Friday, September 25, 2015

Educating at the National WWII Museum

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Jeremy Collins, the Director of Travel & Conference Services at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. In this interview, he discusses his career path as well as the programs offered by the museum. Also revealing are his rewards of working at this phenomenal museum.

How did you end up at the National WWII Museum?  What does your position entail?

Like many History Majors, I found myself facing my last semester at the University of Missouri in Columbia without a clear idea of what I wanted to do or could do with a History Degree.  Fortunately, during Thanksgiving 2000, my family went to New Orleans to visit my brother.  He had just moved down there and created an itinerary for us for that weekend.  One of the stops was at the newly opened National D-Day Museum, which opened on June 6, 2000.

As I walked through the exhibits and felt history come to life, I looked around and could tell that all of the other visitors that day had the same feeling.  I thought “Well this could be a cool thing to do when I graduate!”

The following months saw me communicating with the Curator of the Museum discussing a possible summer internship.  I was able to work for the summer as the Museum prepared to open its “D-Days in the Pacific” Gallery, which was set to open in December 2001.  As the summer ended, I offered to extend my internship through the completion and opening of the Pacific Gallery.  They agreed and told me that they would even hold my position after graduation.  I accepted!

The museum has a number of dynamic speakers lined up in the forthcoming weeks.  What topics have visitors been greeted to and what is up next?

We have a very full and enriching line up of programming throughout the year.  In July, Jonathan Jordan spoke on his latest book “American Warlords,” about FDR and his war cabinet that led the country to victory.  This was followed by Alex Kershaw’s official book launch for his latest “Avenue of Spies” on August 4th.  It is about an American doctor who was Paris during the war. On September 1st we hosted Dr. Elizabeth Norman, who spoke of the nurses of Bataan.  Her book, “We Band of Angles,” discusses how these women helped the men during the battle, and then their subsequent captivity in the Japanese camps.

On September 17th we were honored to have the 2015 Pulitzer Prize Winner Dr. David Kertzer, whose book, “The Pope and Mussolini,” traces the dual paths that Il Duce and Pope Pius XI went on in the years leading up to WWII.

Today, we are partnering with the 100th Bomb Group Reunion Association to host a public program on Operation CHOWHOUND, an American operation, combined with the British Operation MANNA, which helped feed the starving people of Holland in April/May 1945, following the starvation winter of 1944/45.

On September 30th we are hosting a young historian, Jessica Greenburg, who will speak on her grandfather’s personal experience at the end of the war in Europe as he helped reopen the very first synagogue in post-war Berlin.

See a full listing of the museum's events here

Rick Atkinson unveils his newest book in May of 2013 at the museum.

How do you think guest lecturers benefit museums?

These lectures, like previous ones, receive extremely wide exposure, especially with the Museum’s 100,000+ members around the country.  We promote heavily to all of our members and supporters, particularly since we began to live stream them. These are all people who will: 1) buy a copy of the book the speaker is talking about or: 2) get more involved with the Museum’s mission and plans for the future.

As America’s National WWII Museum, we have found that our speakers see a tremendous value in being associated with our wonderful institution.

For those who cannot attend your museum events in person, how can they still take advantage of these opportunities?

All of these programs are filmed and streamed live on the Museum’s Livestream account.  The direct links are created 2-4 weeks in advance of the program.

What overseas adventures does the museum offer to adults and students alike?

The Museum has been leading adult travel programs overseas for over a decade now.  While most of our adult tours run to Normandy, we have expanded upon our offerings over the years.  This has included the Pacific, Mediterranean, England, the Ardennes, Germany and Russia.  Over the coming 12 months we will be running a Pearl Harbor tour, a Band of Brothers tour, Battle of the Bulge, and a number of Normandy tours.  We will also be touring eastern Germany and Poland as well!

Three years ago we started our Normandy Academy, which brings students to New Orleans for a few days of preparatory work and then over to Normandy for a full week.  These students are not just passengers on a trip, but rather part of the program, as they study and then lecture on specific sites of D-Day and even debate one another as to the decisions made by the commanders on both sides.

