Robert M. Citino, PhD, recently joined The National WWII Museum as Samuel Zemurray Stone Senior Historian, a job title that only hints at the many roles he’ll play here.
Robert M. Citino.
Consider: With Museum Senior Director of Research and History Keith Huxen, PhD, Citino will cohost the upcoming 2016 International Conference on World War II—stream it live at ww2conference.com from November 17–19—and will cap the Conference’s prelude Espionage Symposium by conducting a sure-to-be-fascinating conversation with Major General John Singlaub.
Dr. Citino was sparked to a lifelong interest in World War II when his father, a veteran of the Pacific war, handed him a copy of Guadalcanal Diary.
“So I sat down and read the book,” said Citino of Richard Tregaskis’s classic account of embedding with US Marines for the early stages of the battle. “From there, I couldn’t read enough books on World War II.”
He went on to write nine books of his own, with a 10th due soon. Citino comes to the Museum after academic postings at the University of North Texas, Eastern Michigan University, Lake Erie College, the US Military Academy at West Point, and the Army War College. He currently chairs the Historical Advisory Subcommittee of the Department of the Army.
Among his areas of specialization as a historian is the German military, a pursuit enhanced by his fluency in the German language, which he began to study as an undergraduate at Ohio State University. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, he went on to get advanced degrees at Indiana University. Among his many academic honors, Dr. Citino was voted the No. 1 professor in the nation on the student-populated website RateMyProfessors.com
Dr. Citino is a regular contributor to World War II magazine and other publications, and speaks about the war widely, including as a regular presenter at the International Conference. Among the roles he’ll fill at the Museum, Dr. Citino will play a key part in the formation of the planned Institute for the Study of War and Democracy.
“I think the sky is the limit for what this place can achieve in the future,” he said.
Here’s an edited Q&A with Dr. Citino:
Q: Is there a moment you recall when you started on this path? Was there something you read, or a teacher, or one of your parents, who inspired you? I know your father was in World War II. Was there a eureka moment when you saw your path?
A: I get asked that a lot, because I’m an American who writes books on the German army, which is a kind of unusual career path perhaps. In a broader sense, in terms of World War II, you mentioned my father. My father was Army, and he fought on Guadalcanal. The word sounded so exotic to me as a little kid. What is Guadalcanal? I remember my father purchasing Richard Tregaskis’s great book, Guadalcanal Diary. Tregaskis was, at the time, what we would call an embedded reporter, for lack of a better term, with the Marine Corps on Guadalcanal. And my dad handed me this book called Guadalcanal Diary.
I was a precocious little boy. I don’t know how old I was, 4th or 5th grade maybe, but my dad told me to read this book. So I knuckled down, sat down and read the book. From there, I couldn’t read enough books on World War II. For me, oddly enough, that was my dad’s war—the Pacific war, carriers, aircraft soaring through the Pacific sky. Even today that stuff gets me going. Not in a scholarly way; I just love reading about it. You might say I’m a buff on the Pacific war. I loved reading books on World War II and that lasted all the way through high school. I went off to university—I was born in Cleveland, so I went down to Columbus—and in those days you had to take a foreign language to graduate. As you may know, that’s not necessarily true at a lot of American universities anymore. I don’t think it’s quite this flippant, I may be inventing it in my mind, but I think German was offered at a time that seemed to fit in the rest of my schedule. It wasn’t at 8 in the morning and it wasn’t 7 at night. I took German and I had an aptitude for it. I learned to read it really quickly and to read it a pretty high level. I feel thankful I was given that particular gift.
I have this WWII love and I have this language, so it was two eureka moments—my dad giving me Guadalcanal Diary and that I could access fairly sophisticated literature in another language. That’s what I’ve been doing ever since. I read German-language literature—archival sources, memoirs—in order to get some sense of what was going on in what Wellington famously called “the other side of the hill.”
This Museum, of course, is dedicated to the memory of the US Army and US soldier. And I’ve delved pretty deeply into those waters, as well—I’ve taught at West Point, I’ve taught at the US Army War College—I am a US military historian. But my real scholarly bona fides have been putting together that interest—that love, if you will—for studying World War II with some ability to access what the Germans thought they were doing.
When you get right down to it, it’s the most interesting question of all: a medium-sized power stuck in central Europe suddenly thought it was capable of conquering the world, and gave a pretty good impression of it in the first couple of years of the war. We look back and it all seems inevitable today that the three great powers—Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States—would crush Germany. It didn’t look inevitable at the time. And so what the Germans thought they were doing on the battlefield, how they thought they were going to construct victory in World War II: that’s what I study. Not just Hitler, but the entire military establishment; I’m much more interested in general officers down to field-grade officers than I am in Hitler.
So saying that my dad fought in World War II is not a good answer. I was born in 1958. Everybody’s dad on my street on the west side of Cleveland fought in World War II, and most of the kids my age outgrew their love of World War II and went on to other professions and other endeavors, but I never did.
Was your dad one of those guys who didn’t talk about his service?
He certainly never gave me any combat stories. My father on Guadalcanal was a medic, so I can only imagine some of the things my father saw. A medic in a jungle environment is the worst possible combination. You’re undersourced, the climate’s horrible, the insect life, the dirt level. My dad didn’t give me a lot of stories. He met Eleanor Roosevelt. She was apparently on some kind of morale-building tour of the South Pacific, maybe on New Caledonia. I’ve never really looked it up. He had a passing encounter with Bob Hope and Jerry Colonna.
In terms of combat stories, it wasn’t really a rah-rah thing. I think my dad’s experience of World War II was that it was something he had to do. Everybody had to do it, and I think he was pretty happy that World War II was over. I think that is a fairly standard view of lot of WWII veterans. Probably the ones that come to the Museum are a little more interested, or maybe at this late stage in their life are more interested in talking about it now.
