Thursday, January 4, 2018

From D-Day to VE Day

Battle-Hardened: An Infantry Officer’s Harrowing Journey from D-Day to VE-Day
One of the great joys I receive from this blog is the opportunity to interview authors and filmmakers regarding their latest projects. I recently received a review copy of Battle Hardened by author Craig Chapman. The author delves deep into the personal recollections and mental state of his late father, Bill Chapman, as he fought against the Nazis, enduring frontline combat and witnessing horror on a massive scale. Lieutenant Chapman of the 4th Infantry Division maintained his sanity by isolating his emotions from the chaos of the battlefield and struggles to hold onto his humanity. The author does a thorough job of balancing the micro and the macro picture of war. Please enjoy our conversation and consider purchasing his very revealing book.

First off, for the sake of our readers, tell us about your dad and yourself.

My father, Bill Chapman, was born and raised in Oakland, California as the only child in a middle-class family. In 1943 he graduated from UC Berkeley with an engineering degree. Despite his degree he volunteered for the infantry. After commissioning at Fort Benning, he wound up in the 12th Infantry Regiment of the 4th Infantry Division as a replacement officer. He landed on D-Day at Utah Beach, then spent an ungodly amount of time in combat, somehow surviving dozens of intense battles—though wounded twice. After the war he left the army and went back to school to get a master’s degree from Purdue University.

I grew up in a classic baby-boomer household. Dad had a budding career and Mom stayed home with four growing boys. Dad’s job took us to Milwaukee where he climbed the corporate ladder to an executive position in a Fortune 500 company. The father I knew growing up is sometimes difficult to match with the driven combat leader who dealt in death and destruction—except for his obvious determination to seek perfection in all endeavors from himself and others. I knew him as a devoted and loving father, as well as a considerate and thoughtful person.

I guess I inherited my father’s patriotism and sense of duty. Even though I attended one of the most left-leaning colleges in the country, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I joined ROTC rather than the street protests of the Vietnam era. I served 28 years as an infantry officer during the Cold War. Never heard a shot fired in anger—though one of my sons has.

What was your methodology in depicting the life story of a man so hesitant to tell his own war story? How did you connect the dots?

One point of clarification. My father wasn’t hesitant to talk about his combat experience. He shared his stories openly, though very matter-of-factly. He just refused to write about the war. Not sure why he drew such a sharp distinction.

My book has three, no five, foundations. The first major task was cataloging as much of my father’s oral history as possible. My entire family jotted down every anecdote we could recall over the years. I compiled these stories and wrote them into narrative form. After circulating the written anecdotes to family members, especially my mother, I reconciled differences in the way each family member recollected my father’s words.

Once the oral history was on paper, my mother turned over my father’s wartime letters. These letters provided the second foundation of the book, Bill’s state of mind as he went through combat. Due to censorship, the letters said little about the fighting but revealed valuable insights into his emotions, concerns and mindset. Reading between the lines, I could see the transformation of his motivations over time. At the start of the war, Bill wanted to prove to himself that he could stand up in the face of danger. The letters helped explain what kept him in the fight long after he had fulfilled that mission.

The last three foundations are research-research-research. When I started this project, I was determined to do more than spin out a long series of fascinating, personal stories of combat. Bill’s oral history needed to contribute to the historical record of World War II. To do that, I had to place his anecdotes within the context of the Northern European Campaign and add his personal perspectives to our understanding of those battles. That meant scouring written accounts of the 12th Infantry Regiment and digging into primary sources. The regiment had a pretty good history written by Gerden Johnson but the genuine details I needed were found in the National Archives. I didn’t know what to expect on my first visit to College Park. To my surprise the archives yielded fourteen boxes of records for just the regiment! The boxes contained journals, small unit histories, after-action reports, daily unit summaries, casualty lists, annotated maps, orders, overlays, unit commendations and personal interviews with key leaders. During one trip we fished out a five-page deposition made by my father, covering the campaign across southern Germany. No one in the family knew the deposition existed, yet it provides nearly the only written account left by my father. I ended up making five trips to comb through the written and photographic records. Then came the hard part.

