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Dr. Thomas Conner On The American Military Cemeteries Abroad on Veterans’ Day Week

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HH: Special Hillsdale Dialogue this week with Dr. Thomas Conner from the Hillsdale College. All of the Hillsdale Dialogues are available at Everything that Hillsdale does is available online at You can sign up for the free speech digest, Imprimis, at But this is a special week. It’s Veterans Day week. Now I spent Wednesday talking with the wounded warriors, the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund, but today we want to look a little more broadly at the sacrifice of veterans over the years. No better guy to do that with than Dr. Thomas Conner, who holds the William P. Harris chair in military history at Hillsdale College. He’s been teaching history there for three decades. He teaches courses on the world wars, on French and Russian history, on the 19th and 20th Century European adventures, basically everything. He got his graduate degree from Elizabethtown College, his M.A. and PhD from UNC-Chapel Hill, so he doesn’t know anything about basketball. He has been three times the professor of the year at Hillsdale, which takes some doing. And he’s been named among the 300 best professors in the United States by the Princeton Review. Dr. Conner, welcome to the program, good to have you, Doc.
TC: Great to be back with you, Hugh, thanks for asking me.
HH: Now I am curious about how you came to get interested in the American Battle Monuments Commission about which you are writing right now.
TC: When I was a graduate student at UNC back in the 70s, well, I had a student year in Paris to do research on my PhD dissertation. That took me to France, and a lot of our overseas cemeteries are in France. And really, from the first moment I began visiting those sites that the American Battle Monuments Commission maintains, I saw not just how beautiful and well-maintained they were, but I was very impressed with everything about them, right down to the personnel, how forthcoming, welcoming they were, and just how emotionally moving the sites were. And I mean, I can’t get enough of going back and revisiting them. And I had taken student groups there periodically since the late 70s as well. And I’ve gotten to know a lot of the cemetery personnel. And since I’ve started working on this book seven or eight years ago, I’ve gotten to know a number of the headquarters personnel in the Washington office, too. And it’s just a wonderfully-run government agency with a very special, even hallowed mission.

HH: Now you know, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone from Hillsdale say a wonderfully-run government agency before. That’s a first, Doc.

TC: Well, I’m well aware of that, Hugh.

HH: Okay, so tell us about the ABMC. Who runs it? How big is it? And how many of these monuments are there worldwide?

TC: Well, there are 25 cemeteries worldwide that the ABMC maintains, 22 of them are World War I and World War II cemeteries. I mean, not both together, but there are 8 World War I cemeteries, 14 World War II cemeteries. There are 11 World War I monuments that are in France and Belgium, as well as there’s one in Gibraltar, actually, to commemorate naval activity that we did jointly with the British Navy in the First World War. There is a scattering of other memorials. There are actually a couple of ABMC memorials in the United States. One is an East Coast memorial commemorating the departure point for a lot of our troops who went to serve in Europe. That’s in Battery Park, New York City. There’s a West Coast memorial in the Presidio in San Francisco. So there’s a scattering, and I think altogether, about 35 or 40 sites are worldwide. It’s one of the smallest federal agencies. It’s independent. The leadership of ABMC reports directly to the president of the United States. There’s no departmental connection there, and it’s been in being since 1923. There are about 400 employees today, and they do their wonderful work of remembrance and commemoration on a budget of usually less than $100 million dollars a year.

HH: Now I have been to one, I know for sure. I’ve not been to Normandy. Normandy is on my bucket list. But I have been to the Florence American Cemetery and Memorial, and I was deeply moved. We hired a guide for the day. The Fetching Mrs. Hewitt and I, and he said have you been to the American cemetery? I said no, I don’t know what it is. He took me out there, and he explained to me that every anniversary of the liberation of Florence, the people of Florence go out and honor the American dead who lie there in repose, and at extraordinary beauty. Is that the same impact everywhere that these are?

TC: Yes, it is, every place that I have any familiarity with, Hugh, and I’ve been to just about every cemetery. The only two cemeteries that I have not visited would be the one in Tunisia, and the one in Manilla, both World War II cemeteries. But that’s one of the most fascinating, frankly, things about these sites, how revered they are by the host nationals. And this is especially true in France. I mean, Americans are kind of coached, I think, or we coach ourselves to think that there’s a certain amount of enmity on the part of French people toward us. But it certainly doesn’t show in the neighborhood of these sites, because they come out in the hundreds, even the thousands, on commemorative occasion, whether Armistice Day, or an anniversary of a particular liberation like you experienced at Florence. Memorial Day is usually the largest of the annual commemorative ceremonies at all the cemeteries, and the D-Day anniversary for the World War II cemeteries is also a big moment. But it’s, in the main, it is citizens of the host countries that attend these ceremonies.

