Americans, Germans, and French, Oh My: The Strange Battle for Castle Itter

Wars are filled with narratives of the gallant and brave. Stories of units like the 101st Airborne, Army Rangers, Navy SEALs, Richmond Greys, Special Air Service, and others fill dramatic accounts of pivotal historical events. They became immortalized in popular culture like ‘Band of Brothers‘, ‘Twelve O’Clock High‘, ‘Sands of Iwo Jima‘, and ‘Zero Dark Thirty‘ . But what about the more bizarre? Are there accounts that challenge how traditional views of our enemies? This post comes as a special request: ‘What about some the strangest battles of World War II?’ Well, I give you the Battle for Castle Itter. Fought three days before Victory in Europe Day, troops from the U.S. 12th Armored Division joined with Wehrmacht soldiers and French prisoners-of-war to defend Itter Castle from a contingent of SS-Panzergenadier hell bent on inflicting reprisals and stubbornly refusing to surrender. For the only time in the war, American and German troops fought together in what many historians have dubbed the strangest battle of the war.

Itter Castle rises above the small town of its namesake in Tyrol, a state in western Austria. The 14th century castle served many noble courts and was nearly destroyed in the German Peasant’s War, but in 1878, after years of decay, the present-day castle was restored. Following the Anschluss in 1938 (Austria’s annexation by Germany), the Reich leased the castle from its previous owner and then later seized by Heinrich Himmler in 1943, transforming it into a prison as a sub-camp under the Dachau concentration system. Its prisoners were primarily high profile personalities such as former French prime ministers, army generals, French and Austrian resistance members, and other political leaders. As the war progressed, more prisoners from Eastern Europe were transferred to Itter Castle for manual labor. No more than about fifty prisoners were ever held at the castle during the war. Almost no one at the castle thought that they would ever been liberated due to their remoteness and small size.

Soldiers of the 55th Armored Infantry Battalion and tank of the 22nd Tank Battalion, 11th Armored Division, move through smoke filled street in Wernberg, Germany. Allied forces were capturing dozens of Germany cities, towns, and villages everyday as they pushed deeper into Germany (image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration)

As the Allies pushed into central Germany, the handwriting was on the wall for the Wehrmacht. Surrender was only a matter of time and troops were deserting for the Allied lines every day. However, diehard holdouts of Waffen-SS and Nazi zealots pressed the fight and refused to give in, even after Hitler’s suicide on April 30th, 1945. Four days later on May 3rd, a resistance member, Zvonimir Cuckovic, was dispatched from Itter Castle on the pretense of running an errand for the prison staff, but was clandestinely carrying a letter requesting a rescue from the Allies. He traveled over forty miles to Innsbruck, but the record end there. No one ever heard back from him. Following this loss and the death of the former commander of Dachau, Eduard Weiter (who fled to the castle after Dachau’s liberation and died suspiciously), prison warden Sebastian Wimmer and all remaining guards abandoned their posts. The remaining POWs seized the leftover firearms and their cook, Andreas Krobot was dispatched with a another message for liberation. He decided to bike to the closer town of Worgl only a few miles away and made contact with the local Austrian resistance forces. Within the resistance was Major Josef Gangl, a Wehrmacht commander who defected to the resistance along with some fellow soldiers. Gangl no longer believed in defeating the Allies nor supporting the Nazi Party, but with saving lives from the Waffen-SS and immediately reached out for help, both for local civilians and the Allies.

Captain John ‘Jack’ Lee Jr., a tank commander with the 23rd Tank Battalion, 12th Armored Division, XXI Corps, and a reconnaissance unit of Sherman tanks were stationed barely thirteen miles away when Gangl contacted them. He presented an ominous picture on what would happen if the Waffen-SS breached the castle before the Allies arrived. Every prisoner would be summarily executed without question. Captain Lee and Gangl drove together on a personal reconnaissance mission of the castle and after requesting reinforcements from the 142 Infantry Regiment, the Americans and sympathetic Germans made their liberation move.

Left to Right: Wehrmacht Major Josef Gangl and U.S. Army Captain John Lee Jr.

The first enemy they encountered was the logistics. Small, narrow roads and bridges blocked some of the Sherman tanks from traveling to the castle which forced Lee to leave them behind as a rearguard. This proved crucial though as it otherwise kept the majority of enemy forces from moving down the main corridor and overwhelming the castle’s defense. About thirty-six men arrived to evacuate the garrison and while the prisoners rejoiced at their liberation, they were less enthusiastic about the small size of the mission. Reports of whole Waffen-SS companies of 100 to 200 strong were in the area so how could they expect to make it out alive with just this handful?

On the evening of May 4th, Captain Lee moved every defender into position around the castle’s main keep and placed his personal Sherman tank, the ‘Besotten Jenny’, at the front entrance. He, Gangl, and another German officer, Kurt-Siegfried Schrader, wanted the prisoners to take shelter, but they refused; choosing to fight with the Germans and Americans. Throughout the night, SS patrols harassed and probed at the castle defenses looking for any weaknesses. Mortar rounds and sniper fire slashed about the fortress as the occupants prepared for the assault they knew would come at dawn. At approximately 4:00 AM, the 17th SS-Panzergrenadier Division launched their attacks from the north and west, hitting the castle with grenades and artillery. Lee’s Sherman tank held off the enemy for hours before it was finally demolished by an 88mm artillery shell. Before the battle, Gangl radioed to the Austrian resistance to send as many men as possible and request Allied artillery strikes. To his dismay though, only three individuals answered; two German soldiers and a teenage Austrian resistance fighter.

As the day wore on, Itter Castle’s defenders were running out of ammunition and hope. The rescue operation degraded into a last stand for the Americans, Germans, and French prisoners. Captain Lee needed a status report on any reinforcements from the 142nd Regiment, but radio communications were cut off. One prisoner though, a famous tennis athlete named Jean Borotra, volunteered to carry a dispatch by running through the SS gauntlet. He was quite literally their only hope for bringing back much needed troops and supplies, so Lee gave him the go-ahead. Borotra leapt over the castle walls, ran down the road, dodged a multitude of bullets, and successfully delivered the message at the regimental headquarters. He then made an additional request; a U.S. Army uniform in order to disguise himself from the Germans and rejoin the battle. By late afternoon, the tide of battle had turned and the SS quickly surrendered. Over a hundred enemy soldiers were taken prisoner and the escaped survivors surrendered two days later to the 101st Airborne in Rottach-Egern. For his courageous defense of Itter Castle, Captain Lee was awared the Distinguished Service Cross. Ironically, the only defender to be killed in action was Major Gangl. While moving former French prime minister Paul Reynaud to cover, a sniper shot Gangl in the head, killing him instantly. He was later venerated as an Austrian national hero.

