Four Questions for Robert Laplander of Finding the Lost Battalion and Doughboy MIA
"No man's or woman's sacrifice in the cause of freedom should ever be forgotten"
By Chris Isleib
Director of Public Affairs, U.S. World War One Centennial Commission
Historian and author Robert Laplander has been very busy. He just released the third edition of his first book on WWI's "Lost Battalion", he is working on a new book about that unit's Commander, Charles Whittlesey, and he has been involved with the highly-anticipated PBS/American Experience series THE GREAT WAR. In addition to all that, Robert has been doing deep research with his "Doughboy MIA" section of the WW1 Centennial Commission web site, working to account for the World War I casualties who are still listed as 'Missing'. We caught up with Robert recently to get a full update.
We have not heard from you in some time. Tell us about your various projects related to The Lost Battalion, Doughboy MIA, etc.
Doughboy MIA is doing well. We've submitted a report late last year to the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) on a name that looks to have appeared on the list twice, and the wheels are turning on that right now. It also looks like, thanks to a reader who cares, that we've got a Navy fellow who was lost at sea very early in the war who was never placed on the list or commemorated on any of the Walls of the Missing in the cemeteries overseas or here at home. We're making our double checks now on that case before we submit it to the ABMC for consideration. And we're wrapping up the last bits on the case of a 1st Division sergeant whose remains went unlocated following the war that we've been investigating for about a year now. This is for the 1st Division Museum in Illinois. It looks as if there is the possibility that we might be able to locate him using some of today's technology. The initial report will be submitted on that early next week and at the beginning of April I will be consulting with a soil expert on the use of some of these technologies as per this case and possible others.
So the wheels are turning at Doughboy MIA, though necessarily slowly. We still have not been able to locate the paperwork relating to the Unknowns buried overseas. Readers are encouraged to contact us if they think they may have an idea where that stuff might be, though be advised that we've combed through the 'low hanging fruit' a long while ago, so what we're looking for isn't going to be in obvious places listed online. Remember: a man is only missing if he is forgotten.
As for the Lost Battalion, many readers know that I am the author of Finding the Lost Battalion: Beyond the Rumors, Myths and Legends of America's Famous WW1 Epic. On Saturday, February 18th we released a 3rd edition; an updated version of the book in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of America's entry into the war. This was at Military History Fest in Chicago and it was very well received. As you know, the book is considered 'the bible' of the Lost Battalion and has garnered much success over the last 11 years since it's initial release. The really big news though is that two things tie the book to the Commission - first, we are proud to announce that for every copy of the book sold through the official website (www.findingthelostbattalion.com) or the publisher's website (www.lulu.com) we are donating $2.00 to the fund for building the national WW1 Memorial at Pershing Park in Washington, DC (offer excludes eBooks - sorry!).
And second, we are excited to announce the launch of the Lost Battalion portion of the USWW1CC website on Tuesday, February 28th. This section of the Commission site will be loaded with information, stories, pictures and a ton of other details from my 20 years' worth of research into the event. And, like Doughboy MIA, it will be an ever-evolving site, with more information added as time goes on - and time it will take! I've gathered A LOT of information over the last 20 years, and by the time the centennial is over I plan to have all of it loaded onto the site.Readers are also encouraged to contribute information or pictures they have for inclusion to the site as well as into the information database, which will forever be preserved in both the site and eventually at Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania. No longer will any of the story of the Lost Battalion go unremembered - not as long as I'm around. Many years ago I decided to make it my life's mission to gather all this in and make the most accurate record of the event possible. This is a continuing effort - it's what I do.
You are working on a new book about Charles Whittlesey. Tell us about your research and your progress on that effort. What secrets have you learned?
Yes, the biography of the Lost Battalion's commander, Charles Whittlesey, is in the works now and should be ready for release in the late summer of 2018. The title is Soldier Socialist, Patriot Pacifist: The Life of Charles White Whittlesey, Commander of the Lost Battalion. It's been a long time coming and we've gone to great lengths to uncover what details we could on the man. He didn't leave a lot behind about himself, but again: there have been bits and pieces all over the place that just needed gathering. In that regard I am largely appreciative of Ms. Sharon Farley, a writer out east who has been doing quite some digging for me. She's been very generous with her time and efforts (Thanks, Sharon!). As for secrets... well, you'll have to wait until the book comes out for that!
You have a talking-expert role in the upcoming PBS American Experience series THE GREAT WAR. Tell us about what stories you shared with them, and what insights you tried to impart.
Yes, I was picked to to be one of the 'talking heads' in The Great War; something I'm very honored and pleased to have been a part of. Originally they had approached me on the Lost Battalion and asked if I'd be interested in assisting in that regard, which of course I was. Then eventually, as time went on and they shared questions they had in other respects that I was able to assist with, I got deeper into it all until they finally asked if I would mind being on camera. Why, not at all! So they brought me to New York for a day of filming. As I understand it I'm primarily in the 3rd episode. Though I spoke mostly on the Lost Battalion, Charles Whittlesey and his men, and the battle in the Argonne Forest, I also shared views on General Pershing, the AEF experience, the Doughboy experience and several other things. We filmed for three and a half hours, but what they used of it I'm not sure as I haven't seen it yet. One thing that I can tell you is that I guided them on one of the main characters they follow in the episode who was a Lost Battalion man; a private named Ralph E. John, whose life was somewhat of a tragedy after the war because of his experiences in it. The crew was absolutely top notch to work with and I cannot tell you how humbled and honored I feel to have been included in this piece of history to the war.
The anniversary of US entry into the war is coming up. What does that make you think of? What does it mean to you? What did it mean to Whittlesey, and to the individual members of the Lost Battalion, back then?
No man's or woman's sacrifice in the cause of freedom should ever be forgotten, no matter how much time has passed or whether there are living memories of them or not. These people went Over There and lost their lives, then were largely lost to history. They have remained in a shadowy area between those who came back and those who did not and remained in France. True, they are there (or at sea), but their stories are open-ended - for their families closure was denied, and all that remained for them was a name on a wall. While that was better than nothing at all, today even the names are largely forgotten. As a country we go to great lengths to recover our dead. The DPAA sends teams out to work over recoveries from WW2 on up to today - but WW1 is outside of their parameters. They simply don't have the funding, personnel or the expertise in the era to do the work. That's where we at Doughboy MIA come in. Just because it happened 100 years ago now doesn't mean we should give up. Not when the possibility still exists, which it does. Remember: A Man Is Only Missing If He Is Forgotten. We won't let them be forgotten.
For me, the centenary brings something of a culmination. On the 90th anniversary of the Lost Battalion episode, we spent 10 days in France in the Argonne Forest and were on that hillside each day they were. We also brought over a storyboard that was erected at the sight of the new Lost Battalion memorial just around the corner from the site of the action. It was a moving experience being there at that time. We are now looking forward to doing the same thing on the centenary of the event - again putting boys on that hillside in the proper uniform and honoring the memories of the men who served there and the men who gave their lives in that ravine, in that forest, and in that war. As plans for that develop I will share them with the Commission. However, I can tell you that it is with a great sense of honor and respect that I approach the coming days. I've studied the war nearly my whole life and we've now seen the last participants pass. That leaves the responsibility with us - those who research, write, and hold the passion for remembrance of that war to give those who are gone a voice and keep them from ever fading from the fabric of history.