HH: I’m talking with Dr. Thomas Conner, the William P. Harris chair on military history at Hillsdale College, and an expert on the American Battle Monuments Commission. Tell me about how, are they happenstance? Is Florence where it is because they needed a cemetery? We know why Normandy is where Normandy is, but how did they come to be placed where they are?

TC: Well, a principle was established in the aftermath of World War I, Hugh, when the first permanent American cemeteries were selected, the sites for them were selected, and the principle that is maintained at just about every one of the cemeteries is that the dead be buried on a field, a battlefield where Americans fought and died. So the siting is not accidental. It’s quite deliberate. Now I don’t know the history in detail of the Florence American Cemetery, but I’m guessing that at the end of World War II, as the Italian campaign was wrapping up, there may well have been a temporary cemetery on the site that was made permanent to be the site that you visited, and that any American, anybody can visit to this day. At the end of each war, the families who lost soldiers were given the option of an overseas burial or the body being returned at government expense.

HH: Oh, you’re anticipating my question. I was wondering how it was chosen. By families? So some families said let my son, and sometimes daughter, lay where they fell?

TC: Yes, exactly, and the really interesting thing about the distribution, how many families decided that they wanted their loved one brought home versus how many decided to leave him or her in an overseas cemetery, it was 61% wanted them brought home at the end of each war, Hugh. The choice was made in exactly the same proportion – 61% brought home, 39% of those killed abroad remain in permanent American cemeteries abroad.

HH: Does the ABMC also do anything with, is it only post-World War I conflict? Or do they reach back in time to Gettysburg and places like that as well?

TC: No, the ABMC was established in 1923, and it is quite logical that it should have been this way. The national cemeteries in our country today are maintained by a combination typically of Veterans Administration, Army, and in some cases, the Park Service. That’s true of Arlington, for example, but there are three government agencies that deal with those cemeteries. The ABMC had the specific mission of creating first and now maintaining and preserving overseas cemeteries, because the First World War was the first really large overseas war that the United States fought. We lost 75 or 80,000 dead during the fighting in Europe in World War I, and that created a problem for the government. All the bodies were abroad, and when the war was over, and then the question is well, where are we going to inter all these soldiers permanently? And there was actually quite a bit of discussion within the government. Some were advocating either bringing them all home, or leaving them all overseas. But the decision was made by Secretary of War Newton Baker in the administration of President Wilson that the families would be given the choice.

HH: Wow, fascinating. I’ll be right back…

—- – – – –

HH: I believe you’re writing this book, Doc. What’s the title of it going to be and what’s its expanse going to be about?

TC: I’m trying to cover the entire history of the agency, Hugh, from its creation in 1923. Actually, I go all the way back to the end of the First World War when this dilemma faced the United States government of what to do with the bodies of our dead soldiers from the European conflict. But I want to bring it all the way up to the present, although the intensity of my coverage, let’s say, is kind of diminishing as we get closer and closer to the present. I’m more interested, really, in telling the story of the first generation of the existence of the agency, when the World War I monuments were built than of course, since they’re all in Europe, or not all, some are in England, but the World War I sites were mostly in the path of the invading German Army at the beginning of World War II. And all those sites eventually, in France and Belgium, came under German authority during the Second World War, so I’m telling that story, how they were preserved.

HH: Did the Germans honor them? Did they honor our cemeteries?

TC: Yes, 99% of the time, they did. And I think that speaks to the fact that at least in the regular German army, there still was observance of what soldiers would typically refer to as a code of soldierly honor. There’s only one instance, Hugh, that I know of at the St. Mihiel Cemetery, which is south of Verdun. The battle of St. Mihiel was the first big battle that the American Army fought as an independent army, really, literally in the closing months of World War I. There are about 4,000 graves down there, and of course, the Jewish graves have Stars of David marking them. And there were instances at that one cemetery on one occasion of zealot German soldiers, fanatical German soldiers, desecrating the Jewish headstones. But when the commandant of the German unit, so the story goes, found out about it, he put a stop to it immediately. And I have run into no other examples of that kind of thing.