Traditional historiography about World War II tells how the Allies proudly defeated the Axis Powers and triumphed in both Europe and the Pacific theaters. We constantly promoted our accomplishments and tended to overlook the nuances of those who actively resisted the course of our belligerents. For decades the story of the Battle of Castle Itter was practically a historical footnote as it didn’t qualify as a major operation, Germany had all but collapsed, and senior commanders were focused more on Berlin than other geographical areas. What makes this battle unique is not only the Wehrmacht teaming up with the Americans, but that party ideologies were overridden by the higher moral ground of saving human lives and preventing further atrocities. While the Waffen-SS saw their Wehremacht counterparts as traitors to the Nazis, the Americans saw them as comrades wanting to rescue themselves and the castle’s prisoners from certain death.

The reconstruction of Germany during the Cold War was painful; war criminals being brought to trial, Communist subterfuge by the Soviet Union, roller coaster economic recovery, and more tested the strength of German society. Even before the text on Germany’s instrument of surrender was typed up, American-German relations began healing just a little bit through the trials of battle on the walls of Itter Castle.

German and American troops celebrating their victory over the SS at Itter Castle.

Aerial Heroism: The History of the Air Medal

The 1949 film ‘Twelve O’Clock High‘ portrays a fictionalized 8th Air Force bomber crew fighting over Europe. Their hard-luck outfit suffered immensely from relentless attacks by the Luftwaffe, but slowly they regain their courage and complete a dangerous mission when other squadrons are called back. Their story, coupled with real-life counterparts, illustrates the heroic achievement and valor accompanying the brutal air war. Beginning in 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt, Congress, and the War Department created several new awards and decorations for the U.S. Armed Forces. These were meant not only to recognize service in the theaters of operation, but for heroic achievement, valor, gallantry, and meritorious service. One personal award has undergone several changes since its creation in World War II; the Air Medal.

Michael J. Novosel: Medal of Honor recipient who completed over 12,400 flying hours, 2,038 combat hours, and was awarded the Air Medal a record number of sixty-four times

Established on May 11, 1942 under Executive Order 9158, the Air Medal was created with the stated purpose:

“…to any person who, while serving in any capacity in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, or Coast Guard of the United States subsequent to September 8, 1939, distinguishes, or has distinguished, himself by meritorious achievement while participating in an aerial flight.”

Executive Order 9158, May 11, 1942

The Air Medal (AM) criteria was slightly different from an earlier award honoring aerial service, the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC). Candidates needed to complete a set number of operations under certain flight conditions. If they were exposed to enemy fire, the AM would be awarded more frequently. During the war, commanders occasionally altered these criteria to fit the conditions of the theater. European air space was deemed especially dangerous and under complete enemy control, while the Pacific theater was not. Therefore theoretically, an air crewman could receive more AMs and DFCs in Europe because of the assessed danger. At one point, a ‘score card’ system was in place to track the number of engagements and corresponding heroic achievements in order to differentiate between awarding the AM or DFC. This practice ended in August 1943 when the Army Air Force Headquarters ordered a re-evaluation of AM and DFC criteria. The number of flying hours alone was not an accurate determination and commanders needed to take into account the dangerous nature of operations also. The DFC was ordained as the higher award based on its distinction of recognizing aerial heroism above the call of duty. This re-organization did not diminish the AM’s significance though as it continues to recognize significant individual achievement and meritorious service in the air.

My grandfather’s Air Medal with a Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster, circa 1945

In the tradition of awards and decorations of the Armed Forces, each service branch used similar appurtenances on the medals and ribbons (i.e. oak leaf clusters, service stars, etc.) but in later years and between different branches, awarding the AM evolved into a complex process. Between 1942 and 1968, the Army used oak leaf clusters (OLC) but were replaced with numerals to show additional awards. Nowadays when veterans request replacement medals and the AM is in their record, the Army retroactively applies numerals and not OLCs. Let’s see an example:

A Korean War veteran received the Air Medal along with 4 OLCs; if he were to request it today, it would be issued as an Air Medal with a numeral 5. When awards are shown in a record, the numeral is always the same as the total number of awards. As with others, the medal itself is always the first award. Need some help? Well….

Air Medal with Numeral 5

Let’s do some (long drumroll) MATH!

AM w/1 OLC = AM with Numeral 2

AM w/16 OLC = Am with Numeral 17

AM (6th award) = AM with Numeral 6

AM w/14 OLC & V = AM with Numeral 15 and “V” device

AM w/1 SOLC & 1 BOLC = AM with Numeral 7

Moving onto the U.S. Air Force, oak leaf clusters have been used since the branch’s establishment. This was to recognize aerial achievements rather than the number of missions. Combat duties, operations, and support missions are central in assessing these achievements. Interesting enough, the “V” device wasn’t authorized for the Air Force until October 21, 2004. The addition of the device was not retroactive however; only from that date onward can Air Force service members receive the device. This was done to recognize heroism in combat flight, but are not eligible for the Distinguished Flying Cross.

All the preceding information sounds easy when compared to how the AM is issued by the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. Numerals are preferred over OLCs and the “V” device has been worn since the 1970s. What sets the USN and USMC apart is AMs are awarded for individual action and ‘Strike/Flight’ by participating in aerial and combat operations. What does that mean? Strikes are missions (sorties) that directly engage the enemy, such as:

  1. Firing ordnance against the enemy, i.e. long range bombing
  2. Delivering or evacuating personnel
  3. Combat sorties that encounter enemy opposition

Flights are sorties that do not encounter enemy opposition. Search and rescue operations fall under this category since they are operating, but not against an enemy. Strike/Flight are also indicated by numerals as in the example shown below:

Image courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps Uniform Regulation Code

Here we see the arrangement of award issuance, strike/flight, and the “V” device for a USN/USMC medal. The service member received the award twice, was cited for valor, and participated in 38 strike/flight sorties. The number is not broken down into combat and non-combat missions; they are counted together. A veteran would have to request their service record and their unit records to determine the nature of each operation.

