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From the World War I Centennial News Podcast

Spotlight On The Media:
Colonel Douglas Mastriano  

ww1 Centennial News Podcast LogoIn September 28th's WW1 Centennial News Podcast, Episode 91, host Theo Mayer spoke with veteran, military historian and author Colonel Douglas Mastriano about his new book, Thunder in the Argonne. The book explores the greatest battle in American history from a variety of perspectives and brings to light some of its more obscure heroes. The following is a transcript of the interview. 


Theo Mayer: This week for our Spotlight On The Media segment, we're joined by Colonel Douglas Mastriano, retired, an author and military historian, and a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. Colonel Mastriano is the author of an award winning book published in 2014: Alvin York: A New Biography of the Hero of the Argonne. Today, he's here to tell us about a new, timely book, Thunder in the Argonne, which tells the broader story of America's greatest battle. Doug, welcome to the podcast. 
Col. Mastriano: Thank you for having me on. 

Theo Mayer: Doug, you had already written a book about Alvin York and his service during the Meuse-Argonne. What made you decide to go back to the battle again and write this new book?

Col. Mastriano: Clearly, Alvin York stands out in the American collective memory as a great hero from the First World War and indeed he is. Then, as I was working on the Alvin York book, it struck me that there's so many other great heroes and other stories that need to be told from that cataclysmic epic, one of America's greatest and largest battles, one of the bloodiest battles in our history and it's all but forgotten. I went back, took a hard look at the rest of the story and I went into this book trying to tell it in a way where the average reader could grab a hold of it and understand it, but still connect it to both American and German heroes who fought in that cataclysmic battle in 1918.

Theo Mayer: As the host of a show about WWI, I get a lot of email from individuals, and groups and state organizations and they often open with, "Well, we have our own Sergeant York." Indeed, there were a number of Medal of Honor recipients, as you mentioned, and heroes who distinguished themselves during the battle. What are some of the other names that we should learn?
Col. Mastriano: There's so many amazing feats of heroism that came out of the war, and sacrifice. One of them I'd like to point to, to bring back to life, is Sergeant Arthur Forrest. He was with the 89th Division. Arthur Forrest was a renowned baseball player back in his day. He actually quit sports and volunteered to join the army when the war broke out. He was from Hannibal, Missouri and on 1 November, his Division, the Old 89th Division, attacked towards Renionville. Sergeant Forrest said they were pinned down by the German fire and, "I was so frightened that I didn't know what to do, so I ran as fast as I could." That is, he ran right towards the enemy! He ran towards the German machine gun that was holding up his particular unit, threw two grenades into the German machine gun position, and killed all the crew except one. Another great hero, often forgotten, fought right outside of what is now the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery. The Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery is the largest American Cemetery in Europe. 14,246 American heroes rest there. The village on the other side of the cemetery is called Cunel. It's a very sleepy, small town. It was back then as well. The first American in that town was a man called Lieutenant Sam Woodfill, a member of the 5th Diamond Division. The guy is amazing and he receives a Medal of Honor as well. That's just two of many heroes who came out of the Meuse-Argonne. What strikes me about these stories is that we have ordinary men, and oftentimes men viewed as not ordinary, but weak. We have these weak, ordinary people faced with overwhelming odds and they rise up and they confront it with extraordinary heroism. That should give us all hope because many people out there might not think they're capable of such things, but you just never know, so keep fighting for freedom as these men did. thunder in the argonne

Theo Mayer: Amazing stories. As an expert who has dug into this, and as a military historian, what are in your opinion the three most important things that Americans should remember about this battle?
Col. Mastriano: Historians in France and England, oftentimes English historians of WW1, tend to be hostile towards the American recollection of the war. But it's a fact that the war could not have been won without the American role of these units, especially without the Americans fighting in the Meuse-Argonne, opening the way for the French and British to break out, up north. Number one, the Americans helped to end that war, a year earlier than anybody thought possible, and in fact Allied victory was ensured by the Americans. The second thing is we indeed stand on the shoulders of giants. We have these great men and many of them died and their stories are sadly forgotten. The last lesson from Meuse-Argonne is it's a story about people like you and me, and that each life matters and what a person does in life, indeed echoes across a generation and into eternity. These men in 1918 in the Meuse-Argonne faced the darkness and they came out as heroes, and maybe we too, should.

Theo Mayer: Great statement. Now, before we go, really important, when is your new book out and where can people get it? 
Col. Mastriano: The book's been out for several months and you can get on Amazon, it's Thunder In The Argonne. It tells the story from not only the American perspective, but also from the German perspective and then also I tie in how it made a difference at the strategic level. I tell it in a way that every reader can understand. I tell it in a way where I have lots of maps in there because I spent more than a hundred days in the Argonne. When you're reading an Argonne book and you get lost, and have to get maps out, that's a problem, so we loaded up the book with maps so it's very accessible, very readable, very understandable. The whole point of the book here is to revive the memories of the great heroes and show what ordinary people can do in challenging circumstances. 

Theo Mayer: Doug, I do have another question. Talk a little bit about the German perspective in the book that you included.
Col. Mastriano: The German perspective in my book, what's really striking about that is, it should not be surprising, but they fought for the same reasons that the Americans. They fought for their families first, their friends, and their country. The anti-hero in the Sergeant York story is this officer called Lieutenant Paul Vollmer. Paul Vollmer was in the German Landwehr which is their version of National Guard. He's been in it for 10 years. One of his best friends is Lieutenant Fritz Endriss from grouping in Germany in the Black Forest. Now, let's fast forward to 8 October 1918, and this gives you a flavor for why this matters to the German perspective as well. Alvin York ended up fighting in that combat because his best friend and only friend in the army was just killed, Corporal Murray Savage. We know the great feat he (York) accomplished. On the other side, why did the Germans end up surrendering? It was a decision by Lieutenant Paul Vollmer. The German officer leading the bayonet attack to try to save Vollmer was Fritz Endriss, Vollmer's best friend. When York shot him, shot him in the abs, Endriss was shot, thrown backwards, and is screaming in pain, so Vollmer ended up surrendering his command to Alvin York to try to save the life of his friend. We see this connection, it's true across all the armies. It's about fighting for the guy next to you. That's what happened on the American side, that's what happened on the German side.

Theo Mayer: Well thank you very much. A wonderful interview, appreciate it.
Col. Mastriano: Thank you Theo. All the best to you. Thanks for fighting the good fight, brother.
Theo Mayer: Colonel Douglas Mastriano, retired, military historian and award winning author about WWI. Learn more by the links in the podcast notes.

Podcast Notes and links