In Defense of Stephen AmbroseHistorians/History
First, we have celebrity bashing. Not only Ambrose, but several other widely known historians have come under rather savage attack recently. It's hardly a wonder that student knowledge of history is plunging when the craft is under such ridicule. The notion is abroad that our best known writers are frauds (a thought that doubtless reassures tens of thousands of students who are busy cutting and pasting at this moment). As for the quality of Ambrose's scholarship, I have carefully read several of his books and I find his research and writing outstanding. His work on Eisenhower and Nixon, for example, is the best scholarship out there, and everyone else depends on him. He shows a remarkable command of primary sources.
Second, there is the charge of 'plagiarism.' Let's be scholars here. It is defined by the American Historical Association's statement as:
"The expropriation of another author's text, and the presentation of it as one's own, constitutes plagiarism....The clearest abuse is the use of another's language without quotation marks and citation." (http://www.theaha.org/standard_02.htm)Turning to the Chicago Manual of Style, section 10.3 states:
"Whenever authors paraphrase or quote from sources directly, they should give credit to words and ideas taken from others. In most instances a note ... is sufficient acknowledgment."Webster's 3rd International Dictionary defines to"plagiarize" as:
"to steal and pass off as one's own (the ideas or words of another); use (a created production) without crediting the source 'a learned book of his had been coolly plagiarized and issued in short version' Times Literary Supplement' // to commit literary theft: present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source"From a university guide at http://www.library.ualberta.ca/guides/plagiarism/terminology.html:
"Deliberate Plagiarism: Waltman describes intentional plagiarism as"the wholesale copying of another's paper with the intention of representing it as one's own" (Lathrop and Foss 163). In addition, the definition of deliberate or intentional plagiarism includes the theft of another person's ideas."Thus the scholarly meaning of plagiarism involves taking the ideas or creative achievements of someone else and presenting them as your own, with a deception of the reader. Somehow we have reached a point where non-historians in the mass media are on the loose with a new definition, one that drops the deception requirement and instead searches for strings of identical alphanumeric characters (Indeed there are computer programs that do just exactly this.). Journalist Timothy Noah on the PBS"News Hour" [1-28-02] said it flatly:"The quotation marks are the key thing that defines plagiarism." This I suggest is a perversion of humanistic scholarship and needs to be stamped out.
The professional rule for humanities scholars is clear: plagiarism is an attempt to deceive the reader by using a source AND by not footnoting it. Students, alas, do this all the time. They copy entire encyclopedia articles and sign them as their own work. The AHA definition has recently been endorsed by the Organization of American Historians. By the AHA standard, Ambrose has not been guilty of plagiarism.
I have looked at the allegations published on the WWW, and 'not one' meets the AHA test.
In no case has Ambrose ever tried to deceive the audience or left out the citations. In every instance that has been cited, Ambrose paraphrased sources and footnoted them correctly. That is 'exactly' the technique professional historians teach their students. The suggestion that when students do that they would be severely punished by the university is a false canard -- and shows the degraded level of the debate (The assertion is made without footnotes or references to any sources--a sin that Ambrose has always avoided.). The main charges seem to come from a writer at Forbes magazine, who clearly does not understand scholarship. He, for example, makes the charge that Ambrose plagiarized the popular historian Cornelius Ryan. Ryan had interviewed generals and included their exact words in his book. Ambrose quoted the exact words, attributing them to the general, and citing a secondary source that referenced Ryan. Ambrose did not use a singe word written by Ryan -- and yet Forbes calls foul. Repeatedly Forbes charges plagiarism when Ambrose tries to capture in the original words the original feelings of one of his characters, such as George McGovern. Forbes is saying that Ambrose is trying to deceive readers into believing that the words attributed to McGovern in 1945 were really Ambrose's thoughts 55 years later. This is preposterous.
The third level involves a historian's use of primary source material which is taken not from the original manuscript but second-hand from a secondary source. Every scholar does this because of the obvious impossibility of reading every source that exists. (On World War Two, there are millions of pages of documents in many languages.) In every case, Ambrose paraphrased the secondary sources he used, and footnoted them. That is what we teach our students to do. Here's an example of one of the crimes cited by Forbes and repeated by HNN: can you spot the plagiarism?
Monaghan, pg. 11:"Boy and man, Custer preferred to express himself on paper rather than orally."
Ambrose, pg. 92:"After school he would write of his emotions to her--boy and man, Autie always found it easier to say what he felt on paper rather than to speak it out..."
[Answer, Ambrose shamelessly duplicated the three words"Boy and man"].The critics I suppose would insist on this punctuation:"After school he would write of his emotions to her--"boy and man," Autie always found it easier to say what he felt"on paper rather than" to speak it out..."
Ambrose's crime turns out to be--bad punctuation! Note that the revised punctuation badly garbles the statement and surely confuses the reader. Freshman are taught to dip their fingers in a holy water font and sprinkle their text with dots, thereby averting the dreaded F-for-Plagiarism. This undergraduate wisdom has been twisted into the dogma that anyone who neglects the dots is doomed to eternal perdition.
Here's a more interesting Forbes-crime:
Monaghan describes Custer's return to the U.S. Military Academy after a furlough:"On August 28, 1859, Custer returned to West Point. Cadet James Barroll Washington, a great-great-grandnephew of George Washington, entered that year. He remembered hearing the crowd shout, 'Here comes Custer!' The name meant nothing to him, but he turned, and saw a slim, immature lad with unmilitary figure, slightly rounded shoulders, and gangling walk."
Here is Mr. Ambrose's version:"When he returned to West Point, Cadet James B. Washington, a relative of George Washington, remembered hearing the crowd shout, 'Here comes Custer!' The name meant nothing to Washington, who was just entering the Academy, but he turned and saw a slim, immature lad with unmilitary figure, slightly rounded shoulders, and gangling walk, surrounded by back-slapping, laughing friends."Notice that Ambrose paraphrased Monaghan's words, and did NOT mindlessly repeat them. He cited the source; there is no deception. The critics never say what Ambrose should have done. I suppose they believe that punctuation something like this is right:
When he"returned to West Point, Cadet James" B."Washington," a relative"of George Washington,""remembered hearing the crowd shout, 'Here comes Custer!' The name meant nothing" to Washington, who was just entering the Academy,"but he turned and saw a slim, immature lad with unmilitary figure, slightly rounded shoulders, and gangling walk," surrounded by back-slapping, laughing friends.Note that Monaghan did NOT use quotes to tell us what adjectives he took from the documents, and which ones he invented out of thin air. In fact, the words Ambrose quoted are not Monaghan's. He got them from a letter written by a Westpointer. Ambrose correctly quoted the primary source --and did NOT use Monaghan's words or ideas. This exculpating factoid Forbes could have discovered in two minutes using google.com to find this link: http://www.c-span.org/guide/books/booknotes/chapter/fc101396.htm)
Forbes's writer is an incompetent historian; is he someone the historical profession should turn to for ethical guidance? I looked at the current issue: Forbes has many editors and writers who effortlessly generate tens of thousands of nonfictional factoids and idealets, even some purported history. There are no footnotes, citations or bibliographies -- no references to any primary or secondary sources at all. Every paragraph seems to contain facts and ideas, yet none are referenced. Forbes is a rather strange seminary for the education of scholarly exegetes and ethicists. Forbes also publishes American Heritage--that must be its graduate school. Mark Twain once advised, never argue with someone who buys ink by the barrel. So instead of suing Forbes, Ambrose should ship them a barrel of quotation marks, and a thousand gross of Ibids.
