Carry On: Memories of Holland in World War I

This is the text of the oration Aine O’Connor delivered on May 28, 2018, at the Holland Memorial Day Ceremony.

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.

How I wish I could show you every photo that my two research partners and I did find, under the expert wisdom of Geoff Reynolds at the Archives. But, since I don’t have the benefits of a massive projector screen—and since that would probably everyone to sleep anyway—allow me to just describe some snapshots of the Holland and Hope College experience of World War I to you. If you would like to see the real version of these photos, please check out our research website, the link to which I would be MORE than happy to give you once I am done speaking today.

“Counting Off”: S.A.T.C. men practicing formations, 1918, Courtesy Joint Archives of Holland.

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.

The Holland Polar Bear Club in 1942. Courtesy of the Joint Archives of Holland.

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.

The too-early parade, Nov. 7 1918. Courtesy Joint Archives of Holland.

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.

Memorial for Leenhouts at Pilgrim Home Cemetery, Holland, MI.

Thank you.

Student Feature: Mariah Bensley

Mariah Bensley in Venice

It was never my plan to declare a major during my junior year at Hope. I had a solid psychology major in process and on the way to completing my degree. My feet were firmly planted on the on the snowy sidewalks of Holland, so it was a surprise to many, especially my parents, when I changed my history minor into a second major. I am pursuing two majors in what appears to be two very different fields. On the surface, one is a social science while the other has roots in the humanities. However, what many people do not realize is how perfectly these two majors complement each other. In fact, I am surprised the world has not officially declared them sister fields of study and made some sort of interdisciplinary course requirements for both majors.

As I grew up, I was never certain of my future. One day I would be convinced that I should become a counselor, and the next I was planning out my world travels as a professional journalist. There was barely a career aspiration that lasted longer than a month or two, so upon coming to Hope, all I was certain of was that I was uncertain about everything. Nevertheless, when one is taking classes and paying tuition, there tends to be an urgency to find and create a path for themselves. Through personal reflection, I tried to find a common thread behind each of my potential professional interests. What I found is that I love more than anything is trying to understanding people: what people do, and more importantly, why they do it.

With this in mind, I felt the obvious major to pursue was psychology. I get to take classes where I learn the inner workings of the brain, the science of behavior and what defines a person as a unique individual. We learn to understand motivations, likes, dislikes, and quirky traits. However, all this understanding of the human mind still left me feeling unsatisfied. I, therefore, decided to consider a history major because I love stories. As we know by studying works of historical non-fiction, a person’s motivation is nothing without their succeeding actions. In the big picture, what a person chooses to do and how that affects others is essential to understanding the world in which we live. Choices, actions, and consequences all mingle together to create the century-old web we know as history.

A view of Sienna, Italy

This semester I am pursuing an incredible opportunity to study history in Siena, Italy. In my course, The Black Plague we began by learning the facts and numbers: which areas succumbed to the disease first, the death toll, and so on. I like to refer to this information as “Jeopardy Questions.” That is, Quick facts that would likely come up on everyone’s favorite prime-time trivia show. However, as historians, we are called to uncover more. In the course, we have been able to read primary source material, personal journals, and books written during the medieval time. Citizens of the day believed the plague was the end of the world, so once it was over chaos ensued across Europe. There was a power grab and extensive slaughter ensued. Citizens were scared and those who survived saw an opportunity to change their fate. People wanted answers for why this awful disease took so many and affected everyone. Christians blamed Jews, and brother abandoned brother. I was able to research the uncertainty, the conflicts, and the impact. I learned about the choices, the actions, and the consequences. In other words, I used insights from each discipline to develop a more intimate understanding of this tragic event.

“History is written by the victors.” This famous quote by Winston Churchill tends to encapsulate much of our study of the distant past. After all, history is made up of stories, written about people, by people, and for people about the human condition. Psychology and history are two sides of the same coin. On one side, history teaches us how human nature affected the past. We learn details about kings and queens, generals, and the ordinary of all ages who lived in different social/political structures and made an impact on the world. On the other side, psychology teaches us the relationship between the individual and the social, the nature of why people built or followed the paths that they did.

I am happy with my choice to combine psychology and history.  The two fields complement one another and strengthen the learner. I truly feel I am a better historian because I know how to look at the past through the lens of a psychologist.

Student Feature: Avery Lowe

Dr. Fred Johnson and Avery Lowe

Anger and guilt are left at the doorway. Class begins with a prayer, and then for an hour and twenty minutes, my classmates and I listen attentively as Dr. Johnson enlightens us in his 300 level history course- the History of Slavery & Race in America. We are different races, we have different political affiliations, and our religious ties vary, but for that set amount of time, we come together to discuss the history of race and slavery in this nation.

