Tag Archives: World War II

Searching for Charles Gerhardt

5 Nov

A while back, I was appointed Historian for the City of Lebanon. In that role, I have attempted to learn as much as I can about the town. There are stories that I have heard all of my life, and I am steeped in the lore of the area. However, there are gaps in my knowledge.

Learning about the city requires research. I have gone through documents at the city museum and have spent some time in our county archives. I also get on the computer at home to see what can be found on the Internet.

It was an Internet search that led me to an online copy of Tennessee County History Series: Wilson County by Frank Burns, the man who knew more about the history of this area than anyone else I have known. Through a gradual reading, I made my way to the 1940s and World War II, where I found a passage that drew my interest. It reads:

Charles Gerhardt was the only Wilson County soldier to hold
the rank of major general in World War II. June 6 was more than
D-Day to Charles Hunter Gerhardt. It was his 49th birthday.

He went ashore with his troops, inched up the cliffs and the
high bluff with them, and spent the night of D-Day in a rock quarry
just 300 yards from the beach. It was the luck of the 29th to draw
the sector where the German army had concentrated its heaviest
defenses. One company lost all of its officers but one before its
assault boats ever landed on the beach. Within minutes after an-
other company touched the beach, it was out of action, every man
killed or wounded, huddled weaponless against the base of the
cliff. But it was not to be a day of defeat. Slowly the men edged off
Omaha Beach. By the end of the day the 29th was a mile inland.
Omaha Beach was followed by Isigny. There General Gerhardt
moved among his troops as they advanced on the outskirts of the
town, disregarding land mines, rifle bullets, and machine gun fire.

It caught my eye because I have never heard of Charles Gerhardt and never heard of a Major General from Lebanon leading his troops at the D-Day Invasion. This is an interesting part of our history that has apparently been forgotten, and I was determined to find out more. This led to the search for Charles Gerhardt.Gerhardt

A Google search brought up several links, but Wikipedia was the first stop. I know Wikipedia has issues, but I am not writing a scholarly paper. It is only a blog post. Anyway, I learned that Charles Gerhardt played baseball, polo and football at West Point. In 1916, he quarterbacked the football to a victory of Notre Dame, which was coached by Knute Rockne and led by George Gipp. Some may remember that Gipp was immortalized on film by Ronald Reagan.

The Wikipedia page continues with Gerhardt’s other accomplishments. He served in World War I and was an equestrian judge at the 1932 Olympics. While Frank Burns praises him, this page says that he was a controversial figure who oversaw high casualty rates and opened a brothel for his men after the invasion.

Wikipedia says a lot about Gerhardt, but it does not say where he was born. For that information, I had to click more links. The next stop was the website for Arlington National Cemetery. It contains some of the same information and provides additions to his military record. However, it does not say where he was born.

This is when I began thinking that Frank Burns was wrong. There is no way this man could be from Lebanon. I know of no one who has heard of him, and his birthplace is omitted from every website. That is when I noticed a link to his father, who was also named Charles Gerhardt. The older Gerhardt was also a military man and reached the rank of Brigadier General.

While searching his life, I discovered that “he was detailed to Cumberland University at Lebanon, Tennessee, 1894-1897.” While here, he became Secretary of the Military Wheelmen. Have you ever heard of that? Neither have I. It was an organization that designed bicycles for military use. He also designed a uniform to make them less visible. Yep, he was on the cutting edge of camouflage.

All of that was great to find out. Charles Gerhardt was in Lebanon when his son was born in 1895. However, why was a career military man “detailed to Cumberland University?” It has never been a military school.

To find that, I had to return to the writings of Frank Burns. It turns out that the elder Gerhardt taught military science and tactics at the university.

Through all of that, I learned something new about the history of Lebanon, Tennessee. Major General Charles Gerhardt, who led his men onto the beaches of France, was born here. He also went on the defeat the Gipper and found a whorehouse. Overall, he led an interesting life, and it all started here.

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The One About Erwin Rommel Riding a Motorcycle Through Tennessee

23 Sep

I was flipping through the channels and found a documentary about Erwin Rommel. I watched it for a few minutes but eventually lost interest. My mental quota for documentaries about Nazi Germany has been filled for a while. However, the documentary brought to mind a story from long ago.