How to match my father’s recollections to what I learned about his unit? Some stories were easy to place, like the time at Utah Beach when he admonished Teddy Roosevelt, Jr. about not wearing his helmet. For others I had to play the part of a detective to pin the anecdote to a time and site. Each story presented a few tidbits of information that helped whittle down the possibilities. Mention of a hedgerow meant Normandy. A battle in a Belgium town could only have happened at one or two places. Once I had specific details of the story and a general idea of when it occurred, I sifted through the records to find matching facts. One story perfectly illustrated this process. Bill related a story about leading a tank-infantry force that was taking enemy artillery fire directed from a distant tower. One of the tanks blasted the tower and the artillery stopped. My research showed that Bill led combined arms teams only certain days. During one such attack the journals recorded his team taking artillery fire. When I examined the topo map of that area I spotted a tower at the right distance from where Bill’s unit maneuvered. Bingo! All the facts lined up, allowing me to place Bill’s story to a precise time and location.

It seems your father was often balancing the needs of raw replacements and fatigued combat veterans. How do you think he maintained his composure as an officer in those trying times?

One of the sad discoveries coming out of the history of the Northern European Campaign was the Army’s awful procedure for replenishing unit strength. This is not the place to describe the Army’s callous, neglectful and cruel process for replacing casualties but Bill and other small unit leaders were left to deal with the effects and the resulting mental strain. My father admitted that he and the other veterans felt little emotional attachment to replacements. It made it easier to avoid anguish when the untrained soldiers got killed or wounded, which often happened within a day or so of their arrival. The time pressures of the campaign allowed no time for training. Veteran leaders did their best to get the newbies to perform in combat but they fared poorly. After the regiment was nearly destroyed at Mortain, Bill and his men finally got some days of rest. They used the time to train the replacements and refresh the veterans’ fighting skills. The succeeding weeks spent pursuing the German Army across France and Belgium gave them the opportunity to turn the replacements into infantrymen.

What surprised you most while conducting your research?

How much I didn’t know! After a career as an infantry officer I knew my craft but I discovered that I didn’t know how the U.S. Army fought back in the 1940s. Times, techniques and weapons had changed more than I appreciated. I had to run down copies of the Tables of Organization & Equipment (TO&E) and old field manuals. It took some homework to figure out how the Army of World War II used their weapons and their tactical doctrine. I was further surprised by the deficiencies in the Army’s doctrine and tactical execution. Frankly, the Army was not fully prepared to face such a well-armed, skilled and experienced opponent in the summer of 1944. I gained a greater appreciation for my father and his troops as they displayed ever-improving combat skills and learned to dominate a much-depleted German Army. My father surprised me, too, at least his state of mind did. He became so mission-focused and driven that I could barely reconcile his demeanor with the composed fatherly figure I grew up with. He had pushed emotion out of his mind as he concentrated on winning the war. By the end of the fighting he was so addicted to combat command that he had difficulty dealing with the boredom of occupation duty.

Why do you think the saga of the 4th Infantry Division is comparatively overshadowed?

Overshadowed is the right word to describe the Ivy Division’s reputation. Plenty has been written about the division. Ernie Pyle and Ernest Hemingway traveled with and wrote about them. The men of the Ivy Division sure saw more than their share of action—and casualties. Unfortunately, they were just outside the spotlight. The storyline from D-Day was Omaha Beach, not Utah Beach. Patton’s bold advances excited the public while the Ivy Division slugged its way through Villedieu, St. Pois and Mortain. The French Army freed Paris, though the 12th Infantry Regiment was there, too. Headlines during the Battle of the Bulge concentrated on Bastogne instead of Luxembourg. Everyone was talking about the race to Berlin while the Ivy Division fought ardent SS troops in southern Germany. The 4th Infantry Division suffered the most losses of any division during the Northern European Campaign but the casualties came from sustained, brutal fighting in places the cameras preferred to avoid. Now that so many years have passed the public only recalls the highlights of the war and the popular unit histories that have captured attention. Ask and most people can tell you about the Band of Brothers, the Tuskegee Airmen, the Big Red One or the Rangers that saved Private Ryan. The country has largely forgotten the contributions of the other millions of troops. Think of all the stories that have slipped from the public’s consciousness!

What advice would you give to an aspiring writer or researcher digging into their family history?