Thus the outside critics worship those sacred quote marks, thereby privileging the secondary source as more important than the original text. This is heresy, and in the Custer story, it is the devil's work. What you have are two different scholars (Monaghan and Ambrose) approaching the same original episode. Monaghan clearly did not see the original letter (he misattributed it) -- so Monaghan used some secondary source, which in turn was based on who-knows-what. Use of secondary sources requires a footnote and Ambrose always obliges. Getting the facts right is what scholarship is all about--piling up quotes inside of quotes is not a shortcut nor a sacred duty. If the heretics' standards were to be applied, scholarship would come to a screeching halt. And"readers" would"scream" at the"punctuated garbage" they"would be""offered" [Should we write that way??]. Paraphrases that are too close to the secondary source are sins say the heretics--and yet scholarship requires the historian to get as close as possible to the original word.
I might add that Forbes and that ilk have failed to do their basic scholarly research--they did not check the primary ur-source against either Ambrose or the secondary source. They ignore the central rule of all scholarly history: Be True to the Sources.
The fourth level involved here is how historians write narrative history from the sources. I think the goal is to get as close as possible to the original actors, and using their words and descriptions or explanations is vital. This is what distinguishes history from fiction. We stick close to the facts and to the words. Ambrose has done a very good job of that, and that's what makes his books realistic, convincing and popular. He does not rely on a theoretical jargon --incantations like"gender/class/race" that are six stages removed from the sources. This last issue, the fifth and lowest one, seems to be where his academic critics are coming from. If Ambrose does not chant their sacred jargon he must be cast out and delegitimized. That is a sad plight for the once honorable history profession.
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James Michael Crain - 10/26/2006
If Mr. Balkoski is not aware that S.L.A. Marshall developed his technique during his recording of the fighting on Kwajalein atoll in the Pacific, that is his fault and not Dr. Jensen's. That he does not know this is strange, since he does know that Marshall did not get to interview the survivors to the 116th Regiment until it was fighting around Breast.
Mr. Balkoski should also know that Marshall did not say that Zappacosta held a gun to the coxswain's head. His words (as reprinted in his book, Battle at Best) were:
"In the command boat, Captain Ettore V. Zappacosta pulls a Colt .45 and says, 'By God, you'll take this boat straight in.' His display of courage wins obedience, but it's still a fool's order. Such of Baker's boats as try to go straight in suffer Able's fate without helping the other company whatever."
Jimmy Greens, who commanded the LCAs, says it would be physically impossible for someone in the personnel bay of an LCA to hold a pistol to the head of the coxswain; and Marshall's following sentence indicates that it was Zappacosta's display of resolution, and not any threat of harm to the coxswain, that induced the sailor to deposit them onto the killing field of Dog Green. In paraphrasing Marshall's account, Ambrose deleted that following sentence; but he did NOT claim that the pistol was pointed at anyone's head.
If the descendents of the crews of those LCAs feel that statements that their ancestors were frigntened about going into the beach are false, they have totally unrealistic views of their ancestors. Indeed, according to Marshall, the act of four of the coxswains in veering away from Dog Grees saved the rest of Baker Company, which then secured Vierville.
As far as the troop carrier pilots is concerned, the West Point Atlas of American Wars contains a map (Chart A, following Map 49, Vol II) showing the locations where MOST of the "sticks" (planeloads) of paratroopers were dropped. The map covers an area of approximately 18 miles north to south, and 24 miles east to west. It is centered about a mile and a half northwest of Ste. Mere Eglise. The exceptions are three sticks dropped four miles west of the map area; 4 dropped four miles, and four more dropped six miles, north of the area portrayed (Cherbourg is six miles northwest of that area); two dropped three miles, one dropped four miles, and eleven dropped twelve miles south of the map area, and two dropped ten miles to the east! Of the sticks which were dropped into the map area, in only two cases were they clustered too closely together to allow individual location. One group of 26 sticks landed at the south edge, and fourteen more landed at the northeast edge, of the drop zone located east of Ste. Marie du Mont (eight other sticks are individually shown landing on that drop zone) -- which (Murphy's Law works!) was the only drop zone under direct German fire! Anyone wanting sympathy from me for the transport pilots is going to have to come up with a really good explanation for why they scattered six paratroop regiments over that large an area!
James M. Crain
Don Smith - 12/22/2003
A while back I read a similar argument on MArk Bando's 101st website "Trigger Time" (note: attribution). This is the article:
The basis of the argument seems to be not the courage of troop carrier crews (something I have never seen mentioned before now) but a denial that paratroopers were misdropped in Normandy. While one could certainly make points against the first proposition, the secon dis certainly valid.
Jane M Evans - 9/11/2002
Dear Kevan Elsby,
I read your account on the web, as I watched the Omaha veterans talking on TV last night here in Britain. I have written with two colleagues a book on Mulberry, as not many people know that much of the trials of the various components and craft etc., took place in the bay that lies in our view from our house. I wondered if in fact it would be of any interest to you as it comprises extracts from many of the "men at the top" as well as designers, constructors and men who didn't know where they were going until they got to Arromanches.
Betsy Trane - 7/22/2002
Thank you to Jensen. Really, this whole thing has gotten so out of hand. I hope somebody else out there can practice a little charity and repeat Anne Morrow Lindbergh's description of how she viewed her husband after his death. Stand away and look at the whole of his life, like a tree downed in the forest, and measure it by what he accomplished over hte spand of many years, and not be distracted by one branch.
For those who are not professional historians, this debate on quotation marks, attributions and sources is silly. Ambrose introduced American history to many readers from the general public -- and it is now their pleasure to pursue topics at their own pace. They may even pick up a book by an academic historian if it is written in plain English and doesn't drown the reader in obscure footnotes. For my money, footnotes should be both informative AND charming, or just list sources at the back of the book. That's the first thing most experienced readers will look at anyway if they want to know where the author has been.
How many historians can claim they have the talent to give readers the itch to learn more, and start them on the path of reading American history, visiting key historic sites, practicing lifelong learning? Give Ambrose his due, no more, and that is a lot.