When I was growing up, I heard it as a series of vignettes. They were almost never shooting or explosions or combat or dying. I just didn’t hear those stories. He didn’t seem to carry weight. I was the youngest child of five, so it’s tough to psychoanalyze your parents. My dad was a pugnacious guy. I don’t know if he was pugnacious because of his wartime experience or if he was just born that way. We’re southern Italian. Citino. That’s the toe. I always have to ask my students, because many are spatially challenged, does it look like a boot to you? Most people say, yes it does, but there’s always a few people in class who say it doesn’t. But the toe of the boot is Calabria, and one of the first phrases of Calabrian dialog I ever learned means “Calabrians have hard heads.” They’re kind of pugnacious naturally. Whether my dad was carrying the weight of his WWII experience or the weight of 5,000 years of poor peasant ancestors, which is what Calabria still is today, is an open question. He’s passed now. I tell you, when I walked into Road to Tokyo, if my dad were here, I don’t know how he’d relate to the Guadalcanal gallery. I was stunned by it and I have never set foot on Guadalcanal.
About your specialty, was it something that was unstudied in Germany after the war? Were German scholars able to study their own army?
To their credit, Germans have faced the WWII experience in a really direct and full-on way. Perhaps not immediately, but certainly in the years since 1945. It would be difficult to say that the Germans have been living in denial, compared for example to the Japanese, for whom the subject of World War II and the story of exactly what happened is still not a topic for public conversation. The Germans have faced the WWII experience.
By and large, German scholars—not popular authors, but university professors by and large—are not too interested in operations, how and why this campaign took place, what its turning points were, what its pressure points were, how it could’ve gone differently. By and large, German scholars who study war today study atrocity. They study the Holocaust. The Holocaust and World War II become one in the German public and scholarly mind. So if you’re a young scholar and you want to write another book on the Battle of Kursk, that would be a difficult sell in the German scholarly community.
I got my PhD in 1984, and that process I’m describing was already well underway. And so you can fill your bookshelf with books on the German army written by American scholars. The vast majority are written by people who don’t read German, who have no ability to access original sources in the original tongue, so there’s a lot of stuff translated. It’s not like you can’t read any German documents. The US Army interrogated virtually all of the junior top-ranking German generals all the way down sometimes to lieutenant colonels about their wartime experience, and they’re all on file at the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Those interrogations, those reports, have been translated. But reading something in its original language and reading something in translation are just two different things.
I think I developed a kind of feel for military German—specific words used in specific ways; military discourse, if you want to put it that way—describing the German experience. I can say I think I was doing something different. My books are scholarly. I’ve written nine and I’m putting the finishing touches on No. 10. I’ve had pretty good luck in the scholarly community. The books I’ve written have been well-received. I’ve also managed, I think, to reach a more popular audience in perhaps a way that not every scholar does. I’m certainly not talking about a Rick Atkinson level of popularity, but within a scholarly community that has some outreach to ordinary-interest Americans, the general reading public. That’s a phrase that excites all publishers. For World War II magazine, I have a regular column that comes out every two months.
With scholarly books, you sell in the hundreds. It gets you promotion to associate professor. It gets you tenure. I’ve been fortunate in doing that. My work on the German army reads a bit different than what people are used to reading. I have a pretty cold eye. Perhaps when I was younger I was enthused about the German operational achievement. I’ve developed a colder eye as I’ve gotten older. It’s always written from the inside, which gives it a slightly different cast.
Maybe one of the most impressive things about your career is your ranking on RateMyProfessors.com. It’s an incredible achievement. One of your students wrote, “I went into this class with zero understanding of the specifics of operational warfare, and I didn’t care about it either. By midterms I was driving everyone nuts explaining the nuts-and-bolts of Israel’s Sinai campaign.”
That was my Arab-Israeli War class.
That’s as good as it gets. What’s the secret?
RateMyProfessors.com in an online service. It’s owned by MTV. That was 2007 when I was given that. It wasn’t an award, it was a rating. And then it was a publicity flurry, so it got into USA Today, something we all dream about.
It’s a self-selected group that goes online. Amongst professors, we often kind of pooh-pooh it. I take that honor for what it was. A lot of my students over the course of many, many years bothered to take time out of their busy schedules and say something nice about me online. So, I was really pleased by it. The ancillary benefit was that an MTV camera truck pulled into my driveway one day at Ypsilanti, Michigan—at the time I won it, I was at Eastern Michigan University—and I don’t think my youngest daughter cared very much about what I did for a living until I was on MTV. They filmed me. They would read me those comments and they would film what I had to say. It was very funny. Those videos, if you Google “Citino” and “MTVU”, should still be online. I even got to play Fender Telecaster. I whipped off “Black Dog” by Led Zeppelin, or whatever it was they asked me to play.
You asked me what the secret is. Any answer you give to that question is probably going to sound self-serving. I really love the subject. I live and breathe the subject. It’s not something I do when I walk into a classroom and then forget when I walk out of the classroom. And it’s not just World War II. It’s history in general. I’m a historian. I’ve taught 500 students in History of Western Civilization 101 all the way to very detailed classes and graduate seminars. I really do love history. If you can’t get geeked up walking into a class to talk about World War II for 45 minutes, and you’re making pretty good bread doing so …
Maybe it’s the Italian heritage. I talk with my hands. I love talking to people. I think it’s a combination of loving that experience, loving your ability to express yourself, and then being given a topic that just became an obsession of mine from a very, very early age. I think if you read a lot of comments on RateMyProfessors.com, you hear it again and again: “The enthusiasm level of this class.” “The professor really digs this material. He really seems to be into it.” And I am. So maybe that is my secret. I was given a gift in that my talents matched up perfectly with my obsession. You know, I’d also like to be a power forward in the NBA, but that’s not happening. I had to drop that one early for a whole host of reasons.
