Previous posts in this discussion:
PostTown to Send Normandy Veteran to D-Day Ceremony (Edward Jajko, USA, 05/17/19 3:57 am)
This was front-page news in the San Jose Mercury News on May 16. Note the relevance of this story to a recent discussion on WAIS.
Martinez WWII veteran to return to France for D-Day ceremony
JE comments: Veteran Jake Larson, 96, not only survived Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge, but also the ill-fated Exercise Tiger rehearsal at Slapton Sands. (WAIS discussed this disaster a couple of weeks ago.)
The 75th anniversary of Normandy (June 6th) will be particularly poignant, as it will be likely be the final time veterans will attend in significant numbers. Let's lift a coffee mug to the customers of Bagel Street Cafe in Martinez (California), for raising the money to send their fellow regular to this historic ceremony.
Jake Larson at Normandy: Do The Facts Line Up?
(Daniel Kowalsky, Northern Ireland
05/18/19 4:02 AM)
On Jake Larson, 96, John E leaves out important achievements in his summary of the article in the East Bay Times (other versions appeared in the SJMN and NYT).
This decorated veteran did much more than survive Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge, and the disastrous Exercise Tiger rehearsal at Slapton Sands. He served in the US 34th Infantry Division and with the 5th Corps where he had high clearance as a typist. He also took part in the liberation of Paris, and was in and out of Luxembourg before noted heroics at the Bulge, where, astonishingly, he seized the initiative and disturbed the sleep of none other than General Leonard Gerow, sounding an alarm that German paratroops were landing nearby. Truly an amazing tour of duty, but does any of it sound remotely plausible? I'm not a bit surprised the army will not be shaken down to fund this man's trip to the circus that will be the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
Larson should change his name to Forrest Gump.
We are told Larson's service records were destroyed almost fifty years ago in a fire, conveniently making it impossible to confirm or deny his self-described tales of always being in the right place at the right time. So that's the end of any inquiry into verification? We're all just to take his word for it, knowing full well that some WWII vets reimagined their combat experiences after reading published memoir accounts and viewing Hollywood treatments? In fact, most vets were very likely to keep their discharge papers--he or his son are not in possession of these? Despite the St Louis fire losses, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has unit records on file, not only with monthly rosters but orders conferring decorations. If only Larson could remember a unit or company name he fought in!
The only specifics he offers is to claim to be the last surviving member of the US 34th infantry division to have been on the beach at Omaha. But the 34th ID was never anywhere near Normandy, having fought entirely in North Africa and Italy. The US 34th also had nothing to do with Paris, Luxembourg or the Ardennes. Has this man actually got wrong the number of his division? I doubt it. Most vets are extremely proud of their division and, if they survive, the division number becomes a basic part of their postwar identity. The only American infantry divisions on the beaches were the US 1st and 29th at Omaha, and the US 4th and 90th at Utah. As for the ship that Larson claims ferried him to Normandy, he's got that wrong, but it's close enough for me: Ancon, not Anconon. Meanwhile, I do not see the distinctive red bull insignia of the 34th ID on his straw hat. The Germans would call that merkwürdig.
The bigger problem comes with this name-dropping: Colonel Hill and especially Gerow. He says he had high security clearances typing up ship embarkation orders for the invasion and was thus placed close to the commanders. Given this, he would not have been risked ashore, would not have alighted the beach as he claims, nor joined soldiers of the US 1st ID climbing the bluffs at Omaha. There are laws of physics involved, which is to say a soldier can only be one place at a time, but there are also practical considerations in theatre: you can be with the generals or you can be on the beaches taking 1200-1800 rounds/minute from a Maschinengewehr 42, but not both. We know that Gerow did not go ashore until late in day--rightly so!
Perhaps everything Larson recounts really happened, but that would have to be verified first with documentation, but, more importantly in my view, with his own connecting stories that include rational explanations and specific unit names. Why would a solider in the US 34th ID, which never got out of Italy, suddenly become a typist in higher HQ in London? Why was this typist then put on a Normandy invasion command ship and then into a first-wave landing craft? And then there's Paris, which certainly deserves a chapter in his forthcoming book.
JE comments: Daniel Kowalsky (Queen's University, Belfast) has broken a record for silence on WAIS. This is his first posting since 2010! So happy to hear from you, Danny. Your comments here give us much to think about.