R.J. Hils - 6/14/2002
Jensen turns "I know there were tales" to "numerous reports" and then becomes indignant that the authors of the comments haven't supplied him with enough information...and this constitutes a "whitewash". That is a pretty far leap of reasoning. You have two participants with two different experiences. Historians have become real fond of collecting oral history and using it to tell a story yet they seem unable or unwilling to corroborate much of the oral history with official records or other eyewitnesses before committing it to print. They also fail to explore operational details which in the end expose their poor scholarship. Example: The observer reports in his oral history witnessing the B-26's on their bombing run to soften up German defense fortifications at Normandy. The bombs land in the water short of the beach so the historian interprets that to mean that the the B-26 crews did a lousy job of bombing the fortifications and commits his assesment to print. He doesn't interview a pilot nor does he check the official records. If he had he would have found out that the B-26 mission had been to bomb submerged mines in the path of the landing craft. There are war stories and then there are "war stories" seperating the two is the job of the historian yet many seem unwilling to do the hard work. Historians Marshall and Ambrose substituted embellishment for the hard work of research. In Marshall's case the only soldier who survived from his landing craft says the pistol to the head of the coxwain didn't happen, Marshall fabricated it. Had the coxwain been responsible for the deaths of all of his unit except him, I doubt seriously that Bob Sales would have defended him against Marshall's allegation. The military has a rather exacting habit of punishing deriliction of duty especially where deaths of men are involved. I challenge Jensen to produce any official record, American or British that shows the allegations to have been reported officially and recorded and or charges brought. Such records would be found in the unit's war diary. Strangely these legends take on a life of their own. Troop Carrier fell victum first to the war stories of some paratroopers whose comments fall far beyond their knowledge of the facts, Marshall commited these oral histories to the record with out corroboration of the aircrews, their records nor did he have any interest in elements central to any airborne operation. If Troop Carrier pilots were responsible for killing and injuring so may paratroopers how is it I can find no records of formal charges or courts martial for their dereliction of duty? Ambrose embellished futher upon Marshall's inept research and added a few more fabrications for his D-Day book. The History Channel as well as WWII Magazine in 2001 both did presentations which yet added another layer of complete BS to the story of Troop Carrier at D-day. In the History Channel presentation on the history of the 101st Airborne the narrator stated that the 101st was dropped at the speed of 200mph at an altitude of 300 feet. Major Richard Winters of "Band of Brothers" fame immediately aggrees with this assesment in the program. The speed is now up 50mph from "Band of Brothers" 150mph and in conflict with official load manifests and pilot form 5s which indicated that the Troop Carrier planes were loaded to more than 30,000 gross. Loaded as such the top speed for the C-47A is about 150 mph. These flight characteristics were verified by evey Troop Carrier crew chief and pilot I interviewed as well as getting independent assesments from commercial pilots flying the C-47 today. The opinions were unanimous, yet because the public saw it on the History Channel and Richard Winters said so it must be true! The WWII Magazine article "Sreaming Eagles At Pointe du Hoc" by editor, Christopher Anderson was so bably done as to be laughable....yet the public will read it and believe it cause they read it in WWII Magazine. Historians have gotten very lazy...the reputations of men whose boots they could never fill suffers for it. Even when presented with irrefutable evidence against their undocumented, uncited stories most of these so called historians don't have the balls to admit the errors or correct them.
Richard Jensen - 6/13/2002
Someone using Dr South's name posted this message on this board onm June 8:
"I know there were tales of weapons being drawn to force the sailors to bring the crafts closer in at Omaha Dog xx beaches."
Now he says 'I did NOT say that I ..."heard numerous such reports."' Well, how many tales did he hear? When did he hear them? Who told them?
The problem is that General Raaen says he NEVER heard any such tales, whether true or false. Specifically he posted here on June 8, "I have never heard of cowardice on the part of our British LCA crews."
Obviously we have a basic contradiction here. Whos's telling the truth and who has forgotten the embarassing details?
Frank E. South, Ph.D., Prof. (Em) - 6/13/2002
**What is it with some historians? Is the purpose of all this to generate some sort of second rate comedic interchange?
**I did NOT say that I ..."heard numerous such reports." The context was entirely different.
Richard Jensen - 6/11/2002
General Raaen has landed his argument about 250 yards away from the real action. The issue is whether there were reports that Americans pulled guns on the British sailors. The general insists he has never heard of these reports (he should check with Dr South, who has heard numerous such reports). The good general can remember anything he wants--but should historians whitewash and cover up these unpleasantries that have been documented for decades?
Comment - 6/10/2002
John C. Raaen, Jr., Major General, USArmy-Retired
8 June 2002
I was rather shocked to read Richard Jensen's comments about "who to trust when it comes to history" What virulent words. And how insulting.
I was a Captain in the 5th Ranger Infantry Battalion on D-Day. Our two waves landed on Omaha Dog Beach at 0745 and 0750. I can assure all that my memories of the events of June 6, 1944 are still clear. Among our seven LCAs from the HMS Prince Baudouin, all the boat crews distinguished themselves in our landing. My crew, LCA 1377, gave me and my troops the nearest thing to a dry landing that I have ever had in dozens of training landings. Water scarcely halfway up my jump boots. And then holding the boat hard onshore as the troops debouched. That took three to five minutes and in the end, after the last man, Father Lacy, was clear, an artillery shell hit the fantail of LCA 1377. I never looked back after that, but I knew the crew's dedication probably cost them their lives. Dr. Elsby's research, by the way, indicates that LCA 1377 survived the landing somehow.
1st Lieutenant Ace (Charles H.) Parker, our A Company commander had only praise for his cox'un. The man not only held his boat onshore, but used his machine gun to spray the hillside ahead of us, hoping to suppress some enemy fire while Parker's Rangers left the craft.
Many of the British crews that took the 5th and 2nd Rangers in to the beach had combat experience in landing the 1st, 3rd and 4th Rangers in Africa, Sicily and Italy. Many Normandy Rangers pointed out they had conversations on the way in to the beach with the OICs and cox'uns about other landings with Rangers. And, oh yes, we worked with these same crews in our training before the invasion.
I have never heard of cowardice on the part of our British LCA crews. Oh, there were problems, Frank South touched on the worst, the two tidal runnels that left submerged sandbars in our way. Many LCAs and LCVPs grounded on those bars. When ramps dropped, deep water on the far side of the bar swallowed the debarking troops. In the 5th we lost one Ranger because of that, but it was not cowardice. It was the rub of the green. In many cases with the rising tide, the boats were able to break through those bars and make normal landings. This was heroism not cowardice.
I was the officer in charge of the interviews of the 5th Rangers after the invasion and was interviewed myself. A Lieutenant Colonel Taylor, I have been led to believe, was the interviewer. He was marvelous, able to dig into a multitude of diverse testimonies and synthesize them into a coherent story, such as those that resulted in "Small Unit Actions" and "Omaha Beachhead". Yes, Taylor's research is rock solid, but, in "First Wave", Marshall added fabrications to the research to sell copy and later Ambrose copied the fabrications. I have to say it. All those British coxswains getting together on the way in to the beach and then in unison saying, "We can't go in there! . . ."
Who can you trust? For one, Joe Balkoski. For another, Dr, Kevan Elsby.
Frank E. South, Ph.D., Prof. (Em) - 6/8/2002
Background: Member of 2nd Ranger Bn. Landed Pointe du Hoc 6 June, 1944.
