Chris Isleib on why the United States entered WWI and the tremendous sacrifice of American lives ~
” … democracy was under very real threat and America joined in, in order to help save democracy, in order to keep them from that threat, and also to just end this fighting. They did so successfully, but enormous human cost. Americans lost 116,516 men and woman.”
Andy Ockershausen: This is Andy Ockershausen. This is Our Town. Because of my relationship with history, I’m so, so excited to have someone who is connecting this generation, or these generations,
to something that’s sort of lost in our life, and that’s WWI. I’m so delighted to introduce Chris Isleib. Did I do that right, Chris?
Chris Isleib: Perfect pronunciation. Thank you.
Andy Ockershausen: Chris, as a man, I don’t know his complete title, but as far as I’m concerned he is Mr. WWI, to do this publicity and to do the PR, and to get this community turned on to what’s happening. This year is a big year. It’s 100th anniversary of WWI.
Chris Isleib: Thank you for your generous words. I’m part of a team. We have a WWI Centennial Commission, which was created by Congress in 2013. It consists of 12 appointed Commissioners, and they’re appointed by the President of the United States, by the Senate, and the House members as well as by … there’s one each from the American Legion and from the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Andy Ockershausen: By getting into one of our military academies, then right? You have to have an appointment.
Chris Isleib: Yes, sir.
Andy Ockershausen: Do you have any Congressmen or Senators on the commission, or are they all outsiders?
Chris Isleib: No, these are all people who have demonstrated history in working with Veterans Affairs, Cultural Affairs, or Historical or Military Affairs.
Andy Ockershausen: Being a Washingtonian and having a picture of my father in his WWI, they must be … I guess they were called fatigues at the time, because he didn’t do anything. He wasn’t in the Army. He ended up in the Navy. It made me aware of WWI and the fact is, that it’s sort of forgotten in Our Town and it’s forgotten in our society. That’s a shame.
WWI in the Shadows of WWII
Chris Isleib: It’s not entirely forgotten, luckily. There’s starting to be a ground swell. We’ve been doing a lot of outreach to try and turn that. However, for the longest time WWI just wasn’t talked about. It was always in the shadow of WWII, and that’s for a couple of reasons. Historians tell us that the veterans, when they came back, it was such an awful war that they didn’t talk about it that much at the time. The other thing was for Americans especially, the narrative is complicating and very cloudy. Unlike WWII, which started with the bombing of Pearl Harbor and this awful-
Andy Ockershausen: A shock. It started definitely with a shock.
Chris Isleib: And similarly ended with a shock. Unfortunately, WWI it started with some disgruntled Serbian guy, and many people can’t find Serbia on a map, assassinating a crowned prince of Austria and the next thing you know Australia is invading Turkey. So it’s just like this, “What just happened here?” moment. On the other end of the narrative, at the end of the war, there was a huge amount of fighting, a huge amount of death, a huge amount of loss, and then they just voted to not do it anymore and it became not even really a Peace but an Armistice.
Andy Ockershausen: Yeah, they got it over. That’s right. It wasn’t Peace, an Armistice.
Chris Isleib: Yeah.
Andy Ockershausen: Both said said, “We’ve got to get this thing over.”
Enormous Loss Suffered in WWI
Chris Isleib: Yeah. And it was after an enormous, enormous loss. I’m not a historian, but so many countries lost so many people. I read a statistic while I was in France this past week for commemorative events that France-
Andy Ockershausen: You were touring the battlefields, correct?
Chris Isleib: Yeah.
Andy Ockershausen: Or the memorials.
Chris Isleib: Yeah, we had some events there that I’ll talk about shortly, but the nation of France, just between the months of August and December, the very first year of the war, they lost more people than America lost in wars during the entire 20th Century. So that just gives you an idea, just a scope. You go there 100 years later, as we were saying, I was over there for … we had a couple of events to mark the American involvement, and to represent the Americans in some of these huge battles. But the land is still scarred. I mean every town has a sad statute in the middle of the town to commemorate that town’s loss, and they had the names of people who were lost. There wasn’t a town that doesn’t have one, and there isn’t a statue that doesn’t really have one, and there isn’t a statue that doesn’t have dozens of names –
Andy Ockershausen: It almost leveled France. That was just a terrible time.
Chris Isleib: Belgium, in Serbia and Bulgaria and so many other countries, Italy. It was awful.
Andy Ockershausen: It was really a world war. At that time that was the world. Of course, it was really I’d say, WWI was really the beginning of WWII, and it went on. But you bring so much knowledge and I don’t know where you got it because you went to school in Southern California. That’s a playboy school.
Chris Isleib: Oh no.
Andy Ockershausen: Ken, he went to the playboy school. I thought you went to make movies you go to school there. Why would you … are you from Southern California?
Chris Isleib Background
Chris Isleib: I grew up actually in Upstate New York, but I was very fortunate and I was able to … I was interested in writing, and I was interested in storytelling. I was able to-
Andy Ockershausen: That’s what I said.