My question was kind of a bridge to your role here at the Museum.
This is a new position, so it’s a work in progress, as I see it. I think everybody has a lot of good ideas about what the senior historian should be doing here. At the first level, I think one of the things I’m going to be doing is showing the flag, the academic and scholarly flag, for this institution, and reach perhaps some venues that it hasn’t really cracked in its 16 years of existence. I’m thinking of scholarly conferences. I give, I don’t know, maybe 10 or 12 public lectures, maybe more than that, a year, and a larger number of smaller talks, sometimes to local groups. I get invited by all sorts of diverse audiences. I’m flying next week to Washington, DC. General Milley, the chief of staff of the Army, read one of my books and told one of his officers, who got in touch with me. I’m addressing a seminar of very senior leaders in the Pentagon next week. So I have that scholarly side. I’m going to continue to publish books and articles, and every time I do that, there’s going to be The National WWII Museum speaking to various public groups. I have my toe in the intellectual military side, and now the Museum is going to be part of that conversation in the future.
As you know, Dr. Mueller has some pretty big ideas about this Institute for the Study of War and Democracy that we’re going to be getting underway. I don’t think the Museum will ever be a research library in the way that Harvard has a research library. You have to have hundreds of years and millions of books and another building—another 15-story building, in fact. I don’t think it’s going to do that. But it can have a role as a center of scholarship, as a clearinghouse of information, as a call of first resort for a student.
Say a graduate student wants to do something on the Home Front’s industrial mobilization. I or someone in the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy could have information to answer that student or that scholar. If you need a recommendation for a good speaker on whatever topic, the first place you would call would be The National WWII Museum. That’s what I see the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy doing. I think it’s going to require people who love the Museum and love the subject matter but who also have a foot in the scholarly and public community, so you get that synergy. It’s going to part of the Museum, but the displays here are always going to be what attracts people here. Right now, I guess I’m the first investment or the first installation of what the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy is going to be.
Here’s why I think the work is important, if you don’t mind me riffing off of your question. I love the operational side. That’s what I write. That’s what I’m really excited about. But the war is a big story, and in essence the war is about human freedom and human liberation. If World War II had been lost and the other side had won World War II, the globe would be a very different place. I know the Museum is going to have a Liberation Pavilion. If you look at how a place like America, or Western Europe, has changed since 1945 and the end of the war, it’s essentially been a story of individual liberation. It’s kind of messy. We don’t often like it. I know that for as many people who loved the 1960s in America, there was an equal number who hated them. Polling numbers for the Vietnam War, if they ever fell below 50 percent, I’d be surprised. I don’t have those numbers, but support for the war was always very high.
At any rate, people began to do their own thing, and you couldn’t be doing your own thing in a world run by the fascists. The Museum will always be about the operational side. I think that’s the heart and soul of what goes on here. Road to Tokyo, Road to Berlin—man, those are going to be bringing audiences in forever. But the Museum has to represent the broadcast possible meaning of World War II. We should be open to all approaches, and all themes, and I think the sky’s the limit for what this place can achieve in the future.
What kind of a Museum dedicated to World War II, with Higgins boats and aircraft everywhere, also puts up a Canopy of Peace? To me, when I heard that, that was the greatest thing I ever heard. I came here for my interview and saw them laying the pile caps. Unbelievable.
The Peace Canopy is nonfunctional. It doesn’t do anything, but it says something. While we celebrate the memory of the heroes who fought World War II, I don’t think anybody should really celebrate the war. The fact that a war had to be fought to maintain our basic freedoms is a human tragedy. It just shows how little we’ve progressed, not how far we’ve come. And that’s why I think putting up the Canopy of Peace is such a great thing for this Museum. I was really, really impressed when I saw they were doing it.
Story by Dave Walker, communications manager at The National WWII Museum.
A 12-day journey through Germany and Poland tracking the ascension then destruction of the Third Reich, the tour visits Berlin, Dresden, Kraków, and Auschwitz, among other destinations.
At the International Conference, titled 1946: Year Zero—Triumph & Tragedy and focused on the postwar events that continue to shape our world today, Richie will speak during a session titled The Iron Curtain: The Descent and the Western Response with Conrad Crane, PhD, then again on a panel presentation titled World War II in Memory: Germany, Japan, and the United States Today joined by Gordon H. “Nick” Mueller, PhD, Gerhard Weinberg, PhD, and Hans van de Ven, PhD.
Richie’s first presentation, scheduled for 9:25 a.m. Saturday, November 19, is titled The Soviet Subjugation of Eastern Europe. The second panel discussion is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. later the same day.
The entire International Conference, scheduled for November 17–19 in New Orleans, will stream live and then be archived at ww2conference.com.
Dr. Richie’s most recent work, Warsaw 1944, became the No. 1 best-selling book in Poland and won the Newsweek Teresa Torańska Prize for Best Nonfiction 2014, while her first book, Faust’s Metropolis: A History of Berlin, was named one of the 10 top books of the year by Publishers Weekly.
She lives in Warsaw with her husband and their two daughters. She divides her time between the UK, Canada, and Poland, where she is Visiting Professor of History at the Collegium Civitas, an English-speaking university in Warsaw.
Here’s an edited email Q&A with Dr. Richie:
Q: Can you tell us about your panel?