(Prof. Jensen, my memory of 58+ years ago is believed by my comrades, wife and children to be quite intact.)
My initial reaction to the remarks of Prof. Jensen, et al. was of disgust and anger. Hence, the delay in my reply.
First, I am fairly familiar with the research being carried out by Kevan Elsby and Joseph Balkoski. It is above reproach; citations, quotes, document examinations, queries, all are being done with professional care.
Also, I well remember, Prof. Jensen, those elements of HMRN with whom we trained and worked prior to and, finally, during D-Day Our mission at Pointe du Hoc was special as were the skills and courage of the British sailors who manned our LCAs. They took extraordinary risks in bringing our landing craft just close enough for our rocket-propelled grapnels to be effective. They were an admirable and trusted part of the team.
I know there were tales of weapons being drawn to force the sailors to bring the crafts closer in at Omaha Dog xx beaches. In two of the cases I knew of the stories turned out to be imaginary, as attested to by those (n.b., plural) aboard the same vessels. The motivations for these fables were probably related to the along-shore tidal bars which stranded the LCAs during low tide. For the greater part the soldiers were unfamiliar with such problems and blamed the sailors for their frustration in having to off-load in deeper water than expected. Also, once off-loaded most of the craft had to return to the mother ships to pick up the second wave.
On the part of both Ranger Bns, there was naught but respect for the British seamen. The reports of cowardice that seem to be current even at this late date are ridiculous and indicative, at best, of abominable scholarship.
I also am personally familiar with the misquotes, lacks of citations, the lifting of entire paragraphs without attribution, and silly errors of fact on the parts of a couple of historians. They have become well known and need not be explored further, at least by me -- such exercises are too boring (and, perhaps, booring) and quite pointless.
Derek Chan - 5/28/2002
Coming to this website, I'm pretty shocked on how much negative points have been directed towards Mr. Ambrose. I'm no historian and I'm no expert on making accurate paraphrases, footnotes, citations, etc. I have heard on how Mr. Ambrose has failed to do some of this with "The Wild Blue." However, no one's perfect. I'm not going to hate him for that. Sure, he probably made mistakes, but overall his books are very well written. I have 5 of them sitting on my shelf right now, and they never cease to amaze me. I find them all very interesting to read.
If you continuously criticize him for his mistakes, then at least give him credit for what he has done right. At least he acknowledges in his books that Omaha Beach was a hellish nightmare instead of describing it as a landing that wasn't; if he did write Omaha as a cakewalk, now THAT would be a very bad thing. But he didn't. And at least he wrote about the 101st Airborne dropping into Normandy, along with the 82nd, instead of just saying the 103rd...these are stupid examples, but you what I mean. These are simple facts, but they're critical to history andthe men who fought them. So you can at least give him credit for getting those right.
Again, if Mr. Ambrose has made mistakes, then I'm sure he wants to fix them. But whatever they may be, I'm thankful for his books and attention to detail. He's the reason why I'm so interested in history, particularly World War II. As a member of a younger generation, I'm thankful for what's he done and am inspired by his works.
Thanks, Stephen! You're my favorite historian. :)
R.J. Hils - 5/28/2002
Professor Jensen, if you read all of the Troop Carrier and railroad citations on HNN as to the errors in research and fabrications by Ambrose how could you say in your original article that you find Ambrose's "research and writing outstanding"? Again, the Troop Carrier veterans stand by the official records of their commands. I haven't kept any documents "secret" rather mentioned in passing the results of some of the research I have accumulated over the past two years. It would require a herculean effort to post these thousands of pages online and what would be the point, you don't seem to be able to grasp or understand the existing material. The final question again seems pointless professor, what's your point? To a man every TC veteran I have talked to was afraid as I was afraid when I faced combat as every man I imagine is afraid in combat.
Richard Jensen - 5/28/2002
Edson T. Strobrodge says Ambroses's greatest sin is how he has portrayed the WWII Combat veterans of the Troop Carrier Command as cowards.
That's the craw in Strobrodge's throat. Ambrose never believed that, never said that, never hinted that, and never implied that. Its all a very bad misreading of a plain English sentence.
Richard Jensen - 5/28/2002
I did read all the TC and railroad postings.
If Hils has conducted some oral histories from the Troop Carriers he should report them. It's easy to post on the Internet, so please do so instead of carping at historians who have not seen these documents that Hils is keeping secret. Let me ask one question: how many of the TC pilots said they were afraid that night? none? ten percent? fifty percent? Hils has the number--what is it?
Richard Jensen - 5/28/2002
Kevan Elsby now reports there were three separate accounts of American soldiers pulling out guns to rally the British sailors. He suggests that Col. Marshall was "led astray by a sergeant''s banter." Banter--after THAT horrific experience at Omaha??? Marshall and his team had extensive experience in the Pacific interviewing combat vets shortly after the critical events. Their job was to get the story right--and to keep it secret lest the bad news depress Allied morale or cause divisiveness during the war. He finally reported his results in 1960 in a widely-circulated magazine. Elsby has interviewed his own father-in-law and numerous other veterans. Exactly what did they say happened? Elsby has not told us. It''s the responsibility of Ambrose to use the best available evidence -- the choice here is between the secrets Elsby has been hoarding for many decades versus the highly detailed minute-by-minute accounts gathered by a team of experienced interviewers who had studied numerous other battles. No doubt it''s all a matter of family pride and national pride and all that to deny any unpleasant events ever took place.
I might add that most movies I have seen about WW2 explore the fears and even the cowardice of soldiers and sailors in combat. (The best American films in this regard are probably "Caine Mutiny" and "12 O''Clock High"; I''m sure the British films are just as candid.) Is there not plenty of fear in the opening scenes of "Saving Private Ryan," which was likewise inspired by Marshall''s reports of what it was really like at Omaha Beach. When that film came out thousands of veterans stepped forward to say the movie had it exactly right; perhaps Mr Elsby thinks they were all "bantering" like the sergeant who managed to fool Marshall.
Joseph Balkoski - 5/27/2002
I do not normally comment on e-mail threads relating to the Ambrose matter, but I find Richard Jensen's point of view concerning "who to trust when it comes to history" highly inaccurate and disturbing. I have been studying the Omaha Beach landing in detail for the past quarter century, and I have never had the pleasure of sharing any original Omaha Beach research with Mr. Jensen during that time. Perhaps he has undertaken extensive studies of Omaha Beach. If so, forigive me -- I have not heard of them.
There can be no doubt, given recent Omaha Beach scholarship, that the incident related by Ambrose cocerning Capt. Zappacosta placing a gun to the head of a British sailor DID NOT occur. For a variety of reasons, this is irrefutable. I believe that even Prof. Ambrose would now admit that error should he take the time to examine the facts of the case. Unfortunately he has not done so, a pattern that he has adhered to with virtually all of his errors of historical fact.
