The Chieftain's Hatch: WW2 Conference

A trip about two weeks ago saw me return, yet again, to New Orleans, this time for the World War 2 Conference. It’s a two and a half day event, co-ordinated by the National WWII Museum, been going the last few years, and this year was held at the Astor Crowne Plaza hotel. They’re trying to run a “+70” theme, so 1942 was the focus year this year.

There are two ways one can attend. In person, or by logging into a live stream. Neither is massively cheap, there was some mild sticker-shock when I registered. $600 to listen to people talk about WW2 in person is not for those with only a passing interest. (Fortunately, my military ID dropped it to $500, but still). Plus travel and accommodation. Online registration was $99. My second surprise was when I got an email from the museum staff saying ‘spaces are filling out, you said you were coming but we don’t see you registered yet. Better hurry’

So, after packing for an early December in New Orleans (which, in fairness, isn’t all that chilly), I eventually arrived at Louis Armstrong International, just in time to hit Thursday afternoon rush hour. Traffic doesn’t seem to follow a standard pattern over there, and I was a little late to the gathering.

This gave me my third surprise. I really wasn’t expecting many more than a couple dozen people to have shown up. Between the requirements to take time off work (if you’re working), and the costs involved, I was astounded to discover that there were over 400 attendees.

Everyone is wearing helpful badges saying “Nick” or “John”, or whatever, but nothing to particularly start conversation. If you don’t know anyone there, small talk can be a bit awkward. “So, you’re into WW2, are you?” Well, that or “Hey! My name’s Nick too!”

Fortunately, shortly after I arrived, it was time for the first talk, and so an adjourning to a neighbouring conference room.

Notepads and pens provided, this would be our home for the next while. The mistake with the Marine Corps flag wasn’t noticed until the next day, unfortunately. The first talk was entitled ‘Hitlerland’, which didn’t strike me as an auspicious start. Turns out, it’s the name of a book, and the author didn’t come up with the term. It’s the views of what Americans living in Berlin in the 1930s saw as Hitler came to power, and they called it Hitlerland. I did not know this.

The format of this talk was common to most of the speakers for the next few days. A number of ‘household’ names, who would speak on something, often closely related to a book they had written for about an hour, take fifteen-twenty minutes of questions, then adjourn to the book-signing room.

In fact, I’m not sure that the whole thing wasn’t as much a book-sales event as anything else, I’m not sure that there was -any- speaker who didn’t have a book on sale in a foyer. Didn’t reduce the quality of the talk, but did sort of cheapen the overall experience in my mind a bit.

Anyway, just the one talk the first night, one was then released to one’s own devices. Not having had any time to really meet anyone yet, I had a quick wander around to find breakfast (I don’t eat in the morning, and didn’t have time earlier due to flying), and then adjourned to my hotel room, where I attempted to catch up on work on a pretty lousy wifi connection.

The next morning had us up early enough with the first talk at 8am. On the two hour jetlag, I missed the continental breakfast. Caught all the speakers, though. Still sortof baby steps, general overviews on large-scale issues: German expansion to 1941, Operation Barbarossa, and the Final Solution.

Most all the speakers in the conference had titles like “Doctor”, a few were “Colonel”. I am not in such high strata of society, I fear.

One of the more pleasant surprise speakers was Zhanna Arshanskaya Dawson. This Ukrainian woman, who has significantly larger balls than I do, managed to survive the Final Solution by playing music for Germans. Still a sharp mind, and an interesting story. And, of course, a book written.

A boxed lunch was provided, I’ve had worse, I’ve had better. Just enough time to check email before the afternoon set of speakers.

We started getting more into the sort of topics I was interested in in the afternoon. The topics of Hitler and the Holocaust can be a little overdone, I think. The first afternoon session, by Col Glantz, was on Stalingrad, and the house-fighting took only a small amount of the time.