One might say it's best to let an old-timer revel in his own glorious past--factual or not. But WAIS doesn't shy away from the hard truths. Perhaps Larson has 75% of his story correct, and had 75 years to embellish the rest? Some of the news items mention his extensive collection of medals. Granted, there are militaria shops and eBay...
To my mind, the biggest hole in Larson's story is why would they send a typist to storm the beaches? Wouldn't you need the selfsame typist to write up the grim casualty reports after the invasion?
Jake Larson at Normandy: Valor by Proxy? (from Gary Moore)
(John Eipper, USA
05/19/19 3:58 AM)
Gary Moore writes:
Thanks to Daniel Kowalsky (May 18) for raising the questions
about the Jake Larson story. If Larson, 96, is now being feted for
being at D-Day in Normandy with the US 34th Infantry Division,
though in reality the 34th wasn't even at Normandy, as Daniel
points out, this is a story that deserves questioning.
the 34th seems to have been somewhere between Rome and Livorno
at the time of the Normandy landing, which occurred more than 600
miles northwest--adding weight to other markers in the story:
1) elaborate supposed reasons for why there is no documentation;
2) name-dropping with the narrator advising the mighty; 3) a wealth
of publicly available details that initially seem conclusive and preclude
questioning, and yet begin to show puzzles if questioning does occur.
(I see also that the 34th's initial transport to the European theater in
1942 brought them to Belfast, hence perhaps Daniel, in Belfast now
as I gather it from John E's postscript, is especially positioned to question).
JE tried to walk a fine line on this: "One might say it's best to let an old-timer
revel in his own glorious past--factual or not. But WAIS doesn't shy away
from the hard truths."
So I submit a shaded possibility: Rather than classic
stolen valor, could this be merely routine senescence among coffeeshop
regulars--but suddenly surprising the narrator as third parties become
the aggrandizers and take off on the publicity tear? Stolen valor by proxy?
Or could it be true?
Or does it even matter? Any askers of that last question aren't likely to care
very much about an answer.
JE comments: Gary Moore may be onto something with the "stolen valor by proxy" concept. Did Larson's crowd-funding sponsors enhance his story? Who doesn't relish a close brush with someone who brushed closed with History?
The Jake Larson affair still has me scratching my head. If he is indeed a teller of tall tales, why wouldn't he have picked a division that actually fought at Normandy? This would have taken no more than a few minutes of Googling. And in the pre-Internet days, there was always the encyclopedia.
Jake Larson, Historical Memory, and WAIS
(Edward Jajko, USA
05/20/19 5:31 AM)
On the matter of Jake Larson, I'm sorry I submitted to the knives of WAIS a story that by chance matched the recent discussion on the Slapton Sands incident. That was why I posted it.
A suggestion for Daniel Kowalsky and Gary Moore and anyone else who may be considering posting comments in the same vein as theirs: Jake Larson is no statesman or figure in remote history (or "History"), but a living, breathing human being. If you think there's something fishy about his story, don't confine yourselves to academic discussion on an invitation-only email list. If you feel that Mr. Larson is undeserving of the adulation accorded him, contact the Bay Area News Group. You have an address in the article I posted. Post your objections to the general public and defend them.
US military records were indeed destroyed in a massive fire. I can recall doing some research at the Hoover and running into that brick wall. There was no question of alternate sources in NARA. The records are gone. And as for individuals maintaining their own records, I can attest to a real-life situation of an absence of military records when critically needed, long after the fire.
There are times I am really sorry to have posted to WAIS. I have been preparing a long report based on the reading of foreign press that few if any others in WAIS can or would bother to read. Now, no.
JE comments: It sounds blasphemous to question the record of an old warrior, but Daniel Kowalsky did point out several problems with Mr Larson's account. Is WAIS the appropriate place for this discussion? We are not just a hermetic e-mail list, but also a public forum available for all to see (waisworld.org).
Perhaps the discrepancy is nothing more than the identity of Larson's division at Normandy?
WAIS doesn't shy away from the controversial, and I believe the Larson story raises important questions about how history is remembered and written about. Another important point: what happens when oral history clashes with the written record? It's not always a matter of one being wrong and the other correct. Lyotard and other postmodernists taught us the value of the "petit récit"/small narrative.
