“You Sunk My Battleship!”–Making Military History Meaningful

USS Alabama

Ask a young student to tell you what he learns about in history, and he will probably respond words to the effect of “old stuff.”  Along with the “old” characterization comes the connotation that it is dry and dull.  You memorize who won what battle in what year.  Yawn!

My mother told me innumerable times that it is not what you say, but how you say it.  This perspective is particularly appropriate when it comes to how you teach history.  If you make it come alive and be dynamic, then the student will not only enjoy learning about it, but he is likely going to actually remember what is taught.  This conclusion is compelled by my adventures over the past two weekends–a visit to Battleship Memorial Park in Mobile, Alabama and participation in Open House at the Ranger Training Battalion at Camp Rudder at Eglin AFB, Florida.

The typical student learning history involving  military operations has no military knowledge or experience.  Thus, he has no point of reference and can really only memorize facts and figures to regurgitate at the appropriate testing point.  But if he has some hands on experience or can relate to the activities being undertaken, the learning becomes more meaningful and the facts learned  more likely to be retained.  It’s like playing the Milton Bradley game of Battleship.  A battleship is just something you read about in a textbook until you have a board where you strategize to keep your ship from being blown to kingdom come.

So I didn’t have a board to play Battleship, but I recently hopped aboard the USS Alabama to check out a real battleship at Battleship Memorial Park.  The scale of military operations in WWII took on an entirely different meaning when I experienced for myself the sheer size of this battleship.  With a crew of approximately 2,500, the USS Alabama was  pretty much equivalent to a floating town.  It had medical facilities, a chapel, fire fighters, movies for the crew, dining facilities, office space, a mail room, etc.  This is where sailors LIVED for extended periods of time; it was “Sweet Home (USS) Alabama.”    The ship  was the sailors’  home, but no one would call it homey.

Why was it called the Alabama?  No fields of cotton graced its decks.  The crew were not all Southerners.  Well, battleships are named for states.  Pretty neat fact.  One I never learned in all my years of schooling.  But I bet I will remember this fact because I was curious enough to ask the question as to the origin of its name after having been on it.

I could probably tell you more about the old TV show “McHale’s Navy” than I could anything that I “learned” in history classes about the U.S. naval involvement in WWII.  At least with “McHale’s Navy” I had a visual of subs lurking in the depths being pursued by a PT Boat.  But I have a better visual of WWII now after touring the USS Drum, a submarine also on display at Battleship Memorial Park along with the USS Alabama.

uss drum

Seeing the boat firsthand made  me come to the conclusion that subs are indeed shaped like a cigar.  How come I never learned this fact in history class? And I now know that subs are named for fish/marine creatures since they both operate under the sea. By the way, a drum is a type of fish known for its throaty noise that sounds like a drum.  Bingo!  I learned history AND biology at the same time.

To enter the bowels of the sub, one must go down the hatch.  The opening in the deck is narrow, and one is leaving the light of day for darkness below.  Thus, it makes perfect sense to say “down the hatch” when  drinks are consumed.  Visions of descending the steep steps to the inside of that submarine will certainly come to mind as I imbibe future beverages.

But I am a landlubber at heart, so it felt good to be on terra firma to learn additional military history.  My “classroom” was Camp Rudder, home to the 6th Ranger Training Battalion, for its annual Open House.  OK, I get what a battle is, but what’s a “battalion?”  Battalion derives from an Italian word meaning “battle.”  Typically, a battalion relates to the infantry and is composed of 700 soldiers in the U.S. Army.  When I see soldiers out in the field displaying combat techniques, it clicks in my brain what a battalion is.

Ranger Battalion

And I now have a concept that military units are like measurements in cooking.  Four squads=1 platoon; 4 platoons=1 company; and 4+ companies=1 battalion.  How come no one ever explained these building block units when I was taking history classes? Armies have an organizational structure.  Seems like history books/classes skip the foundation and presume that history students know basic things.  Dr. I. No History may understand what a platoon is, but the average student does not.  Let’s start at the beginning.

The light bulb came on for me at the Open House with regard to weapons.  Everyone has heard that the military uses M this and M that type weapons.  I get that the 16 in an M-16 is a number, but what in heaven’s name is an “M”?  No, not military or machine (my first two guesses); M stands for MODEL.  I got to shoot an M240 Bravo at the Open House.  I am not sure if 239 models preceded the M240, but at least I know that the gun I held is designated by a model number.


And reading about war simply just cannot convey what actually occurs.  Once you have seen a helicopter swoop in for a demonstration raid, heard the unbelievably loud sound of machine gun fire in the immediate vicinity (you have to wear ear protectors to shoot the gun), and tried to lift the 100+ pound pack full of provisions and gear a Ranger carries, you have a much better sense of the physical and emotional toll that accompanies military operations.

As a result of my recent experiences, I have had an epiphany as to how military history needs to be taught.  Certainly the dry old texts with mind-numbing facts, figures and dates cannot be totally shelved.  But I propose that the best way to teach history in a way that will truly impact the student and help him to internalize the information is to teach it the kindergarten way–Show and Tell.  More visual and hands on teaching of military history is essential for true learning to occur.  Battleship Memorial Park and Open House at Camp Rudder showed me a great deal about the military and now I am telling you about it.  I must have learned something!
















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