But wait, there’s more! Members of the U.S. Coast Guard can receive the AM under similar criteria as the U.S. Air Force. Aerial achievement and meritorious service are recognized and the “V” device is given only if the USCG member actively engages enemy combatants. The kicker for this service branch however is that they don’t use any of the previously listed appurtenances. Instead of OLCs or numerals, they use gold and silver stars to indicate multiple awards; silver for each one after the first and the gold representing five or more.

Why do the Armed Forces do things differently with these medals if they’re all used the same way? Answers to that have evolved in tandem with the evolution of the U.S. military. While minute details for criteria determining flights, strike, meritorious service, and heroism have changed, the spirit of the Air Medal has not. Thrusting oneself into the skies and facing the prospect of never returning to the runway is a frightening thought. Pilots and crews fly away and never come back. Their bodies vanish into the sea or burn up as the plane plummets to the ground. Perhaps this is why President Roosevelt created the Air Medal: citing those who propel themselves into the air and become heroes.

Apaches in the Pacific: The Story of the 345th Bombardment Group

Captain John Yossarian was crazy, or wasn’t crazy. I mean, he kept flying combat missions and that made him crazy. But he tried getting out of flying combat missions, so that’s not being crazy? Putting aside the Catch-22, one cannot doubt the fierce fighting over the skies of Europe and the Pacific in World War II. When you read about the survival odds of heavy bomber crews and airplane pilots, the level of carnage and death they faced was unfathomable. Stories of airmen not knowing the names of their fellow crew-members because they died so quickly were commonplace. The Pacific Theater was the United States’ first foray into the global conflict, and the longest. In 1942, the Japanese Empire stretched throughout the western Pacific, conquering the Philippines, sections of Southeast Asia, mainland China, and Oceania. With the success of the U.S. Navy at the Battle of Midway, Japanese expansion halted and the United States began to work its way through the Pacific by hopping from one major island chain to the next. Controlling the airspace was just as crucial as controlling the sea lanes and in April 1943 as plans to retake New Guinea and the Solomon Islands formulated, the first United States Army Air Force (USAAF) unit arrived in the South Pacific: the 345th Bombardment Group, the ‘Air Apaches’.

A B-25 Mitchell Bomber flying over during the Battle of Wakde Island, May 1944 (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Air Force)

Originally slated for service in the European Theater, the 5th Air Force and 345th was re-routed to the Pacific in order to conduct heavy bombing raids on Japanese occupied islands. Bombers were a new element in aerial warfare; they were larger, more heavily armored, and could travel longer distances. The B-25 Mitchell was the selected plane for the 345th, a medium-range bomber with twelve machine gun emplacements, making it a deadly gunship. Their payloads of 3,000 pounds of bombs were ideal for hitting targets likes ships and airfields; what the Japanese relied on for their Pacific expansion. The B-25’s were a signature aircraft for the USAAF as they were the same models used in the Doolittle Raids on the Japanese home islands on April 18, 1942. Generals pushed the envelope on maximizing the deadly use of the bomber and the 345th led the way during its Pacific campaign.

The 345th Bombardment Group patch

New Guinea and the Bismarck Islands were the first stage of the 345th’s bombing campaign. Their actions performing reconnaissance missions, dropping supplies, and attacking Japanese ships through the Bismarck Sea arguably prevented a serious threat to Australia. Between April 1943 and July 1944, the 345th relentlessly attacked the Japanese garrisons and ships running through the sea. The triple approach of high level bombing, heavy machine gun strafing, and skip-bombing (bouncing the bomb off the water like you would skip a stone across a pond) was effective in breaking Japanese control and opening the way for the liberation of the Philippines.

Setting aside the campaign history for a moment; like modern U.S. Air Force units today, the 345th was comprised of multiple squadrons that each carried out specific missions. For its time in the Pacific, the four squadrons were:

  1. 498th Bombardment Squadron “Falcons”
  2. 499th Bombardment Squadron “The Bats Outta Hell”
  3. 500th Bombardment Squadron “Rough Riders”
  4. 501st Bombardment Squadron “Black Panthers”

These four units were the center of the entire group. From their formation in South Carolina in September 1942, the men who served in these squads did so throughout the duration of the war. When able-bodied men between 21 and 45 registered for the peacetime draft (known as Selective Service) they only anticipated serving the minimum one year commitment. When the United States declared war on Japan and Germany though, draft terms extended through the conflict. Draftees could expect to serve for as long as it took to defeat the Axis Powers; dishonorable conduct, injury, and death were the ticket out of the service. Similar to what the United States faced in the First World War, the country’s military lacked in size and armament in comparison to European nations. Rapid upgrades in military industry, expanding draft requirements, and federalizing National Guard units helped make up for lost time in 1942 as the country mobilized for war. With the construction of new medium and heavy bombers, the air war would take on more importance than ever before. Approximately four thousand men served with this unit and the training they endured was unlike what most servicemen faced in the 1940s. While the physical training was grueling enough, technical and flight training on using these new bombers was a novel challenge. Crews worked closely as a team to make sure every part of the bomber functioned and was defended by faster enemy planes.

Clark Air Field – The U.S. base was captured by the Japanese after the fall of the Philippines. During the Battle for Leyte Gulf, Japanese kamikazes flew from Clark and inflicted heavy damage on the U.S. Navy. When Americans recaptured the islands, Clark was used by the 345th to launch missions throughout the Philippines and into Southeast Asia, January 1945 (Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration)

Circling back to the 345th’s ongoing war, they took to the skies again from July to November of 1944 hitting targets in the southern Philippines. The Japanese knew that the United States would reclaim the country (heard from Gen. MacArthur’s famous address in Australia, ‘I shall return!’) and the 345th made it a point to cut a path to Luzon and clear the war for the American recapture. Mission after mission, the 345th lost hundreds of crews and bombers as they were shot down by Japanese fighter planes or hit by flak from enemy ships. During the Battle of Leyte Gulf, a kamikaze hit a group of 345th personnel stationed on the ground before they could get airborne. By the beginning of 1945, the 345th began bombing missions as far north as the Sea of Japan, hitting shipping and communication lines down through China and southeast Asia. Destroying such targets were necessary for military planners as operations were drawn up for the long anticipated invasion of the Japanese home islands (Operation Downfall). Both the United States and Japan knew that the cost in human lives would be astronomical. Intelligence analysts at the time estimated that casualty figures would easily reach into the millions as the Japanese military and civil defense organizations prepped for invasion. By July 1945, the 345th was positioned on Ie Shima in the Okinawa island chain ready to receive new combat orders. That all changed on August 6th and 9th when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were hit with the first atomic bombs. Emperor Hirohito announced the surrender six days later on August 15th and now the 345th had a different set of orders: to escort the Japanese emissaries for the formal surrender before General MacArthur. Three B-25s and fighter planes were ordered to escort the Japanese detachment to the Philippines where they began discussing the terms of surrender and allied occupation of Japan. The escort was not without some hiccups though; hard-line nationalists in the Japanese military wanted the escort shot down because tradition held that surrender was worse than death. These fears were assuaged as the 345th escort mission formed a bracket around the Japanese planes and chaperoned them safely to Manila. Surviving airmen of the 345th remained stationed on Ie Shima until they received orders to rotate back to the United States and on December 29, 1945, the unit was deactivated.

