Rewriting the Past

Back in May, I posted up a week's worth of posts detailing my research with Norwich University and our alumni who fought at the Battle of the Bulge between December 16th through January 15th. The trip was incredible, but most of all, I learned quite a bit about working on a historical project with other groups: meeting their expectations, to construct a history that better matches with what they are looking for. Since then, we determined that there was more that could be done with the project, and for most of the summer, I worked on further research, uncovering quite a bit more material from archival sources, interviews and records to come up with a paper that’s far more centered around the men who had fought in Belgium, rather than the actions that thrust them into the spotlight.

The editorial process has been exceptionall well, and there's a couple of things that I've reinforced for myself this time around:

  • Everything that I write generally needs to be put away and revisited with a clear mind. Going over the original paper, there were many parts that I found needed to be redone, either for the language that I used, or restructuring the project in a way that better explained what I was trying to convey to the reader.
  • Live by the calendar. This is a key thing for me: deadlines matter, but marking down deadlines matter even more. I carry my iPad around with me almost everywhere, and as such, it's become an incredible tool for not only taking notes, but keeping me on task to finish up a project in a timely manner. Plus, deadlines are set much further in advance.
  • Archives are your friend. I don't know what my hesitation was earlier: I think I wanted to write a paper that focused far more on the battle then the soldiers. The archives are an excellent, astounding wealth of information that I had never even known existed. They're the first stop for all of my NU related projects from here on out.

The paper is far stronger, in my opinion, and I’ve just wrapped up the final edits before  it’s turned in for good. As such, I’ve removed the older entries that I had posted up, but they’ll be brought back in their new (somewhat longer form) in the very near future.

Europe Trip


I'm finally back from Belgium and caught up with work, rest and a bit of reading to start to put things together on the trip. Short story, Belgium and Germany both rock, while US Airways sucks. A couple of weeks ago, I posted up the sections of the paper that I wrote up, an overview of the Battle of the Bulge and the role that Norwich University students played (note, however, that it's a bit of a work in progress) during the battle.

Seeing a battlefield for one's self, however, puts an entirely new dynamic understanding the battle. Going to Belgium and Germany to look at the lead up to the Bulge, and the Bulge itself, helped me understand a lot, but also showed me where I need to continue to research to make the paper better. That'll likely happen this summer, as I update what I wrote a bit, and write up an article on the 2nd Armored Division for Armchair General.

Flying was a nightmare, and you can read the other post for the specifics - it's not worth remembering, honestly. But, getting into Brussels left me a little time to wander, so I walked a couple of miles from the hotel into the city center (I didn't want to worry about figuring out the bus and train system, and I was impatient). Taking out a map, I noted which streets I went down, and wandered my way over, which is something that I recommend in any foreign city - I did it in London, and in Athens, and I honestly believe that I got a better sense of the city than I otherwise would have. It's a neat place, entirely not what I expected, and a huge contrast from the downtown tourist section.

Meeting up with the group, we had our initial briefing, then set out the next morning to look at the northern advance of the 2nd Armored Division in the months preceding the Bulge, as Norwich had a member, Captain James Burt, who earned the Metal of Honor in Aachen for his actions during a firefight. We looked at several towns in the lead up to that fight, examining some of the logistical problems that would have cropped up, as well as some of the battlefield sites.

One of the parts that always hits the hardest when looking at battlefields is looking at the US Cemeteries: they're immaculate, haunting, and stark. We visited the Henri Chappelle American Cemetery and Memorial, where we discovered the final resting place of a Norwich Alum, Arnold McKerer, a 2nd Lieutenant from the 9th Infantry Division who was killed the day after he was deployed to Monschau. It was sobering, and drove a couple of points home: our institution had a real stake in the battle, and this was a tangible result.

Monschau was lovely: an ancient town, set in a valley, with traditional, German looking structures, a castle on one side, and some ruins on the other. I set out away from the group again and walked around the streets, covering most of it in the couple of hours that we had. It felt very touristy in some places, although it was gratifying to see that there were also German tourists there. I bought an wooden whistle for my dad, in the shape of an owl, then hiked up to the top to the Castle, and then to the ruins.

Monday, we set out from Monchau to look at the opening moments of the Bulge attack. Hitler and his forces achieved near complete surprise in their attack against the allies, which resulted in the near destruction of the 28th and 106th Infantry Divisions. This was in a heavily wooded section of the country, where there was limited mobility, units that were resting from hard combat and new to the front lines. As we drove to the first sites, we saw the remains of the Siegfried Line, dragon's teeth fortifications that were designed to stop an invasion. It's astonishing that they're still there, a pointed reminder of the war and Hitler's legacy.