Ed, please send us the report you mention in your final paragraph! There are dozens of WAISers who read everything we post, as well as our legions of followers world-wide.
Last Living Confederate and Union Soldiers
(Timothy Ashby, Spain
05/20/19 11:23 AM)
There were about a dozen elderly fellows during the 1950s who claimed to be Confederate veterans. All of these were debunked using military, pension, and especially census records. When I was small boy Life Magazine carried an article about the "last" Confederate veteran, Walter Williams, who died in December 1959. I kept that issue for years, not realising that Williams' clam had been debunked prior to his death (by the New York Times, among others). Nonetheless, the Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans and the state authorities proceeded with an elaborate funeral, no doubt believing that the debunking was a "Damn Yankee" smear campaign.
The last fully documented Confederate veteran was Pleasant Riggs Crump (December 23, 1847 - December 31, 1951) who served in the 10th Alabama Infantry. The last known surviving member of the Union Army was former drummer boy Albert Woolson. The last Yankee combat veteran was James Hard (died 1953) who fought as an infantryman in the 37th New York Volunteer Infantry at the battles of First Bull Run, Antietam, Chancellorsville, and Fredericksburg.
Regardless of the validity of the full range of Jake Larson's experiences during World War II, I have no doubt that he is a veteran and deserves to be honoured as a "living, breathing" (as Ed Jajko says) human who had a role in rapidly receding history.
JE comments: Absolutely. No one was attempting to dishonor Mr Larson. In fact, I'm grateful that his story has brought about a fruitful WAIS discussion.
I'm still at a loss how not one of the Web pieces on Larson (prior to WAIS) raises the question of the 34th Division. A quick check of Wikipedia tells us it was in Italy during the entire Normandy campaign. And in the field of military history, there are hundreds of armchair nit-pickers only too eager to point out these types of errors. Also, how can Larson be the only survivor from a whole division? (US divisions in WWII numbered between 8000 and 30,000 personnel.) There are still over 400,000 living US veterans of the war, out of an original total of 16 million. That's roughly one in 40, which should give a minimum of 200 survivors of the 34th.
- Problems with Oral History: Jake Larson, Tulsa Riot (from Gary Moore) (John Eipper, USA 05/23/19 4:47 AM)
Gary Moore writes:
I think we'll all be the poorer if Ed Jajko decides not to post
the report he's been preparing. I read Ed's posts with great admiration.
As in many oral history controversies, the one now troubling WAIS
involves sensitivities, as Ed has suggested, that outflank the questioner,
presenting a devil's risk: harmless silent collusion or persecutory pain.
It's not the first time oral history has made waves:
In the mid-twentieth century, the still-living memories of the early
twentieth century beckoned, chaotically and reproachfully, to inquirers
into a vast and puzzling historical secret: the disappearance from
iconography--and even public folklore--of the race riots that were
early twentieth-century America's open sore. At mid-century, two of
the academics who bravely tried to remedy this gap, Allen Grimshaw
and Elliott Rudwick, both made choices about oral history. Grimshaw,
delving into the vastness of the 40-block destruction in the Tulsa riot
of 1921, wrote that the many living memories that were then available
(but had been avoided) presented such unreliability that he would base his
study on a proven documentary source, coverage in the 1921 New York Times.
Hindsight shows the pitfalls in this choice, since that coverage can now be
shown to have based itself on rumors and assumptions, centrally on racist
rumors, while various living memories, once consulted, have proved confirmable.
Rudwick made a more detailed study of the East St. Louis riot of 1917, and
wrote that initially he had planned to use living memories as a rich source.
However, he wrote cryptically, so many puzzling factors emerged that he, too,
fell back on contemporary written sources, comprehensively and valuably in
his case, though leaving major riddles that living memories could have
illuminated. In both cases, the problem was not that malleable human memory
and oral history form a "swamp" of useless contradictions, nor, conversely, that
oral history should be credulously idealized as unquestionable--but that wearying
tests and comparisons have to be applied if one wishes to begin distinguishing the
one from the other. This is different from questioning an informal inspirational moment
in a coffee shop, which may well be valid, but the mysteries converge. Rudwick hinted at
the pitfalls he found, but it can be said more directly from long experience that personal
memories, especially of epochal and shocking events long past, can do things that
seem flatly inexplicable.