Awards were showered on the 345th Bombardment Group throughout the war. They earned multiple Distinguished Unit Citations (now called the Presidential Unit Citation), unit citations from the Philippines, numerous Air Medals, Distinguished Flying Crosses, and hundreds of Purple Hearts. They were one of the most decorated USAAF units in the Pacific Theater. But why exactly am I talking about this group? What else makes them stand out? This stems from a personal stake: my grandfather, Fred L. Richardson, served with the 345th and his squadron was the 499th ‘Bats Outta Hell’. As the COVID-19 pandemic has forced me (and millions of others) to work remotely, I had more time to think about my grandfather’s service. I knew tons of stories from childhood, but I decided that a shadowbox of his awards, photos, and other memorabilia should be erected. I obtained several old photographs he took while in the Philippines and even the original Air Medal he received in 1945, but his service record was long gone. The great fire at the old National Personnel Records Center in 1973 saw to that fate. Not to be dissuaded from a researching challenge, I assembled a working chronology of his service from the 345th’s history, the photographs, and the two surviving documents we had; his draft card and enlistment payroll record. On April 26, 1943, he signed his registration card and was drafted three months later. He officially entered the service on July 20, 1943. From here until about October 1944, there’s a gap that I cannot account for, but I do know from family stories and some of the notes on the back of the photographs, he was on leave in California before heading to the South Pacific. There’s a leave slip authorizing a trip to Australia in February 1945 and by August 1945, there are dozens of small photographs of the Japanese surrender delegation. I couldn’t believe what I saw seeing; could these be unpublished photographs from World War II? History was in my hands and now the plan is to digitize them following the completion of grandfather’s shadowbox.

Draft registration card for Fred L. Richardson – He signed it on his 18th birthday (Image courtesy of the Oklahoma State Archives via Ancestry)

The Air Apaches achieved a distinguished war record in the Pacific. They flew more missions than other flight squadrons and were a central component of the Japanese surrender. When I reflect back on the war stories my grandfather told me, I can’t help but think of what he and thousands of other airmen went through. They were heroes to many and he was, and still is, my hero.

My grandfather was pretty good-looking back in the day, yeah?

Semper Paratus: Requesting U.S. Coast Guard Medals (Special Edition)

When you ask someone ‘what branches make up the U.S. Armed Forces?’ they’ll typically answer ‘Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines’ but one that they’ll routinely forget is the U.S. Coast Guard. Indeed the Coast Guard is a service branch of the Armed Forces, but it can be overlooked occasionally. However, the U.S. Coast Guard has been in existence since the country’s founding and was championed by a notable Founding Father: Alexander Hamilton. A coastal defense and maritime law enforcement branch was personal for Hamilton, stretching back to his early days in the Caribbean when he worked for a shipping firm. Pirate raids and privateers were a constant nuisance for merchant vessels so creating a service designed specifically for coastal defense and law enforcement at sea was critical. Originally, named the Revenue-Marine, it became the Revenue Cutter Service, and following a merger with the U.S. Life Saving Service under the 1915 Coast Guard Act, the modern U.S. Coast Guard was born.

Seal of the United States Revenue Cutter Service (image courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard)

If you’ve read the preceding articles about awards and decorations for the Armed Forces, it was numbered to focus on the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. So why is this post about the Coast Guard labeled ‘special edition’? Concerning awards and medals, the Coast Guard has a special distinction that none of the other service branches can claim: only one Coast Guard service member was awarded the Medal of Honor and no member has received the second-highest medal, the Coast Guard Cross. We’ll go over those in a bit!

Requesting Coast Guard awards and decorations works similarly to the Navy and Marine Corps process outlined in the previous post (Meritorious Service).  The veteran’s Official Military Personnel Folder is reviewed by a technician at the National Personnel Records Center and then forwarded to the service branch personnel center. For the Coast Guard, this would be the Commander, Personnel Service Center in Washington D.C. There is however one important caveat to note with the Coast Guard: records are not cross-checked with lists of ship unit awards or combat actions. The technician only completes a medals request with those awards expressly noted in the service record. If a veteran believes they are entitled to an award that is not listed in their record, that request is forwarded to the service branch for verification.

Now onto the two great distinctions for the Coast Guard! During wartime, the Coast Guard transfers personnel and operations to the Department of the Navy. This has only been performed twice, during World War I and World War II by presidential order. During peacetime, the Coast Guard is under the authority of the Department of Homeland Security (before that it was the Department of Transportation, and prior to that it was the Department of the Treasury). Coast Guard members are eligible to receive Navy medals, but beginning in the late 1940s, Congress established Coast Guard versions of Navy medals to make them eligible for those service members:

  1. The Coast Guard Distinguished Service Medal: equivalent to the Navy, Air Force, and Army Distinguished Service Medal
  2. Coast Guard Medal: equivalent to the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, Army’s Soldier’s Medal, and the Airman’s Medal
  3. Commendation and Achievement medals were also established and based on existing versions of the aforementioned awards.
  4. The Lifesaving Medal is the oldest award within the Coast Guard that is still active. The medal (divided into two awards, the Gold and Silver Lifesaving Medal) is given to those rescuing people from dangerous waters. The medal was created in 1874 and the higher of the two, the Gold Medal, has only been awarded about 600 times. Technically it is not considered a military decoration and can be awarded to the public also.

On October 15 2010, Congress passed Public Law 111-281 establishing the Coast Guard Cross. The newest award was created equivalent to the Navy Cross and is given to service members who perform extraordinary acts of heroism that do not merit the Medal of Honor. The award is meant to acknowledge those distinguishing acts while serving in only a Coast Guard capacity. Despite the award being nearly 10 years old, the Coast Guard Cross has never been awarded. Not even once.

