Four Questions for Mike Hanlon
"We will always need the Doughboys."
By Chris Isleib
Director of Public Affairs, U.S. World War One Centennial Commission
Mike Hanlon is a former Former USAF officer and Project Manager for corporations and government agencies. But an interest in history, and then a fascination with World War One put him on a new career track as a publisher, historian, and 25 years as a tour guide of the Great War battlefields in France. Mike talked to us about what World War One has meant to him, and what he has discovered while tracing to footsteps of the Doughboys in France.
What is your specialty within World War One history? How did you come to it?
My post-Air Force working career, before I got so committed to military history, involved managing large development projects for corporations, government agencies, and hospitals. My specialty was helping salvage projects in deep trouble. Even though the work was always challenging, I got a little tired of solving everyone else's problems and determined to find something to do with my personal interests. These have always included history, and especially American history. I decided to find a period of our history that was somewhat neglected, learn everything I could about it, and make a documentary film about some aspect of it.
I'll leave out the methodology of my searching, but I eventually settled on the First World War after realizing it was endlessly interesting – it had everything: tales of high adventure and great tragedy, its own pantheon of heroes and villains, scientific and religious dimensions, and its very own literature, art, and music. Also, I saw in a flash that the Great War had a much more substantial impact on America today than most people realized, including all my teachers, with one exception – a great history professor I had at Penn State named Warren Hassler.
Subsequently, I endured two years with multiple jobs: 1) my main employment (had to pay the bills), 2) a distracting side involvement as an expert witness in a civil trial involving an earlier project, 3) TOTAL IMMERSION in WWI (reading, video watching, interviewing historians), and 4) taking every course I could find locally here in the Bay Area on film making.
(In the last film course, our student project video on a local doggie park earned the equivalent of an A. I thought I was ready for the big time.)
As I wrapped up jobs 1&2 above, I decided I need to see the battlefields for myself and I made my first visit to the Western Front in 1990. I was shocked at how different they looked and felt from what I had read and imagined. This planted the idea with me that to understand what actually happened in the fighting anyone interested in the Great War simply had to see the battlefields themselves.
When I returned home I was ready to produce my documentary. I wrote a script for a film I titled "Doughboy." It was a personalized story of the AEF using letters, diaries, and unpublished manuscripts, I had tracked down at the Hoover Institution, Imperial War Museum, Cantigny, and a bunch of other historical organizations. I hired a director out of my own pocket to start production planning and create a budget. Then came the hard part: it was the time to raise funds. Another six months later I found I had about half my budget covered with matching commitments and free use of equipment and editing facilities from the Bay Area Video Coalition.
But that's where it ended. There was no GoFundMe or Kickstarter in those days and no foundation or organization seemed willing to back the production. One of the groups I contacted advised me that since a recently premiered PBS Series, "The American Experience," had featured a program on the Argonne battle (it was a bit of a dud) my prospects for funding were pretty dim. Their point was that that particular film had consumed all the possible funding for a topic that they believed lacked "sizzle". They were polite enough not to mention my inexperience. At another meeting for individuals with fund raising problems, a consultant told us we needed to be aware that most of the possible resources we could look to for help were only funding "politically correct" (that's a quote and the expression was not used in an ironic sense) projects and we should consider restructuring (rewriting) our scripts accordingly. I departed that meeting early in something of a huff, but I soon came to the conclusion that my project was dead in the water because I wasn't prepared to compromise, scale-down, or "restructure" what I wanted to do.
I did, however, end up with a whole office full of material, much of it never published, on the First World War. I was not going to let it go to waste. I began by publishing my own guidebook on the war, soon thereafter discovered the internet, and began working with several organizations on their websites and publications. Also, over the years I have built up a great team of fellow WWI enthusiasts. We collaborate under the umbrella domain Worldwar1.com to produce websites, a daily blog, a monthly newsletter, and a subscription magazine (our one fund raiser).
One group that I joined, The Great War Society, had a founder named Flip Carrol, who understood the value of seeing that battlefields and asked me and a fellow member to organize a comprehensive Western Front tour for the membership. It went like a charm in September 1991 and I decided to keep leading such trips as time allowed. The demand for such tours was minimal, however, until 2006 when interest on the war began rising. I was approached by Valor Tours of Sausalito, CA, to be their WWI specialist. I started doing 2-3 trips per year for them, and since 2014 my tours been paralleling the big events of 100 years past in our "Centennial Series". This year we have covered the 1916 major battles of Verdun and the Somme. Next year we will remember the Flanders Campaign of 1917 and the Battle of Caporetto and the Italian Front.