When I was a kid, I heard that, before World War II, Rommel traveled to Tennessee a studied the military tactics of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a southern cavalry general who operated in these parts.

Yes, I was the kind of kid who found that kind of story interesting. I was the kind of kid who knew who those people were.

Anyway, the story continued with proof. Apparently, there was an old hotel register in Waverly, Tennessee that had Rommel’s signature.Rommel

Through the years, I have thought about this story and never questioned it. I have told people about it. Heck, I have even mentioned it in class. However, I never thought about digging into it and finding out what happened….until last night.

I typed a bunch of stuff into Google about Erwin Rommel, Tennessee and Nathan Bedford Forrest. I did not find much, and I began to worry. If he was around here, then something would be written about it. The only thing I could find was an article called Second Guessing the Past – The Desert Fox and Mississippi¬†at hottytoddy.com. For those who do not know, “Hotty Toddy” is a cheer at the University of Mississippi, which will not make my colleague from Mississippi State University all that happy.

I encourage you to read the linked article, but I need to offer a synopsis. The writer traveled to West Tennessee to track down a story that he had always heard about Rommel visiting the state. People told him stories of seeing Rommel riding a motorcycle and talking to him on their front porches. The memories of these sightings were as vivid as if they had just happened.

He found out that Rommel was in Clinton, Tennessee and signed a hotel register. The hotel, which no longer exists, even placed a plaque on the room where he stayed. It was called the “Rommel Room.”

After visiting Clinton and talking to people who met Rommel, the writer visited Manfred Rommel and asked him about his father’s trip to the United States. It turns out that Rommel never made the journey. The son was told the stories of people who met his father, but he insisted that his father never traveled to Tennessee.

Reading, the article will provide you with a better sense of the story, but chances are that Rommel was never in this state. The story that I was told and repeated never happened. Heck, the story I heard was wrong about the town. However, it makes me wonder about memory and legends and all sorts of things that historians have to deal with.

People were convinced that they met Erwin Rommel and were convinced of a signed register proved it. Did they make it up? Did they tell the story long enough that they started to believe it? Did they actually meet a German officer who was riding around on a motorcycle? If so, then who was he? Did he introduce himself as Rommel? Since Rommel did not become famous until World War 2, why would meeting him before the war be considered a big deal? Did they meet a traveling German and assume it was Rommel after they started hearing his name?

It is a simple story, but it leads to question after question after question. I only know that it is a story I have heard for years, and it is one that a lot of people believe. It is even mentioned in The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, which is a good site because I have an article on there. It would be nice to know its origins and how it came to be thought of as fact.

That would make a better documentary than the one that I turned off.

 

A Man in Georgia Passed Away

2 Aug

A few days ago, a 93-year old man passed away in Georgia. The widower was retired from the DuPont Corporation and left behind a loving family. When the news of his death came over the Associated Press Twitter feed, I read the article and read the replies by people in the Twitterverse. I hardly ever do that. Everyone has opinions about the news of the world, and Twitter provides a platform for sharing. However, something told me that I needed to read these.

Some examples:

“Good”

“Rot in Hell”

“Mass Murderer”

What could lead to such hatred toward an elderly man who had just passed away?

Theodore “Dutch” Van Kirk was the last surviving crew member of the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and introduced the world to nuclear weapons. Tens of thousands of people died instantly and more died from the radioactive effects. In the years that followed, more destructive weapons were developed, and two Super Powers pointed them at each other during the Cold War. People lived under the shadow of the bomb, and little kids learned to “Duck and Cover” at school.Duck and Cover

It was a momentous event in history and, obviously, was not humanity’s finest hour. However, I was taken aback by the hatred aimed at “Dutch” Van Kirk, who was a 24-year old navigator following orders.

Each May, a few other teachers and I lead a field trip class to New Mexico and, as part of the trip, visit Los Alamos, the place where the atomic bombs were built. We sit outside of a museum housed in one of the original buildings and discuss the Manhattan Project. During this discussion, we talk about the bombings of Japan and their aftermath. At some point, I ask them what they would have done if they were part of the decision-making process. Undoubtedly, they say that they would not have done it.

Then, I ask them to put themselves in the places of the people involved. Take away 70 years of hindsight and make a decision. When I read the Twitter responses, I tried to put myself in the place of Van Kirk.

