Hello, and let me first say thank you, to all of you for coming out on this very hot day. It is an honor to be here, and I promise to be brief, if only so our lovely band members can get a cool drink of water. To start us off, allow me to ask you a question. It is a simple one, but I hope that you will take a moment to think about it. What do you know about World War I? It’s okay if your answer is, “You know, I haven’t thought about World War I in a while;” I’m sure you’re not alone. If it makes you feel better, it isn’t your fault; World War I is criminally undertaught in schools and remains a largely forgotten section of American history. Allow me to refresh your memory today, and explain why even a hundred years later, this war matters.
My own answer to this question begins here, in this cemetery. Last year as part of my research on the Holland and Hope College experience of World War I, I spent hours photographing graves of World War I veterans from Holland and the surrounding area. As a friend and I combed through the cemetery to find more graves, the weight of what we were doing began to sink in. For many of these men, a photo of their grave would be the only visual of them provided in our research. In my world, where selfies, photo opportunities, and social media run rampant, it seemed unfathomable that an iPhone photo of a gravesite could be the only proof that someone existed. I became obsessed with trying to find more pictures, and many summer afternoons were spent digging through the Joint Archives, hoping to get lucky. As I grew closer and closer to the city of Holland and my chosen college, I looked for photos of men who were being torn away from everything that was becoming my home.
Snapshot number 1: Over fifty men between the ages of 18-21 line up in the grassy area of Hope College affectionately known to all as the Pine Grove. They look young, even to me, and I’m their age. Several of these young men seem unable to not smile in front of a camera, their teeth giving them away even as they try to remain in military formation. All of them are wearing caps, and stand ramrod straight while learning a new drill that is supposed to keep them alive. These fifty-odd truly American men were the beginnings of the Student Army Training Corps at Hope College, which would grow to be nearly two-hundred strong by the end of the war. Khaki took over the little campus, as generals swarmed in to shape our young men into a war mindset. SATC members had their own classes, ate in their own mess hall, and used Van Vleck—a building that still stands today—as their personal infirmary. Even chapel services revolved around the war, as wizened soldiers were invited back to give speeches on the “German barbarians” or the significance of prayer during wartime. Although some SATC members would leave Hope to enlist, most stayed on campus for the duration of the war, keeping the college in a constant state of militarism. The men were in formation, ready to do their part to defend their country whether at home or abroad.
For those soldiers from Hope or Holland who did fight abroad, life back home must have seemed like an idyllic dream. In another snapshot, two young, unnamed men stand grinning in front of a log house. That house is barely visible, covered in mounds of snow and ice. Those men look frozen, wrapped in blankets and coats. They are both from Michigan—as explained by their infantry number—and both are very, very far from home. These two men were part of the Polar Bear Expedition, a group of almost 5,000 US soldiers from Michigan who were sent to Siberia as part of an anti-communist campaign. Reportedly the US government chose to send Michigan men to Russia because they were used to extreme, unrelenting winter—which seems, even a hundred years later, like a cruel joke. Without any prior knowledge of communism, Russia, or, in some cases, how to fight, thousands of Michiganders arrived in Siberia by surprise. Hollander Dutch Strowenjans wrote to his family bitterly, “I do not understand this Russian proposition or why we are here or how long we shall stay.” He was joined in Siberia by most other soldiers from the Holland area. Whether or not they knew where they were going or what they were doing, these men were celebrated at home as heroes. Holland and Hope had done their part to “make the world safe for democracy,” as President Woodrow Wilson had told them to do. And so for years Holland held its breath, hoping and praying for its men to return home safely.
Holland actually let out that breath a little too early. Another snapshot reveals an Eighth Street in the midst of a parade, much as it was just a few hours ago. Large Red Cross floats adorn the street, as a hundred or so uniformed men march behind in neat formation. A large American flag is carried in honor, but if you look closely you’ll see there are too many stars for states—this was a service flag, with one star stitched for every Holland or Hope man in service. Only the tiny, handwritten date of November 7, 1918, in the bottom left-hand corner reveals the flaw in this parade—it was celebrated four days before the actual end of World War I. Rumors of a German surrender had caused a premature parade to break out! We just love our Holland parades, with or without tulips or dancers. Undeterred, Holland celebrated with another parade after the war actually ended. Unfortunately, that ending wasn’t quite true for everyone. For many Holland soldiers, coming home was a feat in itself. A late river freeze would trap the Polar Bears in Russia until almost a year after the armistice in Germany, and the original Holland parade. And sadly, twenty-four Holland soldiers would never make it home, either killed in action or from disease abroad.
My last snapshot returns to where we started, in this cemetery. It is a photo that I took, of a memorial to one of those twenty-four soldiers. His name was Willard Leenhouts, the first Holland man to be killed in action in World War I. His memorial stone is a beautiful marble, well-kept after over a hundred years. Behind his stone the cemetery stretches outward to the football field, where young Hope men stand together in a very different kind of formation. When I took that picture last year I was struck at the contrast. This boy, who was my age when he died, and boys, my age, playing football. Leenhouts’s death was seen as a challenge in the Holland community; one newspaper reported, “As a captain, dying, calls to his sergeant to carry on… so this Holland boy, falling out of the ranks is today calling to the people at home to carry on.” And so, the next time someone asks you, “what do you know about World War I,”—I’m sure that’s a question you get asked all the time—I hope that you will think of Willard Leenhouts. I hope that you will think of parades, and Polar Bears. I hope that you will think of snapshots. And your answer? Even though Holland is not my birthplace, I can still hope that you will answer it the way I do, this way: yes, I do know something. I know that my city, my college, and my people did the most extraordinary thing they could do: they carried on.