HH: Now Dr. Conner, we’re coming up on the centennial of America’s entry into World War I, and led by the Mayflower, a destroyer that was commanded, actually, by my wife’s grandfather, so we kind of know about this thing. Are you being approached for your expertise on World War I? Not many Americans know much about World War I.

TC: I’ve kind of been an informal consultant with the ABMC headquarters in Washington, Hugh. They’ve taken on some additional personnel to try to publicize that story a little more, and I’ve been very happy to work with them. But that’s about all I’ve been doing. I’m very hopeful that the book will be finished, I still have a couple of chapters to write, but I would love to get it out, find a publisher, someone who’s willing to publish it, and get it out, certainly, by 2017 or 2018 so that…

HH: What is our first major battle? I know the Mayflower said we are ready now as soon as we taken on a load of coal, but what was the first major land battle in which American troops fought not independently, but just fought in World War I?

TC: Typically, the answer to that is given as, that that engagement occurred in May of 1918 near a small French village up in the Somme sector, up northeast of Paris, called Cantigny. And the First Marine, excuse me, the First Division fought there. But it was attached to French units, and, but the Americans were very interested in sort of establishing what they could do. And they actually took the village. They drove the Germans out of their positions in Cantigny, and then held it as well, because the Germans were as interested in showing us to be less than efficient fighters as we were proving the opposite. So the Germans counterattacked furiously at Cantigny, but without success. So that’s typically named as the first place that an American…

HH: May of 1918?

TC: May of 1918.

HH: It was also Veterans Day this week. It was also the 240th birthday of the Marine Corps, and of course, I think they got their name, the Devil Dogs, in World War I, am I right about that?

TC: Absolutely, but that name came from a later battle in June of 1918 at a place called Belleau Wood. And that was a major American engagement as well, but we don’t say that the Americans were fighting independently, because they were basically involved in a joint operation with the French at that point. But it’s the Germans who gave them that Teufelshunde, in the German, Devil Dogs, exactly. That comes from Belleau Wood.

HH: Where did they, what were they referring to? Was that just their ferocity in attack? What’s the story behind it?

TC: I think it’s precisely that, Hugh. Belleau Wood was a very bloody engagement. It was fought in a forest, mostly. We were trying to drive the Germans out of Belleau Wood, and the Marines eventually did. But the Marines fought with such ferocity that the Germans dubbed them Devil Dogs. There’s a very beautiful ABMC cemetery. It’s the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery right on the edge of Belleau Wood to this day.

HH: Are you surprised at how your career developed with this interest, Dr.?

TC: Well, in some senses, yes, Hugh. You know, I have a chair in military history here at Hillsdale, but I’m not trained as a military historian. The travel opportunities which put me in touch with these beautiful sites overseas developed out of my research interest in French history, generally. But no, I never would have imagined, really, that I’d be engaged in a project that was this oriented toward military history, but I’m enjoying it immensely. And one of the most enjoyable things about it has been the wonderful cooperation I’ve gotten from so many people in the American Battle Monuments Commission itself.

HH: You know, I bet you the ABMC cannot wait for this book to be finished. By the way, how many members on the commission? Now I’m going to have to look at the Plum Book when the Republican wins the White House and asks for an appointment to the ABMC. It sounds like fun.

TC: Well, it, you know, Victor Davis Hanson, whom I’m sure you know quite well, was a member of the Commission, an appointee of George W. Bush in 2008.

HH: Not surprised. He actually, like you, he knows what he’s talking about.

TC: Well, thanks for that, but he’s a very good friend of Hillsdale College, and I’ve gotten to know him over the years. And he helped me to get interested in this. But there are 11 members of the commission. In the first generation of activity, there were only 7 members. But coming out of World War II, when the commission literally reconstituted itself, when it was established in 1923, Hugh, nobody really envisioned that it would have to build another generation of…

HH: Yeah, and, but by fun, I mean, what an honor to be able to honor these people.

TC: OH, no, absolutely.

HH: Yeah.

TC: Absolutely, and you know, it’s a good commission. Max Cleland, the former Senator from Georgia…

HH: Sure.