World War II began in 1939 when he was 18 years old. He probably heard news reports of the war in Europe where Germany was bombarding London, invading Russia and killing civilians. He may also been reading about the Japanese advances in Asia and their killing of civilians. He could not have known about the Holocaust.

In 1941, Japan attacked the Pearl Harbor, but it was not only an attack of the naval base. It was an attack of the island of Oahu, which probably killed civilians. Van Kirk was 20-years old. Did he volunteer? Did he get drafted? I do not know, but I know he was trained as a navigator for bombers.

During his time in uniform, Van Kirk flew 25 bombing missions over Europe and North Africa. Undoubtedly, these were harrowing missions. I have no idea of his targets, but I know that the Allies bombed German cities. Dresden was bombed into oblivion, and over 100,000 people were killed. That is more than were killed at Hiroshima.

What does all of this mean? By 1945, Van Kirk had spent 25% of his life with the world fighting the largest war in history. It was a war where the killing of civilians became military practice for all sides. It was a war that every side tried to win at all costs.

At some point, Van Kirk found himself training in the Pacific and being told that the mission being planned could end this war – a war that had cost millions of lives and people wanted to bring to an end. In August of 1945, the orders came through to complete the mission. The man who had given the order was President Harry Truman.Harry Truman

What was Truman thinking?

He had become president a few months before and around the same time Germany had surrendered. It was then that he learned of the Manhattan Project and the weapons that it had created. As the war in the Pacific went on, the American people were getting restless. Germany had been defeated. When is the same thing going to happen to Japan?

Allied forces were getting closer to the Japanese mainland, and Truman’s advisers were telling him that an invasion could lead to a million casualties. A man that I know said that he was training for that invasion, and he, along with everyone training with him, knew that they were training to die. He never liked Truman, but, when he heard about the bombing, he loved Truman.

Truman had a decision to make. He could ask the American people to sacrifice more men in a battle like the world had never seen, or he could use a weapon that tax dollars had been spent to build.

What would happen if he agreed to the invasion, and Americans later learned that it could have been avoided?

He chose to use the atomic bomb.

Van Kirk and the rest of the Enola Gay completed their mission by dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. A few days later, another plane, Bock’s Car, dropped another bomb on Nagasaki. With that, World War II came to an end, and the Cold War began.

Did Harry Truman make the right decision? I have no idea. I am not trying to justify it. I am saying that we should put ourselves in the past before judging decisions with hindsight.

Should Theodore “Dutch” Van Kirk be vilified on Twitter for the actions of his crew? I do not believe he should. He came to age during the worst war in human history and was told that he had the chance to end it. For 69 years, he lived with the memory of that mission. I have no idea what he thought about when he looked back. He was in that place at that time and did was he was ordered to do.

Maybe the people on Twitter would have done it differently, but they do not know that for a fact.

The Legacy of the Phoenix

13 Jun

A couple of posts ago, I mentioned that we attended the Phoenix Ball, an annual fundraiser for Cumberland University. For decades, the Phoenix has been the symbol of our institution. It is represented on the uniforms of our teams and is etched in the stained glass of Baird Chapel.Baird Chapel

This is strange to a lot of people because we are called the Bulldogs. They always ask why we have a bird as a symbol if our mascot is a dog. Well, this is why.

Cumberland University was founded in 1842 and quickly established itself as one of the best institutes of higher learning. Its claim to fame was having the first law school west of the Appalachian Mountains. However, problems arose in 1861 and the start of the Civil War. Most of the students and faculty enlisted in the armies of their states and made their way to the battlefields.

Eventually, the Civil War made its way to campus, and the original buildings were burned.Cumberland Original

Some say that the campus was burned by the Union army. Others say it was burned by the Confederates when they found out that the campus had been used to house African-American soldiers of the Union. It does not matter who did the deed. What matters is that Cumberland University no longer had a home.

When the war ended, the leadership of Cumberland University was determined that the school would continue. For years, classes were held in buildings around town. In 1892, the generosity of others allowed the university to purchase land for a new campus and build a new building. Memorial Hall was completed in 1896.Memorial Hall 2

The university was destroyed by fire and rose from the ashes. That is why the mythical Phoenix became the symbol of the university. However, the university has risen several times from the brink of disaster.

