Hunched down in an abandoned basement, an American soldier catches sight of an enemy tank barreling down a narrow lane. Outnumbered and outgunned, he can only pray that his bazooka will hit its intended target and save him from being buried by bricks as the tank pursues its destructive path. The soldier’s finger wraps around the trigger and the rocket explodes out of the chamber, hitting the enemy tank square and stopping it suddenly in its path.
For five crucial days in December 1944, American soldiers fought from sewers and from basements, slowing the German advance in the Ardennes. Commanded by the son of a West Pointer, and himself considered a family rebel, a twenty-six-year-old major and his men held off German troops long enough to allow Bastogne to be reinforced. Badly wounded and later captured, this soldier played an important role during a key moment in U.S. military history, the infamous Battle of the Bulge.
“I don’t think there’s anything more that can ever be asked of people than to potentially suffer injury or lose their lives, and for what? For their country, for their comrades, for politics?” These are not remote, unknown people, says John McManus, Missouri University Science and Technology Professor of History and author of Alamo in the Ardennes: The Untold Story of the American Soldiers Who Made the Defense of Bastogne Possible (2007). These are your friends, your neighbors, and your family. “It is an American story," he emphasizes, "and it is profoundly important that it gets understood and remembered.”
McManus is interested in the human saga that goes beyond “here’s what happened, here’s what it meant to the war, here’s the fall of all of that.” As a historian, he sees himself as active in what he calls the “memory business,” the business of making sure that this story, along with others, isn’t forgotten. He wants people to appreciate and understand just what the average soldier goes through.
Even as a little boy, McManus always thought that there was a lot more to the story than what he was reading. “There is so much history written from this kind of dry-as-dirt perspective that you fall asleep by page three,” he explains. McManus was more intrigued by what really happened, and this insight began his odyssey into history. “As a journalism student, I was interested in sports," he recalls, "and that’s why I went to the University of Missouri—to become a sportscaster while also getting a history minor.” But in the end McManus preferred history to journalism, and “this is the reason why: to make sure the story of the everyday soldier gets told.”
The funding he was awarded by the Research Board has allowed McManus to devote himself to something that he genuinely loves. “I can’t even express to you just how personally fulfilling this has been,” he says, stressing the fact that his work simply could not have happened without the financial support of the UMRB. "The short-term investment paid off in the long run, resulting in several book projects," he notes, and “it has rounded me out” as a modern historian.
McManus used the UMRB grant to buy the World War II Combat Interviews Collection. This extensive resource contains rare observations by infantry soldiers on and off the battlefields. “The really cool thing about it is that it applies to so many different projects that I’ve done, and will be doing; I could easily be using it for the next thirty to forty years.”
Indeed, his current book project, Grunts: Inside the American Infantry Combat Experience, World War II through Iraq, covers over sixty years of U.S. military battles and situations, focusing on the human back-story about what American infantry soldiers faced then and now. For this purpose he combed through the UMRB-funded interview collection as well as conducted his own live interviews with infantry soldiers, meshing these activities with archival research at numerous military facilities around the country.
It isn’t only the subfield of U.S. military history that has benefited from McManus’ research. By teaching such courses as “Survey of U.S. History from 1877 to the Present,” “U.S. Military History,” and “Civil War, World War Two, Vietnam, and Americans in Combat,” he is able to import his findings directly into the classroom. It is easy to see how, for McManus, teaching and research naturally go together, "like peanut butter and jelly."