Tell us about your new battlefield tour. Sounds exciting.
We have just announced our comprehensive AEF: Pershing's Doughboys battlefield tour for August 2018, corresponding to the centennial of America's major combat in the war. It is getting a lot of interest and we already have as many reservations for this program as we have for our 2017 trips.
We will be visiting all the major battlefields, memorials, and cemeteries of the Doughboys in France and Flanders. It's also designed to help families visit the sites where their members served on the Western Front. We will take our travelers to where their relatives went over the top and help organize a commemorative event in their memory.
Of course, in the past I've taken groups to the U.S. battlefields, but the Centennial has reawaken interest in the war, in general, and for the AEF, in particular, in the States. Plus, the internet has generated an explosion in genealogical research. Families are rediscovering that grandmother served as a Red Cross nurse "over there" or Uncle Jimmy fought with the Rainbow Division. So lately there seems to be more people specifically interested in the American effort than I have seen in the past.
My earlier experiences give me a little insight, though, on the surprises the members of these new enthusiasts have in store. Almost without exception first-time visitors to the American battlefields are stunned by the scale of the U.S. effort in the war. There are more battlefields than they realize and they are wider apart, spread almost from the English Channel to the Swiss border. The physical challenges that Pershing's troops had to overcome will leave a deep impression. A walk through Belleau Wood makes it clear why the Marines paid so dearly for that real estate. The enemy could not have had a better defensive position. But that same story will be seen all over the Western Front by our group: at 5-times the scale at the St. Quentin Canal and 20-times the scale in the Argonne and Meuse heights. The group will also find themselves in awe of the magnificent monuments and cemeteries built and maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission in honor of those who served and fell and be pleasantly surprised that the original effort was led by General Pershing, himself.
This will be my last battlefield tour. I'm stepping down after 2018, but I plan to put everything I've learned since that first visit I made in 1990 into it.
You have been affiliated with the Centennial Commission for some time. What does that affiliation mean to you?
The very first WWI event I attended after I got "the bug" about the Great War was a commemoration in 1988 at the San Francisco Presidio for the 70th Anniversary of the Armistice. It was very well-run and even included some veterans of the war from the California Veterans Home in attendance. One of the things that came up that day at our luncheon was the question: "Why is there no World War I memorial." Now, this was only about five years after the Vietnam Memorial had opened and people were asking the same things about WWII and Korea. Those monuments hadn't been built yet, either. In the subsequent years, though, while those monuments for the more recent wars were being looked after, it became clearer to those of us in the WWI community that the First World War was being neglected. I wrote and spoke about this at various outlets and venues and began to look at the upcoming Centennial commemoration as something of a "drop dead" date for building a national WWI memorial.
Finally, with encouragement from America's "grass roots" and leadership from our elected officials, an instrument was created to make a national memorial possible. That instrument, of course, is the Commission. From the moment I heard about its formation – without ever having met any of the staff and only two of the future commissioners – I stated in my publications I was going to support the Commission's efforts 100%. I'm pleased to tell you that I have never been disappointed in either its work on the new memorial or its wider outreach program to inform Americans about the importance of the war to our nation's heritage.
My role with the Commission has been primarily supportive, as an enthusiastic booster, but I'm happy to help as needed when something comes up, such as the Remembrance of the Pershing Family Tragedy at the Presidio last year. Readers of my periodicals know I've also been a big supporter of the restoration of the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial, and the work of the ABMC, which will be coming to the forefront of the commemorations in 2017 & 2018. I'm proud to help the Commission and our other national agencies and institutions in their work to remember our nation's sacrifices and reawaken an appreciation for our heritage.
All of our WW1 veterans are gone now. Why is it important to remember them, and what they did?
We will always need the Doughboys. We need them just as we need the men of Valley Forge, the boys in blue and gray, the GIs, the grunts, the swabbies, the flyboys, the gyrenes, and the special ops guys. They put their lives on the line when our freedom was in peril. They still speak to every citizen, "Your heritage is precious, cherish and protect it." Also, today we understand that the United States has not faced its last dangerous enemy. Our warriors of the future, some of whom are yet to be born, need to remember as they guard their post, possibly in a desperate predicament, that they are not alone, that behind them stand the millions who have previously worn our Nation's uniform, encouraging them on, holding them to the highest standard, and, in the deepest way, empowering them.