The Coast Guard Cross. The reverse side of the medal reads ‘For Valor’  (image courtesy of the U.S. Army Institute of Heraldry)

Onto the second distinction! During the Second Battle of Matanikau in the Guadalcanal Campaign of World War II, Signalman 1st Class Douglas Albert Munro used his Higgins landing craft to shield Marines that were redeploying under heavy fire from the Japanese. Leading up to the battle, Munro and his shipmate Raymond Evans were stationed at Naval Operating Base Cactus conducting support operations for the Navy and Marine Corps. On September 27, 1942, the Marines were ordered to attack Japanese positions on the Matanikau River and Munro was placed in charge of landing craft and Higgins boats sending Marines to their positions. While ferrying injured Marines back and forth, the Marines at Matanikau faced a counter-offensive and were in danger of being overrun. Munro quickly returned to the beach and laid suppressing fire on the enemy while Marines boarded the landing  craft and waited until all were secure. A couple of the landing crafts became stuck on sandbars near the beach and Munro directed other boats to move in and pick up any remaining Marines. It was at this moment that Munro was shot in the head. Evans held  Munro as he was dying and before he finally died, Munro asked if all the Marines made it out safely and smiled when Evans nodded yes.

News of Munro’s heroism reached back to the United States. Munro was immediately awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor presented to his family at the White House by President Franklin Roosevelt. The citation reads:

“For extraordinary heroism and conspicuous gallantry in action above and beyond the call of duty as Officer-in-Charge of a group of Higgins boats, engaged in the evacuation of a Battalion of Marines trapped by enemy Japanese forces at Point Cruz, Guadalcanal, on September 27, 1942. After making preliminary plans for the evacuation of nearly 500 beleaguered Marines, Munro, under constant risk of his life, daringly led five of his small craft toward the shore. As he closed the beach, he signaled the others to land, and then in order to draw the enemy’s fire and protect the heavily loaded boats, he valiantly placed his craft with its two small guns as a shield between the beachhead and the Japanese. When the perilous task of evacuation was nearly completed, Munro was killed by enemy fire, but his crew, two of whom were wounded, carried on until the last boat had loaded and cleared the beach. By his outstanding leadership, expert planning, and dauntless devotion to duty, he and his courageous comrades undoubtedly saved the lives of many who otherwise would have perished. He gallantly gave up his life in defense of his country.”

-Medal of Honor Citation for Signalman 1st Class Douglas Albert Munro

Munro’s name has been memorialized in Coast Guard vessels, facilities, monuments, VFW Posts, scholarships, and as of today is the only non-Marine to be listed in the National Museum of the Marine Corps’ Wall of Heroes. Memorial observances are held at the Coast Guard Training Center at Cape May annually with new recruits.

Douglas A. Munro Covers the Withdrawal of the 7th Marines at Guadalcanal, (1989) by Bernard D’Andrea

The U.S. Coast Guard has an incredible history and reading material about the early days of the Revenue-Marine, Revenue Cutter Service, and the U.S. Life Saving Service is extensive. For more information about the Coast Guard and its award and decorations, visit the Coast Guard’s Personnel Services Division.

Meritorious Service: Requesting U.S. Navy and Marine Corps Medals (4 of 4)

The history of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps is incredibly dense and overflowing with heroic stories of men battling the elements, fighting enemies in exotic locales, and being ready to deploy anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice. Towering ships like the USS Constitution, USS Missouri, USS Arizona, and the USS Hornet were at the center of momentous historical events that defined generations and military tradition. An illustrious history can even be heard in the Marines’ Hymn:

“From the Halls of Montezuma
To the shores of Tripoli;
We fight our country’s battles
In the air, on land, and sea;
First to fight for right and freedom
And to keep our honor clean;
We are proud to claim the title
Of United States Marine”

(The ‘Halls of Montezuma’ refers to the Battle of Chapultepec in the Mexican-American War and the ‘shores of Tripoli’ refers to the Battle of Derne in the First Barbary War). The Continental Congress quickly established both the Navy and Marine Corps during  the American Revolution to counter the British Navy, which was the largest in the world during the 18th century. Since the early 1800s, the Navy and Marine Corps were engaged in conflicts throughout the world. Despite their operations during the War of 1812, American Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and many other global conflicts, Navy and Marine Corps awards and decorations were established primarily after World War I and World War II.

The USS Constitution battling the HMS Guerriere in the War of 1812. The USS Constitution’s victory earned it the nickname ‘Old Ironsides’ (image courtesy of the U.S. Naval Historical Center)

The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps share a special distinction in the U.S. Armed Forces and other uniformed services: their medals are shared and awarded to both members of each branch. What many people don’t realize is that the Marine Corps is under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Navy (and the U.S. Navy is within the same department of course). On June 30, 1834, the Marines were combined with the Navy following an Act of Congress; ‘Act for the Better Organization of the Marine Corps‘:

“…That the said corps shall, at all times, be subject to, and under the laws and regulations which are, or may hereafter be, established for the better government of the Navy, except when detached for service with the Army, by order of the President of the United States.”

-An Act for the better organization of the Marine Corps, Statute I, Chapter CXXXII, Sec 2, Twenty-Third Congress, June 30, 1834

Although the Navy and Marine Corps share the same medals, a substantial amount of research is performed to verify awards and decorations requests. This is due to the fact that geographic assignments and time served on ships plays a significant part in determining awards. Naval ships earn what are called Battle Efficiency Awards that are given for best battle efficiency competition and overall readiness for naval operations. A common request that Navy veterans make are for ship awards they believe are eligible for; if they served on the ship when it received that award though. A number of retroactive awards, especially for WWII and Korea, are available too through recent general orders from the Department of the Navy.