A: I will be on a panel with Dr. Conrad Crane, and we will be discussing the creation of the Iron Curtain which descended on Europe after World War II. Dr. Crane and I have divided the panel to show these events from different perspectives. He will be looking at this history from the American point of view; I will be discussing how the people of Eastern Europe, who had suffered for years under Nazi rule, came out of the war only to find themselves occupied by the Soviets. I will also be putting forward the Soviet perspective in an attempt to explain why Stalin behaved the way he did.
You are a Professor of History at the Collegium Civitas in Warsaw. Can you tell us specifically about Warsaw’s experience as it shifted from World War II to the Cold War?
Poland’s tragedy is that it lies between Russia and Germany, two nations which have invaded and carved up Poland between themselves for centuries. Many forget that in 1939 Poland was invaded not only by Nazi Germany in the west, but also by the Soviets in the east, a situation that was only ended by Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. As the war progressed, it became clear that the Soviets would liberate Poland. Poles were understandably nervous about coming under the Soviet yoke once again. They did not want to be ruled from Berlin, but they didn’t want to be ruled from Moscow, either. This was the reason for the ill-fated Warsaw Uprising, in which the Poles attempted to liberate the capital city from the Germans just before the arrival of the Soviets so as to act rather as “hosts” to the liberators. Of course, it backfired when the Germans proved much more resilient than the Poles had anticipated, and when Stalin refused to come to the aid of the beleaguered Polish Home Army.
In a little-known tragedy of the war, the city was decimated, with the loss of 200,000 civilian lives and the destruction of 80 percent of Warsaw. Worse still, it quickly became clear that Stalin had no intention of allowing the Poles their freedom. Between August 1944 and August 1945, over 100,000 Poles, even those who had fought alongside the Red Army, were arrested by Stalin’s secret police; many were executed or sent to the gulag.
At the same time, Stalin lied outright to the western Allies about his intentions in Poland. On October 13, 1944, Stalin, Churchill, and the Polish prime minister in exile Stanisław Mikołajczyk met in Moscow. Stalin played along with the idea that Poland would have free elections and become an independent country when the war was over. The official minutes read, “Marshal Stalin was just as resolute as the British and American Allies in the wish to see Poland as a sovereign and independent State, with the power to lead its own life.” But Stalin also added rather ominously that he expected Poland “to be friendly to the Soviet Union.” It would take some time before the West fully understood that being “friendly” meant that the Poles and others behind the Iron Curtain would be utterly subjugated to the Soviet system.
One of the key tenants of the Museum’s mission is defining “what the war means today.” Can you tell us what World War II means in Poland today?
For Poles and indeed for others in the former Eastern Bloc, the Second World War was simply devastating and has left deep wounds which have yet to heal. World War II was the deadliest war in history and Central and Eastern Europe were particularly badly affected. Three million Soviet prisoners of war were killed through brutality and starvation. Around 25 percent of the entire population of Byelorussia perished.
The Holocaust—the deliberate destruction and murder of the Jewish population of Europe—saw the deaths of six million human beings. The statistics are simply overwhelming, and yet one has to remember that each number represents an individual, a person with parents and family and friends whose life was cut short because of a barbaric conflict over which they had no control.
For many in Central Europe, World War II did not really come to an end until the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and Soviet troops finally withdrew from Central Europe. At last, people were able to live in free and independent countries and enjoy rights including membership in NATO and the European Union. Throughout the long struggle for freedom, the United States was always a role model; it is no surprise that Poland remains one of the most pro-American countries in the world.
In May 2016, I led a tour from Berlin to Dresden, from Kraków and Auschwitz to Gdańsk, to Hitler’s headquarters in East Prussia and to Warsaw, tracing The Rise and Fall of Hitler’s Germany. It was a very moving experience to travel in this part of the world with the wonderful group brought together by the Museum. When we went to places like Auschwitz-Birkenau, we really understood what we were fighting for all those years ago. I look forward to welcoming a new group on the tour next year.
Story by Dave Walker, communications manager at The National WWII Museum.
One of the final touches to the restoration of PT-305 is a fresh coat of paint. But this isn’t just a fresh coat—it is the camouflage pattern applied to PT-305 in November 1944, called “Measure 32 modified.”
During World War II, US Navy ships were rarely painted gray. There were a large and diverse number of camouflage schemes for a number of tactical situations. Generally speaking, camouflage is not intended to make a ship disappear, but rather to make a vessel’s course, speed, and class difficult to determine. For large vessels, the Navy issued specifically designed camouflage patterns. For PT boats, official designs set a general standard but the camouflage patterns of individual boats were ultimately determined by squadron commanders.
“Measure 32 modified” was an experimental pattern intended specifically for making torpedo attacks. The “Thayer blue” on the forward part of the hull made the vessel more difficult to see from a distance at night when approaching a target head-on during the initial stages of a torpedo attack. The color transitions to a “deck blue” on the aft part of the boat to aid in the retreat from a torpedo attack.
Up close, darker blues are more difficult to see, making class and course more difficult to determine. “Deck blue” also reduces visible shadows from concentrated light sources, such as searchlights and star shells, making it more difficult to determine the boat’s location.
The blue painted on the deck was intended to reduce visibility of the vessel when viewed from aircraft.
In addition to the three shades of blue on the boat, PT-305 also carried aircraft recognition coloration. “Insignia yellow” was painted on the bow, “insignia red” across the stern, and a large red-and-yellow star was painted on top of the radar dome. This was intended to make PT boats in the Mediterranean easily identifiable to Allied aircraft.
More than a year of research using photographs and period documents went into determining the camouflage pattern applied to PT-305. The re-creation of the “Measure 32 modified” applied to PT-305 has restored her unique identity and highlights her combat history.