Mr. Jensen unfortunately makes rather severe, and I must say insulting comments with regards to Mr. Elsby's father-in-law. If Mr. Jensen knows anything about Omaha Beach, he should know that the gentleman in question, Jimmy Green, was a highly distinguished Royal Navy officer who brought Company A of the 116th Infantry, 29th Infantry Division, to the Dog Green sector of Omaha Beach at H-Hour on Omaha Beach. Not being an American, he was not consulted by US Army historians, and remained "out of the loop" for many years. When he first contributed information concerning the landing of American forces on Omaha Beach, his perspective was invaluable. I can say without fear of exaggeration that it changed out whole understanding of the western sector of the beach.
Mr. Jensen also makes very serious errors when he describes the Marshall interviews of 116th Infantry D-Day survivors. The interviews took place almost three months after D-Day and generally involved only 5 percent or less of the original D-Day company. As far as Mr. Jensen's statement that the historians were "skilled professional interviewers who had handled many battle accounts of the Pacific," I don't believe a single interviewer had ever interrogated a Pacific veteran, nor had they ever been in that theater.
But most significant of all, Mr. Jensen states "their accounts were written up by Marshall in 1960 and used by Ambrose as a PRIMARY source." (Capitalization mine.) This is not true. The 116th D-Day interviews were written up in September 1945 by Marshall and others. The 1960 piece was a concise (and as it turns out) highly inaccurate and exaggerated version of the original interviews. Without question, the 1960 piece by Marshall is not a PRIMARY source.
The original combat interviews mention nothing about a pistol being put to the head of a British sailor by Capt. Zappacosta. NOTHING! Yet the "pistol" to the head" story appears in the 1960 magazine piece by Marshall. This is a disgrace. Why? Because we are very fortunate to have the story, irrefutable and repeated for years and years (long before this controversy ever broke out) of Pvt. Bob Sales, Capt. Zappacosta's radio operator -- the only survivor of Capt. Zappacosta's boat. It is critical that the original combat interviews corroborate Sales' account fully.
Pleae note that I wrote of Company B's landing on Omaha Beach in my book "Beyond the Beachhead." I relied on: 1) The original 1945 combat interviews; and 2) Accounts by Company B veterans who I met at reunions. As a result, there is nothing in my book whatsoever relating to Capt. Zappacosta pulling a pistol to the head of a British sailor. Such an incident did not happen, and as far as I can tell no one ever said it happened until Marshall wrote of it in his 1960 magazine article. Yet Ambrose's book relates such an anectode. This is nothing more than sloppy research, but in the case of Ambrose's Normandy tales, sloppy research is unfortunately a frequent occurrence.
I trust that Mr. Jensen realizes that there is indeed a "right" and a "wrong" in this matter, and when one gets it wrong, people get hurt. The British Royal Navy veterans, the American Troop Carrier pilots, and the veterans of the 3rd (US) Infantry Division are just a few examples of people and units that got hurt.
In the case of non-American servicemen hurt by Dr. Ambrose, I truly wince. Most Americans don't even have the slightest idea of the British contribution to the Omaha Beach landing, and when their only knowledge of it comes from faulty research, it needs to be corrected.
In the end, I am deeply offended by Mr. Jensen's claim that the documentation of Marshall and Ambrose was "rock solid." For anyone who understands how and when the interviews were carried out, this statement is absurd.
As to, in Mr. Jensen's words, "the vague recollections of elderly men six decades later," I can only point out, again, that Jimmy Green's contribution to our understanding of Omaha Beach was significant and undeniably accurate. How do I know? Because I have studied this landing for enough time to understand how trained historians judge the veracity of what people say based on corroborating documents and interviews by trustworthy witnesses.
Mr. Jensen's defense of Dr. Ambrose in the case of the Royal Navy veterans is undeniably flawed. At the risk of being blunt --he should study Omaha Beach as long as I have before making such bold and offensive statements. I invite him to contribute any primary research concerning these matters contradicting anything I say in the above response.
Joseph M. Balkoski
Author, "Beyond the Beachhead: The 29th Infantry Divisionin Normandy."
R.J. Hils - 5/27/2002
Firstly from his original article it is apparent that Jensen totally missed the considerable amount of citations in the railroad historian's articles as well as the Troop Carrier historian's articles already available on HNN.
As to SLA Marshall, regarding his so called interviews after the invasion. From Marshall's accumulated material he wrote the official Regimental Field Studies for the various Parachute Infantry Regiments that jumped into Normandy. Those studies are available online thru the Center For Military History as well as individual unit Airborne websites. It is readily apparent however that these studies are seriously flawed in that he DID NOT interview any of the more than five thousand Troop Carrier airmen who participated in the invasion rather relying on paratroopers to tell you what the Troop Carrier pilots did and why. Many of these interviews are more than easily discredited in that most of the paratroopers offered opinions in conflict operational facts as well as observations beyond their knowledge of the facts. A review of many of these statements reveal that they are for the most part, assumptions. In the hundreds of interviews as well as correspondences with TC veterans I conducted over the past two years, including commanders, NONE were interviewed by the Marshall team.
Most of the myths regarding the airborne assault on Normandy lie with Marshall's failure to interview the other half of the airborne assault team, the Troop Carrier. He carried these gross errors into the official Airborne record as well as his own book, "Night Drop" about the assault.
Ambrose took the accumulated myths as well as some of his very own "creative" uncited writings to repeatedly infer cowardice upon the Troop Carrier pilots in chapter 11 of "D-Day". One single instance, Ambrose says that virtually every aircraft was hit by something yet the official records of the individual TC Groups as well as 9th TC Command as well as Warren's official 1956 study indicate that only one fourth were damaged in the assault. So it goes with the entire chapter. The Troop Carrier veterans stand firmly on the existing records of their units. Interestingly Ambrose admitted he never interviewed a single pilot and many of his preposterous statements in the book indicate he never looked at a single record of Troop Carrier before he trashed the reputations of so many servicemen. As well, in "Wild Blue" he refutes his own statements that the TC pilots were not trained for night flying or bad weather yet in the latest critique of his work in the Times Picayune's recent article, he stands by his interpeteation on TC at D-Day. He like Marshall erred in relying on "oral history" of paratroopers who were and still are unqualified in many of the statements they gave.
Ken Helfrick - 5/27/2002
Im not here to insult or ridicule Dr. Ambrose and I do not know much of the man but I must say after reading his book "D-Day June 6th, 1944 The climatic Battle of World War Two", I have very little respect for his knowledge.
He lumps Canadians in with the British which most historians do but then he goes on to tell how the British Expeditionary force was a embarrassment (Since they retreated in 1940) and how allied forces were not as well educated or as fit as the Americans. With comments like this how can anyone take his writings seriously? I know two American WW2 veterans really well and they could not believe that these words were wrote.
The Americans also retreated during battles but are not insulted for it and to say that American soldiers were smarter and better soldiers than all other allied soldiers is ludicrous.
Dr. Ambrose I must say I am disappointed with your American ego and unable to read anymore of your books for fear of having my nationality insulted.