Start with the oral history. Memories and recollections are very perishable. Get them on paper! Capture every detail of a story from the veteran him/herself or, if they’ve already passed, from the people who heard the stories firsthand. Each detail is precious when trying to correlate a memory with history. This can be harder than one might expect. Stories of terrible living conditions and quirky incidents away from battle abound. The ones about fighting are more difficult. First person accounts of combat action are extremely personal and intense yet, frustratingly, limited in perspective on the conflict around them. People who go through combat cannot “see” a battle. Soldiers fight from behind trees and bushes, close to the ground. They rarely see anything. They hear plenty, feel the terror and often relate what happens to themselves individually. Recalling exactly where, when and why these things happened can get lost in a blur. As an historian you must keep in mind that you’re hearing a story from someone who was pumped full of adrenaline and nearing complete exhaustion when they experienced the events they describe.

Once the details of the oral history are safely recorded the historian should research the circumstances surrounding the veteran’s service. A trip to a university or large public library will uncover books that describe campaigns, normally from a high level. Nevertheless, the historian needs a firm grip on the big picture before diving down into small unit movements. These historical accounts, if well-documented, often lead the researcher to more specific histories that deserve exploration. Eventually, the historian should look for primary sources to drill down to the level that is meaningful for an individual veteran’s story. Luckily for World War II researchers, the National Archives in College Park, Maryland houses the contemporaneous records of the U.S. Armed Services. These records seldom yield direct statements concerning individual soldiers, sailors, airmen or marines but do provide a tremendous amount of information that can corroborate, or sometimes correct, a veteran’s oral account. A Missing Air Crew Report can spell out the mission, location and circumstances about when a lost relative was shot down. An entry in a unit journal might validate a veteran’s anecdote about the time his tank got stuck in the mud, holding up an attack. An overlay may show the precise spot a field hospital set up when a nurse got wounded by artillery.

A productive, illuminating individual history links the highly specific stories of a veteran to the overall story of the action he/she took part in.

Many thanks to Mr. Chapman for sharing insights on his new book!

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Ongoing Civil War

Confederate monuments are only part of the story...


I feared this day might come. Even though I have been working fastidiously on my upcoming D-Day book over the past several months, I have been absorbing the tragic yet unsurprising clash in Charlottesville, Virginia. As the plantation home of Thomas Jefferson, I have long thought of the place as an historic embodiment of the nation’s founding ironies—a society that precariously balanced republican virtues and enslavement. Further ironies have ensued as the picturesque college town turned into a battleground rocked by the fury of racial animus. The American Civil War is still claiming lives; it has never ceased extinguishing life.

While scores have found the recent events in Virginia shocking, I have woefully been anticipating these happenings ever since the shooting at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015. (Read my reflection on that incident here.) The subsequent debate about the presence of the Confederate flag in public spaces was only another aftershock of the conflict that nearly destroyed our Union. And we have yet to feel the last reverberation of that war.

Quite naturally, Confederate monuments have become the centerpieces of the ongoing debate to determine what we commemorate in this country. Let us first contemplate the patterns and motivations of these memorials. The peak of Confederate monumentation was the 1890s through the 1920s when substantial numbers of Civil War vets were still alive and civically active. Many of the ones dedicated in the 1910s and 1920s were underwritten by Klansman during their resurgence after the debut of The Birth of a Nation. Such memorials included an iconic rock carving of Lee, Davis, and Jackson on the mammoth Stone Mountain outside Atlanta. (A popular amusement park now sits beneath the sculpture.)

A lesser but still significant batch of monuments were dedicated in the 1950s and 1960s in the face of integration—many of them in front of schools, serving as a figurative middle finger to Brown v. Board of Education. These also coincided with the overlapping Civil War centennial. An acquaintance sent me the chart below revealing trends in memorials to Confederate soldiers. It is not difficult to recognize that many of these memorials (though I am sure not all) were in reaction to advancements in civil rights and a yearning for a Lost Cause Eden among white southerners.


Fellow scholars of the Civil War—ones far better known than me—have been making the rounds on talk shows to offer context to the perturbed and often ill-informed masses. Historian David Blight is among those historians speaking up. When asked if we are on our way to another internal war, Blight suggested we keep an eye out for other forms of disunion: the disintegration of political parties, the rise of the Alt-Right, people’s intolerance for facts and the historical record.