This was probably the smallest-scale of the talks. Most revolved around sweeping, multi-month campaigns of maneuver (or policy), and there’s only so much detail one can go into in a one-hour to 90-minute talk. Perhaps that’s what sortof also convinced me that the conference was as much a book sales event. “In my book about *blank* I go into great detail about this, that and the other. I’ll just touch upon it here, if you want more, go buy the book.” (I should add that no speaker said as much, it’s just an impression I got. The speakers themselves gave every impression of trying to get across as much as possible in the limited time allotted.) Anyway, Colonel Glantz has managed to collate pretty much every situation map known to exist from the records of both the German and Soviet sides. (He sells them, too, three very large binders). He went into a fair bit of detail as to how the Germans ended up in the bit of a pickle that they did, and especially the run-up to the ‘city fighting’ as well as the events surrounding the city in the area of interest.

The first ‘moderated panel’ came that afternoon, “Grand Strategy.” This was no moderated panel, I’m afraid to say. This was someone with the job title of “Moderator” introducing three speakers each of whom spoke on three entirely different subjects. In this case, the three topics were an assessment of the ‘Germany First’ strategy, the manpower problem resulting in 90 divisions being created, and an assessment of the economics behind US production capability. All three were interesting. The first points out that in reality, Germany First was never truly followed. He had a point which is obvious if you actually think about it. The manpower one gave an overview of the planning behind the creation of the US military expansion, and the vision it took to plan so many years ahead. And the assessment of just how the US managed to expand its industrial capacity was really quite fascinating (if very dry). The general view is that the US Army waved its hand and said ‘Let there be tank production’, but the reality was that there was some very prescient long-range planning done. If I can ever find access to the online stream (believe it or not, the $500 in-person fee appears not to grant access to this, so I’ll be checking to see if it’s an oversight or not) maybe I can go back to it and actually take note of some of the names and details.

Once the three totally unrelated prepared speeches were completed, the floor was opened to questions. There was all but no discussion, question would be directed to one person, that one person would respond, then next question. Certainly no moderating going on.

After the break for the obligatory book-signing, an interesting talk by Dr Milner of the University of New Brunswick, who was doubtless very pleased to be somewhere warmer than home about the early days of the convoy war in the Atlantic. I definitely learned some things. US Navy was apparently too gung-ho at the beginning, and not gun-ho enough at the end. Who knew? (Well, I guess people who study these things did)

Another break…

The conference room was bordered by a balcony. The balcony was on Bourbon Street. Interesting place, Bourbon Street.

The last two speakers on the Friday were a New Orleansian without a title of Doctor who spoke a little bit about Andrew Higgins, and a 91-year old woman who worked in Richmond, CA during the war. Sharp as a tack, she was, and in the uniform of a park ranger for she works at the Rosie the Riveter museum. I should look so good at that age. Her story was a bit different from the average ‘Rosie’ story: As a black woman transplanted from the South, it was an interesting social evolution to witness.

Finally, a ‘meet the speaker’ reception. At this point, we’re starting to recognize at least the speakers, so some form of practical social conversation could ensue. Randomly finding two other folks to go out to dinner with saw me in company of a bloke named Jim and a retired three-term member of the Montana State Legislature.

Now, I refer you again to the above photograph. The hotel is on Bourbon Street. It is now a Friday night. What genius decided that the schedule of events for Saturday morning should again start at 8am? I did make it in for breakfast, turns out I hadn’t missed much the previous day.

So, come 8am, another 45-minute talk on a large, expansive subject: Eisenhower. No dramatic, controversial revelations, though I certainly learned a few things about the man’s history.

The US Army Air Force got a bit of heavy billing after 9am, with a Dr Miller speaking a bit about 8th Air Force, and then a fascinating interview with MAJ Theodore Van Kirk, the navigator aboard Enola Gay. Not very trusting of the new-fangled navigational aids, he always kept with the original stuff he knew well, and he saw service bombing from the UK, North Africa and, of course, Tinian. My favourite anecdote was from when he was saying how he discovered more or less what he the Tinian job was. He was being told by the ordnancemen “We think you should be OK if you’re more than 11 miles from the explosion”. “11 Miles?!” “Well, some of us are going with 15 miles, but 11 is the dominant thinking.” Apparently the blast effect on the aircraft was quite violent.

After the book signing, Rick Atkinson took the stage. Didn’t really give very much new information, but the bonus was an advance copy of The Guns at Last Light, the third of his series. Nice bonus. Probably won’t get around to reading it until it’s publicly on sale, but I appreciate the gesture from the publisher.