Most of us have been exposed to at least some prior knowledge about the history of slavery. I personally remember learning about the Underground Railroad for the first time in second grade and driving to the Civil War’s many battles in high school. However, the issue of racism and the problems that come with it are not always so open. For many, racism is an uncomfortable topic, better left undiscussed so as not to offend or be misunderstood. But after just a few weeks in this course, I believe quite the opposite. All of us have been impacted by racism in one way or another. Taking the time to study this allows us to better understand ourselves and the history behind this nation.

As a history major I’ve been asked the same prompts over and over: “Was the [insert time period] a period of social progress or regression for the U.S?” What this class has taught me is that it depends on who you’re asking. The U.S was forged from a society that operated under systemic racism. Even our constitution was written to be ambiguous enough to deny rights to certain people. I shouldn’t have to go into great detail to describe America’s racial issues today. They’re prevalent in our society, and we can either look the other way or try to do something about them, and that’s where the importance of history comes in.

We have made a great deal of progress since the first African American slaves were brought to the United States in 1619, but racism still affects our society even today. Racism is a result of willful ignorance and ethnocentrism, and this combination was the beginning of a long road of race relations in our country.  Slavery, the Civil War, Social Darwinism, Jim Crow, eugenics, immigration laws, segregation, deportation- it’s all a part of our nation’s history of slavery & race. It’s imperative we are able to sit down and discuss these topics openly and honestly.

As I’m finishing up my history major, I’ve had a good deal of exposure to different historical periods throughout the world. Having a greater understanding of history, specifically America’s history has allowed me to see the progress we have made as a nation, but it also highlights the issues our country still faces. It is one thing to talk about the past, but our discussions are surprisingly relevant to the present.

I would recommend everyone take this class, regardless of one’s major. It offers invaluable insight into the past and present, allows for incredible introspection, teaches empathy, and for myself, has inspired a desire for great change.  If there is just one person denied the rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” then there is still room for improvement in this country. As British philosopher Thomas Reid once declared, “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.”

Student Feature – Noah Switalski

Noah Switalski class of 2018

When I decided to pursue a history degree, I never expected to be able to experience history firsthand; however, I proved myself wrong by traveling abroad to Seville, Spain in the fall of 2017. There, and throughout my European travels, I visited museums and historic sites and greatly deepened my understanding of history and how it has impacted the world in ways that are not immediately obvious.

13th-Century Torre del Oro (Gold Tower) in Seville, Spain

Seville is a city of around 750,000 people and is located in the south-eastern part of Spain, in the autonomous community of Andalusia, of which it is the capital. The city has experienced a tremendous amount of history, and all of it is evident in the structure of the streets and the buildings that remain. The city traded hands between the Romans, the Frankish Christian kings, the Omeya dynasty, and the Arabic kingdom of Al-Andalus and then the reconquering of the Catholic Kings in 1492. All of this rich history is on full display in the varied and fascinating architecture of the buildings and art museums. My experience as a history major allowed me to ask important questions when visiting such sites and to analyze the historical material offered, which was often biased in one way or another.

I was lucky enough to visit Rome while I was abroad, which was the crown jewel of my travels, as it contained many of the historical sites that I had been reading about since my childhood. The Coliseum, the Roman Forum, and the many museums and buildings all captured my attention in a way that I could never have anticipated. My historical knowledge greatly improved my visits to these sights, as I could allow myself to fully comprehend the significance of each location and to really enjoy the work of our ancestors.

History, both modern and ancient, has captivated me from a young age, and experiencing the sights of history textbooks was truly a marvel for me. The buildings I visited and streets I walked all served to deepen my appreciation for history. Furthermore, I took a history class at the University of Sevilla while I was abroad and therefore observed how history was taught in a foreign university. It was enlightening to see the differences between the American classroom and the Spanish classroom, as the treatment of subjects such as World War II and the social revolution of the 1960’s were handled in a vastly different manner. Even the small anecdotal information was different, as the common history assumed to be known was that of Spain, whose history stretches back much farther than American history – at least according to written textbooks.

I would recommend that all history majors travel abroad – the experience of living history by visiting famous and important sights of human heritage is invaluable, as is the experience of exploring a culture apart from that of the United States. Even if it is not possible to make the voyage as I did, visiting the historical locations in places that you travel to is a crucial and often underappreciated step in for historical understanding. History is everywhere, written or not, and to truly understand it, one must get out and explore it!

Student Feature: Jennifer Cimmarusti

The application deadline for the Paris May Term is Nov. 29. As that date approaches, Professor Janes asked senior history major Jennifer Cimmarusti to share some of her experiences and insights about the trip.

