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?

Monday, April 14, 2014

A Plea for My Downtown

The Uphill Battles and Rewards of Saving Your Town 

This is what I want: A downtown with businesses, activity, and people.  Altoona in 1953.

On the evening of Wednesday 9, 2014 I attended a presentation by Fourth Economy Consulting at my local city council chambers in Altoona, PA.  This firm has had great success in revitalizing numerous downtowns that have fallen upon hard times--especially here in the former Rust Belt.  My city needs this.  I am not ashamed of this sad truth.  In fact, I embrace it.  That is the only manner in which the situation may improve.  With the growing dominance of higher education and the healthcare industry in my community, both Fourth Economy and I suspect there is vast potential to revitalize historical structures rather than tearing them down (which has been the unfortunate pattern in my city for decades).  I went to the meeting to proclaim my support for their initiative.  Below are my comments plus an accompanying article from our local Altoona Mirror on the issue.  I share this tale because I sense the story of my downtown may also be the story of your downtown.  Cities grow from within, not from outer sprawl.  There is still hope.  In the end, we must demand vision on the part of our local elected leaders--even visions involving expensive but needed investments.  In the meantime, a little bit of historical literacy and appreciation might be the antidote to a problem endemic in many of our towns.  Share the wealth.


"On behalf of the Blair County Historical Society and myself, I would like to announce our enthusiastic support of the Housing Strategy & Downtown Investment Plan we heard this evening. From both commercial and historical preservation standpoints, this proposal is a remedy long overdue in resuscitating the sustainability of our once-vibrant downtown.

Those well-versed in the study of the past often comment about history that those who don’t recognize it are always bound to repeat it. Sadly enough, one only needs to look down 11th Avenue of our city to notice just how true that maxim is. We have seen the same tragic pattern repeated time and time again throughout the last forty years of Altoona’s history: Historical structures and other icons of local identity have been ravaged by the wrecking ball in the name of “progress.” Other properties have been purchased by regional investors but have been left to decay in the wake of neglect and ambivalence. In the interim, the heart and pride of our community has decayed with it, resulting in a rise in urban blight, unsightly sprawl, and an exodus of native young people from our city.

As a professional historian, I can appreciate the merits in revitalizing and repurposing historic structures for cultural purposes alone. However, I can also acknowledge that such preservation does not exist in a vacuum.  Economic and commercial advancements must coincide with this undertaking.  In this regard, adaptive reuse of our vintage buildings and districts is an ideal solution. Speaking with young professionals and students on a daily basis, I know they too have a strong desire to see a downtown renaissance. Student housing in the city is urgently needed to accommodate the influx of the growing campus. Where student housing goes, businesses will follow.  Therefore, efforts aimed at our downtown have great potential in our desires of broader community revitalization.

In making these momentous decisions, I ask you to recognize the patterns of our local history.  I beg you to observe the truth that demolition has not equated to growth or progress in our city.  New does not necessarily mean better.  With this thought in mind, I respectfully ask you to look to the city’s past to build its future. Help preserve our culture as well as our economic vitality. To ensure this, we as citizens require the vision, foresight, initiative, and leadership of individuals such as yourselves.  As you contemplate your options for the future, I hope you will consider your place in the future history books of Altoona.  What will your legacy be?  Thank you for your time and consideration on this matter."

This is what I do not want: Over fifty years later, my city is a shell of its former self.  I want my history to stay and be appreciated.  Only local citizens can make it happen by voicing their aspirations.  Photo by Scott Conarroe.

Consultants bet on full house
Group: 500 young professionals would pay up to $1K to live downtown
April 10, 2014
By William Kibler (bkibler@altoonamirror.com), The Altoona Mirror

After seven months studying the feasibility of reviving downtown through creation of market housing, mainly through rehabilitation of older buildings, a group of consultants from Pittsburgh presented their findings Wednesday to City Council.

"Awesome presentation," Councilman Eric Cagle said of the Act 47-funded study, who nevertheless wondered whether the 500 mostly young professionals the consultants predicted would pay up to about $1,000 per month to live downtown would find enough there to do for entertainment.  A similar plan worked in Pittsburgh, and the amenities followed -- after years of failure when the amenities came first, said Steve McKnight of Fourth Economy Consulting, one of the firms in the consultant team.

"All the elements are there," McKnight said, arguing that existing amenities, including one high-end restaurant, bus service and cultural facilities like the Railroaders Memorial Museum and the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art, would suffice to start, he said. "The only thing missing is the housing component."

But there's a funding gap of a third or a half of the project costs that a combination of the city, other agencies, banks, and lawmakers will need to work together to fill, according to McKnight and the other consultants, who were from Pfaffman & Associates and Fourth River Development.  Ultimately, it will be up to property owners, the consultants said.

Fortunately, there are models for them, including Legacy Suites in Lakemont, which is successful, and the Artificial Limb and Appliance building and the Casanave building downtown, which are in development, the consultants said.  Based on surveys, the consultants predicted a market for 500 units a year and proposed projects that could develop 218 units in the easily foreseeable future.

Those include rehabilitations of Brett Central Court, the Penn Central building, the Vipond building, the Gables building and new construction projects with traditional style housing in the UPMC Altoona and Little Italy neighborhoods.  There was talk of the need for up to three new parking garages and of possible demand for a downtown hotel.
"We focused on the next generation," McKnight said.

Urban living appeals to many of them, he said.  "We're trying to jump start a market," McKnight said. "Then let the private sector take over."  Council needs to offer leadership and moral support, to lobby lawmakers for capital help, be willing to apply for grants and loans in support of projects and do what it can to provide infrastructure, according to Pfaffman and Miller.

Councilman Bruce Kelley wondered whether the low cost of mortgages in the area could be an obstacle to people paying the market rents.  The surveys identified a different group than those who would go for those inexpensive mortgages, McKnight said.
The owners who are willing to make the next move may do so after finding out how the ones doing it now made it work, said John Watson of Fourth River.  "Get a success story, document it and move on," Pfaffman said.
Jared Frederick of the Blair County Historical Society praised the city and the consultants for the report, which can reverse an unfortunate legacy, he said. "Demolition has not equated to growth," he told council.  "Look to the community's past to rebuild for the future," Frederick said. "Consider your place in the future history books of Altoona."
Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.