The film weaves its history around footage of a contemporary USO tour starring country singer and US Army veteran Craig Morgan, NFL player (and son of a US Army sergeant) Charles Tillman, Miss America 2016 Betty Cantrell, and others. Archival sequences tell the story of the USO’s famed Hollywood Canteen, which The National WWII Museum salutes in its entertainment venue BB’s Stage Door Canteen, and, of course, the decades of service to the USO by Bob Hope, subject of an array of upcoming projects at the Museum.
Here’s an edited email Q&A interview with filmmaker Peter Schnall:
Q: How was this project born? Was it the 75th anniversary of the USO that sparked the film? A piece of footage? A personal connection to a war or the USO?
A: Back in the fall of 2015, I had been reading a story about Bob Hope and his USO tours during the Vietnam War. The article mentioned that the USO would be celebrating its 75th anniversary the following year. My company, Partisan Pictures, reached out to the USO and asked if they would be interested in participating in a documentary program that not only looked back at their long and fascinating history, but also spoke to the changes and ongoing work they were providing to the men and women of the Armed Forces—both here at home and overseas.
Partisan Pictures has a long and successful working relationship with the US armed forces. Our shows about Air Force One, Marine One, and other Department of Defense projects have given me incredible access to our nation’s military and a chance to meet, film, and capture the work of the men and women who serve. I don’t come from a military family, so my time with the military has been quite an extraordinary journey. Actually, it’s been a real honor.
Partisan Pictures reached out immediately to PBS as the broadcaster for the one-hour USO program. We have produced many programs for PBS and more importantly PBS has a multiplatform initiative—Stories of Service—that unites powerful stories and conversations around one of our country’s most resilient communities: our military veterans.
Johnson & Johnson, a long time supporter of the USO, became the corporate sponsor for the PBS special.
When did the structure—editing the history around the contemporary tour—reveal itself? What are the strengths to that approach? What was it like following a modern USO tour?
From the very beginning, we knew that we wanted to journey with the USO on one of its present-day tours and have this become a key element and story thread throughout our show. Luckily for us, the USO was still in the planning stages for its annual Vice Chairman’s Tour. Once permission was granted from the Department of Defense, we began to design our story line with the idea that the present-day tour would be interwoven with the stories from the 75-year history of the USO. Using contemporary events and stories as a way to connect to the past is a very exciting way to bring history to life for today’s audience—particularly younger viewers.
Traveling with a USO tour and the vice chairman of the Chiefs of Staff around the globe in the belly of an Air Force C-17 transport plane is truly the only way to travel! Our tour stopped in seven countries in just eight days—including an afternoon stop in Baghdad. For the entertainers, it was a chance to bring a little bit of “home” to the troops stationed overseas and on the front lines of America’s current battlefields.
For me and my small film crew of three, it was a rare opportunity to witness and capture some very extraordinary moments between the servicemen and servicewomen, many of whom are on their second or third tour of duty, and the entertainers with the USO.
One of the gently provocative things about the film is how it spotlights recent USO supporters of varying political backgrounds without judgment. It’s especially poignant given the sequence about the political divides of the Vietnam era. What is the difference between Vietnam and more recent, equally controversial, conflicts—at least as it pertains to USO-tour participation?
Since World War II, the history of the USO has been connected to the history of America’s wars. Wars are not a welcome thought. Wars mean the loss of thousands of young soldiers’ lives. We as a nation have sometimes opposed wars and other times supported them. But throughout its history the USO has always been there to serve the men and women in the armed forces regardless of politics. The Vietnam War was one of America’s most unpopular wars, and the soldiers who fought in that war were often not welcome when they returned home. The Vietnam War brought up a very difficult balance for the USO, Bob Hope, and the entertainers who traveled with him to Vietnam to perform for the troops. Many entertainers, including Bob Hope, were labeled as “hawks.” But as Bob Hope’s daughter Linda explained to us, her father understood the controversy and understood very clearly how he was now being perceived by many back at home. As Linda would explain, Hope, more than anything, wanted this awful war to end. So regardless of his own politics, Hope supported the troops despite the anger towards them back home. Hope felt for the troops in a way many Americans at the time did not understand, for he knew many were stuck in a war nobody really wanted to be fighting in.
Today, wars and conflicts are just as controversial and unpopular. But the attitude towards the volunteer soldiers fighting in these new wars has taken on a very different feeling among the American populace. Our film interviewed a wide range of politicians and entertainers—from former General Colin Powell to former President George W. Bush to comedian Jon Stewart. All with different political beliefs, all with very different takes on the nature of America’s present-day wars. Yet, all of them have one very important thing in common—an unequivocal support for the servicemen and servicewomen fighting and dying out in the battlefield.
The USO’s roots in World War II are of obvious interest here. The conversation in the film about the USO’s role as a bearer of American culture in that era was fascinating. We love that Harpo Marx and Bette Davis were part of the Arsenal of Democracy. Was there anything that surprised you about the early days of the organization—its formation and evolution?
Producing a historical program often comes with surprising or unknown stories that pop up during research. I knew of the extensive programs the USO and Hollywood’s movie stars had created together during World War II, but I had not known how the USO had stood by and supported the black troops who had been stationed in America’s “Jim Crow” South. These young African American men, about to go off and fight for their country, were treated as second-class citizens in the towns they were stationed—they could not shop or walk in towns or participate in the same activities as the white soldiers. So the USO set up centers just for them. The USO pushed politics and racist laws aside and put the troops first and foremost.
Was there a piece of footage or interview you consider a great “get” or rare find? A favorite sequence?
