 1963 and is quite moving. On June 6, 1964 Johnson, who had taken office only seven months earlier after the Kennedy assassination, was in New York City speaking to the Ladies Garment Workers Union. In the waning days of Vietnam and the Nixon Administration in 1974 Americans were too tired and cynical to care about World War 2. Reagan’s address in 1984 remains the most memorable of the anniversaries. At Pointe du Hoc he addressed a sizable audience of veterans still young enough to travel but old enough to appreciate their own mortality. President Clinton’s address on the beaches of Normandy during the 50th anniversary symbolized the passing of the baton from the Greatest Generation to the Baby Boomers. In 2004 current events overshadowed the 60th anniversary and the ceremony painfully underscored tensions in the trans-Atlantic alliance.
Today only one person mentioned it to me. Alas we have reached the tipping point where most of the veterans have either passed on or are too aged and infirm to participate in the observance. In other words it has become part of history. Makes me feel old and a little sad.
Some of you may remember just after the new year when I wrote about the funeral of Frederick W. Whitridge.. My post about his son Arnold is up and running over at Roads to the Great War. Arnold Whitrdige died twenty-eight years ago today.
(image/Yale Banner and Potpourri, 1936)
I attended a Pearl Harbor 75th anniversary event on Monday. The Cadman Park Conservancy organized the event, which was held at Brooklyn Borough Hall. There were eighteen WW2 veterans in attendance, one of whom was a Pearl Harbor survivor. Having the event in Brooklyn was poignant, being that ships such as the Arizona were built just a few miles away at the Navy Yard. I wrote five years ago about the Pearl Harbor anniversary and so won’t do so again here. I do want to share a few images from the day. There is only one 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Yesterday I was working on a small project that hopefully will come to pass in 2017. I don’t want to go too much into the details just yet; we’ll see how things go. I did come across something I thought worth sharing: this 26 November 1939 New York Times article about the next generation of American Field Service ambulance drivers heading off for Europe. This is the cohort that would serve in the Second World War. Oddly enough, their departure fell between Franksgiving on the 23rd and Thanksgiving on the 30th. The AFS story began in 1914 when idealistic young men, usually from America’s finest universities, left their campuses for the field hospitals of Flanders, Italy and elsewhere. We had a reconstructed WW1 AFS ambulance at Governors Island on Doughboy Day this past September which drew large crowds.
When war came to Europe again in September 1939, the AFS picked up where it left off after the Armistice and Treaty of Versailles twenty years earlier. It’s interesting to note the initial centers were Paris and New York City, as they were during the First World War. November 1939 was of course six months prior to the German occupation of Paris. I imagine that by summer 1940 the Parisian offices had relocated either to Vichy France or to another European city.
I had a meeting in the city today, after which I went to a small movie theater in Greenwich Village to see the film Behind Bayonets and Barbed Wire. It is a documentary about the Bataan Death March. What made it more immediate was that we interviewed one of the subjects this past summer at Governors Island. The film is a joint U.S./Chinese production and so focused in part on the often overlooked Sino experience during the Second World War. One can imagine that with China playing an ever larger role on the economic and political stage that this will be a more common thing. The interviews with the survivors are always riveting without lapsing into bathos, and the documentary even ends on something of an uplifting note.
The film’s major drawback was the unfortunate decision to re-enact scene from the Bataan march and the later POW experiences at the Mukden Prison Camp. I cannot express how distracting the re-creations are, or the extent to which they cheapen the film. The re-enctments may lessen the movie but they can’t take away from the events themselves; the Bataan/Mukden story is too powerful for that. With all that said, the filmmakers did the historical record a great service by interviewing these people before it was too late. If you have a chance, try to see the film if you can. I’m sure it will be available via streaming in the near future.