It survived the loss of support from both the Presbyterians and the Baptists.

It survived as students went off to more wars. In fact, it became the headquarters of the Tennessee Maneuvers that trained soldiers for the invasion of Europe in World War II.

It survived a tornado that ripped across Memorial Hall. The scars of its reconstruction can still be seen.

It survived the loss of its law school, which was renown for its graduates. One of those graduates was Cordell Hull, the Father of the United Nations.

It survived the move to become a junior college and returned to being a four-year institution in the 1980s.

Today, Cumberland University has the highest enrollment in its history. We offer undergraduate degrees in many disciplines. We also offer several graduate degrees.

As a graduate and faculty member at Cumberland University, I know the trials that the school has endured and its ability to survive and thrive. It is a special place with a long and proud history, and I can think of no better symbol than the Phoenix.

Did Anything Else Happen on June 6, 1944?

6 Jun

I had this great idea for a post. I was going to write about other events that happened on June 6, 1944. Everyone should know that the date is famous for D-Day, the beginning of the Allied invasion of Europe during World War II. To commemorate the event, a local radio station, WCOR-AM 1490, has been airing broadcast from that day. Edward R. Murrow has been interrupting soap operas to bring updated news. The Navy has been asking women to join the WAVES. It has been interesting to listen to as I run errands.

As I have been listening, I have also been wondering. What else happened on that day? I got on the Internet to look and discovered something. Nothing else happened on June 6, 1944. At least, that is what the Internet tells me. Wait, I did find something.

Tommie Smith was born on June 6 1944. He was one of the American track athletes who gave the Black Power salute at the 1968 Summer Olympics.Tommie Smith

D-Day was a pivotal event in world history, and thousands of people sacrificed their lives. It should never be forgotten. However, I do not think other events on that day should be forgotten, either. Surely, something happened. There have been some huge events in history, but there have been a lot of smaller one, as well.

Earlier, a student asked a question of me. What would have happened if the D-Day Landing had not been successful? I have no idea. I am just glad that it worked.

A Few Days in December 1941

7 Dec

December 7, 1941 was a Sunday. It was also the day that the Japanese fleet attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor.Pearl Attack

Actually, that is not accurate. It was an attack on various locations around the island of Oahu. Most people know the story and have seen the footage of the attack. However, something else was taking place thousands of miles away.

In Washington, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, who graduated from Cumberland University, was preparing to meet with the ambassador of Japan when word of the attack got to his office.Cordell Hull

Hull greeted the ambassador, who did not know the attack had already taken place, and read documents stating that negotiations between the two nations were ending. The Secretary of State exploded with angered while the ambassador quickly left. Hull uttered a few other choice words while realizing that the United States had just entered the World War.

On December 8, Franklin Roosevelt convened a joint meeting of the Senate and the House of Representatives to request a declaration of war against Japan. On that day, he said:

Mr. Vice President, Mr. Speaker, members of the Senate and the House of Representatives:

Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy – the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

The United States was at peace with that nation, and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its government and its Emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific.

Indeed, one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in the American island of Oahu, the Japanese Ambassador to the United States and his colleague delivered to our Secretary of State a formal reply to a recent American message. And, while this reply stated that it seemed useless to continue the existing diplomatic negotiations, it contained no threat or hint of war or of armed attack.

It will be recorded that the distance of Hawaii from Japan makes it obvious that the attack was deliberately planned many days or even weeks ago. During the intervening time the Japanese Government has deliberately sought to deceive the United States by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace.

The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian Islands has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. I regret to tell you that very many American lives have been lost. In addition, American ships have been reported torpedoed on the high seas between San Francisco and Honolulu.

Yesterday the Japanese Government also launched an attack against Malaya. Last night Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong. Last night Japanese forces attacked Guam. Last night Japanese forces attacked the Philippine Islands. Last night the Japanese attacked Wake Island. And this morning the Japanese attacked Midway Island.

Japan has therefore undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. The facts of yesterday and today speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our nation.

As Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense, that always will our whole nation remember the character of the onslaught against us.

No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people, in their righteous might, will win through to absolute victory.

I believe that I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost but will make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us.

Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory and our interests are in grave danger.

With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph. So help us God.

I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7th, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.