There were many powerful and emotional scenes we discovered during our viewing of the footage from Bob Hope’s tours—particularly the shows he did in Vietnam. One of my favorite scenes from this extraordinary collection of footage, which we present in our film, revolves around a performance by a very young Connie Stevens. In her interview with us, she describes how during one Christmas tour she began to sing Silent Night for the troops. Suddenly, hundreds of young soldiers began to sing with her. The cameras captured one of the most powerful and emotional scenes I have ever seen filmed in a real war setting. It is hard not to be overcome by the moment—watching these young soldiers sing this Christmas song, knowing full well that the next day they would out fighting in another skirmish—many of them never to return home.
Would there be USO tours today without Bob Hope’s legacy? The film honors him beautifully. He could really walk a fine line—irreverent sometimes, but it created instant empathy with the troops. Do you have a favorite piece of footage of Hope? Was there more great material you had to leave out?
I grew up watching the Bob Hope specials on TV with my family. Needless to say, I hadn’t seen these shows for many decades. What a treat it was to sit and watch and relive these very special and historical programs. What struck me now, more than when I was a young kid, was how Hope managed to bring humor into the theater of war. Even more interesting was Hope’s ability to use humor to speak out politically against the Vietnam War or to poke fun at the commanders and generals of the battalions he was entertaining. We watched hours and hours of Hope on tour. Unfortunately, we could only squeeze a few minutes into our program.
Note: USO—For the Troops will stream online starting November 8 at PBS.org.
John Rogers, a WWII veteran and Museum volunteer, passed away Sunday, October 29. He was 98.
This week we bade farewell to John Rogers, a WWII veteran and beloved volunteer here at the Museum. John and his wife, Tee, were a familiar sight in the Museum’s US Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center, where they could often be found sitting together near the Sherman tank as John chatted with visitors about his experiences as a tank commander during World War II.
It was not far from this very spot that, many years ago, John prepared for his WWII service, training as a tank commander in Louisiana. He then deployed to Europe, where he fought through German forces and Norman hedgerows toward the Battle of the Bulge. He encountered battles, sniper attacks, friendly fire losses, and a staggering range of human emotion, from the exuberance of French citizens cheering the arrival of American tanks to the devastating discovery of emaciated prisoners too weak to celebrate their long-awaited liberation from concentration camps. Later, John would recall the strong conviction he felt in the face of these scenes: that the Allied cause had been just; the fight had been worthy. Despite the violence of battle he had witnessed, “I knew then that we were right in what we had done,” said John in the oral history he recorded at the Museum, now featured in the exhibit Road to Berlin and in the Museum’s online Digital Collections. There, John’s voice will live on to touch those who couldn’t meet him in person, continuing to educate and inspire.
Our deepest condolences go out to Tee and the rest of John’s family. We are so grateful to have had John as part of ours.
The Museum’s Knit Your Bit program—for which 10,000 volunteer knitters and crocheters across the country have produced 50,000 scarves for veterans’ centers, hospitals and service organizations—celebrates its 10th anniversary with a knit-in from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Saturday, September 17, in US Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center.
For navigation help finding the knit-in, look for the Sherman tank wrapped in a giant scarf.
“On the Home Front during World War II, knitting served as one way Americans could support the war effort—thousands picked up their needles to knit socks and sweaters to keep American soldiers warm,” said Lauren Handley, the Museum’s assistant director for public programs, who founded the program in 2006. “We’re thrilled to celebrate this grassroots program, which allows us to connect directly with veterans and show our appreciation of their service to our country.”
The connection with veterans is one of the program’s appeals for Elizabeth Done, a New Orleans-based stalwart of the Knit Your Bit program. In addition to the live knitting action and giant-scarf-wrapped tank, the September 17 knit-in will also feature local students distributing program-produced scarves to veterans. Local Veterans Affairs representatives will also be on-site and available for questions.
“The veteran handouts are my favorite,” Done said. “You get the ones who get really emotional.”
Shirley Sentgerath of Fennville, Michigan, has contributed an estimated 700 pieces to the program.
“I try to figure between six to eight a month,” Sentgerath said. “I’m a knit-wit, and I’m tired of doing things for grandkids who are teenagers now.”
In addition to her passion for knitting, Sentgerath’s motivation for her heroic Knit Your Bit efforts is rooted in many family ties to the military. Her husband, John, is a Korean War-era veteran of the US Navy. The Sentgeraths have been Museum members since 2010, and visit annually while wintering on Alabama’s Gulf Coast.
“There are a lot of things in the Museum that are absolutely outstanding,” John Sentgerath said.
Including Knit Your Bit, now rolling toward its second decade.
Students from Mooresville Middle School, the first classroom to finish the project last year. They are showcasing the prizes they won for all of their efforts.
With schools back in session, we say welcome to a second year of the Museum’s service learning project, Get in the Scrap! Inspired by the scrapping efforts of students during WWII, Get in the Scrap! encourages today’s students to become environmental stewards with fun classroom activities that earn them points and prizes. Participants in our first year had successful experiences in their classroom, and many students finished their activities in May with a greater interest in both recycling and WWII Home Front history. Kids on the Home Front led by example and have inspired young girls and boys today to realize that they, too, can have an impact on their schools and communities.
Curious on how it works?
Join us for our launch webinar on Thursday, September 22 at 12 pm central time: Your students will discover how kids helped win WWII by scrapping common household items to be converted into war materials. Learn firsthand from teachers and students how the project works in their classrooms. If you sign up for the launch webinar, your class will be able to start their Get in the Scrap! project with 5 bonus points. This’ll have your students one step closer to receiving their first prize!
Registrants will receive details on how to sign up for the project and curriculum materials. Space is limited—sign up today!
Is that the Brady Bunch? No, just students from Lincoln Middle School pledging to make a difference in their school and community!