We also offer a full week program that brings students down to New Orleans for a more in-depth experience at the Museum, but also takes them to other historic sites that our city has to offer, including the Chalmette Battlefield where Andrew Jackson won the Battle of New Orleans.

Next summer we will begin a longer program out at Pearl Harbor where students will have a mix of classroom instruction and battlefield touring.

What do you enjoy most about your job?  What has been your most memorable moment?

Having just passed my 14 year mark there are certainly a dozen moments each year that I could recount, but I will name a few.

Having the opportunity to have meet some of the leading scholars and authors in the field and working with them on our various programs.  These includes Rick Atkinson, Don Miller, Richard Frank, Sir Max Hastings, Antony Beevor, Alex Kershaw, Lynne Olson…the list goes on and on, and I feel bad for leaving so many great people off this list, but I figured this list would be very familiar with your readers.

Traveling to various points of the world with history buffs who are eager to learn about this epic event has opened my eyes immensely.  There is hardly a better way to learn than to walk the ground and see the sites that the war was fought.  From Omaha Beach, to the hill that Audrey Murphy took in Southern France for his DSC; the Castle that overlooks the hill which Vernon Baker attacked, receiving the Medal of Honor for his actions 50 years after the fact; looking out over the open rice field that the 6th Rangers crawled through to reach the gates of Cabanatuan.

Again, this list could go on and on as well.

Lastly, and most importantly, is the opportunity that I have had to meet veterans.  As I type this I am watching the 1952 film “Above and Beyond” with Robert Taylor portraying Paul Tibbets.  I had the honor of escorting Gen. Tibbets when he was at the Museum for our 2001 Pacific Grand Opening weekend.  I was honored to have developed a brief, and long-distance friendship with Medal of Honor recipient Walt Ehlers of the 1st Infantry Division.  Lt. Col. Dick Cole, Jimmy Doolittle’s co-pilot has been a frequent visitor and speaker at the Museum too.  He just turned 100 years old!

These veterans are all famous, and wonderful individuals, but I would have to say that the veterans who volunteer at the Museum, those that I have really grown close to over the last 14 years, are the ones I have learned the most from and really cherish the memories I have, especially as there are fewer and fewer over the years.

Jeremy Collins at Middleside Barracks in Corregidor.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Sin or Salvation? The Atomic Bomb at 70

As the world has observed the 70th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki this week, journalists, pundits, and historians have inevitably debated the necessity and moral dilemmas of the cataclysmic finale to World War II. As I browsed various opinion pieces I, too, found myself increasingly torn over the issue--and I'm no hawk. Written words cannot fully measure the horror unleashed by the bombs "Little Boy" and "Fat Man" that simultaneously triggered a forty-five year Cold War. On the other hand, the question of Japanese resistance to a non-nuclear strategy remains more uncertain.

Let us take a few things into consideration: The vast majority of the Japanese naval and air forces had already been pulverized by the Allies in the various Pacific campaigns. Sixty-seven major cities in Japan had been ruthlessly firebombed under the direction of General Curtis LeMay. Were atomic weapons of this scale a true necessity to Allied triumph? Professor Gar Alperovitz of the University of Maryland notes in an article:

"Despite the terrible concentrated power of atomic weapons, the firebombing of Tokyo earlier in 1945 and the destruction of numerous Japanese cities by conventional bombing had killed far more people. The Navy Museum acknowledges what many historians have long known: It was only with the entry of the Soviet Union’s Red Army into the war two days after the bombing of Hiroshima that the Japanese moved to finally surrender. Japan was used to losing cities to American bombing; what their military leaders feared more was the destruction of the country’s military by an all-out Red Army assault. 

"The top American military leaders who fought World War II, much to the surprise of many who are not aware of the record, were quite clear that the atomic bomb was unnecessary, that Japan was on the verge of surrender, and—for many—that the destruction of large numbers of civilians was immoral."

Alperovitz makes a compelling argument that reveals the moral gray area to which Americans descended. Even Dwight Eisenhower had grave reservations about implementing atomic weapons, later correctly acknowledging that it set the world down a dangerous path. On paper, so it seemed, the Japanese were done for.