Kevan Elsby - 5/27/2002
We can know what happened on Omaha Beach in considerable detail if we approach the matter objectively, using all available sources of information.
It is true that Professor Ambrose relied heavily on the account of A and B Companies of 116th Infantry Regiment landing on Omaha Beach, as first published by S. L. A. Marshall in the November 1960 edition of The Atlantic Monthly, readily available on the Internet.
It is true that I have an interest, for my father-in-law was indeed the Royal Navy officer in command of the boats landing 1st Battalion 116th Infantry Regiment from the transport ship SS Empire Javelin. He led the first wave of boats which landed A Company 116th Infantry on the now infamous Dog Green sector of Omaha Beach at 06:30.
I have declared my personal interest through my relationship to my father-in-law several times, not least of all on this HNN site.
I accept that I have a personal interest. This is how my interest in what happened at Omaha Beach was aroused.
I accept that the recollections of veterans after so many years can be vague. Having spoken and corresponded with numerous veterans from Omaha Beach on thousands of occasions, I find that some remember nothing, some remember a little, and some remember a great amount of detail as if it were yesterday.
However, with extensive and meticulous research, with careful attention to detail and with the help of noted researchers in the field, it is possible to arrive at a clear picture of what happened and also how the story of D-Day has developed over the years, with errors in some texts repeated in many subsequent texts. It is also amazing how many original documents, hand-written by US Military historians in 1944, have lain dormant in the US National Archives in Washington.
Let us widen the debate to include more sources of information about what happened on Omaha Beach. My reference to what happened on Captain Zappacosta's boat is a means to an end. It is a very specific incident, which if refuted, casts doubt over S. L. A. Marshall's account and therefore Professor Ambrose's account.
We could look at the boat report for Captain Zappacosta's boat as transcribed into "29 Let's Go. A History of the 29th Infantry Division in World War II" - prepared by the 29th Division and published in 1948.
We can read about similar incidents referring to the cowardice of the British sailors, such as Sergeant Odell Padgett of B Company 116th also pointing a gun at the head of the coxswain or we can read about Captain Norfleet of D Company 116th doing the same.
In each case, if we refer back to the original boat reports from the landing and if we speak with American veterans from these very same boats, we find nothing other than perhaps a level of confusion which was understandable in the circumstances, until we read texts based on S. L. A. Marshall's article in 1960, which have set the tone and determined the content of many subsequent texts.
But what if Marshall was fed a load of Sergeant's banter and if we study the detailed construction of the British LCA, how do we reconcile the fact that it was indeed physically impossible for any soldier to point a gun at the head of the coxswain, who sat alone, protected in his armour plated cabin?
Should we also consider the fact that the angle to the horizontal of Omaha Beach at The Vierville sur Mer draw is less than one degree, with a number of tidal ridges running parallel to the beach? Have you tried to walk across Omaha Beach at low tide in a storm?
Let us debate the facts, Professor Jensen. There is nothing to hide.
And yes, I am proud to be British and I am proud of what my father-in-law did on D-day, plus what he did at Dieppe and the time, earlier in the war, when on the deck of HMS Bulldog, he helped capture the U-Boat U-110 and the German code books which turned the tide of the war. I am proud of the many emails, letters and tapes sent to me by American veterans of 116th Infantry Regiment and the US Ranger Battalions, expressing their admiration for the British sailors and their landing craft. I am very pleased to have met many of these American veterans and was proud to hear my father-in-law speak at the dedication of the US National D-Day Memorial Gate in Bedford, Virginia. I was proud to be received at the houses of the family of Captain Taylor Fellers, the CO of A Company 116th Infantry Regiment who was killed along with the rest of his boat platoon on Omaha Beach, after they had landed from my father-in-laws boat. I was proud to receive letters from American veterans thanking my father-in-law for saving their lives when he returned to pick them up out of the water. Are these all the recollections of elderly men selected six decades later?
And yes, I do want to restore the honour of my father-in-law and that of his comrades, many of whom have gone to their graves outraged by what S. L. A. Marshall and Professor Ambrose have written from 1960 onwards.
And yes, I have an agenda. I want to help put the record straight based on an objective study of all the facts and information to hand. I am indeed trying like mad to protect my family honour.
But no, my research is not based simply on the vague recollections of elderly men selected six decades later. I can tell you in all honesty that I have researched what happened on the western sectors of Omaha Beach extensively, with a great deal of help from many Americans including noted historians.
Consider this, Professor Jensen. What if I am right? Can you gauge the harm done to the British sailors from Omaha Beach or to the US Troop Carrier veterans who have received similar treatment?
This is not a question of who is right or who is wrong. Surely it is a question of historical accuracy? What really did happen on Omaha Beach? Were the British sailors a bunch of frightened cowards, along with the US troop carrier pilots, or were they well trained, experienced sailors who were part of one of the best fighting forces of WWII; Combined Operations.
Surely the British sailors and the American troop carrier pilots have the right to be heard and the right for the truth to be put into text.
Don't academic historians have a duty to seek out the truth, objectively, instead of belittling those who challenge their version of events?
And what shall I do, Professor Jensen? Having written to Professor Ambrose twice and offered to help him put the record straight, to receive no reply at all. Shall I keep quiet or shall I challenge academics like you who choose to lend credence to these accounts of British cowardice, so falsely laid at the door of my father-in-law and his comrades?
As you so correctly state, "What happened on Omaha Beach - and how do we know today what happened?" The answer is that we need to research the facts to the best of our ability and then arrive at objective conclusions.
Accept my challenge, Professor Jensen. Let's debate the facts objectively and arrive at a conclusion. Did S. L. A. Marshall get it right or was he, himself, simply led astray by sergeant's banter. There is no doubting that it was a difficult landing, but did American officers really pull guns to the heads of British sailors?
Richard Jensen - 5/26/2002
What happened at Omaha Beach--and how do we
know today what happened. Kevan Elsby has
an agenda; he is the son-in-law of the
British commander and feels humiliated by
Ambrose's reports on how the British
behaved. Elsby has been making pleas
on-line for veterans to come forth and
please tell a different story. He finds two
veterans who did not remember the episode
Ambrose described. What they DO remember
regarding British behavior, Elsby does not
say. Neither he does he tell readers in this
exchange who his father-in-law was. Full
disclosure is not his long suit.
In 1944 a few weeks after D-Day a team of
combat historians conducted long-in-depth
interviews with the survivors. Their goal
was not to ridicule or cover-up cowardice,
but to find out exactly what happened while
memories were vivid, and while
cross-checking could still take place.
These were skilled professional interviewers
who had handled many battle accounts in the
Pacific. Their accounts were written up by
team leader Colonel Marshall in 1960, and used
by Ambrose as his primary source. Anyone can
read Marshall's vivid report at
According to Marshall:
Judge for yourself whether the historian
should rely on rock solid primary
documentation like Marshall and Ambrose use,
or on the vague recollections of elderly men
selected six decades later by someone trying
like mad to protect his family honor. Which
one can the reader trust more?
