Military History

Lecture Review – “Jungle of Weeds to War” by Melissa Ziobro

Who would have thought a luxury hotel and a racetrack could eventually become a military base? Sure enough, it happened. Well, it occurred on land once occupied by those paragons of pleasure. I heard the full story this August 7th.

The Historical Society of Moorestown presented the second outdoor installment of its History Speaks lecture series. Historian Melissa Ziobro delivered her “Jungle of Weeds to War” address in the garden at Smith-Cadbury Mansion. The speech focused on the history of Fort Monmouth.

The facility opened in order to train soldiers to fight in the First World War. The professor began her remarks with a brief overview of why the United States entered the conflict. She explained that Americans felt a stronger kinships with the people of the United Kingdom and France. Both those countries practiced democratic forms of government. Authoritarians led nations such as the German Empire, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire which comprised the Central Powers.

The United States viewed the war as an encroachment on its trading rights. Belligerents employed different means of deterring them.  British and French vessels turned US ships back towards North America. German vessels preferred to sink them. The German sinking of the Lusitania, in which some New Jersey natives died, played key role in the nation’s path to war. Germany’s ill-advised offer to help Mexico regain the Southwest cemented it.

The professor then expatiated upon a topic she knew well: the history of Fort Monmouth. “From Jungle of Weeds to War” proved an interesting subtitle. The base may have had the most interesting origins of any military facility anywhere. From the 1870s and into the 1890s a luxury hotel and a racetrack occupied the land.  A moralistic crusade against gambling at the close of the nineteenth century proved a boon for the army a little over a decade later. For a $75,000 lease agreement, the military obtained a facility accessible by good stone roads; a rarity at the time. The area allowed for ease of access to both water and a railway station. The port city of Hoboken was also nearby.

The base located at the old Monmouth Park Racetrack began its new purpose as Camp Little Silver. The base became a training ground for communications specialists. Perhaps that’s what inspired the army to rename it Camp Alfred Vail. The namesake hailed from New Jersey and worked with Samuel Morse.

During the war, the camp gave to the community and the community gave back. The facility paid higher wages than private businesses. Soldiers spent their earnings in the local towns. The troops even put on vaudeville shows for civilians. In return, some of the most talented people in the region worked at the base. As an interesting expression of gratitude, the Long Branch Elks club donated a barrel of tobacco to it.

Thanks to the base’s success, the US Government decided to make its use of the facility more enduring. In 1919 it purchased the land for $115,000.

In 1925, the military renamed the base once more this time calling it Fort Monmouth. Due to the facility’s continued focus on communications technology, it earned the unofficial title “Home of the Signal Corps” through the Vietnam War.

The facility that played such a significant role in the twentieth century wouldn’t endure long into the twenty first. The Base Realignment and Closure Commission opted to close it. The army reassigned Fort Monmouth’s personnel to the Aberdeen Proving Ground in 2011.

Fortunately for local history buffs, Professor Ziobro opted to remain in New Jersey. While working as the Professor of Public History at Monmouth University, Professor Ziobro also edits New Jersey Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal. She served as a Command Historian at the US Army Communications-Electronics Command at Fort Monmouth, NJ from 2004 until 2011.

Thanks to the professor’s work, Fort Monmouth’s legacy will long outlive the actual base. I can take the luxury of writing: in homage to the land’s original use, that’s not an optional claimer.

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Lecture Review – Richard J. Connors, Ph.D.: New Jersey and the Great War

Richard J. Connors opened his remarks with perhaps the most unusual preface to a talk regarding warfare: he spoke about love. The man whose death ignited the Great War, Archduke Ferdinand, married for love. The professor then informed his audience that he “falls in love easily” when he addressed the Historical Society of Moorestown. The erudite gentleman explained that he’d fallen in love with the host town upon visiting. Those interested in history certainly loved his talk this October 5th at the Community House.

Dr. Connors holds the title of Professor Emeritus as Seton Hall University. A catalog of his notable works includes: A Cycle of Power: The Local Political Career of Mayor Frank Hague, The New Jersey Constitution of 1776 and New Jersey and the Great War; the latter serving as the basis for his lecture. In addition to writing about military affairs, the professor possesses personal knowledge of the subject. He served as an officer in the Army Corp of Engineers with the Army of Occupation in Okinawa in 1947. From 1951 – 1952 he served in the Korean War.