Going into the woods was eerie. The temperature dropped a couple of degrees, and there's a peaceful calm feel to the woods. The trees are planed in lines, shooting straight to the sky. We could hear birds, owls and the wind as we walked to a monument to the 99th Infantry Division, the unit that fought in that area, as well as the Volksgrenadier Division that was also there. Moving in deeper, we came across the remains of the trenches and foxholes that the allies had dug in place, and listened to some discussion of life in the trenches. Such a violent past felt very out of place in those woods.

From there, we moved further West, towards St. Vith, and looked at the surrounding territory, and the intentions of the German military as they swept inwards. We had a couple of Norwich students perish in this area. Another stand saw more foxholes. We climbed out of the valleys and up into the high ground to the north of the section, where the 82nd Airborne Division held territory, before turning in for the night at Bastogne.

Tuesday, we focused extensively on the 2nd Armored Division, driving out to the western sections of the battlefield, 'classic tank country', according to our guides, BG (RET) Hal Nelson and MG (RET) Gordon Sullivan. Norwich University had focused on cavalry training early on, and we had a number of students present in the ranks, including the general, Ernest Harmon, who would eventually become the university's president in the post-war years. There were several key towns that we looked at that saw some major actions from our soldiers there, who worked to cut off the German advance, and stopping it in its tracks. I could spend an entire week there, looking at that, I think.

The last day, Wednesday, we stayed in Bastogne, where we drove out to the memorial, a towering star-shaped structure that spells out the actions of the bulge. It's an impressive memorial, one that would be a good place to stop to get a good overview of the battle. We didn't look much at Bastogne, but we saw where the significance came from, and the actions that the US 101st Airborne and 10th Armored Division played in helping hold the ground. From there, it was back to Brussels, where we had our final briefing and dinner, then departed for the night. I spend the next two days trying to get home, but ultimately, the trip was worth the trouble. I want to go back to that territory: it's gorgeous out there, with a fascinating role in the 2nd World War.

Norwich University and the Battle of the Bulge: Introduction

As of right now, I’m enroute to Brussels, Belgium. Last fall, I was tasked with researching the role that students and alumni played during the Battle of the Bulge, one of the defining engagements of the Second World War. Over six months, I looked at a number of records and publications, gathering information on the students, then at the units that they were a part of, before examining where they all fit together into the actual battle. It was quite a bit of fun, and over the next week, I’m touring the battlefields on what’s called a Staff Ride, essentially consulting and providing information on how the university played a role in the battle. Over the next week, I’ve split up my paper into parts, and as I’ll be in the country, it seems fitting that I share the work (somewhat modified from the original paper, in places) while I’m there. I’ll have plenty of pictures to share when I return.

Introduction The Battle of the Bulge was the most intense and costly battle that the United States and its allies waged against the German military during the Second World War. Over a million soldiers on both sides involved in the clash that would last for 41 days, beginning on December 16th, 1944. This battle was the only time that the German military fought against the United States with the upper hand, due adverse weather conditions for the allies, limiting their abilities, and the overconfidence in the Axis’ ability to wage war.

Norwich University played its own role in this engagement, with around one hundred alumni at or potentially at the battlefield, based on the records examined at various sources from the university. The school undoubtedly played a role in the conduct and leadership abilities of the students who trained and shipped off to Europe, with soldiers with university credentials (or eventual university association) ranging from the rank of Private, First Class, on the front lines, to the rank of Major General, overseeing the operations on a divisional level, playing pivotal roles in the direction of the battle. Indeed, Norwich University alumni gave their blood and their lives in Belgium, making the ultimate sacrifice for their country in a time of grave need, helping the battle and their comrades through to the end.

Soldiers from Norwich were also present throughout the battle, from the first moments in the early morning of December 16th, 1944, to the last, on January 25th, 1945, 41 days later. They participated as airborne, infantry and armored units, instrumental in all major actions taken during the campaign to push back the German onslaught.

Setting the Stage On June 6th, 1944, Allied forces came ashore in Normandy, France, where the fight into Europe began in earnest, pushing the German military further back over the course of the fall that year. Over the course of the fall, a number of Norwich University alumni arrived to fight for their country: On June 9th, elements of the 2nd Armored Division arrived on shore, under the command of Major General Brooks, a Norwich graduate, who would eventually hand over command to General Ernest Harmon, who would continue to push deeper into Europe.

From Normandy, US and Allied forces moved to liberate Paris and the rest of Europe.

In September 1944, the allies launched Operation Market-Garden against German positions in Holland, where allied forces looked to capture ground and allow for a quick march straight to Germany. Its eventual failure pushed back expectations that they would reach Berlin in a timely manner.

On October 13th, 1944, the 2nd Armored Division saw action at Wurselen, Germany, where Captain James Burt, of the 66th Armored Regiment B Company, earned the Medal of Honor for his actions against a German garrison, directing fire from an exposed position, and in the course of which he was wounded. Over following nine days, he continued to scout enemy positions, direct friendly fire towards enemy positions and to aid the wounded.