In World War II, on the one hand, field historian Forrest Pogue
was on a landing ship interviewing the wounded, and Lt. Col. S.L.A. Marshall collected
valuable interviews shortly after the fighting. But on the other, Cornelius Ryan, author
of The Longest Day, complained, after massively numerous interviews of combat survivors:
“I discovered that interviewing is not reliable. I never found one man who landed on Omaha
Beach who could tell me whether the water was hot or cold."
This is the swamp of reality-construction that our discussion has wandered into, drawn by
the intellectual magnet of curiosity, indispensable or insensitive, somewhat as when curiosity
is drawn fumblingly toward the mysteries of religious faith. And perhaps not so far removed.
JE comments: Isn't the water at Normandy always cold? But temperature shock probably doesn't exist when the bullets are whizzing about.
The choice between harmless collusion or persecutory pain--Gary Moore has summed up our dilemma perfectly.
Oral History is Often the Only History of the Vanquished
(Eugenio Battaglia, Italy
05/23/19 9:55 AM)
This is becoming an interesting discussion about oral history.
I believe the best example of the importance of oral history is Japan after WWII. In 1945 the Vice-Emperor of the great democratic empire, the "White Mikado" Douglas MacArthur, forbade the teaching of history for ten years followed by another twenty years of an imposed politically correct history. For this reason, real history could be researched only orally. The history of the Far East most of the world knows is probably far from the truth.
A strange thing: who knew that the first Allied casualty during WWII was the British corporal who on 24 December 1939 fell from his motorcycle?
JE comments: Under US occupation, Japanese schools were forbidden from teaching history, geography, and "morals" until the traces of nationalism could be eliminated. Did a similar thing occur in the Western sectors of Germany?
There were plenty of Polish casualties prior to December '39--they don't count as Allies?
Oral History: Magrini, Albertini and the Balkans (from Gary Moore)
(John Eipper, USA
05/24/19 4:35 AM)
Gary Moore writes:
With Eugenio Battaglia's (May 23) thoughts on oral history, we might well remember
how Eugenio seems to have mentioned (Didn't he? My memory feels so clear on this)
the Italian historical researcher Luciano Magrini, who, as it turns out, produced the
classic test case.
Not yet knowing, in 1937, that World War I would reach out and convulse a century
(its ashes soon to produce World War II and the Cold War), Magrini nonetheless
traveled to the Balkans for firsthand oral history reports on how the 1914 Guns of
August had really started--in the assassination crucible at Sarajevo. Magrini interviewed
"every surviving figure with a known link to the Sarajevo conspiracy." And then, figuratively,
he scratched his head. "He found that there were some witnesses who attested to matters
of which they could have no knowledge, others who remained dumb or gave a false account
of what they know, and others again who ‘added adornments to their statements or were
mainly interested in self-justification.’”
Or, wait. Have I misremembered, and it was actually Albertini who Eugenio mentioned,
since it was Albertini who sent Magrini, to gather interviews for The Origins of the War in 1914?
Oh, well, I do distinctly remember that somebody, somewhere in all this, seemed "mainly
interested in self-justification."
JE comments: I don't recall Eugenio Battaglia mentioning Magrini (and a scouring of the WAIS written record confirms this). Hall Gardner in 2017 did cite Albertini as the "best source on the origins of the war"--i.e., the assassination in Sarajevo:
I always found it ironic that Gavrilo Princip, the young man who sparked an apocalyptic war, died of natural causes (tuberculosis, in 1918).
- Oral History vs Written History (Timothy Brown, USA 05/23/19 2:44 PM)
Written history is just one version of history. Oral history is another--history as viewed by the vast majority of individuals who do not, or cannot, by the millions, read or write. Neither is exclusively true nor necessarily false.
While I was a Marine NCO, I came away from my 1956-59 years as an Embassy Guard in Managua (and the Costa Rican beauty who is still my wife of 60 years) with one understanding of Nicaragua.
From 1987 through 1990, by then a senior Foreign Service Officer working as the US government's Senior Liaison Officer to the Nicaraguan Democratic Resistance in Central America, I came away with another.