However, I would argue that the destruction of war infrastructure does not always equate to destruction of an enemy's will to fight. In fact, it can achieve quite the opposite. As with many articles, Alperovitz completely overlooks or simplifies the strict military mindset that dominated Japanese culture before and during WWII--as well as the vast atrocities committed in the emperor's name, including incomprehensible genocide in China. The Bushido, or "the way of the warrior," inhibited any other potentials for peace unless the hopelessness of Japan's cause could be conveyed through something even more terrible than firebombings.

Prior casualties on Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and Saipan in 1945 are not indicative of an enemy losing their resolve. Each of those battles carries a similar narrative: The Japanese were out-manned, outgunned, under-supplied, cut off, and devoutly defending their home turf. Yet, they fought on with extremism that astounded their adversaries. Thousands of Japanese schoolchildren were being trained with bamboo pikes to await the onslaught. Buildups of Japanese troops around Kyushu and other potential invasion landing sites reveal the same. 5,000 American naval personnel were killed in Kamikaze attacks in the months prior. On Iwo Jima that February and March, commander Tadamichi Kuribayashi order his troops not to commit suicide banzai attacks--yet they did. Some 20,000 Japanese civilians committed suicide on Saipan rather than submit to American invaders. In what alternative universe could we think the situation would be different on the Japanese homeland if it were invaded?

Even if the Japanese government desired to surrender, Americans felt there was no guarantee the military or the populace would follow suit. These fears nearly materialized on August 14, 1945--the day before Japan announced surrender. Known as the Kyūjō Incident, sects of the military attempted a coup at the Emperor's Palace in the hope of preventing unconditional surrender. The Allies had little way of knowing whether or not such potential uprisings could be widespread.

MIT Scientist Karl Compton visited Japan to survey the destruction shortly after the war. He wrote in an article in The Atlantic:

"About a week after V-J Day I was one of a small group of scientists and engineers interrogating an intelligent, well-informed Japanese Army officer in Yokohama. We asked him what, in his opinion, would have been the next major move if the war had continued. He replied: "You would probably have tried to invade our homeland with a landing operation on Kyushu about November 1. I think the attack would have been made on such and such beaches."

"'Could you have repelled this landing?' we asked, and he answered: 'It would have been a very desperate fight, but I do not think we could have stopped you.'

"'What would have happened then?' we asked.

"He replied: 'We would have kept on fighting until all Japanese were killed, but we would not have been defeated,' by which he meant that they would not have been disgraced by surrender."

Compton's encounter reveals that a lack of planes, carriers, and tanks would not equate to complete or peaceful surrender. That would require something far more terrible that came in the form of Oppenheimer's devastating creation. The tens of thousands lost at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was truly horrendous. Yet Compton also wrote, "No American soldier who survived the bloody struggles on these [Pacific] islands has much sympathy with the view that battle with the Japanese was over as soon as it was clear that their ultimate situation was hopeless." This observation rests at the heart of the argument.

However, many generals were opposed to the bombings. According to another account: "On September 20, 1945 the famous 'hawk' who commanded the Twenty-First Bomber Command, Major General Curtis E. LeMay publicly said flatly at one press conference that the atomic bomb 'had nothing to do with the end of the war.' He said the war would have been over in two weeks without the use of the atomic bomb or the Russian entry into the war." This claim is dubious at best. To say that Russia's entry into the war had no bearing in Japan's surrender it outlandish. The statement also infers that LeMay was on the defensive, boasting of the efficiency of his firebombings in the lead up to atomic weapons. While many generals spoke out afterward, most were silent on the issue as matters were unfolding. Some were not in the information loop until after the fact. Not even Truman knew the full details of the Manhattan Project until he was sworn in after FDR's death. Admiral William Leahy (who was opposed to the dropping of the bomb) did not think the weapon would work, and was surprised when it did. It is not out of the question that many generals were trying to save face in the bombs' aftermath. The notion that a single bomb could outmatch months or years of their meticulous strategic planning was surely surprising if not shocking.

