John C. McManus, 42
Associate Professor, University of Missouri-Rolla
Why am I a combat historian? Many people have asked me that question. To be honest with you, I ask myself that question all the time. There are, after all, many more pleasant topics for an American historian to address than delving into the terrible realities of modern war. Sometimes it can be difficult to spend your days immersed in studying the horrible waste, bloodshed and tragedy of war and then somehow let all of that go when the day is done. Chuck Johnson, my mentor at the Center for the Study of War and Society at the University of Tennessee, used to say of combat studies:"If it doesn't break your heart, you shouldn't be doing this." Well, it breaks my heart and, yes, that's precisely why I do it. In fact, I am quite passionate about it. That passion began when I first studied World War II as a boy, and it has only grown throughout my professional career.
More than anything else, I am fascinated by ordinary Americans in extraordinary circumstances, and no circumstance is more extraordinary than combat. Everyday Americans are the ones who have fought America's wars. They come from all regions, all creeds, and all races, if not exactly both genders. Studying them is a wonderful vehicle into understanding the American past. I suppose I also cling to the hope that, by understanding war, we can eventually prevent it or at least curtail it significantly.
Regardless of what war we're talking about, nothing more can ever be asked of an American than to risk his life in combat. I believe it is important that we understand, as realistically as possible, what that combat experience entailed, without resorting to flowery euphemisms or political slogans. For those who have fought our wars, the least we can do is remember what they did and understand something about what the experience was really like for them. We should know, for instance, that American combat soldiers in the Battle of the Bulge existed in sub-zero temperatures, dealing with frostbite and the threat of hypothermia. We should know that, at Peleliu, Marines often fought their Japanese enemies at handshake distance, to the death, in one hundred degree heat. We should know that, in Vietnam, an infantry soldier on an average patrol carried seventy pounds of gear, in grinding heat, all while watching out for booby traps or a Viet Cong ambush.
The focus of my teaching and research is to make these realities come to life for the larger analytical purpose of bettering our understanding of American history. Actually, that brings me to the most compelling reason why I study combat. As a modern historian, I've had the precious opportunity to meet and know my sources, from geriatric World War II veterans to college-age soldiers in the Iraq War. My goal is to make sure to collect and tell their stories before they are lost in the mists of time. I encourage them to write down their memories. I conduct personal interviews with them.
Much of my work, of course, is done in such research treasure troves as the National Archives, the United States Army Military History Institute and the World War II Museum in New Orleans, to name only some of my archival haunts. But nothing is more rewarding than melding the after action reports, orders, unit diaries and other official sources I find in these archives with the personal recollections of the soldiers themselves. My books are the product of this mixture of the official and the informal.
Over the years, I've logged a lot of miles in pursuit of my research, archival or otherwise. This has included a wide range of moving experiences--conducting battlefield tours from Normandy to Germany, with many of the veterans who fought in these places; studying the Bastogne area minutely, with the help of an amazingly knowledgeable local expert who lived through the war and lost his home to shellfire; attending more veterans reunions and visiting more military bases than I could ever count; giving an untold number of lectures, gathering many thousands of stories. I've even conducted group after action combat interviews with Iraq War infantry soldiers. What stands out to me about all this is the people I've met and, in some cases, befriended, from guys who jumped into Normandy on D-Day, to Vietnam vets who fought in the anonymity of faraway jungles, to volunteers who repeatedly left their families behind to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan. They did these remarkable things yet they are just ordinary Americans with homes, families, jobs, mortgages and personal problems like everyone else. That's what is truly fascinating about them. I'm simply their storyteller. That's why I do what I do.
By John C. McManus
Another combat airman, writing five decades after the war in a veterans' publication, perhaps expressed best the experiences of American combat airmen in World War II -- and, in so doing, the kind of people these men were:"All air combat crewmen in World War II were the same. We all groaned when the curtain in our briefing room was pulled aside, and the long red ribbon stretching from our bases . . . to the target . . . was revealed. We all grabbed our mikes and our masks and our Mae Wests and heaved ourselves into the throbbing, shaking aluminum tubes of death, which smelled of high-octane gas, cordite, and urine. We all prayed a bit when the flak . . . whomped around us. We all cursed a lot when the fighters slashed in, wings aglow with our death candles. We all grieved for our buddies who didn't make it."
Truly, no greater and more appropriate epitaph to the American combat airman in World War II could ever be written. -- John C. Manus in"Deadly Sky: The American Combat Airman in World War II"
In December 1944, when the Germans launched their last-ditch offensive now known as the Battle of the Bulge, they badly needed to capture the Belgian city of Bastogne as a communications center, supply depot, and springboard for their drive to Antwerp. The city's defense by the 101st Airborne is often cited as the battle's most desperate and dramatic episode, but these heroics never could have happened if not for the unsung efforts of a ragtag, battered collection of American soldiers who absorbed the brunt of the German offensive first along the Ardennes frontier east of Bastogne.
Alamo in the Ardennes tells the powerful, poignant, yet little-known story of the bloody delaying action fought by the 28th Infantry Division, elements of the 9th and 10th Armored Divisions, and other, smaller units. Outnumbered at times by as much as ten to one, outgunned by Hitler's dreaded panzers, and with no hope of reinforcement, they bore the full fury of the Nazi onslaught for five days, making the Germans pay for every icy inch of ground they gained. -- John C. Manus,"Alamo in the Ardennes: The Untold Story of the American Soldiers Who Made the Defense of Bastogne Possible"
About John C. McManus
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