Kevan Elsby - 5/26/2002
In his book, "June 6 1944. The Climactic Battle of WWII.", Professor Ambrose describes, in the chapter "Visitors to Hell" an incident whereby a Captain Etore Zappacosta of Company B 116th Infantry Regiment pulls a gun to the head of a British coxswain to force the frightened sailor to get closer to the beach.
Problem: It did not happen.
How do we know this today? There are two primary sources.
The first primary source is a US Army veteran, Bob Sales, from Lynchberg Virginia. Bob Sales was Captain Zappacosta's radio operator and bodyguard, right next to him at the front of the boat - a Royal Navy LCA (Landing Craft Assault). Bob Sales was the only American survivor from his boat on D-Day, from a boat loaded with over thirty men. The rest of the men in his platoon were killed before they could get off the beach. Bob Sales is certain that Captain Zappacosta did not, and would not, pull a gun to the head of a British coxswain. He was right by Captain Zappacosta's side.
The second primary source is a British Royal Navy veteran, Jimmy Green, the officer in command of the boats from 551 LCA Flotilla, Combined Operations, along with the Royal Navy officer on Captain Zappacosta's boat. According to these sources too, this incident did not happen. Furthermore, due to the very construction of a British LCA, it was impossible for any soldier to pull a gun to the head of the coxswain, for the coxswain sat in an armoured cabin at the bow with only slits to look out off to steer the boat. The cabin was plated with armour sufficient to stop a rifle bullet, as was the rest of the boat.
This British officer who was in command of the boats was so much of a coward on D-Day that he returned to the beach twice after the soldiers had disembarked; once to pick up injured and once to help a stricken craft. Did he then hightail it to safety? No, he picked up American soldiers from the water. Only then did he return to his transport ship, the SS Empire Javelin, with almost as many soldiers as he had taken to Omaha Beach in the first place.
So, what is Professor Ambrose's source, other than an article written in the November 1960 edition of The Atlantic Monthly by S. L. A. Marshall. Had this incident seen the light of day before this date: No! Where this came from, no-one can tell. Bob Sales didn't tell anyone, because it didn't happen, and he was the only American survivor from the boat. Since he first read the article in 1960, Bob Sales has tried every avenue, including Professor Ambrose, to refute this incident. It did not happen!
Have the two 80 year old American and British veterans from Omaha Beach expressed their concerns to Professor Ambrose: Yes.
When Bob Sales expressed his concerns in person to Professor Ambrose, what was the reply but "These things happen."
So here we have two primary sources. There can be no better sources than the people who were there. Both have tried very hard to be heard, but to no avail. No one cares. Most people simply care that what is written makes good reading and that it sells books.
Do academic professionals care? Who knows?
Never mind plagiarism. What about lesson one of historical research: "Check your sources!" If you read it somewhere else, even if you put it in quotation marks, how do you know for sure that it is true? Surely if two veterans who were there challenge what happened, any seriuos historian should take note.
A remarkable command of primary sources, I think not!
A remarkable disrespect for primary sources, more likely.
Before it is too late and these primary sources have gone to meet their many comrades who died on Omaha Beach, I invite Professor Jensen to contact them personally, to form his own opinion on Professor Ambrose's "remarkable command of primary sources" from some of those very same primary sources.
I shall be pleased to put him in touch with primary sources, so that he can check his own judgement on the matter.
Perhaps he would like to meet some of the British veterans from Omaha Beach at their reunion in the first week of June?
Or perhaps he would like to meet with the US troop carrier veterans, who have received similar treatment by Professor Ambrose. Not one single troop carrier veteran or Royal Navy veteran was interviewed by Professor Ambrose as a primary source in his research, yet many remain outraged by what they have read.
Should he be willing, I could also put Professor Jensen in touch with another Emeritus Professor of History from the University of Illinois, now retired, but on D-Day an ensign in a US Navy Landing Craft Tank (Armoured) 2227, which landed at 06:30 in front of these British sailors and American soldiers: another primary source.
I challenge Professor Jensen to contact these primary sources, with my assistance, then contrast what he hears with what has been written.
How many primary sources from D-Day does Professor Jensen know, to be able to make a judgement regarding Professor Ambrose's command of the same?
Dr. Kevan A. Elsby
Edson T. Strobrodge - 5/24/2002
[Edson T. Strobridge is a Railroad Historian, a member of the Order of Minor Historians who believe simply in the truth of history.]
Where has Richard Jensen been, lo these many months, when critics of every persuasion, tired of the lies and fraudulant writing of some of our best know historians,finally challenged their writings, their ethics and honesty? It is painfully obvious the academic community did not.!
In the five distinct issues Jensen addresses his first based on his reading of "several of his [Ambrose's] books" where he finds "his research and writing outstanding." Of course, that is his opinion, judgemental and worth nothing more or less than those critics who he condemns. "He shows remarkable command of primary sources." Mr. Jensen needs to review the meaning of the word "primary" which does not mean that by copying others thoughts, ideas and writing means means that the source is primary in the context of historical writing and research. In the way Ambrose and others have used their "primary" sources they are guilty of plagiarism pure and simple. While Jensen quotes from the definition of plagiarism given by the AHA he selectively leaves out the definition of "The misuse of the writings of another author." I do take exception to Mr. Jensens analysis that "By the AHA standard, Ambrose has not been guilty of plagiarism", read on Mr. Jensen, Ambrose is as guilty as sin!
Too much has been made of the one single issue of plagiarism at the expense of the lies, fraudulent and made up historical events that Ambrose has passed off as the truth of history. In his book Nothing Like it in the World, The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad, 1863-1869 Ambrose has used as primary sources second and third generation published histories as his primary source, even to the extent that on one occasion he quotes from a coffee table book of photographs and fails to provide any credits. Plagiarism, lies and frudulent reporting are found in just that one that example. Where Mr. Jensen states "In no case has Ambrose ever tried to deceive the audiance or left out citations" he knows not of what he speaks. Ambrose has added to, embellished other writers descriptions and inserted his own invented "facts" to a number of historical events. As an example, his description of the construction of the road bed around Cape Horn has been so badly distorted by earlier writers that Ambrose uses as his "primary" source, never checking the accuracy and doing NO original research, that he has used descriptions by an author of a mid year childrens book who makes no claim to being an historian and then added to and embellished the account. Ambrose later claims "Exaggeration is endemic to railroad historians". What arrogance!
I am also not so sure that Forbes's writer is an incompetent historian which Jensen snidely asks if he was "someone the historical profession should turn to for ethical guidance?". What makes an historian? a pompous academic or anyone who writes expertly and truthfully about historical subjects.? Jensen's comments are nothing more than cheap shots against the Forbes writers. Even Ambrose has said[in print] "I'm convinced that telling the truth is better (than lies), The rule holds for presidents and historians." "If Journalists dont encourage the truth, historians eventually will." (Forbes Mag. Oct. 2, 2000 pgs.110-111). Another thought Mr. Jensen, where you state "So instead of suing Forbes, Ambrose should ship them a barrel of quotation marks and a thousand gross of ibids"; didn't you consider that the reason that neither Ambrose or his publishers dont sue anyone is that they would have to prove that their critics were not telling the truth! Something to think about.