The professor commenced his talk by describing the European conception of warfare at the advent of the Great War. Until the beginning of the nineteenth century, “royal affairs” between rival kingdoms comprised armed conflicts. The Napoleonic Era spawned a transition to “quick and dirty affairs” between nation states. This led planners to anticipate a brief First World War. This miscalculation gave rise to “total warfare.” Conscription allowed for an “army of millions” to take the field against an opponent of equal size. In the end, the conflict led to 30 million soldier and civilian casualties.

Many technological innovations occurred during the 99 years following Napoleon’s defeat until the first shots of the Great War. Tanks, aircraft, flamethrowers, barbed wire, heavy artillery, poison gas and machine guns entered the battlefield for the first time. Many historians cite these developments as reason for the massive loss of life during the war. Dr. Connors added an incisive corollary to that analysis: these weapons “gave a lot of emphasis to the defense.” This would explain why the British suffered nearly 60,000 casualties on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

Dr. Connors enlightened the audience regarding the role the Garden State played in the war. He used the old real estate aphorism “location, location, location” to explain its significance. New Jersey housed several munitions plants; an industry which experienced a boom (no pun intended) once the war commenced. The state’s refineries also provided a source of fuel for the Allies. Cites, such as Camden, became centers of ship building.

To local history buffs’ delight, Dr. Connors also discussed the 78th and 29th Infantry Divisions. Both units included soldiers from New Jersey. Camp Dix served as the training ground of the former and Camp McClellan for the latter. The professor noted the interesting fact that although located in Alabama, a former Garden State governor and Union general provided that base’s name.

When contemplating wartime casualties, one traditionally thinks of injuries sustained in combat. Dr. Connors reported that flu and pneumonia proved more deadly than the battlefield. According to a study conducted in the early 1930s: Americans suffered 52,000 casualties in battle. The twin scourges of Flu and pneumonia combined for 63,000.

America’s declaration of war on April 2, 1917 led to an eruption of patriotism “overnight.” That seemed an odd, as when asked why the US entered the conflict the professor replied, “Damned if I know.” He went on to hypothesize that the nation did so for the following reasons: 1) while initially ‘neutral’, American financiers such as JP Morgan bankrolled the Allies from 1914 – 1917. These economic ties ensured entering the conflict against the Central Powers. 2) Unrestricted German submarine warfare negatively impacted American business interests. 3) The Zimmerman Note, in which Germany offered to assist Mexico in retaking the American Southwest, became widely reported. Dr. Connors added that both the British and Germans propaganda machines operated stateside during the war. The British possessed more skill in this field due the shared language.

Josef Stalin observed: “The death of one man is a tragedy, the deaths of millions is a statistic.” Many historians neglect the human cost of the tragedies they explicate. Dr. Connors avoided this error. He humanized the Great War’s cost by quoting a poem written by New Jersey native Joyce Kilmer: himself a casualty of the conflict.

A discussion that began with the subject of love concluded with its antithesis. At the cessation of hostilities “a demand for peace turned to a demand for revenge.” It became the catalyst for an “age of bigger government.” As Dr. Connors wrote in New Jersey and the Great War: “Subtly and sadly, then, the Great War trained us for World War II.”

In Support of Freedom

On June 6, 1944 the combined forces of the United States, Great Britain and Canada stormed the Normandy beaches of France. The object of this endeavor wasn’t simply to defeat Nazi Germany, but to defend the very concept of freedom itself. We owe the combined air, sea and land forces of the Allied forces an immense debt of gratitude for what they did for us that day.

American historian Daniel Walker Howe once wrote, “When looking back at the past, things have an air of inevitability about them.” To put it generously, victory on D-Day was uncertain at best. Landing craft faced stormy seas crossing the English Channel. The logistics of coordinating an invasion this complex without the benefit of computers or satellite technology astonishes the modern mind. Upon reaching the European mainland forces then had to contend with Hitler’s ‘Atlantic Wall’ defenses. General Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, even drafted a statement taking personal responsibility for the Allied defeat.

The fact that I have the freedom to write this and you have the freedom to read it shows that D-Day succeeded.

While drinking my morning coffee I reflected on this pivotal point in human history. I recalled the many afternoons I spent with my grandfather, Jack McKeon. He served in the 79th Infantry Division during the Second World War. Among the liberating forces, his unit was the second of what would become Lieutenant-General George Patton’s Third Army. While the “Cross of Lorraine” division didn’t take part in the initial landings, it did deploy in France on 12 June.

