Tuesday, April 23, 2013

503rd PIR in Australia, Yesterday and Today

This post is actually about bringing the hobby of metal detecting and the enjoyment of history closer together. But in honor of Anzac Day occurring this week (and the fact that I'm working on book about the 503rd), I found an illustrative example that includes the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment and their time "down under" training in Australia during WWII.

First, take a moment to think about the relationship between metal detector enthusiasts and archaeologists/historians. My history friends that I've conversed with about relic hunters (two National Park Rangers and an Archaeologist), to put it plainly, did not have a high opinion of "relic hunters." The punishments for getting caught metal detecting on National Park property usually worked its way into the conversation. How is the view from the other direction? I have to assume that most metal detecting enthusiasts do not really understand why so few sites have been examined and what all the fuss is.

This dialogue in my mind came up when I ran across a post on the Society for Historical Archaeology blog about archaeologists and metal "detectorists" coming together in Montpelier. Here's the gist, borrowed from the SHA blog:

In mid March, the Montpelier Archaeology Department completed the first public archaeology program at Montpelier that was open to the general metal detecting public. This program pairs metal detectorists with trained Montpelier archaeology staff to conduct gridded metal detector surveys across a section of the 2700-acre property to locate and identify archaeological sites. This survey work is combined with lectures regarding what archaeology can reveal of sites, human activity, and how it meets the goals of a historic site such as Montpelier. On one level, the purpose of this program is to locate historic sites so they can be preserved. It just so happens that controlled and gridded metal detector surveys are one of the most efficient means of finding a range of sites from ephemeral slave quarters, to barns, and sites characteristically missed by standard shovel test pit surveys.
As you will find out in the article, both sides learned lessons from each other. The dectorists began to feel appreciated in having a valuable skill set gathered over years of pursuing their hobby. Apparently the interaction also went a long way toward convincing the archaeologists the the hobbyists were not the "looters" they were stereotyped to be.

And what, you may ask, does this have to do with the 503rd Parachute Infantry during WWII? Well, in 1942 the 503rd spent about eight months in Gordonvale, Queensland, Australia. They were training there in preparation for their first combat jump, at Nazdab in New Guinea. While writing about this period, I found the most interesting video, posted on YouTube by a member of the NQ Explorers, a group that maintains a blog about their relic and coin hunting trips around Australia. The video is very well done, with newsreel clips about the 503rd as an opener, then a drive through the local area to the site that gives you an idea of what the terrain is like. Next you see the site of the parachute packing sheds is now a park and tennis club. But the  detectorist finds some coins, a shell casing, and a belt buckle in the lawn around the tennis courts.

I thought this hobbyist provided a great service by not only making others aware of the subject, but also letting me get a glimpse of a historic site that I was interested in. I have to criticize the detectorist's historical knowledge, however. I've embedded the video below so you can see for yourself. I had to wonder, would this hobbyist enjoyed his trip more if he had a deeper appreciation for his subject? I'm undoubtedly biased, but I think so. Regardless, good on ya, mate. I appreciate the visit.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Book Review – Death in the Baltic

Death in the Baltic: The World War II Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff by Cathryn J.Prince


If you ask any given person what the worst maritime disaster was in history, (of those who could bring one to mind) you would probably hear about the Titanic, or even the Lusitania. However, I’d say it’s a safe bet that the odds are astronomical that you’ll find someone who knows about the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff. Now author Cathryn J. Prince has brought this story to our attention.

The province of East Prussia is located on the Baltic Sea, between Latvia and a small sliver of Polish territory that allows that country access to the Baltic. Historically, the area was a Polish duchy, but when Poland was divided between Germany and the Soviet Union in their Non-Aggression Treaty of 1939, the territory went to the Nazis. Where before East Prussia was an area of mixed ethnicity, now began a period of "Germanification." The Nazis and the Soviets relocated the civilian population by the hundreds of thousands. Ethnic Germans were expelled from Soviet states and relocated to East Prussia.

East Prussia, having been separated from the rest of Germany during the interwar years, had not been overly influenced by the Nazi rise to power. They were also relatively unaffected by the war until late 1944 when the Red Army started closing in. That all changed when the Soviets began to retake their former territory. Retribution for Germans was terrifying. The anticipated rape and murder by Russian soldiers created a panic to flee the area. However, Hitler would not allow any evacuation of civilians from East Prussia until Russian tanks were literally breaking through the German defensive line. Almost too late, the head of the German Navy, Admiral Karl Donitz, launched Operation Hannibal, the evacuation of both military and civilians across the Baltic to the German port of Kiel.