Then came the next lunch break (with book signing), and another ‘moderated’ panel which, again, basically just drilled down to two people talking about their own subject in sequence. Nigel Hamilton did a little about Mongomery, which was, again, nothing particularly dramatic, but Monty never gets the right press around these parts. Carlo D’Este didn’t make it, so Col Roger Cirillo took his place. I was most pleased to find that Col Cirillo shares my opinion on the man and his leadership qualities, even though in the popular culture our opinions are definitely a minority. As the introducer said, we probably got a far different talk from Col Cirillo than we would have gotten from Mr. D’Este. (He went as far as to wonder why the statue of Patton hasn’t been taken down from West Point)

After the book signing (You think I’m making this up, I’m not. Look at the schedule on the website), another interesting interview with veterans. Walt Ehlers and Gerhard Hennes. The former was a US Army Infantryman, the latter a German Army Signalman, both saw service in North Africa. Walt was wearing a fashionable piece of neckwear.

I found these interviews to be far more useful than the talks by the authors. Articles on the sweeping movements around Algiers are all well and good, but you can read about those most any time. But individual perspectives from those who were there are generally far harder to come about. There is currently a large push by organisations to record personal histories before all the survivors die off, and it’s a good thing. But still, the unedited, in-person discussion is quite the experience, especially when the interviewee (Mr Hennes in particular) still maintains a sharp wit in response to questions.

That was the last of the seminar speeches. The remainder of the afternoon allowed us to spend about two to three hours touring the museum. It’s enough time to get an overview, but if you want to actually view the museum properly, you need to come back again the next day.

The last item of the day is the closing banquet. I got exiled to the far corner.

I made sure to check if there was a dress code before leaving California, when I saw ‘banquet’ on the schedule. I was assured that there wasn’t really one, so I didn’t bring a tie. Guess who felt underdressed. The after-dinner entertainment was the grandsons of Omar Bradley and George Patton discussing their memories of their grandparents (George doesn’t get more appealing to hear his grandson talk about him either). Curiously, they had never met each other before that weekend.

Once the ceremonies concluded and we had been dismissed, we were, of course, free for the evening. So I hit the town again, this time in the company of a former Marine and a couple of staffers from the 8th Air Force Museum, which I had never heard of before, but seems worth a visit next time I’m near Fort Stewart.

I realize that overall this report doesn’t so much tell you much new or interesting, except maybe that the conference even exists. They’ve been playing with the format a while, apparently a previous year would have breakouts where one would have to choose which talk to attend at any particular time. Of course, invariably there are two or three talks on at the same time that you want to attend, so there’s something to be said for the current format. The book thing, as you’ve probably gathered, I find got a little silly. It seemed that a pre-requisite for being invited to speak was that you had written a book or two of sufficient size that it could be considered a useful weapon in close-quarters combat. That didn’t stop me coming back with one or two books, of course, and most everyone else went shopping as well, but it did seem a little out of place for a conference whose primary purpose is presumably educational. They could have fit an extra speaker or two in all the book-signing breaks. I also would have liked a few more ‘small-scale’ topics, such as the convoy talk or the economics of US production capacity. If you’re only going to be speaking for 50-75 minutes, then surely one should speak on a subject which can be properly covered in that amount of time. “Russian Front 1941-1942” is a bit light on the details.

Perhaps the most significant thing about this conference is that it happens at all. As I mentioned, I was honestly surprised at the amount of people who were sufficiently interested in the subject to take the time and expense to attend. It bodes well for the general interest of history. Sure, the average age was pretty heavily skewed on the ‘retired’ side, but that’s probably to be expected given that it took two days of the workweek. And more interestingly, they’re looking at moving the location to one with an even larger capacity next year. Meeting up with like-minded people is also good for networking and information sharing, but probably could be better done from the start. Maybe I’ll ask to run a pub quiz next time or something to help out.

Would I recommend attending next year? Unsure. It’s kindof like asking if I’d recommend an Audi RS6 Avant. Sure, if you’ve got $100,000 to spare. If you can afford it, there are certainly worse places to spend a weekend in December for the holiday value alone, and it’s not as if you’re not going to learn something and meet people. But it’s not a trip to make on a whim either. I think the online option is probably the better for most people, especially if you’re not worried about getting autographed books or networking.

Anyway, now you guys know it exists, and roughly what went on. Make your own decisions.

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