Several years ago on 6 June I told my grandfather’s story to a navy veteran with whom I work. Since my grandfather didn’t enter the fight on D-Day the man joked, “He had it easy!” Mr. McKeon and his two Purple Hearts would’ve disagreed.

While remembering my grandfather’s war stories I thought it sad so few WWII vets remain. I felt how nice it would be to thank one for his/her service on the 71st anniversary of D-Day. Just then an elderly African-American gentleman entered the café. The man wore a baseball cap with the words WWII Veteran embroidered on the front.

I thanked him for his service. He kindly smiled and shook my hand. “If it wasn’t for the support of people like you, we wouldn’t have made it,” he said.

I speak with a lot of veterans. They’re always very appreciative of the recognition, but this man’s comments really surprised me. I recall my grandfather telling me about the racism in the military during the 1940’s. All Americans know the social climate that existed here prior to the Civil Rights movement. It made me contemplate what kind of homecoming this veteran received upon returning from the war.

I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to thank a World War II veteran today. If you don’t happen to encounter someone who served in that conflict, there are plenty of veterans around. When you see one, please let them know how much you appreciate their service to our country.

Let us never forget: without the support of people like them on 6 June 1944, our freedom wouldn’t have made it.

Book Review – The Great War by Peter Hart

The First World War is a virtually forgotten conflict in the United States. In fact, if there hadn’t been a World War II, I doubt many people would know it even took place. In The Great War, historian Peter Hart rectified this through an outstanding narrative history. He detailed many theaters of war on both land and sea. Utilizing primary sources including journals and letters from combatants on both sides of the conflict he gave readers a first-hand view. He varied his information in that he presented writings from generals in the high command to those of front line soldiers. This variety along with his detailed analyses greatly enhanced my understanding of the war.

This August will mark the 100th anniversary of the war’s advent making the book’s publication rather timely. The title came from the war’s original name. As Mr. Hart showed throughout the book, the First World War led to many military innovations. He described the devastating power of machine guns, tanks, aircraft and poison gas. These new weapons combined with outdated strategies led to casualty figures that still stagger the mind today.

…It is shocking to record that some 27,000 Frenchmen died on 22 August alone. This was an almost unprecendented slaughter in the long history of warfare. (Page 46)

He added the following observation of the same campaign.

French casualties during these failed offensives exceeded 200,000, of which over 75,000 were dead in just a few days of desperate fighting. (Page 48)

Of course, he cited the 57,470 casualties of which 19,240 soldiers the British lost on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. (Page 224)

Joseph Stalin once said that, “One death is a tragedy, but a million deaths is a statistic.” Hart understood that. He populated his narrative with letters home from common soldiers who didn’t survive the war. He related the following from a soldier to his wife and infant daughter.

I must not allow myself to dwell on the personal – there is no room for it here. Also it is demoralizing. But I do not want to die. Not that I mind for myself. If it be that I am to go, I am ready. But the thought that I may never see you or our darling baby again turns my bowels to water…My one consolation is the happiness that has been ours. (Page 218)

Captain Charles May wrote these words on the day before his death during the Battle of the Somme. “Small scale tragedies litter the history of war: sad reminders that the necessities of war ruin the lives of millions.” (Page 219) As horrible as this and other stories like it were to read, I appreciated the way Hart humanized the horrors of battle.

Hart also took a more modern view of the generals’ conduct during the conflict. The myth of the “chateau generals” has passed into popular folklore.  Hart explained how commanders such as Foch and Haig recognized the changing nature of warfare. They did their best to adapt their tactics to accommodate for it. I thought it very enlightening how the author pointed out that “the nature of coalition warfare” (or politics) forced generals to engage in battles that shouldn’t have been fought. It’s tough to blame the commanders who did the best they could in an impossible situation.

Hart presented commentary from soldiers and officers on both sides of the conflict. I thought his narrative would’ve been bolstered if he’d included sources from civilians. As he wrote, approximately 950,000 civilians died due to military actions during the war. Another 5,893,000 died from war-related famine or disease. (Page 468) I would’ve liked to hear non-combatants’ thoughts on this “war to end all wars.”