Let’s look at some unique medals and awards issued by the Department of the Navy:

  1. Navy Cross: second highest award for valor in combat, equal to the Distinguished Service Cross and the Air Force Cross
  2. Navy and Marine Corps Medal: awarded for non-combat heroism equal to the Soldier’s Medal and the Airman’s Medal
  3. Navy / Marine Corps Expeditionary Medal: awarded to active duty personnel who landed in foreign territory and engaged the enemy
  4. Combat Action Ribbon: awarded to sea service members who engaged in ground or surface combat against the enemy. *This is the most commonly requested award for both service branches*
  5. Sea Service Deployment Ribbon: awarded to those serving active duty onboard a vessel at sea. *Established in 1980, it is only retroactive to August 15, 1974 so any requests for the SSDR before that date are denied*
  6. Navy E Ribbon: awarded for battle efficiency competitions for readiness and overall preparedness for that vessel and crew

The Navy and Marine Corps also issue Achievement and Commendation awards as mentioned previously in the preceding articles. Appurtenances like service stars, oak leaves, and numerals are also used along with another one called the Fleet Marine Force Combat Operations Insignia. This is issued to U.S. Navy sailors attached to Marine Corps units engaged in combat operations. Both branches also have a system of weapon marksmanship awards for different weapon types.

The 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines landing at Da Nang. They were the first US ground combat troops to land in Vietnam on March 8, 1965 (photo courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps History Division)

As any technician at the National Personnel Records Center will tell you, fulfilling requests for Navy and Marine Corps awards is a labor intensive process. This is because of the numerous resources that technicians use to cross-check where a service member was located, at what time, with what unit or vessel, and length of time overseas or deployed on a ship. Individual personnel records may not completely reflect the award history of a vessel so they are checked against a massive ledger of all ship and unit awards garnered by that vessel. For World War II, Korea, and Vietnam veterans in particular, this is combined with their eligibility for foreign awards if (and this is a big IF) they were assigned to ships that were in the sovereign waters of a country where combat actions occurred. Ledgers for Presidential, Meritorious, and Navy Unit Commendations are extensive because they track every deployment and combat action of each vessel. The same goes for the Marine Corps; their deployments and attachments to specific units and ships are heavily reviewed to see whether or not they’re eligible for awards also. Additionally, combat air wings with the Navy and Marine Corps are also separated with their awards determination. A naval combat air wing can receive an award, but the aircraft carrier transporting them doesn’t necessarily receive the same. This unit stratification is important to remember when Navy and Marine Corps veterans request their medals. If you weren’t attached to a unit or ship that received an award for being in a specific time or place, then you wouldn’t be considered eligible.

Before delving into the finer details of the Navy and Marine Corps awards themselves, it’s imperative to look at the request process as well. Similar to the Army and Air Force, requests are made through the NPRC and information is verified through the personnel folder. The Navy and Marine Corps also use a form similar to the Air Force’s NA 13059 entitled a NAVPERS 1650/96 ‘Transmittal of and/or entitlement to Awards’. Replacements are also only issued once like the Air Force and so copies of this form are put in the record and then sent to the service branch office. The Navy Personnel Command in Millington, Tennessee is responsible for the verification and replacement of Navy and Marine Corps awards.

The U.S. Navy light aircraft carrier USS Princeton (CVL-23) burning soon after she was hit by a Japanese bomb while operating off the Philippines on October 24, 1944 (Photo courtesy of the Naval History and Heritage Command)

A large number of requests for Navy and Marine Corps medals comes from World War II veterans and their families. This time period requires a significant amount of research because ships, combat air wings, and Marine Corps units attached to naval units all have a multiple lists and information to verify. Veterans who served in the Pacific Theater are eligible for awards like the Philippines Presidential Unit Citation, Combat Action Ribbons, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, Navy Occupation Medal, and the China Service Medal (given for service in waters near China between 2 September 1946 and 1 April 1957). Once a technician confirms the veteran’s on-board service, that is cross checked against that ship’s unit award history and if nothing is found, that request is complete! The same process is repeated for Korea and Vietnam veterans.

Marine Corps award requests are examined in nearly the same manner. A master list of every Marine Corps unit since the Korean War shows their unit awards, combat actions, and corresponding time frames to prove eligibility. When Marine Corps units are attached with other units that receive awards, the aforementioned Marine Corp unit receives the same unit award. Again, time and place makes a major difference in determining awards eligibility. One final, yet important disclaimer I should add here is that the NPRC only processes awards requests for veterans how have their records at the record center. Beginning in the mid-1990s, the Navy and Marine Corps began digitizing and retaining their own service records.

Let’s look at an example! Assume that all the supporting documentation exists for the veteran’s request for all entitled medals and awards:

  1. Enlisted in the U.S. Navy on January 5, 1943
  2. Served on the USS Denver from 1 October 1944 to 30 November 1945
  3. Stationed in Japan following surrender in September 1945

Here’s what we’ve got! From left to right, top to bottom:

  1. Combat Action Ribbon: participated in combat against the enemy during the Battle of Leyte Gulf
  2. Navy Unit Commendation: received for serving on board the USS Denver during the Battle of Leyte Gulf
  3. Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with bronze service star: service in the Pacific Theater
  4. World War II Victory Medal: active duty between 7 December 1941 to 31 December 1946
  5. Navy Occupation Medal: stationed in occupied Axis country, Japan
  6. Philippine Presidential Unit Citation: meritorious service in the Pacific Theater and actions in the Philippines
  7. Philippine Liberation Medal: participated in the liberation of the Philippine Islands from Japanese forces

Now let’s look at a Marine Corps example. Again, assume that all the supporting documentation exists in the personnel folder:

  1. Enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps on 10 June 1964
  2. Served in Vietnam with the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines from 30 August 1965 to 15 November 1966
  3. Participated in Operation Prairie and Deckhouse
  4. Wounded once in combat
  5. Received a commendation for heroic acts

Here’s what we’ve got! From left to right, top to bottom:

  1. Purple Heart: sustaining wounds during combat
  2. Navy and Marine Corps Commendation: for heroic acts performed during combat operations
  3. Combat Action Ribbon: participated in combat operations against the enemy
  4. National Defense Service Medal: for active duty service during a conflict
  5. Vietnam Service Medal with one bronze service star: received for serving in the Republic of Vietnam
  6. Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Unit Palm Citation: received the foreign unit award for being attached to the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines while serving in Vietnam
  7. Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with 1960 device: foreign award for serving in Vietnam

These examples are not meant to be 100% accurate, but they are to give a general conception of what typical awards are eligible for Navy and Marine Corps veterans. For more information on Navy and Marine Corps awards and decorations, you can visit the Navy Personnel Command website here: Navy Personnel Command.

I hope this article series on U.S. Armed Forces awards and decorations has been informative and helpful! You can also visit the National Personnel Records Center website to begin the request process for medals (NPRC website). Happy researching!