If you’re a returning classroom, we have three new activities and brand new prizes that’ll have your students wanting to do more to rack up their points. Our new activities are a game of Jeopardy, the creation of a Memory Jar to track progress and daily happenings during your class’ time with the project, and a Water Bottle Bank that is a build-up to the Water Bottle 100 Challenge. It will have your students’ brains churning about how a plastic water bottle can serve more than 1 use. Each of these new Get in the Scrap! activities incorporates key themes including teamwork, writing, and creativity.
Make sure to share your students’ progress with the Museum via the hashtag #getinthescrap and your class could be featured as the Get in the Scrap! Classroom of the Month, which will be highlighted in the monthly e-newsletter and this blog!
Keep track of all things Get in the Scrap! by following the hashtag #getinthescrap on Instagram and Twitter. Also, sign up for the Museum’s monthly e-newsletter “Calling All Teachers!” for the latest Get in the Scrap! news and project updates. We’re looking forward to year two and to see how your student scrappers will enthusiastically complete the project!
Post by Camille Weber, Education Intern and Chrissy Gregg, Virtual Classroom Coordinator
Image courtesy of Harry S. Truman Presidential Library, “Photo Number 98-2437,” Photographer Unknown.
To commemorate Victory Over Japan Day 2016, Jay Mehta of Overland Park, Kansas, a 10th grader at the Pembroke Hill School in Kansas City, Missouri, composed this guest blog detailing his experiences after traveling to The National WWII Museum in December 2015 and hearing the oral history of Lieutenant Commander James Starnes, who was officer of the deck aboard the USS Missouri on September 2, 1945, when the Japanese Instrument of Surrender was signed to officially bring WWII to a close. Jay later continued on his journey, traveling with family to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, to visit “The Mighty Mo” herself.
“Beaches and Battleships,” by Jay Mehta
History shapes our lives. This saying often refers to the decisions and battles of times past that are still affecting the world today. However, over the course of the past year I have come to understand another facet of this saying: that understanding history not only informs our decisions, but also inspires us to experience new things.
Last summer, at the National History Day competition in College Park, Maryland, I was one of 51 students (representing the 50 states and the District of Columbia) to receive the Salute to Courage Award from The National WWII Museum in New Orleans. In December, we each represented our state at the opening of the Museum’s new Richard C. Adkerson & Freeport McMoRan Foundation Road to Tokyo: Pacific Theater Galleries. As a part of the award, each of us was privileged to study the life of one veteran or servicemember from our home state. When I received the name James Starnes and began watching his oral history, I was immediately befuddled. I represented the state of Missouri. James Starnes was born and raised in Decatur, Georgia. It was not until the end of his fascinating chronicle that I understood why a student from Missouri had been chosen to study him: James Starnes was the officer of the deck and navigator of the USS Missouri, the ship on which the Japanese formally surrendered to the Allied forces, thereby ending World War II.
The research drew me in rapidly. I began to watch footage of the historic event to try to spot a young Starnes or some aspect of the scene he described in his oral history. I also emailed the archivist at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri, to see if the museum had any artifacts relating to the surrender, which happened during Missouri native Harry S. Truman’s presidency. Most interesting, however, were the facts I uncovered about the USS Missouri itself.
I began to wonder why the USS Missouri had been chosen for the surrender. This was soon answered when I discovered that it was Margaret Truman—the daughter of the then junior senator from Missouri—who had actually christened the battleship by smashing the ceremonial bottle of bubbly on its hull. According to Starnes, on that day Truman promised his daughter that “the ‘Mighty Mo’ will steam into Tokyo Harbor someday, with guns a-blazing, and the war will be over.” It made perfect sense, then, that four years later, when he was president and was choosing a location to mark the end of one of the bloodiest conflicts in history, he chose the ship named for his home state and christened by his only child.
I also began to listen to Mr. Starnes’s words more carefully. He mentioned that as officer of the deck his duty was to give the Japanese delegation the official permission to board the ship. He spoke of positioning eight men, each over six feet tall, at the Japanese entry point to project an aura of dominance.
He spoke of the infamous wartime incident aboard the Missouri when a young Japanese kamikaze pilot, en route to collide with the ship, was shot down. His plane left a dent on the side of the ship, but there were no American casualties. However, recognizing their shared roles as pawns in a larger, international game, the crew of the USS Missouri decided to honor the pilot with a navy funeral. Realizing they had no Japanese flags on hand, the crew stayed up all night sewing a red sun.
I read about how General Douglas MacArthur dropped a pen nib cover during the Instrument of Surrender signing ceremony—which took place on what would from that day forward be known as the Surrender Deck—but was not willing to bend down and pick it up, as it would seem like bowing to the enemy.
These stories filled my mind while writing my oral-history project. After it was submitted, and only a week before the Road to Tokyo grand opening, I received an email from the Museum that I had been selected as the student speaker for the VIP gala the night before the grand opening. Writing that speech in the next few days allowed me a chance to reflect on what I had learned throughout the process. However, what best gave me a sense of the importance of studying and exploring history was the experience of actually delivering the speech in front of more than 600 people. I was floored to see the knowing looks on the faces of veterans throughout the audience as I spoke naively of battleships and campaigns. I was warmed to see their smiles as I read a poem that was included in the oral history I had researched. I was especially surprised when, after leaving the stage and heaving a sigh of relief, I ran into a gentleman who turned out to be the chief historian at the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument (a National Park at Pearl Harbor). The next morning, I carried the Missouri state flag into the grand opening along with my fellow students with a new sense of its historical weight. On the flight home, I discussed with my mother how incredible it would be to actually see the USS Missouri at its resting place in Pearl Harbor someday. My experience at the Museum was over, but my journey aboard the USS Missouri had only just begun.