In an interview for the New Yorker, Blight noted that earlier episodes in American history such as the Mexican War, vigilante justice, and abolitionist John Brown’s 1859 raid were triggers that sparked the larger confrontation to come. “No one predicted them. They forced people to reposition themselves,” Blight said. “We’re going through one of those repositionings now. Trump’s election is one of them, and we’re still trying to figure it out. But it’s not new. It dates to Obama’s election. We thought that would lead culture in the other direction, but it didn’t,” he said. “There was a tremendous resistance from the right, then these episodes of police violence, and all these things [from the past] exploded again. It’s not only a racial polarization but a seizure about identity.” President Trump’s quiet acceptance of Confedefascists and his enthusiasm of spurring violent attitudes at rallies make him an accessory if not an instigator. His inability to promptly condemn ideologically-driven violence as quickly as he condemns—well, anything else—is astounding.

I have been reading the comments of many on social media who indicate a fear that Confederate monuments will be removed from battlefields and national parks next, and that the social justice warriors will have stepped too far once again. I think it is a debate that will vigorously emerge as the bronze generals and rebels begin to domino.

As someone who lived and worked on the Gettysburg battlefield for several years, it is hard for me to imagine such a place without monuments standing to both sides. With a few exceptions early on, I rarely thought of southern monuments as anything more than three-dimensional visualizations of battle. Silhouetted against a summer sky, the statues are stirring and make for vibrant postcard images. I daily passed many of them on my way to work.

But as is the case with most interpretations of the past, ulterior messages reveal themselves. The 1917 dedication of Gettysburg’s Virginia Memorial took place during World War and, in many ways, represented a form of reconciliation between northerners and southerners on the hallowed grounds. At the same time, the stains of slavery and the dramatic rewriting of history marked the proceedings. Leigh Robinson, a Civil War veteran of a Virginia artillery battery, said in his dedicatory comments: “Southern master gave to Southern slave more than slave gave to master; and the slave realized it. Better basis for the uplift of inadequacy can no man lay than is laid in this. This slavery was the school to redeem from the sloth of centuries.” In this context, it is impossible to separate the war from the warrior.

Singular Confederate monuments on courthouse greens or town squares usually only tell one side of a story—and often do so inaccurately. Even if tainted by the words that dedicated them, Confederate monuments facing Union monuments on battlefields fit within a broader narrative of states, nations, and ideals in conflict with each other. This is an important fact to remember.

Memorials observing the Civil War era have been points of contention on smaller levels for years. I personally think the interpretation of the Heyward Shepherd monument at Harpers Ferry is a thorough means of telling two sides of an otherwise one-sided story. At the same time, I can recognize that a side street tablet is not the same as a towering equestrian statue in a city park. I equally recognize that many citizens do not want context but justice, if not vengeance.

At this hour of tension, however, we might be prudent to reflect upon the words of Robert E. Lee himself. In writing to an associate in 1869 regarding the potential for Confederate monuments, he wrote, “I think it wiser, moreover, not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the example of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.” Even the man who spearheaded some of the Confederacy’s most stupendous military achievements later recognized that memorials to the failed rebellion would only serve as open wounds.

The removal of Confederate memorials is unlike the fears associated with dismantling memorials to the Founding Fathers. The founders forged an imperfect republic that they hoped future generations would have the wisdom to correct and adapt. The Confederacy sought instead to build upon America's moral flaws rather than its strengths while simultaneously undermining the democratic process.

The Southern Poverty Law Center recently started a petition which states, “More than 1,500 Confederate monuments stand in communities like Charlottesville with the potential to unleash more turmoil and bloodshed. It's time to take them down.” Going by the Confederate monument map below, that will be a very difficult endeavor. Perhaps some should come down; perhaps others should remain. Whichever way you feel, I believe it a conversation worth having if we ever wish to outrun the malevolent shadows of the war.


I find myself an intrigued observer to the process. I can recognize monuments as historical relics just as I can German bunkers in Normandy. They tell a story of a certain place, time, and condition. I can also recognize memorials as forms of public art. On the flip side, there is a stark contrast between observation and celebration. Indeed, Confederates can be recognized for their bold military maneuvers. They can also be recognized as being on the wrong side of history. Many Americans are incapable of recognizing this because they cannot separate themselves from their ancestors. The actions of our ancestors should not be reflected on us.