That leads us to the question of morality. Future Defense Secretary Robert McNamara recalled in the brilliant documentary The Fog of War that "LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost. But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?" The same question could be asked regarding the bombing of Germany. As far as Allied leaders were concerned, the Axis had to be defeated by their own cruel strategies in order to achieve the greater good. Fire with fire. It is an unfortunate but effective trait one can see played out in many wars of history.

For the four years that the United States was the sole nuclear power, Mutually Assured Destruction among global enemies was not yet a risk, supposedly limiting the threats of nuclear warfare on the international community. But the bombs later became bigger, more dangerous, and more numerous.  While many Americans saw the bombs over Japan as a moral and strategic necessity, so too were the weapons a demonstration of power to keep the encroaching Soviets at bay. This is indisputable. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were political and scientific laboratories as much as they were scenes of a global conflict. George Marshall himself was among the first to note this.

But much of the current historical debate rests in timing--the slowness of Japanese willingness to discuss surrender and the speed at which Americans were willing to utilize weapons of mass destruction. Prior Japanese attacks revealed that mass casualties could be inflicted even with few planes or resources. Unfortunately for Japanese civilians, Truman's greater commitment was to the well-being of his own troops and not the enemy populace. Americans wanted an end to the war and any prolonging of hostilities, in their eyes, would have been the greater of moral offenses. In any scenario, most in the United States felt any roll of the dice regarding the exposure of military personnel to combat was unwarranted if technology could prevent it.

Furthermore, the induction of prime minister Kantarō Suzuki in April 1945 is telling. While Suzuki and the emperor earnestly desired an end to hostilities, it took them many months to do so in face of the staunchly traditional military spine of the Japanese government. The aforementioned coup d'état and assassination attempts against Suzuki certainly indicate an unwillingness to give up. One can see how it was easy for Americans to accept that the capitulation of the emperor might not equate to the fall of his empire if the military took over. Once more, this was a gamble Americans were unwilling to take--and understandably so. Had the Japanese not played a dangerous game of kick the can when it came to peace diplomacy, perhaps some of its terrible losses could have been averted.

Regardless of what generals and politicians reminisced in hindsight, the average GI and sailor felt the bombs spared them of otherwise inevitable confrontation--and it did not take them years to make that conclusion. While an invasion of the Japanese mainland may not have yielded the one million plus casualties figures touted by Truman, the endeavor nevertheless would have been costly. Admiral William Leahy nonetheless calculated that initial invasion tallies could be around 60,000. In this context, the decision between the bomb and invasion was an easy call for a commander-in-chief to make. So, too, was it easy for Americans to accept the carnage of the bombs as they considered the "Japs" subhuman--a belief only strengthened after Americans encountered them in combat.

Given all the conflicting testimony of then and now, neither I or any historian can fully justify the obliteration of two metropolitan cities. There is plenty of evidence on both sides of the argument for people to make a case. All we can do is attempt to understand why people thought it justified at the time. Nobody ever has all the facts, especially those who were front and center in all these issues of 1945. It is easy for us to judge these actions because we know the outcome. Harry Truman did not have that benefit. No matter where you fall on the matter, Hiroshima and Nagasaki nonetheless offer prime platforms to reflect upon the horrific effects of atomic weaponry and to ponder deterrents to war. Over time, I hope we can at least learn that much.

There is more to the story than this.


Thursday, July 30, 2015

To Educators: Keep it Real

Last summer I attended a cocktail reception at an academic conference. A point of discussion that came up was student engagement--or the lack thereof. I brought up the strategy of field trips as a means of connecting students with stories of the past. A fellow attendee quizzically looked at me and uttered, "What can you do outside that you can't do in a classroom?" This comment caught me off guard, just for a moment. I then realized this question fit within a much broader pattern of academia that fails to ask: "What do students want from a history course?" As it turns out, many do in fact have a desire to get their money's worth from a class but also occasionally enjoy having some fun (gasp) in a creative and educational manner.