Fast-forward a month or two. My family was planning a spring break trip to Maui, Hawaii, and my parents told me we were planning a day trip to Pearl Harbor to see the USS Missouri and the USS Arizona. I was ecstatic. On top of being a WWII nerd, I could not wait to stand aboard the ship I had spent months researching. Finally, March arrived, and my family and I flew west toward beaches and battleships.
When we arrived at the Missouri, I was immediately struck by its size and majesty. Even by today’s standards, the Iowa-class battleship—the last of its kind—is considered a leviathan. I began to recognize many historical odds and ends I had encountered in my research. After a guided tour, I began to explore on my own. I went to the navigation room in the high decks of the ship and sat in what would have been James Starnes’s seat. I found the Japanese entry point where the tall men had stood (marked by two poles which stand closer together than the rest). I saw the dent made by the kamikaze pilot (which, after countless paint jobs and modernizations, still has not been removed). I even saw the place where General MacArthur signed the Instrument of Surrender and where the pen nib cover was later found. However, the most incredible moment aboard the Missouri for me was standing on the highest deck open for tourists, where one can see the USS Arizona Memorial, which I would visit in the coming hours. The green outline of the sunken Arizona can be seen directly off the bow of the Missouri. Some nearby guide was telling a tourist that the ships, one above and one below water, were positioned in this way so that the Missouri could watch over the fallen servicemembers still on board the USS Arizona.
This visual summed up my entire experience learning about the war in the Pacific. In one body of water off the coast of Hawaii, in one day, a person can visit a ship that witnessed the beginning of World War II in the Pacific theater and the ship that witnessed its end. To have stood atop both of those ships and to have captured a glimpse of war and its consequences continues to inform my decisions today. My oral-history project and my trip to The National WWII Museum served as the impetus for visiting Pearl Harbor. However, my experience at Pearl Harbor was also, in turn, deeply enriched by my oral-history project and my trip to the Museum.
When I left Pearl Harbor, I remember scribbling down a note to myself. While writing this blog entry, I found it and pulled it out. To me, it sums up how I felt immediately after leaving the park and what thoughts were rushing through my mind about the war in the Pacific. The note reads as follows: “The fire of World War II was ignited by blood and smothered by a signature.”
Many friends of The National WWII Museum have reached out to ask if we have suffered any of the catastrophic flooding occurring elsewhere in Louisiana. We’re happy to report that we have not. The Museum is safe and open to visitors.
Unfortunately, many of our fellow Louisiana residents have been less fortunate. If, like us, you are looking for ways to help, this NOLA.com post lists donation and contact information for many relief agencies doing vital work in the state right now.
As the disaster has unfolded, the Museum’s curators and archivists have been fielding queries about how to save precious photos, books, and documents damaged by floodwater. Museum staffers—who deal with fragile WWII-era artifacts every day, working to preserve every piece for future generations—have been able to offer some valuable insights on salvaging these fragile treasures.
Below, assembled by our archivists, are links to several sites with tips and advice used by professional archivists, records managers, and librarians that can offer helpful guidance for personal collections as well.
Much of the advice can be summed up this way: Separate the damaged items, place them on a flat surface on top of something absorbent, and circulate the air.
The US Wereth Memorial in Wereth, Belgium. Belgian civilian Hermann Langer was only 11 years old when he met and helped shelter the 11 men of the 333rd Field Artillery Battalion before their capture and murder. In 2004, Langer established a nonprofit and erected this monument remembering them. In May 2015, Museum staff and volunteers traveled to the memorial to pay their respects to the Wereth 11.
In 1949, the US Senate investigated judicial proceedings resulting from atrocities during the Battle of the Bulge, listing 12 locations where American prisoners of war and Belgian civilians were allegedly murdered by German troops. The location where 11 African American soldiers of the 333rd Field Artillery Battalion were killed by the German SS after their surrender in Wereth, Belgium was omitted from the report of a Senate subcommittee.
Over the past 70 years, the event known as the Wereth Massacre has been a largely forgotten tragedy from the final phase of World War II. Today, momentum is growing in Congress to give proper recognition to the 11 men who died serving their country. The National WWII Museum, led by President and CEO Gordon H. “Nick” Mueller, urges citizens, museums, and other institutions to back the current effort – reflected in House Resolution 141 – to revise the 1949 Senate report and officially recognize the service and ultimate sacrifice of these 11 men.
The 1949 Senate report surveyed a range of atrocities committed in several locations in Belgium beginning on Dec. 16, 1944, and ending nearly a month later.
The atrocities, which included the killing of approximately 350 American prisoners of war ( after their surrender) and 100 Belgian civilians, were “committed by the organization known as Combat Group Peiper, which was essentially the first SS Panzer Regiment commanded by Col. Joachim Peiper,” the report concluded. “On the eastern front, one of the battalions of the Combat Group Peiper … earned the nickname of Blow Torch Battalion after burning two villages and killing all the inhabitants thereof.”
In a letter to West Virginia Congressman David B. McKinley, sponsor of H.R. 141, Mueller said, “Until recent years, many relatives of these murdered soldiers were left to believe that their loved ones simply died in combat. Records show there was evidence of torture and disfigurement among the deceased soldiers, and some observers believe the radial ideology of Nazi SS soldiers could have influenced their brutal treatment of these artillery unit members.”
We will never forget the service of the Americans lost in this episode: Curtis Adams of South Carolina, Willliam Pritchett and George Davis Jr. of Alabama, Nathaniel Moss and George Motten of Texas, Due Turner of Arkansas, James Stewart of West Virginia, Robert Green of Georgia, and three Mississippians, Mager Bradley, Thomas Forte, and James Leatherwood.
The National WWII Museum tells the story of the American Experience in the war that changed the world - why it was fought, how it was won, and what it means today - so that all generations will understand the price of freedom and be inspired by what they learn.