I would suggest Mr. Jensen that you look to your own house as to the cause of student knowledge of history plunging and why the craft has come under such ridicule. The notion has long "been abroad" that our best known writers are frauds and it is time for the leading academics to realize this. There are many causes but when the academic community decided long ago to distort the truth of history with their own political agenda you caused the problem as has finally become exposed. I personally am acquainted with several several Professors of History that complain mightily that they are told by the administration what they can and cannot teach, that they must meet the agenda of those in charge. You well know that our universities have been taken over by idealist left and not only the truth of our history has suffered but our children are being corrupted with your political agendas that have no place in our educational system. You shed alligator tears sir, and you, Ambrose and his ilk should finally come to realise and admit, like Pogo, we have met the enemy and they is us.
For a more complete critique on Ambroses book "Nothing Like in The World" which exposes, challenges and documents the accurate primary sources that you read "The Sins of Stephen Ambrose". Just go to the search engine Google and type in the name. Twenty five pages of the truth and fifty examples of Ambroses lies, fraudulent statements and invented historical facts and events.
Ambroses's greatest sin is how he has portrayed the WWII Combat veterans of the Troop Carrier Command as cowards, all due to his recklessness and lack of honest research.
Michael Ingrisano - 5/23/2002
[By: Michael N. Ingrisano, Jr., WWII Combat Veteran, 37th Troop Carrier Squadron, 316th Troop Carrier Group, 52nd Troop carrier Wing, 9th Troop Carrier Command. Author of VALOR WITHOUT ARMS: a History of the 316th Troop Carrier Group, 1942-1945. (Merriam Press, Bennington, Vermont, November 2001).]
And so there is a new boy on the block. Richard Jensen, "In Defense of Stephen Ambrose" deals primarily with the critics and critiques of plagiarism in the writings by Stephen E. Ambrose. Unfortunately, Jensen steps out of the defense perimeter and steps on a few land mines. He treads on ground that most academics and media folks avoid,—the pursuit of truth in World War II. Let me first repeat some of Jensen’s ventures into this no-no land.
"As for the quality of Ambrose’s scholarship, I have carefully read several of his books and find his research and writing outstanding. His work on Eisenhower and Nixon, for example, is the best scholarship out there, and everyone else depends on him. He shows a remarkable command of primary sources." (page 1, paragraph 1).
"Ambrose did not use one singe [sic] word written by [Cornelius Ryan]—and yet Forbes calls foul." (page 2, last paragraph).
"The third level involves a historian’s use of primary source material which is taken not from original manuscript but second-hand from a secondary source. Every scholar does this because of the impossibility of reading every source that exists. (On World War Two, there are millions of pages of documents in many languages.) In every case, Ambrose paraphrased the secondary sources he used, and footnoted them." (page 3, paragraph 1. Here Jensen cites from Forbes story on Custer. He only alludes to WWII parenthetically with no follow-up.)
"Use of secondary sources requires a footnote and Ambrose always obliges. Getting the facts right is what scholarship is all about—piling up quotes inside quotes is not a shortcut nor a sacred duty." (page 4, paragraph 3.)
"The fourth level involved here is how historians write narrative history from the sources. I think the goal is to get as close as possible to the original actors, and using their words and descriptions or explanations is vital. This is what distinguishes history from fiction. We stick close to the facts and to the words. Ambrose has done a very good job of that, and that’s what makes his books realistic, convincing and popular. He does not rely on theoretical jargon—incantations like ‘gender/class/race’ that are six stages removed from the sources. This last issue, the fifth and lowest one, seems to be where his academic critics are coming from. If Ambrose does not chant their sacred jargon he must be cast out and delegitimized [sic]. That is a sad plight for the once honorable history profession. (page 5, paragraph 1.)
This, then, is land-mined ground where Jensen chose to tread:
"…remarkable command of primary sources."
"…impossibility of reading every source that exists. (On World War Two, there millions of pages of documents…)"
"Getting the facts right is what scholarship is all about—…")
"This is what distinguishes history from fiction…Ambrose has done a very good job of that, and that’s what makes his books realistic."
Just one citation from Ambrose’s book, D-DAY, June 6, 1944, The Climatic Battle of World War II, is enough to blow the hell out of Jensen’s theories:
"The pilots were afraid. For most of the pilots of Troop Carrier Command this was their first combat mission. They had not been trained for night flying, or for flak or bad weather. Their C-47s were designed to carry cargo and passengers. They were neither armed nor armored. Their gas tanks were neither protected nor self-sealing.
The possibility of mid-air collision was on every pilot’s mind…." (page 198, paragraph 5). [No footnotes, no source citation.]
Yet, the 9th Troop Carrier Command put 821 aircraft into the air on 5-6 June 1944. They were manned by pilots and co-pilots, navigators, crew chiefs and radio operators. Simple mathematics gets us to 1642 pilots. Yet, in a taped recording of a phone call to one of the troop carrier community, Ambrose admitted to never having interviewed any troop carrier pilots.
How did Ambrose know that every pilot was scared? How did he know that they had not been trained "for night flying, or for flak or bad weather"? How did he know that the "possibility of midair collision was on every pilot’s mind"?
So Jensen in your own mind answer how in his WWII books, Ambrose shows a "remarkable command of primary sources." How many of the millions of pages of WWII documents did Ambrose read? How he got :the facts right to prove his scholarship? And pray tell us how we can distinguish his history from fiction? You might also want to question how "realistic" his WWII books really are.
Just to add a bit more to your dilemma, let me inject just one other mine field for you to step into about Ambrose’s command of primary sources, realism, etc.
In, CITIZEN SOLDIERS, he wrote the following about D+1, September 18, of Operation Market Garden, the invasion of Holland, in this remarkably factual, realistic manner:
"On September 18, however, almost everything went wrong…The weather in England turned bad—rain, fog, mist—grounding all airplanes. There would be no reinforcements, no supply drops coming from England." (page 124, paragraph 2)." [No footnotes. No sources.]
The reality of D+1, September 18, 1944, Holland was: "In all 1,336 American troop carrier planes, 340 British troop carriers, and 1,205 gliders would be dispatched. Immediately after them 252 B-24s on the bomber resupply mission would fly over the same route to get the benefit of anti-flak operations set up to protect the troop carriers." (Dr. John C. Warren, AIRBORNE OPERATIONS in World War II, European Theater. USAF Historical Studies: No. 97, Maxwell AFB, Alabama, September 1956, page 118).
There are many more undocumented citations not only for troop carrier veterans, but also for men who served in other Allied units in WWII. All Ambrose had to do was ask. And it would not have hurt him had he read just a tad of those "millions of pages" of WWII documents. I might also add that it would not hurt present day historians to do the same.
Oh, Yes! I almost forgot. But you might ask Cornelius Ryan’s daughter about Ambrose’s use (or should we say, abuse) of her father’s works.
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