Jennifer in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles. This room was the sight of many royal gatherings under Louis XIV, Louis XV, and Louis XVI. It was also the sight of the signing of the The Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919, formally ending World War I. Photo by Jennifer Cimmarusti.

Professor Janes: What was your favorite place that you visited or activity you did?

Jennifer: The first was the beautiful town of Versailles, which we visited together as a class. While most people are interested in the main palace where the kings lived, I was personally more fascinated by the smaller mansions and the lush gardens that surrounded each building. To see the incredibly detailed designs of the buildings and extravagant furniture was a once in a lifetime opportunity. Along with that the places were full of fascinating history. As someone who absolutely loves the French Revolution, it was a dream come true to see the Jeu de Paume, or tennis courts, where the National Assembly met and planned their revolt. Overall, Versailles was my favorite place that we visited as a group.

Professor Janes: What surprised you about Paris?

Jennifer: I was surprised at how well I was able to communicate with Parisians. As someone who does not speak a lick of French, I was quite nervous about how I was going to get by. However, I found out that most French people do speak English, and I was able to pick up some French phrases. When all else failed, hand gestures worked as well. So what I thought was going to be a major issue was actually one of the easier parts of the trip. It also taught me that it is okay to travel somewhere and not completely understand the language, though a few words or phrases can’t hurt.

Professor Janes: Can you describe an example of how history shapes the city?

The quiet, windy streets of Montmartre, a neighborhood untouched by Haussmann’s redesign of Paris. Photo by Jennifer Cimmarusti.

Jennifer: One of the aspects of Paris I found most intriguing were the subtle hints of history located just about everywhere. It was hard to go anywhere in the city and not be surrounded by centuries of history. Even the streets themselves had a story to tell. In the mid-19th Century under the rule of Napoleon III, Baron Georges-Eugéne Haussmann was instructed to carry out a massive urban renewal plan. Not only did this modernize the city, but it also helped with sanitation and overall cleanliness. One of his most important projects was widening the streets of Paris and to create new apartment buildings. A prime example of his work can be found on the famous Avenue de l’Opéra, the street leading up to the Garnier Opera House. Here one can see the simple architectural style that was used by Haussmann and the wide streets to allow both pedestrians and cars through. So when I say that every aspect of the city is covered in History, I literally mean every part of it.

The Place Charles de Gaulle featuring the The Arc de Triomphe is the very epitome of Haussmann’s Grand Boulevards style of modern Paris. It sits on the the historic axis connecting the Louvre Museum all the way to the La Defense business district. From this view, Jen is looking out to La Defense with Paris behind her as the sun sets on the City of Lights. Photo by Jennifer Cimmarusti.

Professor Janes: Any advice for students considering traveling on May or June terms abroad?

Jennifer: My best advice for those considering studying abroad is do not put it off. While you may be hesitant for one reason or another about traveling abroad, it is also good to consider the reasons you should go. For instance, while I love to travel I was incredibly nervous about going to a foreign country by myself with no friends or family to accompany me. It was not until I talked to you, Dr. Janes, that I began to realize the importance of studying abroad. I remember you told me that not only is it vital to my own education, but also when else in my lifetime will I be able to do something like this? So I want to encourage those students out there who were scared like me to have a little faith and take that step forward. Traveling abroad has been one of my best experiences and I would do it again tomorrow if I could.

Student Feature: Kiley Corcoran

Three hours. Two teams. One rope. The Pull is one of the longest running collegiate traditions in America. This year, for the 120th time, Even Year and Odd Year will go head to head, trying to pull as much rope as they can across the river.

In the spring semester of 2017, I researched the tradition of the Pull as part of my Hist 140 class. The first Pull is believed to have been held in 1898 (The Pull), and since then there have only been four known instances of the event being cancelled: 1918, 1943, 1944 (due to both World Wars) and 1957 (flu outbreak on campus). For safety reasons, the Pull can only last three hours before the judges call the results.

All teams are referred to by the last two numbers of their graduating year. For example, this year will be the graduating class of 2020 versus the class of 2021, who are referred to as 2-0 (two-oh) and 2-1 (two-one), respectively. Students who graduate in an odd year are part of the “Odd Year” team, and those who graduate in an even year are considered “Even Year”. The juniors (Class of ‘19) coach the freshmen (Class of ‘21), and the seniors (Class of ‘18) coach the sophomores (Class of ‘20). Each team is made up of 40 freshmen and sophomores respectively: 20 pullers and 20 moralers. The pullers are the ones pulling the rope, and the moralers tell them what to do, give them water, and keep their spirits up throughout the long event.

