Gettysburg the …… World War II Center?

Our hometown took a large step to solidify its position as a leading center of World War II studies and commemoration with a major conference on the Battle of the Bulge, held at the World War II American Experience Museum in Gettysburg on Jan. 27.

The conference was sponsored by the Battle of the Bulge Association (BOBA).

battle of the bulge conference gettysurg 2024

In addition to the Eisenhower National Historic Site, the Eisenhower Institute at Gettysburg College, and the Eisenhower Society, the area’s claim to World War II education status is bolstered by the recently opened World War II Museum, whose vehicle collection and special programs already are serving as important tools to attract visitors to the area.

There was consensus on the part of the organizers that the conference would occur again in the future.  “It was wonderful co-hosting the conference and we look forward to the second conference next winter,” said WWII Museum Director of Outreach Jody Wilson. BOBA President Steve Landry agreed saying “Educating people about this historic event is a key part of our mission and I can think of no better place than Gettysburg.”

The conference joins the company of two other established major Gettysburg events celebrating WWII, the museum’s annual Military Weekend (July) and the Eisenhower National Historic Site World War II weekend (September).

In another sign of Gettysburg’s growing prominence in the field of World War II studies, four of the six speakers were locally based. Licensed battlefield guide and tour company operator Stuart Dempsey spoke on the ill-fated 106th Division; Eisenhower National Historic Site ranger Dan Vermilya spoke on Bulge casualties buried in the Gettysburg National Cemetery; local writer and editor Leon Reed spoke on the liberation of Bastogne; and licensed guide and Eisenhower Society trustee Tom Vossler discussed Eisenhower’s leadership.

One of the non-local speakers was Andrew Biggio, author of the best-sellers “The Rifle” and “The Rifle2.” Biggio spoke about his experiences interviewing veterans and organizing trips to take them back to the battlefields where they fought 80 years ago.

Dan Ocko, legislative counsel to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, also appeared and read a recently approved resolution declaring December 16 to be “Battle of the Bulge Day” and urging state and local organizations to prepare observances on December 16, 2024, in honor of the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the battle. (After a quick huddle, the local groups agreed to work together to prepare a local commemoration.)

Five Battle of the Bulge veterans were present, including one native  of Adams County, Richard Weaver of Bonneauville, a veteran of the 17th Airborne Division. Others included 99-year-old Jake Ruser and 100-year-old Ben Berry, both of Philadelphia; Joe Landry of Doylestown; and Harry Miller of Washington, DC. Their collective military resumes included participation in Operation Varsity, largest parachute jump in the war (Weaver); serving as a stretcher bearer in two of the war’s bloodiest battles (Ruser); serving as gun crew on a Sherman tank that played a key role in blunting the German advance (Miller); service on the famed Red Ball Express (Landry); and service in a segregated Quartermaster unit (Berry). There was a formal “Meet and Greet,” but most of them spent the whole day, listening to the presentations and mingling with the other guests.

Other commemorative events are planned. The Park and historic site regularly host ranger talks and other programs at the visitor center, the cemetery, and the Eisenhower Farm. In addition, the Adams County Public Library is also planning a series of presentations on World War II, partially to observe the 80th anniversary of key events such as D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge.

Featured image caption (Clockwise from upper left) The audience; 99-year-old Jake Ruser (medic), 100-year-old Ben Berry (quartermaster), 98-year-old Joe Landry (Red Ball Express driver); Tom Vossler; Stuart Dempsey [Leon Reed]

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Leon Reed, freelance reporter, is a former US Senate staff member, defense consultant, and history teacher. He is a seven year resident of Gettysburg, where he writes military history and explores the park and the Adams County countryside. He is the publisher at Little Falls Books, chaired the Adams County 2020 Census Complete Count Committee and is on the board of SCCAP and the local Habitat for Humanity chapter. He and his wife, Lois, have 3 children, 3 cats, and 5 grandchildren.


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