TC: …the triple amputee from Vietnam, former Veterans Secretary, he, to me, is a perfect choice to be the secretary.

HH: You’re absolutely right. And there are going to be, and you know, I wonder, we’ve got to go to break, I wonder if after these long wars if there will be any additional monuments overseas. It does not seem to me to be the kind of wars in which we’re going to leave our dead behind. I’ll be back, one more segment with Thomas Conner.

— – — –

HH: Dr. Conner, when we went to break, and I want to finish this thought. We’ve been involved in a war since 9/11. It’s been fought in many places from of course, Iraq and Afghanistan, but to Djibouti and all over the world, actually. We’ve had people fighting sometimes in secret, sometimes not. But we don’t really anticipate ever establishing another far off cemetery, do we?

TC: No, Hugh. One of the principles established by the original American Battle Monuments Commission was that our overseas cemeteries would only be set up on friendly ground, or ground that was likely to remain friendly to us in the aftermath of whatever the wars that caused the dead to be buried overseas. And sadly, I don’t think we have the same likelihood in the kind of wars we’re fighting now of the territory where we have sacrificed soldiers being permanently friendly to us.

HH: And to your knowledge, do we need security at these cemeteries? Or do the local people take care of them for us?

TC: That’s a very interesting question, and it varies depending on the location. I got to be very good friends with one of the superintendents at Normandy, and he told me a lot about how such issues were handled. And it is the case that the local authorities provide the security for these places. And they’re very dependable, the local authorities, the Gendarme in France, or whatever the local police would be elsewhere. But I know that in the case of the Tunis cemetery, that’s, you know, in a very difficult, dangerous part of the world now, and I think that the American personnel may have been withdrawn from that cemetery in recent months, Hugh. I’m not sure of that, but I’ve heard that.

HH: Let me conclude our conversation, Dr. Conner, by asking you, you’ve obviously been to most of these. I don’t meant to say favorite in terms of physical beauty, but which is the most moving? They must all be. I found Florence to be exceptionally moving. But which is the most moving to you?

TC: Well, they’re each beautiful in their own way, even though the style of the headstones and even the style of the architecture generation by generation, the World War I cemeteries have a bit more classical or neoclassical kind of architecture in the cemetery buildings and the monuments, World War II a bit differently. But I think my favorite cemeteries are the ones that I enjoy visiting the most, frankly, are the World War I cemeteries, because when one goes to a World War I cemetery, one has the feeling that he or she is doing something that most Americans just don’t get to do. You know, the Normandy cemetery is the best known, and it’s got a stunningly beautiful site, and it’s wonderfully maintained, and I love visiting there as well. But the World War I cemetery, you can almost be by yourself in those cemeteries, too, and you can have a much more reflective experience at those quieter sites, let’s say. And the artwork, in especially the St. Mihiel cemetery, it’s just extraordinary, absolutely extraordinary.

HH: Well, Dr. Conner, I hope that as we approach the 100th anniversary of America’s entry into World War I, someone in Hollywood is listening and thinking at the History Channel, I ought to find Doc Conner at Hillsdale, and we ought to start putting together a series of visits, because it’s the most obvious television series that I’ve never seen. I mean, it just seems to me that you ought to be narrating visits, because the one World War I series, we’ve only got a minute, PBS tried to do it when I was with PBS, and it didn’t work. It just didn’t work. They thought it was going to be Ken Burns, or they thought it was going to be Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers, and it fell completely flat. Do you remember it?

TC: I don’t, actually, but you know, I remember the movie, War Horse, that Steven Spielberg did a while back. We were kind of hoping that that might rekindle some interest in the First World War. But no, you’re right, I think it’s the sense of immediacy, Hugh, that’s lacking. You know, at least with World War II, there’s still veterans with whom people, you know, of the current generation, can connect. World War I is just maybe a little too remote in time to stimulate the same kind of interest. But the centennial is the ideal moment to do that if it’s ever going to happen again.

HH: Well, perhaps you and I can devote a couple of hours. I’ll talk to Larry Arnn and my colleague, Kyle Murnen, there at Hillsdale College about devoting a few hours to World War I as we get closer and closer to the centennial. Dr. Thomas Conner, thank you so much, Professor, I look forward to talking to you again.

TC: Pleasure to be with you, Hugh, thanks for the opportunity.

End of interview.


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