(image/Associated Press via National Archives)
The week before last I attended an event in honor of my great friend Sami Steigmann. We have known Sami for seven years now; he is actually the subject of the story I wrote for The Wonder of it All, which will be officially released in a few weeks. The event a few weeks ago at the Museum of Tolerance was all about Sami. The audience was a cross-section of the many people whose lives he has touched. Sami Steigmann was born in what in 1939 was Romania. In the crazy-quilt bloodlands that were twentieth century Eastern Europe, the national boundaries changed frequently here; his ancestral home is now in Ukraine. Nineteen thirty nine was of course the year the Second World War began in Europe. Sami spent 1941-44 in the Nazi prison camp Mogilev Podolski. What he has gone on to do with his life is nothing short of incredible. What a great evening it was, and Sami we are going to do that interview once and for all this spring.
Longtime readers may remember this post from 2011. It’s hard to believe this was four years ago. As time goes by I cannot help but wonder who will be the Frank Buckles of the Second World War. We’ll find out in 10-15 years. I suppose we will see a big Pearl Harbor observation next year, as 2016 will mark the 75th anniversary of the attack. Until then, here is this from 2011…
A few years ago the father of a good friend of mine happened to be in the food court of a shopping mall on Memorial Day. This is a man, now in his eighties, who served in the Air Force and later played semi-professional football. He still has his leather cleats. Lou is the essence of Old School. Like shopping mall food courts throughout the country, this one was full of teenagers. Striking up a conversation with the 4-5 at the neighboring table he asked them if they knew what Memorial Day was. After the blank stares, one offered that it was a day off from school. My friend’s dad was not impressed.
When I was in school in the seventies and eighties a visit from a World War 2 vet was a HUGE deal, even in the most cynical of times just after Vietnam. (I graduated high school just a decade after the Fall of Saigon.) One vet recounted today that during a recent school visit a girl asked who Pearl Harbor was and why he was there to talk about her.
I offer these stories not to blame our country’s historical amnesia on young people, but to emphasize the educational crisis we face.
I have written about the significance to me of D-Day and aging veterans before. Personally, Pearl Harbor Day 2011 is the end of something tangible, akin to the 75th anniversary of Gettysburg in July 1938 when aged veterans turned out for one final gathering. President Roosevelt was in attendance; three years after dedicating the Eternal Peace Light Memorial in front of the 1,800 veterans and 150,000 citizens that summer day he would tell the country that December 7 would forever live in infamy. Today in Hawaii the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association held its final gathering. There are just too few Pearl Harbor survivors left seventy years later to justify a seventy-first. There will be more World War 2 anniversaries between today and the commemoration of V-J Day in 2015, but for me they will no longer seem the same. By 2015 there will be fewer WW2 veterans, and those remaining will likely be too infirm to participate in any meaningful fashion. Time moves on. It was ever thus.
I received a message this weekend from our great friend Sami Steigmann. Sami was emailing to share the news that he was honored this past Thursday at a Words of Bonds event at the Bnai Zion Foundation Center here in New York City. Also featured at that program was Jennifer Teege, the granddaughter of Amon Goeth. Goeth was the commandant of the Plaszow concentration camp. Born in 1908, Goeth was an Austrian who came of age in the instability and chaos following the First World War and quickly found a home in the nascent Nazi Party. He was unrepentant until the end, which came in 1946 when he was hanged for torturing and murdering unknown scores of people. Goeth was played in the movie Schindler’s List by Ralph Fiennes. In one of those examples of Faulkner’s maxim that the past isn’t even past, his granddaughter, Ms. Teege, only learned of the family relation in 2008.
My wife and I met Sami Steigmann for the first time in 2009. He was our tour guide on a walk through the Governors Island Historic District one summer afternoon. Sami was the one who got me to volunteer at Governors Island in the first place. I wrote a piece about this whole episode that will be published by the Yosemite Conservancy this coming fall, on which I will share more when the time comes. That 2009 chance meeting was a great experience; I can still see it clearly as I type these words. After the tour Sami told the two of us how he survived a Nazi labor camp in the Ukraine and what he learned from the experience. His life has had many twists and turns since then, but he has always managed to hold on to hope and to his faith in others. It is a lesson he shares with school groups across the Greater New York area. He also volunteers at several museums and service organizations here in the city. I was so glad to hear of the event last week.
And Sami, if you are reading this, we are going to do that interview this fall!