As fellow blogger Kevin Levin alluded to earlier this year, professional historians rarely write historical bestsellers that are consumed by the masses. Why so? Academia has become embroiled by the notion that it cannot write for general audiences or trade publishers--that it is a lesser form of scholarship. As a result, journalists both good and bad have a greater control on historical literature than most real scholars.

My conversation with our wine-sipping professor mentioned earlier reveals a similar dilemma at a smaller level. Just as publishing outside a university press is considered a transgression, some professors seem equally skittish about taking the learning experience beyond the classroom. Luckily, there are a few ways to move beyond this mentality. Let's discuss a few of them.

One of my great joys of being a college educator is not only sharing my fascination of history in a scholarly setting but also actively reaching out to the local community--including the young and the old. A solid way to determine creative ways to teach history is to ask yourself, "How would I have liked to have learned about history when I was younger?" A prime way of me answering that question is through assisting with Penn State Altoona's Kids College--annual summer workshops that allow elementary and middle school-aged students to have a taste of the college experience. Not surprisingly, many learning strategies that work for them also work for my full time students who are ten years older. Field trips, immersive activities, and rare opportunities should be required for all students of any academic level. So, where do we start?

I worked with seven students in grades between sixth and ninth over the course of five days. Our first day was WWII themed. We learned why the war came and who the major players were, but also how the conflict affected everyday people. Students were (literally) placed in the shoes of American GIs. We drew our own cartoons of the scruffy Willie and Joe, allowing us to empathize with 1940s soldiers. We viewed some archival footage as well. Afterward, we conducted a Monuments Men scavenger hunt around campus using real historical clues and documents.

Field trips were also heavily incorporated into the week-long series of events. At the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site, the students learned to physically cut stone, hew logs, twine rope, and work a railroad. These activities compliment, not override, the primary material learned in the classroom.

Ranger Doug Bosley shows the students around the historic Lemon House Tavern. At its face value, one could only learn about liquor in such a setting. But, through the power of contextualizing, an 1840s tavern becomes a platform for interpreting 19th century politics, the perils of the frontier, gender roles, hygiene, as well as the personal flaws and ambitions of patrons who frequented the establishment. The best thing about historic sites is they educate us without us even realizing it in many instances.

The same was true of our adventures at Fort Roberdeau Historic Site. The 1770s lead mine fort also includes a 19th century farmhouse and barn that are helpful tangibles in illustrating frontier life. The farmhouse becomes "Philadelphia" upon entry, where students distinguish the differences in lifestyle between the urbane Pennsylvania capital and the rough and tumble Allegheny Mountains. One can learn about class divides in places other than the writings of Gordon Wood or Eric Foner. Above, our pupils learn how to curtsy back and forth to one another in period garb.

What better way to discuss the daily life on the Pennsylvania wilderness than to experience a piece of it yourself? While it may seem juvenile at first, hands-on learning for a person of any age is frequently the best way of retaining the information one acquires.

A final day of activities included a special presentation by Don Freeburn, a former NASA engineer who was one of many scientists working on the Apollo Program in the 1960s and 1970s. With him he brought not only his years of expertise but also artifacts and mementos from his services (including his vintage slide rule, which was completely foreign to our youngsters seen above). Incorporating firsthand witnesses to historical events equally enlivens classroom discussion. I mean, come on. This guy knew Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.

By now, we can easily see field excursions to places of historical, cultural, or scientific significance should not be a burden but rather an asset that makes people and ideals from books more relatable and interesting. Our students certainly thought this was the case.

Here's the real kicker: I take my college students to the very same places and conduct similar activities with them. Our desire to experience the past on a more personal level cannot and should not change with age or setting. Far too typical is it for some college professors (and even high school teachers) to perceive field trips beneath their pedigree as something infantile or lacking maturity. This could not be farther from the truth. Visiting places is as fundamental to an historian's work as digging out a rare manuscript from an archive. Others simply do not want to be bothered with the logistics of planning such expeditions. Regardless, do not belittle field trips, embrace them. In such settings, one can learn from younger people in order to become a better educator. In other words, do yourself and your students a favor and keep it real. The power of place is not easily replicated in the classroom.