Distinguishing Service: Requesting U.S. Army Medals (2 of 4)

For as long as the United States Army has existed, there have been awards and decorations that were given for acts of valor and heroism.  Since the American Revolution, such awards were not specifically regulated until World War I, but ones like the Badge of Military Merit were forerunners to the Purple Heart. The Medal of Honor, established during the American Civil War, was the first to be regulated following Congressional legislation and was accompanied by benefits. At the turn of the 19th century, the Spanish-American War resulted in the first use of campaign medals and the creation of retroactive medals like the Civil War and Indian War campaign medals. It wasn’t until World War I and during World War II that the Department of the Army, Congress, and the White House began instituting more types of medals for its service members.

Sgt. William Harvey Carney, the first African American soldier to receive the Medal of Honor. He was decorated for his courage under fire and valor in saving the regimental colors during the Battle of Fort Wagner in the American Civil War. He didn’t receive the medal for at least 37 years after the battle (Photo courtesy of James Reed, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University)

Since 1917, there have been dozens of new medals and updated version of obsolete ones. We’ve seen the creation of the Purple Heart, Silver Star, Bronze Star, Distinguished Service Cross and Medal, the Soldier’s Medal, and the Army Commendation Medal and Army Achievement Medal. These don’t even include the large number of service awards like the Army Service Ribbon, NCO (Non-commissioned Officer) Professional Development Ribbon, Overseas Service Ribbon. It still doesn’t even account for all the Army Reserve awards either or even the Weapons Qualifications badges either. Unit awards are a whole other category as well with the Presidential Unit Citation, Valorous Unit Citation, and much more. Within the Department of the Army (DOA), there are civilian-grade awards as well for public service and meritorious achievement which are given to civilian employees within the Army. In summary, the U.S. Army has exponentially grown its list of personal awards and even more so with each conflict that the U.S. Army engages with the enemy overseas. This article continues from the previous post (Gallantry and Valor) by describing various types of U.S. Army medals, what medals belong to which conflict, retroactive awards, and how veterans can request their medals through the National Personnel Records Center. Because of the immense catalog of awards and decorations, more in-depth research can be done privately on the history of Army awards and so here we’ll highlight some of the most common facets and types of medals.

As previously stated in ‘Gallantry and Valor‘ awards are divided into categories such as personal decorations, service, campaign, weapon badges, and unit awards. There are those a veteran receives for meritorious and heroic actions, for participating in a campaign during wartime, for personal achievement, and for serving with a specific unit that is decorate as a whole. Within each category, there’s a system of appurtenances to denote multiple issuance of the same award (oak leaf clusters, service stars, numerals, devices, etc.). These are used by all the service branches of the United States Armed Forces.

Lt. Gen. James H. Doolitte pictured with his awards and appurtenances. Doolittle became famous for the raids on the Japanese home islands following the attack on Pearl Harbor. They became known as the ‘Doolittle Raids’ (photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force)

A new award is established primarily by these methods:

  1. The DOA establishes criteria for a new award or decoration.
  2. Congress authorizes an award by passing specific legislation.
  3. The President signs an executive order creating a new award.
  4. The Department of Defense (DOD) establishes criteria for a new award.

Medals and awards are not normally established during peacetime. Between the Spanish-American War and World War I, there were practically no new medals and even fewer recipients because the peace-time army was so small. It’s only during wartime that you can see the explosion of new medals and decorations. These are created to recognize the type of conflict and whether or not a person directly participated in combat actions or served in another capacity. Service members can receive awards automatically for being on active duty.

The National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) and DOA follow a specific criteria for determining an Army veteran’s medals, which is pulled directly from their Official Military Personnel Folder. Technicians review records thoroughly and cross-check it with lists and ledgers from the DOD to ensure that they are eligible for unit awards. Here’s a breakdown of automatic medals eligible to veterans by directly participating in a campaign overseas against an enemy:

World War I

The World War I Victory Medal (the medal was affixed with battle clasps denoting the battle the soldier fought in as well)

World War II

From left to right, top to bottom: American Defense Service Medal (active duty before December 7th, 1941), American Campaign Medal (service in the American Theater), Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal (service in the Pacific Theater), European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal (service in the European Theater), World War II Victory Medal (active duty between December 7, 1941 to December 31, 1946), Army Occupation Medal (for serving in the occupation forces in WWII Axis countries).

Korean War

National Defense Service Medal (active duty during an armed conflict), Korean Service Medal (active duty service in South Korea between June 27th, 1950 and July 27th, 1954), United Nations Service Medal (international award issued with KSM), Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation (retroactive unit award issued by the Republic of Korea for veterans that participated in conflict)

Vietnam War

National Defense Service Medal (active duty during an armed conflict), Vietnam Service Medal (active duty in the Republic of Vietnam from July 4, 1965 to April 30, 1975), Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Unit Palm Citation (foreign medal awarded retroactively to all U.S. Army veterans with Vietnam service), Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with 1960 device (foreign medal awarded retroactively to all U.S. Army veterans with Vietnam service)

Desert Storm / Gulf War

National Defense Service Medal (active duty during an armed conflict), Southwest Asia Service Medal (active duty service in Southwest Asian region between August 2, 1990 and November 30, 1995), Kuwait Liberation Medal (Saudi Arabia version, active service in the Persian Gulf), Kuwait Liberation Medal (Kuwait version, participated in Operation Desert Storm)

Global War on Terrorism (Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, etc.)

From left to right, top to bottom: National Defense Service Medal (active duty during an armed conflict), Afghanistan Campaign Medal (service in Afghanistan from October 24, 2001 to present day), Iraq Campaign Medal (service in Iraq from March 19, 2003 to December 31, 2011), Inherent Resolve Campaign Medal (direct participation in Syria combat actions from June 15, 2014 to present day), Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal (deployed overseas against terrorism from September 11, 2001 to present day) Global War on Terrorism Service Medal (supported operations to counter terrorism from September 11, 2001 to present day),

Medals and other awards can also be issued retroactively if a veteran fits certain eligibility. A large number of awards requests submitted to the NPRC are for retroactive awards that a veteran wants or needs for things such a admission to a VFW or American Legion or VA benefits. Here are some common instances of retroactive Army awards that are given based on certain qualifications:

  1. World War II veterans that received the Combat Infantryman Badge or the Combat Medical Badge are also eligible for the Bronze Star Medal.
  2. Service members who were stationed in South Korea since July 28th, 1954 qualify for the Korea Defense Service Medal. The KDSM was established in December 2002 and is the most requested retroactive Army award.
  3. Service members that served in specific countries within a set time frame are eligible for the Armed Force Expeditionary Medal (criteria set and approved by the Department of Defense.
  4. Veterans of the Korean War that served on active duty in South Korea were eligible to wear the Korean War Service Medal. This is a foreign award that initially was declined by the DOA to wear. In 1999, the Army finally authorized the wearing of the medal.

