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Harry Gartner, oral history and personal primary sources

Harry Gartner passed away recently. And unless you’re a huge World War II history buff, that probably doesn’t mean much.

For those who aren’t huge World War II buffs, Harry Gartner was drafted in May 1944, given 17 weeks of basic training and shipped to Europe in December. Within days of arriving in England with minimal training and no experience, he was on the front lines in Luxembourg, fighting to repel Hitler’s last ditch effort in the Battle of the Bulge.

Yesterday, I talked a bit about Dick Winters and how we need to have our kids collect and organize their own primary source documents. Stephen Ambrose collected oral histories as part of his National World War II Museum project, leading to his book Band of Brothers.

We can and should model this sort of primary source collecting for our students and ask them to do the same.

Lindell Redington, a teacher friend of mine, started the process with her father, Harry Gartner. She began collecting oral histories, stories and photographs last year and has put together a quick and easy model for the rest of us.

Like Ambrose and Winters, Lindell asked her father to describe his experience as an enlisted soldier during World War II, recorded his account and, along with some photos, published it in a Word document.

It’s a pretty typical story. After 17 weeks of basic training in Alabama, Harry and others eventually ended up in Boston for transport to Europe:

As our names were called, we answered “Yep” and walked up the gangplank carrying full gear.  Around 5:00 P.M. on December 12, we set sail for England.

After arriving in England, Harry’s group was shipped to Cherbourg, France:

Once on shore we were marched to a basement.  There were about thirty of us in that location.  All around were buildings that the Germans had bombed; they were just piles of rubble.

The group was then rushed to Luxembourg to help slow down attacks being made by experienced, highly trained German tank divisions. Eventually he jumped off the back of a truck and was instructed to walk up a hill with rifle loaded:

The Germans were to the right, and the Americans to the left. At the top of that hill we turned left and headed into the forest.  Once in the forest, we met the rest of the company.  They had been pushed back about a mile.  There were only thirty-three soldiers left after that attack.  It was quite a feeling knowing that only thirty-three of two hundred plus had survived.

The Germans began shooting shells into the forest.  You can hear those shells coming.  We were told to hit the foxholes.  Another guy and I jumped in and lay on our rifles to keep them from getting dirt in them.  A shell hit so close it shook the logs over our heads and we were covered with about three inches of sand.  Some soldiers never got any further than that; they were killed as they were being organized into platoons.  We stayed in that forest for two days.

Accounts recorded by Ambrose describe the bitter cold of that winter. Harry suffered in similar ways:

Our squad was then sent down to a roadblock to dig new foxholes.  But the ground was frozen so hard we could not dig any holes.  We hid behind the pine trees for cover.  Our soldiers had grenades and a flame thrower used to blow up tanks.  We could hear the German tanks, but they never came to the roadblock.  There was about five inches of snow on the ground and we had no overshoes.  That night we were sent to the front lines.  The men walked twelve abreast—one squad.  Each squad followed the other in that formation.  We had to step over dead soldiers as we walked.  When we arrived at the front lines, we used the foxholes that had already been dug.  Two men per foxhole.

It was so cold I had to punch the ice plug out of the neck of the canteen to get any water.  Men also got frostbite from the cold.  I had to take off my boots and rub my feet.  I wore two pairs of socks.  When the socks got damp, I placed them on my head under my helmet to dry out.  There was no washing or shaving while we lived in those foxholes.  We were dirty and had whiskers down to here.

On January 5th, Harry was sent back from his foxhole to get something to eat. On the return trip of half a mile, Harry’s group began receiving mortar fire:

I felt something hit the back of my leg.  It felt like I had been hit hard with a stick.  I went down.  Richard Helling was in front of me.  I called to him and told him I had been hit.  He said he was down, too.  The man behind us was also down.  I called to him but there was no answer.  I passed out.  When I came to, the snow around me was soaked with blood.

He eventually made it back to the states with a “million-dollar wound” but he noticed something in the company aid station as he was being treated:

It was a German farmhouse.  The family was gone, but all their belongings were still there.  There were German Bible verses on the wall—the same verses on the wall at my home.

A typical story. With typical events.

Unless you’re Lindell.

Then not so typical.

For Lindell, it means a connection to her father that wasn’t there before. These are the kinds of stories that have emotional impact for the people who collect them. Emotional impact means long-term learning.

When students collect these types of primary sources, we don’t have to worry about motivating them to learn. But we do need to work to help kids find interesting stories, help them see the larger context and help structure the learning.

And, like Lindell, a good example never hurts.

Three useful online resources:

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