The 10th Armored Division likewise saw some action at this time, and on November 27th, Joseph Haines Clarke, with 10th Armored Division’s 3rd Cavalry, Troop D, was wounded in action.

As the German military was pushed back into Germany and out of lower Europe, German High Chancellor Adolf Hitler began to plan an offensive that would hit allied forces where they were the weakest, between the British and American militaries. Code-named Wacht am Rhein (Watch the Rhine), the planning began in September 1944, with the intention to move out towards Muese, and then to Antwerp.

On December 13th, just days before the German military stepped off their attack on the morning of the 16th, Major Wesley Goddard, ’33, of the 18th Field Artillery Group, was killed, after commanding units in France and Belgium.

Tomorrow, the start of the Battle: December 16th.

Battle of the Bulge: Phase II

On December 17th 1944, from what I can tell so far, the 100th Infantry Division was ordered to the Bastogne, Noville, and Bras areas to stop the sudden attack by German forces. The 28th Infantry division found itself on its second day fighting for its survival as their entire divisional front was under attack, and member of the division, 1st Lt. Carl Hughes of the 102nd Cavalry Recon Squadron continued to make his way through enemy lines. The Battle of the Bulge was in full force in Germany and Belgium, and would continue to rage on for over a month.

The anniversary of the beginning of the battle saw the start of the second phase of my project documenting the Norwich University alumni who fought there. I had hoped to have finished the writing by this point, but that hasn't happened yet, but the research and collection of raw data has largely wound down for the project. From the data that I was able to collect, I've assembled a list of just under a hundred and fifty people from a variety of sources: publications, records, mentions, with thirty people confirmed with sources that they were present at some point, another 73 people who might have been there based on their unit, ten people who can be written off, with a further 30 people who may or may not have been there, but with very little to go on, other than a country reference.

This collection of raw data has some additional bits of information that goes along with each student: their rank, unit, whether they were wounded or killed, what medals they earned, and any other additional notes. As a whole, it's a wealth of information that only tells me a couple of certain points that help lead to the next stage.

Raw data by itself is somewhat useless. I can tell you ten things about Carl Hughes. He was a first lieutenant in the 28th Infantry division with the 102nd Cavalry Recon Squadron, that he graduated from Norwich in 1942, that he received the Bronze and Silver Stars in addition to a purple heart, and that he walked through enemy lines for three days following the attack when his unit was surrounded. The next step involves adding context to the situation.

Going unit by unit, this next step involves adding that context. With it, I've learned that the 28th Infantry Division had taken the first impact of the German advance on December 16th, along a 25 mile stretch that enveloped the division, and that from the 16th through the 22nd, the unit was involved in heavy fighting before pulling back on the 22nd to Neufchateau to reorganize. This additional layer helps to put the individual experiences of the soldiers into better context.

With rare exceptions, student information on their individual experiences during the battle are rare, and in those instances, I have a paragraph at the most, or a brief sentence at the least that indicates that an alum was present at any part of the battle. The additional information as to what the units as a whole were up to help to fill in the blanks and gives me a general idea of what any given student might have been doing at the time. Furthermore, the individual data points that make up Norwich Students on the timeline helps to etch out a clearer understanding of how the battle worked: it was complicated, with numerous fronts, battles and units involved. Approaching the battle from the people who studied at Norwich also helps to demonstrate the impact that Norwich itself played during the battle, much like I discovered with the Operation Overload paper that I wrote in 2007. There was a collective Norwich experience that was widespread throughout the conflict.

This next step is far from done - quick passes through the Army Historical blurbs allow me to pin point some key dates for units, and a second pass will help to put in more detail for some of the larger units, such as the 2nd and 3rd Armored Divisions and the 17th Airborne Division, which seems to have a larger collection of Norwich men within it. With a codified timeline in place, the events of the battle can be put down into more detail, and a larger story of the Battle of the Bulge will appear, seen through the eyes of the school's alumni.

It's an exciting bit of work as I am able to gather more and more information on individual units and to see the battle emerge from the raw data points that I've collected. One thing is for sure so far: Norwich University was present on the front lines (and in one case, above them) and undoubtably, given some of the notations, medals and units that these men earned and occupied, it had some hand in the outcome of the battle, providing a basis for the actions of the men who fought in 1944 and 1945.

Hardwired Historian

As I've begun work on the Battle of the Bulge project, I've found that there have been some major changes in how I'm able to go about researching the event since the spring of 2007, when I did a similar research project on the Normandy Invasion. Since then, computers have become smaller, Norwich University has a campus-wide wireless network, and information on databases has grown.