Kiley Corcoran at the Pull

As a member of the 2-0 Freshman Pull Team last year, I witnessed and experienced the physical and emotional toll of this event firsthand. The Pull puts the participants’ bodies through stress like nothing else. Practices lasts for three weeks in the month of September, preparing everyone’s bodies as much as possible for Pull Day. The rope itself does damage to the pullers: It tears the skin on their hands and they need to wear handmade vests in order to keep the rope from burning their sides as they pull it. An 8-0 Puller, David J. Stevens, recounts shaking an odd-year pullers hand after the event, saying “…all we could do was smile and give each other one of the firmest and most meaningful handshakes that I have ever exchanged (considering that about a quarter of the skin of my hands was still on the rope, it was also one of the most painful)” (Powe).

It’s difficult for people who haven’t participated in the Pull to understand the impact it has on its participants. Shannon Vanderspool, a 9-6 moraler, described her experience of the Pull; “But, oh, when you’re a part of it – the smell of dirt and tape, the grimy feel of the rope, the hoarse voices and blistered hands…you remember how you felt as part of the family, working and laughing and crying together. It’s inimitable” (Powe). The Pull is extremely taxing physically, but the impact it has on the campus and its participants is important. It gives students, particularly in their first year, a place to belong, and people to turn to. They’re a part of something bigger than themselves, and all the insanity and tradition is worth it to them.

If you want to see firsthand what the Pull is, this weekend is your chance. On September 30th, from 3:00-6:00 PM, both banks of the Black River will be alive with cheering, chanting, and screaming. Whether you’re standing on the Even or Odd side, the electricity in the air on Pull Day is something that has to be experienced firsthand. Only one team will get to take the victory swim in the river. We don’t know which team that is, but neither team is going down without a fight.

 

The Pull | Hope College http://www.hope.edu/offices/student-life/pull/ (accessed September 26, 2017).

Powe, Lynne. The Pull, 1898-1997: A Century of Tradition at Hope College. Holland, MI: Hope College, 1997.

Photographic Memory: My History Journey to Holland in World War I

Me in front of a wagon at a local museum, ca. 2006. I’ve always loved history and poor hair decisions.

Student Feature: by Aine O’Connor

My history begins with a photo album. The album follows the childhood and adolescence of my mother and her four siblings, tracing their stories. It is a green book overflowing with papers and letters. Everything that you could possibly imagine is stuffed in there. Birth records, First Communion Polaroids, school photos, and high school diplomas line the pages. Creases run through the binding now, and although it is almost five decades older than me, I am convinced the cracks come from the unbelievable number of times I opened it. Long before I knew what a major was, or that Hope College existed—even before I could read—I have clear memories of spending hours poring over that album.

When I finally arrived at Hope College almost exactly a year ago as an undeclared History and English major, my mind floated back to that old photo album. Since I had learned to read, books and literature had taken over my life. All I did was read, taking in unbelievable amounts of information useful to almost no one. I could have told you all of the presidents in order, and I probably would have thrown in a random fact for each one (Millard Fillmore married his schoolteacher!). But as I threw myself into my history methods class and other upper-level courses, I found myself drawn more and more to the photographic evidence. What were they trying to say, I wondered. What were photographs trying to tell me?

Ernest Vanden Bosch in his uniform.

As it turns out, both the photographs you take and the photographs you find say a lot. I learned that most poignantly this summer. Along with my two research colleagues, Avery Lowe and Natalie Fulk, I researched the Holland, Michigan and Hope College experience of World War One. I was shocked at how moving the photographs taken during this time could be, even one hundred years later. For much of the project, I followed the exploits of Hope College soldiers at the front, told mostly through Hope College’s newspaper The Anchor. This was a fascinating experience, but it was not until I started to carefully comb through yearbook photos in the Milestone that their stories became real. These were men my age,who fought and died for my country. One of them, Ernest Vanden Bosch, lost his left leg in battle, returned to Hope, and graduated four years later as president of his class. Remarkable people, leading remarkable lives, reserved for posterity in a yearbook photo.

All of these photos, and more, can be viewed at our website, “We All Must Do Our Utmost: Holland, Michigan in World War I.” While you’re there, I would advise you to take a look at the “Hollander Heroes” page, as well. Many of these men had no yearbook full of easily accessible photos to look back on. Instead, I was lucky enough to go and photograph their graves at Pilgrim Home Cemetery in Holland. Even though their journey here on Earth ended in Holland, their history journey had only just begun. Someday, when my college memories are just pictures in a photo album, I will include these soldiers, part of a history journey that is only just beginning.