Even today French locals , other Europeans and Americans find themselves drawn to the Meuse-Argonne region of France. Once drawn there, many return time and again; often working on a multi-year research or preservation project. In this irregular interview series, the webmaster hopes to introduce readers to some of these individuals and their labors of love.
1) What are your name, nationality and occupation?
Robert J. Laplander – American – writer, historian, musician (and tire salesman, but only because I’ve grown fond of eating).
2) Which languages do you speak, and how fluently do you speak them?
A little French and a little German – neither well at all.
3) When was your first visit to the Meuse-Argonne?
On my honeymoon in the summer of 2000. My wife’s wedding gift to me was a week driving the Western Front from Belgium to Switzerland. The end of that week came in the Argonne Forest. It was like ‘coming home’ when we first saw the American Battle Monuments Commission signs and the time spent in the Argonne was the absolute hi-lite of that first trip. I learned a lot right off the bat and it made the pile of books I lugged along worth it.
4) When did you really find yourself drawn to the Meuse-Argonne?
I started studying the First World War and the AEF at a very young age, so it’s always been there in the back ground. Later on I used it as an escape from music (because total emersion leads to total burn-out) and as time went by, and we got more and more popular, I started getting into the war, and the Argonne specifically, on almost an esoteric level. Eventually, once I started working on the Lost Battalion, I even stepped away from music for a time, taking only the bare minimum of jobs to keep things operating. Otherwise I spent great deals of time in the Argonne in 1918…
5) What is your primary interest in the region?
The operations of the 77th Division – 154th Infantry Brigade and ancillary units specifically, and the units working with and around them in I Corps September 24th through October 15th, 1918.
6) Approximately how many times and/or how often do you visit the Meuse-Argonne?
I have spent a total of 63 days. I have not been since October 2008 unfortunately.
7) What do you do when you visit?
I spend virtually the entire time in research of one form or another. Before I arrive I have it all planned out what needs to be accomplished and what I’d like to accomplish. I also figure time in for the stuff that always springs up that wasn’t planned but that deserves further exploration. I immerse myself in where I am and what I’m doing. On the two occasions that I’ve led tours I spent all my time with the groups immersing them in the area as well. I try to make each trip a holistic experience.
8) What research or preservation projects are you working on currently?
My one and only continuing project is to collect and record every scrap of Lost Battalion information I can root out. This includes the activities of those units working with/around them. I am currently involved in writing projects chronicling the experience of Company A/308th Infantry in the Argonne; the search for an MIA from the Lost Battalion; a ‘coffee table’ book on the men and event of the Lost Battalion; and a biography of Charles Whittlesey, the LB commander and the first man in the war to be awarded the Medal of Honor. The long term goal of the whole thing is to establish a Lost Battalion/308th/307th/77th Division data base for future generations to study and turn to in conjunction with the other wonderful work being done by others as obsessed as I am with elements of that battle in the Argonne. I am also working with the town of Florence, Wisconsin, the birth place of Charles Whittlesey, to commemorate him properly up there.
9) What research or preservation projects have you completed in the past?
So far the crowning achievement has been Finding the Lost Battalion: Beyond the Rumors, Myths and Legends of America’s Famous WW1 Epic, which was first published in 2006. It has become sort of the ‘bible’ on the Lost Battalion. I am also working on updating that work with yet more and new information and photos.
Webmaster’s note: The book can be ordered on Lulu.com.
10) What is your favorite spot in the Meuse-Argonne, and why?
Of course it is the Charlevaux Ravine, where Whittlesey and his men were surrounded. I have a very strong attachment to that ground, for obvious reasons. I am also very fond of the bunker at l’Homme Mort, about ¾ of a mile south of the Charlevaux. The 308th was surrounded here for a short time three days before the Charlevaux event, during which time it served as a command post and First Aid station for Whittlesey and his men. Later it served as PC for the 308th Infantry and continued as an Aid Station as well.
11) History aside, what is your favorite thing to do in the Meuse-Argonne?
I don’t know that I would be able to break away from the historical aspect of being there. Even if there was a party or festival that I was attending, the war would still be there in the back of my mind and my eyes and thoughts would constantly wander to it in relation to what I was seeing around me. The war would be my reason for being there, much as it was for the AEF in 1918. I guess then my favorite thing to do there is experience the war all I can.
12) Schedule permitting, would you consider being a tour guide for individuals or groups traveling to the sector?
You get me over there and I’m all yours. I have led two day long tours of the Lost Battalion sites, as well as putting up the storyboard next to the new monument at the foot of Hill 205. I would be more than happy to lead people there again.
13) How can readers contact you for assistance or for more details?
E-mail me direct at: [email protected] or call (414) 333-9402.
14) Any other comments?
If you had a relative in the 77th during the war I’d love to hear from you. I am also looking for a competent researcher to do some digging for me at St. Louis NARA .