Today’s guest-blogger is Brad Larson, director of the Oshkosh Public Museum and author of All the Hometown Boys.
As a boy in the early 1960s, I seldom saw my grandfather. He had divorced from my grandmother in the early 1930s, remarried, and moved away. His relationship with his two young sons was strained, to put it nicely. Yet, as he and my father aged, they occasionally came together to heal wounds. On one such instance, he led my brother and me to the trunk of his car to show us his old army boots. He told us those heavy, hob-nailed boots still had remnants of encrusted mud in a few small places. “Boys,” he said, “that is the dirt of France.”
I stood there in the summer sun next to his Pontiac, just a ten year old boy, transfixed as he revealed abbreviated stories of his experiences as a teenage National Guardsman in what seemed to be a distant land and an overlooked war. Strange as it might seem in hindsight, those old boots and the stories he told made everything seem genuine. I came to realize that my grandfather, white-haired and old, was once a courageous soldier.
My desire and determination to resurrect the stories of Wisconsin’s 150th Machine Gun Battalion might have had its roots in the stories of my grandfather. Indeed, even as a boy it seemed that I was aware that memory is a fickle thing. As I describe in All the Hometown Boys, the 150th was a household name after its creation in 1917, for it was part of America’s celebrated 42nd “Rainbow” Division, a National Guard division that brought together men from 26 states. The nation was justly proud of the exploits and victories of the “hometown boys.” In welcome home parades, the men were esteemed heroes.
But 100 years later, who remembers the 150th Machine Gun Battalion, or America’s soldiers who released France from almost certain defeat? If 30-plus years of museum work have shown me anything, it is that remembrance of our past is weak, perhaps even fading. I think that impression is especially true for World War I, for the soldiers of America’s first world war do not even have their own national memorial in Washington, D.C.
Memory is what we make it. To honor and remember someone, or some event, requires time, dedication, and effort to ensure we discover and perhaps even pass on the story. True reverence for our past comes not from brief media coverage close to an anniversary, but rather grows in the hearts and minds of everyday Americans. They make the decision that men like my grandfather, or the men of the 150th Machine Gun Battalion, soldiers who gave of themselves, lost their youth and in some cases their life, deserve to be remembered. We should take joy in discovering their stories.
has been the director of the Oshkosh Public Museum since 1989 and has been researching and presenting public programs about the 150th Machine Gun Battalion for many years. He is the author of Voices of History, 1941–1945.