The goal of Operation Hannibal was to move one million military personnel and two million civilian refugees by ship and/or train from the eastern provinces to northern Germany beginning on January 23, 1945. Over 800 ships, both military and merchant marine, would participate. One of those ships was the Wilhelm Gustloff, a luxury cruise ship launched in 1938. The ship had been previously used as a troop transport, hospital ship, and floating barracks for the German navy. It was designed to carry only 2000 passengers and crew when it operated as an ocean liner.

On the night of January 30, 1945 the Wilhelm Gustloff departed Gotenhafen enroute to Kiel. It was estimated, since no records survived if any were available, that the ship carried over 9,000 souls. The majority were civilian refugees, women and children, and a number of wounded military personnel on board. A short time later, the Wilhelm Gustloff was struck by three torpedoes fired by a Soviet submarine S-13. The ocean liner sunk within an hour. Since there were lifeboats for only a fraction of those on board,  many drowned in the freezing Baltic. There were approximately 1200 survivors. Some estimate the death toll as high as 9,400. For perspective, the sinking of the Lusitania took under 1200 and the Titanic claimed just over 1500 lives.

The sinking was not deliberately kept secret over the years, but it wasn’t exactly publicized either. In post WWII America, not many people cared about what had happened to our former enemies. The ensuing Cold War with the Soviets further obscured the tragedy in the world’s collective memory. Author Cathryn Prince heard about it one day and was driven to find out more. She found a survivor who had since immigrated to Canada. Prince went there to interview him. That’s all it took to compel Prince to find more survivors to interview, and finally tell their story.

Prince articulates an observation that Americans have a tendency to not acknowledge the suffering of the German people during the war, not wanting to view them as having the right to be “victims” of the Nazis like other nationalities in Europe (p. 181). But if we are able to put those prejudices aside, there is a lot to learn in the details of the closing days of WWII in the European Theater. Moreover, as a reader and writer of military history, I think it’s a good thing that we periodically put strategy and tactics aside and examine the experiences of civilians during war.

The book is well written and reads at a good pace. There is no fluff, coming in at 236 pages including back matter, but it is a thorough history. The reader will learn about what happened on the Eastern Front in the closing days of WWII, and be caught up in several of the survivor stories. Photographs of the survivors as children help us see them as real people who went through extraordinary events. In the interest of full disclosure, Palgrave Macmillan provided a review copy of this book. I’m glad they did, as at first glance it was not a subject I would have chosen. However, I highly recommend Death in the Baltic. It is an interesting, well told story that brings a little known event from WWII to light.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Fountain of Youth?

Down in St. Augustine, they are celebrating the 500th Anniversary of Ponce de Leon landing in Florida this week. According to the St. Augustine Record, events during the week-long celebration will include the unveiling of a new statue to the Spanish explorer where historians now believe he landed, a reenactment of said landing, and a wreath laying ceremony at the existing statue of Juan Ponce de Leon in town.

We all learned about Ponce de Leon when we were kids. He was a Conquistador. He "discovered" what is now Florida in 1513. He was looking for the Fountain of Youth, right? Wrong. The waters that reversed aging was a legend, both in Leon's time and in ours. Ponce de Leon was tied to it by his contemporaries and later by our own Washington Irving, probably one of the first of a long line of American writers of fanciful historical fiction. The real story is that most explorers knew where Florida was. Ponce de Leon was the first to claim it for Spain and attempt to explore its interior. He was, of course, looking for gold or certainly some other commodity to exploit. Juan was trying to keep up with his fellow conquistadors who were gaining fame overthrowing Central and South American native societies. On his second trip to Florida, with the intent of setting up a colony, he was wounded in a fight with the locals. He later died of his wounds.

I read the true story of Ponce de Leon in Tony Horwitz' book "A Voyage Long and Strange." I mentioned reading this book back in December 2008. (It was such a good book that I think it's about time to get a copy of it and read it again.) Horwitz describes how we celebrate different groups that "discovered" America, including Vikings in Canada, and explains that what we are celebrating or what we think we know about these groups and events is usually just mythology created by popular culture.

T.D. Allman reminds us of the mythology surrounding the Ponce de Leon story on this benchmark anniversary in an opinion piece in the New York Times (which is also really worth reading). Allman is the author of "Finding Florida: The True History of the Sunshine State." I haven't read his book yet, but I put it on my wishlist, simply based on this op-ed in the NYT. I enjoyed Allman's straightforward language and I assume we also share a frustration with the influence of popular culture.  Allman writes that "If we took the trouble to understand the past, we might stop building our lives on top of sinkholes." In other words, if we don't tell the truth, and we don't take away any lessons, we're going to keep making mistakes. If that is the case, and we're just going to listen to the people making up stories, why do we pay historians to try to find out the truth? And besides, in my opinion the true story is just as exciting, and often more so, than the myth.