My Great-Grandfather Mike Stephany fought for the Americans in the First World War. In fact, I have a photo of him with his company across from my desk as I’m writing this. Since a close relation of mine served in the conflict I’ve always been curious to learn more about it. As Pop Mike passed away fourteen years before my birth, I never had the chance to ask him. Whenever I visit his grave at Beverly Memorial Cemetery I’m in awe of the rows and rows of markers that dot the landscape. Crafters of foreign policy must make many decisions. Whenever I look around the cemetery I’m reminded of the high cost that incurs when they make the wrong ones. I thank Peter Hart’s The Great War for making that point terribly clear.

 

The Keegan Next Door

We always hear these stories about living next door to an unassuming person with a mysterious secret: one that makes you say, “I can’t believe it! I’ll never look at that person the same way again!” I’ll let you in on a little secret about me. This will be just between us, so don’t tell anybody, but I just might be the Keegan next door. While I don’t claim to have the same depth or breadth of knowledge as the great military historian Sir John Keegan, I just might have some interesting tidbits of information about the subject that I gleaned from, of all things, my research into my own family genealogy. I’ll share some of them with you.

It’s always amazed me the wealth of genealogical information a person can find just looking around his/her attic. My Great-Grandfather, Mike Stephany, served in the First World War. I found a lot of information about his service without leaving the house. I have the pair of binoculars he used while serving in combat. When I was a kid I felt privileged that I was the only person my own age who had an actual pair of them. It wasn’t until I got older that I began to really appreciate the genuine historical artifact they were. His unit number “313 F(ield) A(rtillery)” is stamped on the case. It’s a very interesting and humbling experience to hold something that he used while serving our country in combat.

While the binoculars are nice, the real mother lode is a book published in 1920 that my great-grandfather owned. It’ called A History of the 313th Field Artillery, U.S.A. This was an absolute treasure trove for me as a military historian/genealogist. The chapters were written by various officers who served in the unit. It provided a very graphic account of what day-to-day life was like for the men of the 313th Field Artillery. It’s still in print today if you want to check it out. There are several books with a similar title. Col. Charles Herron is one of the authors of this one. I’d recommend it to fans of Sir John Keegan’s The Face of Battle. It also features numerous pictures that show the lugubrious desolation of the French landscape during the Great War. Aside from the first hand information about military history, there is a section in the back that lists everyone who served in the unit. This is the part where I learned that my great-grandfather was promoted to Private First Class on the very last day of the war! (November 11, 1918)

Another artifact I have is my maternal grandfather’s, Jack McKeon’s, helmet that he wore during the Second World War. I also have his Purple Heart. When people see the helmet, they don’t need to ask me why he received it. The helmet has an entry and exit wound. The metal exterior is just as mangled today as it was when my grandfather was hit in 1944. I remember him telling me the story of why he still had the helmet. He said that when he was wounded the army told him to turn in the helmet so they could give him a replacement. He refused. Since the helmet saved his life, he insisted on finishing the war with it. When my grandfather said something it wasn’t open for discussion, so the army relented and let him keep the helmet. When the war was over and my grandfather received his discharged stateside, the ordinance officer told my grandfather to give him the helmet as it was the property of the U. S. Government. My grandfather answered by saying that army told him to turn in the helmet when he was wounded due to the damage. That convinced my grandfather that the army felt the helmet lacked value and didn’t have any need for it, anyway. He demanded to keep it. Today that helmet is sitting on my bureau.

There’s another lesson I picked up from my combination of military history with genealogy: I mentioned that my grandfather told stories. One of his favorite topics of conversation was his experience in the Second World War. I remember when I was a teenager who loved history, I’d walk the mile over to his house and listen to him tell me all about it. Looking back over that now, it’s amazing how something like history can being together people two generations apart. My grandfather also had a book about the history of the unit he served in during the Second World War. (He served in the 314th Regiment of the 79th Infantry Division for you history buffs out there.) I inherited it when he passed away twenty five years ago. I’ve read countless books on military history, but in all this time, I’ve never read that one. In retrospect, maybe I liked spending time with him more than I liked hearing his war stories.

I don’t claim to be the next Sir John Keegan—his blog is certainly more popular, ahem–, but I have learned a number of things about military history that most people don’t know simply by looking at artifacts in my own possession. If you’re interested in the subject, take a look around your home. You probably have a number of unique items with a story to be told. They could very well be things you see every day. (As I’m writing this from my father’s office I’m looking at my dad’s medals from the Viet Nam War. He has the South Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry and the Army Commendation Medal among others.) If you take the time to tell that story who knows: in a couple of years people won’t be calling you the Keegan Next Door they just might be calling the next military historian the you next door.