It’s one thing for a student to read the history of World War II and imagine the struggles of those who fought. It’s quite another when a student has the opportunity to visit the difficult terrain they dealt with.
This past June, Ashbrook Professor John Moser led a group of eight Ashland University students on a tour of European sites important in the Allied war effort. He coordinated the trip with Professor Eric Pullin of Carthage College, a friend and colleague of Moser’s in Ashbrook’s Master of Arts in American History and Government (MAHG) program. Students from the two colleges started in London, visiting the Cabinet War Rooms where Churchill and others planned the Allied campaign, traveled to Portsmouth, where the D-Day invaders embarked, and continued on to sites in France, Belgium, and Germany.
“You can read about the challenge of scaling the heights at Pointe du Hoc,” Moser said, referring to the Army Rangers who on D-Day climbed the 100-meter cliff to take a key German gun battery and observation point. “It’s a whole other thing to stand at those heights and look down the cliffs and imagine how daunting a task it would have been.”
Moser’s primary research interest is the World War II era; Paradigm Publishers will publish his book, The Global Great Depression and the Coming of World War II, this fall. He taught an undergraduate course on the war during the spring semester. Four of the students in the course chose to deepen their historical understanding by going on the trip. Moser will also be teaching an online MAHG course on World War II in the spring of 2015.
The tour’s itinerary followed the progress of Allied forces as they invaded Nazi Europe from the north. Participants spent several days in Normandy, viewing the beach landing sites, visiting the town of St. Mère Eglise (where the first paratroopers landed), touring the D-Day Museum, and seeing the remains of the “Mulberries”—concrete pontoons shipped from Britain to Normandy after the beaches were won, allowing truckloads of supplies needed by the still-fighting Allies to be unloaded. They walked through the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, where 9,387 American military dead are interred in rows of crosses and Stars of David that form straight lines from any viewing angle.
They visited the Ardennes region of Belgium, site of the fiercely fought Battle of the Bulge—Hitler’s desperate attempt to cut through the Allied attack and claim the harbor at Antwerp. Then they toured Munich, where Hitler began his political career. One student in the group, Ashbrook Scholar and rising junior Kelly Ranttila, remarked that the mingled architectural styles in the city reflected the complicated German memory of the Nazi era. “Some of the buildings destroyed by Allied bombing had been rebuilt in the style of the 17th century and others were frankly modern.”
“My Ashbrook education definitely made me appreciate the sites we visited much more because it brought what I had learned in Dr. Moser’s World War II class to life. Having a history and political science background allowed me to make connections throughout the tour with other areas I have studied. In addition, my background as an Ashbrook Scholar gave me the confidence to talk to and ask questions of locals and tour guides without hesitation,” Ranttila said.
The last stop—the Dachau concentration camp—gave participants an eerie sense of the evil the Allies fought, even though that evil was only fully discovered at the war’s end. “The site feels haunted. People in our group walked around by themselves, not talking,” Ranttila said. Though disturbing, this experience also shows the value of traveling to historical sites.
The Ashbrook Scholar Program is a rigorous and top-rated academic program for undergraduate students at Ashland University and the cornerstone of Ashbrook’s programs for students. Through the study of primary source documents, Ashbrook teaches students in the program what America is and what America represents in the long history of the world.