Requesting awards and decorations from the NPRC can be a lengthy process depending on the nature of the request. If a veterans wants all awarded and eligible medals, the technician reviews documents citing awards such as the DD Form 214, DA 20 Chronological Record, orders, and DOD unit awards lists. Once this is completed, the technician submits the information to the Army TACOM in Philadelphia, which oversees the heraldry office that re-issues medals. All the submitted information is verified and if there’s any conflicting item, the Army Human Resources Command at Fort Knox gives the final say in determining a medal. The NPRC’s only role is providing documentation; the awards come from the Army itself. In the case of the Army, only the next-of-kin can request medals and can be issued multiple times under certain conditions. Awards information can also be obtained by the public through a FOIA request, but the physical medals won’t be; the NPRC only sends a list.

That was a lot to read! But let’s give a sample scenario:

A U.S. Army veteran requests his medals and gives these criteria (and let’s assume that the record contains all supporting documentation):

  • He served in Vietnam from 1 July 1966 to 30 June 1968
  • His MOS was Infantry
  • He was wounded in combat twice
  • There are citations for a Bronze Star Medal with “V” device
  • He served with the 4th Infantry Division the entire time overseas
  • He was briefly captured by the North Vietnamese Army and has bonafide documentation as a prisoner of war

  1. The veteran received the Combat Infantryman Badge for his combat role.
  2. Bronze Star Medal with “V” device because of in-record citation.
  3. Purple Heart with a bronze oak leaf cluster because of being wounded twice in combat.
  4. Prisoner of War Medal for being a captive of enemy forces.
  5. National Defense Service Medal for active duty during an armed conflict.
  6. Vietnam Service Medal with four bronze service stars for time in country.
  7. Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Unit Palm Citation (automatic award for all U.S. Army veterans who served in Vietnam).
  8. Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with 1960 device (automatic award for all U.S. Army veterans who served in Vietnam).
  9. Presidential Unit Citation with bronze oak leaf cluster because unit received award twice while attached to the 4th Infantry Division.

Hopefully this information has been helpful! Check back for the next chapter that will focus on the U.S. Air Force awards and decorations, eligibility, and request process.

 

Horrifying and Profound: ‘Maus’ by Art Spiegelman

The Holocaust was without a doubt one of the darkest moments in world history. Systematic murder, genocide, and the closest that humanity has come to exterminating an entire group of people. The Nazis ‘Final Solution’ of removing the Jewish influence from the European continent orchestrated by some of the most reviled men in history remains as a solemn reminder of how a heinous ideology can poison a national consciousness.  Countless scholars, historians, and academics have written about the Holocaust’s significance. To many, the gruesome details of such a genocide are hard to internalize, even with visiting the concentration camp sites in Central Europe. Cartoonist and author Art Spiegelman took a unique approach in recounting his parents’ Holocaust saga; a graphic novel.

Maus‘ combines an intricate story of Art’s parents Vladek and Anja survival during the Holocaust and a present narrative where Art listens to the experience from his father, framing the ‘Maus‘ story. The most significant aspect of ‘Maus‘ is the anthropomorphic characters. They’re  all drawn as specific animals; Jews as mice, Germans as cats, Americans as dogs, Poles as pigs, French as frogs, etc. The ethnic and racial comparisons between the animals and people seems straightforward on the surface; Germans are hunting Jews like cats hunt mice and are defeated by dogs, representing the Americans, but the metaphor delves much deeper than that. Transforming the characters into animals rather than drawing them as human was meant to illustrate the absurd notion of dividing people along racial lines. Others have argued that there’s not consistency to the metaphor as some characters that would be identified as one race are drawn as another. Racial division is a complex theme in ‘Maus‘ as readers could debate which was the more accurate depiction or whether it is necessary at all.

Art Spiegelman’s artwork and interpretation of characters as animals is a signature feature of the book

Maus‘ is definitely not for the faint of heart. Graphic scenes resurrect the Holocaust’s brutality in historical accuracy that is tinged with biographical influence. We often hear the official histories and narratives surrounding World War II history, but to hear it from someone who was there adds another level of chilling horror. ‘Maus’ certainly does grab your attention on many levels.

Maus‘ is split into two parts, ‘My Father Bleeds History’ and ‘Here My Troubles Began’. The story chronicles Vladek’s life before the war, his family’s survival in the Polish ghettos, and the brutal imprisonment at both the Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps. The happy reunion between Valdek and Anja concludes the book on a grand cathartic note, the perseverance of hope against the clutches of death. What this book offers in place of the traditional historical research is the deeply personal connection between the author and subject; father and son. Interspersed with the father’s Holocaust survival are their various feuds on different subjects. Art makes it apparent that the most difficult part of his childhood was growing up with a father whose Holocaust experience altered his personality and habits. But then again, who wouldn’t have changed after going through what millions of Jews and other prisoners did in World War II.

One theme that stands out with ‘Maus‘ is the interpretation of race. Circling back to the characters depicted as animals, Art Spiegelman’s rendering sparks continuous debate over how racial division has been seen throughout history. The complexity inherent with race that groups like the Nazis perpetuated was reducing it down to its simplest terms. They saw people like the Jews as completely inferior to them and professed their own superiority. By categorizing enemies of the state in this way, the foundations of genocide were laid and persecution went unabated. I first read ‘Maus‘ in college and when the professor asked us about the different meanings behind why the characters were drawn as they were, she posed the question ‘what if the author meant to show that dividing people along racial lines was a stupid practice?’ We conjured our own responses, but there was no general consensus. The most significant theme was the most open-ended; there is never a clear-cut understanding of how or why people see race in different facets. Only that history records it for our posterity.

The entrance to Auschwitz I and the infamous gate ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (Work Sets You Free)

While not your typical academic interpretation of the Holocaust, ‘Maus‘ is certainly a must-have in the avid reader’s library. Just don’t try to read it all at once; the art alone is enough to make you set it down, walk away, and say to yourself, ‘Wow, I can’t believe humanity was capable of such evil, and how anyone lived to tell their story.’