Over the past couple of weeks, I've been pouring over books and file folders, hunting for references to soldiers who were in a set number of units, dates, locations, specific references to the Battle of the Bulge itself. Four years ago, I brought along a notepad and a couple of pens (or pencils, when I was up in the University Archives), and wrote down every reference that I could find, even the tangential students who might have been in the right area at the right time.

Fast forward to 2010, and the options have changed. Rather than taking a notepad and pen with me, I've been carrying my iPad and iPhone, on which I've been jotting down information as I find it. Slowly, as the lists are growing, I’m planning on taking the information and placing it onto a spreadsheet. While I do this, I’ve tapped into the wireless network, and as I come across soldiers in various units, I’ve discovered that running a quick check against the unit’s history online can help me determine if the soldier is someone I’ve been able to use, as their unit was present at the battle, or if they were somewhere else at the time, either because they hadn’t arrived, or were in another theater of operations altogether.

The move to electronic recording likewise has the benefit of being able to copy and paste my results directly into a spreadsheet, rather than having the extra step of translating my handwritten notes (no small task!) into the spreadsheet. The transfer of data is transferred between two mediums rather than three. (original, handwritten and computer). It allows me to keep information that I transpose intact far more easily than before.

The next step is something I’m thinking of trying: integrating this with Google Docs, which would allow me to keep my data online, accessible from any number of locations. Unfortunately, this isn’t a very practical thing on an iPad (I can’t easily tab between apps, and I don’t have the internet at home), but for some of the research portions, it seems like it would be an excellent thing to use, especially if someone is working with others. In this case, my girlfriend is helping out with some things, and the ability to update the same piece of data, without redundancies, would be helpful when gathering data is put together.

What I’m hoping is that the move to computers, rather than using handwritten notes, will allow me to be more efficient, and thus quicker, with the research that I’m working on. The amount of information that I need to go though: there’s something like five thousand additional files to go through when it comes to deceased students, not to mention the information on the units and after action reports that exist.

This also covers the first large phase of the research: gathering all of the raw data that I’ll need to form the basis of the project. The next step, actually distilling and then writing the report, is already digital: I can’t actually think of a time when I haven’t used a computer to type up a project. Those advantages are well known, and something that I know to work.

The Battle of the Bulge

In 2007, I went overseas to France, shortly after I finished college, to help provide the Norwich University side of things for the battlefield staff ride that we took. The D-Day study (which is partially documented here in the archives) was the final paper that I had written for my undergraduate coursework. Back in May of 2007, I had realized that this was something that I found interesting, and noted that I could easily expand this sort of research to encompass other elements of the European Theater of Operations.

I've largely kept things under my hat lately, but now that I've started, it's something that I can talk more freely about. While I'm not expanding my D-Day paper, I've been asked by Norwich to write another one, and to consult on an upcoming Staff Ride. This time around, I'll be focusing on the Norwich University Students who fought at the Battle of the Bulge at the end of 1944.

The battle, largely regarded as the last credible push on the part of the Germans during the Allied advance towards Germany, was a massive coordinated pushback that trapped U.S. forces behind enemy lines, and slowed Allied efforts in their push towards ending the war. Like in Normandy, Norwich students fought and died there, and occupied a number of positions within the U.S military.

This is a project that I'm very eager to return to, and the research phase has me very excited. This project will be coming in a couple of phases. The first, which I've started, is the research element, and I'm going to be specifically targeting several achieves and sources here at Norwich, starting with the yearbooks (a memorial edition from 1947 was what I tackled today, with very good results), and the Norwich University Record, the alumni paper, two sources that provided an incredible amount of information, along with two archives up on campus, which should provide some additional detailed information and allow me to draw up a roster of possible participants in the battle. From there, cross-checking each soldier's unit based on the historical record and actions of said unit will help to weed out the people who wouldn't have possibly been there. Student X was in Unit Y, but Unit Y didn't arrive into the area until day Z, which was after the battle, for example.

Running parallel to this will be research into the battle itself, looking for specific dates, people, unit actions and the story to which Norwich personnel will be placed. Here, the people I am looking at will be a small and unique look into how the battle went.

Once the research phase is over, the writing will begin, which I'm planning on starting around November, and finishing up by December. January through March/April is a little more fluid, but I'm guessing that I will be editing, fine-tuning and researching small details for the paper, while preparing presentations for the actual staff ride, which will take place in May of next year. Needless to say, I'm flattered and excited for this entire project.

This style of research makes a lot of sense to me, because I can work to connect the actions of the soldiers in the field to an institution that is steeped in history, and link said actions to the overall mission of the school, and provide a historical context and concrete examples of where graduates have changed the world through their actions. (And, some of these soldiers have accomplished incredible things, helping to see through the successes of various operations and actions throughout Norwich’s history.)