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Post Jake Larson, Historical Memory, and WAIS
Created by John Eipper on 05/20/19 5:31 AM

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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.


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  • 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.

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  • 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.


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    • 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?

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      • 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:


        https://waisworld.org/go.jsp?id=02a&objectType=post&o=95967&objectTypeId=79049&topicId=123


        I always found it ironic that Gavrilo Princip, the young man who sparked an apocalyptic war, died of natural causes (tuberculosis, in 1918).


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    • 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.

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    • 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?


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