Between the two I'd served as a Marine linguist (Thai and Spanish) in Southeast Asia, then as an FSO in Israel, Spain, Vietnam, Mexico, Paraguay, El Salvador, the Netherlands, in Washington as Deputy Director of US-Cuba Affairs, Desk Officer for Paraguay/Uruguay and Acting Political/Economic Director of US relations with the EU, NATO and IDB, and as Consul General in Martinique, four years as Senior Liaison in Central America to the Nicaraguan Democratic Resistance (five armed forces, not just one, plus a civilian resistance movement). I ended my diplomatic career as the State Department's Border Research officer in Las Cruces, New Mexico working mostly on the original NAFTA.
I then retired from the Foreign Service, went back to school and did a multi-disciplinary PhD. It took me seven years to research and write my PhD dissertation on Nicaragua's so-called "Contra War," the subject I felt I knew the most about, since published by U Oklahoma Press as The Real Contra War: Highlander Peasant Resistance in Nicaragua, a 2003 Foreign Policy Editor's Pick and published a few articles in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Times, Policy Studies Review, the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences and elsewhere.
But, since every war, conflict or just plain argument has at least two sides and usually a few dozen more, each being declared by its proponent as "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth" by someone that believes beyond a shadow of a doubt that they have a better understanding of events than anyone else, I went "Revolutionary" hunting, befriended a number of top-level former Latin American revolutionaries, and produced another book, When the AK-47s Fall Silent (Hoover) with a foreword by Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, that begins with five chapters by Marxist Cold War armed revolutionaries and four "Contra" guerrilla leaders that, to their surprise and mine, wound up loudly asking one another time after time--Marxists asking Contras and Contras asking Marxists--the same "question" in front of the TV cameras and international press: "¡Hijo de Puta! Why Did We Ever Fight?"
I go into the detail above for a reason. Neither written nor oral history ever tells all of the story, nor is either necessarily any more accurate than the other or tells the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The most profligate writer, brilliant professor or loudest talker, no matter how much they say, think or write, ever knows everything, no matter how much they think, and loudly assert, that they do.
JE comments: "Two sides and usually a few dozen more": this is the wisest/WAISest thing I've heard in a long time, Tim!
WAIS in a sense bridges the gap between written and oral history. Much of our deepest insight comes from the chatty comment, the personal experience, or (best of all) the first-hand account of historical events.
- Oral History: Abraham Lincoln (Tor Guimaraes, USA 05/24/19 4:05 AM)
I was amazed to find out that most of the information about Abraham Lincoln's childhood and early adult life were ignored by scholars because the perhaps hundreds of personal interviews with acquaintances, friends, and relatives were deemed unreliable word of mouth.
After Abe was President, one of his personal friends decided that there was too much hype and myth about the great man, and that a more truthful human side of the President needed to be told. Some people thought it might degrade Abe's heroic image. They were wrong. The personal side provided a more human and truthful perspective as his friend expected.
Further, scholars now agree that the "word of mouth" has been corroborated by different people who knew the President up close and personal. The transcriptions of the personal interviews are now taken more seriously by scholars.
JE comments: Lincoln didn't really have a heroic image until after his assassination/martyrdom. At that time, hundreds of "intimate acquaintances" from his early years probably came forward to tell their stories. Self-aggrandizement and self-justification are often more powerful motivators for oral historians than the desire to reach a historical truth.
History has been made today: As WAISer Tim Ashby predicted 24 hours ago, Britain's prime minister has resigned. Is there any possible successor other than Boris Johnson?
- Oral History vs Written History (Timothy Brown, USA 05/23/19 2:44 PM)
- Oral History: Magrini, Albertini and the Balkans (from Gary Moore) (John Eipper, USA 05/24/19 4:35 AM)
- Problems with Oral History: Jake Larson, Tulsa Riot (from Gary Moore) (John Eipper, USA 05/23/19 4:47 AM)
- Last Living Confederate and Union Soldiers (Timothy Ashby, Spain 05/20/19 11:23 AM)
- Jake Larson, Historical Memory, and WAIS (Edward Jajko, USA 05/20/19 5:31 AM)
- Jake Larson at Normandy: Valor by Proxy? (from Gary Moore) (John Eipper, USA 05/19/19 3:58 AM)