Ultimately, I find the impromptu demolition of Confederate memorials in places like Durham, North Carolina as unhelpful and dangerous. Such acts only embolden white nationalists who seek to use such monuments as a platform for spewing their vitriol. Nor can we dismantle places like Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial overlooking the national cemetery. But we can revisit and reanalyze them. If citizens wish to remove a Confederate monument, they should do so peaceably and diplomatically by campaigning to their elected leaders, using historical evidence and passionate moral rationale as their basis. The Southern Poverty Law Center lists a number of useful strategies to fight hate smartly and peacefully.

As these matters continue to unfold, historians reveal little surprise in the resurgence of hate groups in the wake of nation’s first African American president. The trend represents a desperate, final struggle to maintain a misguided nostalgia and mindset of the 19th century. Several months ago, director Rob Reiner vocally declared that the current state of affairs represented the last battle of the Civil War. I do not disagree. We find ourselves amidst a new civil war, one not as lethal or well-defined as that of the 1860s, but an ongoing cultural struggle to define or redefine what we represent. But those definitions were never clear from the outset.

As one friend suggested, the struggle now is not between North and South, but between urban and rural. The 2016 election map by county suggest as much. We have a long way to go in mending those fences.

This fall semester I am teaching a course on the Battle of Gettysburg in history and memory. We examine not only the men, their maneuvers, and their motivations but also what Gettysburg and the Civil War have represented to we as a people. If the commentary above is indicative of anything, it proves that there are many ways to ponder those themes. In this era of “alternative facts,” it is all the more important we examine the historical record for what it truly is. I do not think I will have any difficulty imparting the relevance and emotion of the Civil War to my students this semester.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

A Son of Erin

An Irish Immigrant Seeks New Life in Pennsylvania

As citizens grapple today with the complexities of immigration in America, one is compelled to look back upon the lives of Irishmen such as William Gray Murray. Born in Longford, Ireland in 1825, he and his parents immigrated to New York when he was but nine months old. The Murrays left their homeland amid an era of great transition and tumult. Because of the inflated price in the grain market to benefit aristocratic gentry, potatoes became the staple crop of Ireland’s impoverished rural society. When the potato crop failed amid the Great Famine two decades later, over one million perished while another million immigrated to America.

All the while, the Murrays overcame the xenophobia of their new neighbors as they established a mercantile in New York City and young William came of age. According to historian Jay P. Dolan, “To be Catholic in the United States in the 1840s and 50s was to be portrayed as a menace to national security. . . . This religious bias against the Irish reinforced the cultural prejudice that the heirs of British America carried with them well into the nineteenth century.” Americans abiding by anti-immigrant “Nativist” ideals even promoted legislation to curtail Irish naturalization and entry into America. To vindicate his citizenship, Murray enlisted in the U. S. Army at age nineteen. After serving in the Mexican War, he settled in Hollidaysburg and lived a quiet life as the town’s postmaster beginning in 1852.

At the outbreak of the American Civil War, he was offered a commission as a captain in the Pennsylvania volunteers. However, he initially declined the offer since his wife, Elizabeth, was suffering from the final stages of tuberculosis. She tragically passed away in August 1861.

Driven by a desire to further serve his adopted country, Murray left his sole surviving daughter, Mary, to be cared by family as he became colonel of the 84th Pennsylvania. The officer daringly faced off with the likes of “Stonewall” Jackson in January 1862 at Hancock, Maryland and he was involved in various maneuvers in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. During the Battle of Kernstown on March 23, 1862, Murray’s horse was shot from under him. (The horse skull is in the collections of Baker Mansion.) The colonel continued the charge on foot when his cap brim was shot from his head. Moments later, an enemy bullet crushed his skull—killing him instantly.

Murray became the first Pennsylvania colonel killed in the war. His remains were ceremoniously honored in Harrisburg before he was laid to rest in Hollidaysburg’s St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery—where “universal sorrow was manifested” during his burial. One writer remembered of him: “Col. Murray was a man of large, active benevolence, warm and ardent in his impulses, though singularly calm and equitable, and energetic and untiring in the path of duty.” As contemporary debates about immigration continue to swirl, Murray’s saga is worth contemplation in our own troubled times.

 Murray's price of citizenship.