Southern Cal and Navy ROTC
Chris Isleib: Yeah, and I was able to get accepted to the Creative Writing program at Southern Cal, and I was able to also join the Navy ROTC. After I graduated, I commissioned into the Navy and drove war ships for four or five years, and then after that I got out-
Andy Ockershausen: Out of San Diego, or did you come back East?
USS Iowa | President Reagan | 1986
Chris Isleib: I was actually on the East Coast. I was with a battleship, USS Iowa, out of Norfolk and then also with the assalt boats out of Little Creek.
Andy Ockershausen: We were in Governors Island for the celebration and the USS Iowa brought President Reagan–
Chris Isleib: That’s right.
Andy Ockershausen: Down the river-
Chris Isleib: You might have seen me. I might have seen you.
Andy Ockershausen: Do you remember that event?
Chris Isleib: Yeah, we were the flagship-
Andy Ockershausen: ’82, ’83?
Chris Isleib: It might have been ’86.
Andy Ockershausen: Yeah, like ’86. Janice and I were there.
Chris Isleib: Yeah, 100th anniversary.
Andy Ockershausen: We did a broadcast from right there on the point at Governors Island-
Chris Isleib: There you go.
Andy Ockershausen: And we saw the whole thing. It was so inspiring. But the next morning we saw the Iowa being towed back up the East River.
Chris Isleib: Mm-hmm.
Andy Ockershausen: I guess they didn’t want to start the engine.
Chris Isleib: Well we were actually host to the … they put the Beach Boys on top of tier three for a big party for the Secretary of the Navy and-
Andy Ockershausen: Oh my God.
Chris Isleib: Yeah, it was great.
Andy Ockershausen: And the Beach Boys onboard?
Chris Isleib: Yeah, we were celebrating the … it was the 100th anniversary of the Statute of Liberty.
Andy Ockershausen: Absolutely.
Chris Isleib: That was a great weekend.
Andy Ockershausen: The whole end of Manhattan was lit up. I’ll never forget that. The fireworks were unbelievable. I’d seen the President on the Iowa. It was impressive.
Chris Isleib: That’s right.
Andy Ockershausen: Then he flew back. Of course, they helicoptered him back up the river.
Chris Isleib: That’s right.
Andy Ockershausen: Anyway, you bring a lot of information and trigger me with some thoughts, and I never will forget the Iowa.
Governors Island – WWI Embarkation Site
Chris Isleib: Actually, I will say that mentioning Governors Island, just this past weekend, there was a big WWI reenactment event. Governors Island was a WWI site-
Andy Ockershausen: Big, big part of WWI.
Chris Isleib: Yeah.
Andy Ockershausen: I knew that. It was embarkation point, wasn’t that?
Chris Isleib: Totally embarkation point. That’s where, in fact, General Pershing departed from. He got on a ship and went to France to go win this war right from Governors Island.
Andy Ockershausen: What did he say when he got off the boat?
Chris Isleib: “Lafayette, nous vallant.”
Andy Ockershausen: “We are here.”
Chris Isleib: That’s right.
Andy Ockershausen: Do you remember that? You’re too young. I don’t remember it either. But I remember hearing it. That was his statement though.
Chris Isleib: Yeah.
Andy Ockershausen: Saying, “We’re here to save you.”
Chris Isleib: Yep.
Andy Ockershausen: And it did, the infusion of America and the manpower tipped the whole war up til then it was stalemate. Nobody was going to win.
Chris Isleib: And they ran out of ideas, I think, also from a leadership standpoint.
Chris Isleib – Post Active Duty Navy
Andy Ockershausen: But you were telling me some things and I was excited to hear from you about it. Before I talk about the war, I want to talk more about you. And then you went to BU and a master’s degree of communication.
Chris Isleib: Yes sir.
Andy Ockershausen: And Director of Communications at US Naval. US National Archives. You’ve got such a repertoire of ideas. Deputy Chief of the Air Force Headquarters Press Desk. I mean you must have run the country for a while.
Chris Isleib: Oh, I don’t know about that.
Andy Ockershausen: Don’t be modest, Chris.
Chris Isleib: That was a little piece of a big Pentagon. But I spent 17 years in the Reserves after five years in the Active Duty Navy. After that I became a DOD civilian working in the Pentagon for eight years for the Secretary of Defense and for the Secretary of the Air Force. And then I was fortunate to work for their National Archives, which is any history nerd’s dream.
Andy Ockershausen: Oh my.
Chris Isleib: Yeah.
Andy Ockershausen: Well you’re right here in Washington. You’re a part of everything that was helping you in a lot of ways. The Archives, we love and we’re Washingtonians. We love it, and the fact that the country is now going to have a great glimpse of what Washington is about. It’s going to be so great with the monuments that we have, and all the beautiful sites. But you’ve been a part of it, Chris, and that’s … I just think you’re a very lucky man.
Chris Isleib: Thank you, I am because this is a great community. There’s no more historic city than this. And there’s no more vibrant or interesting city that I could ever imagine than Washington, DC.
Andy Ockershausen: I’ve pointed out now that there is something like 19 cranes on one site here. This town is booming, and it’s a lot to do with the Pentagon and the Military and so forth. But then you went to BU and got communications. Did you ever get into broadcast at all? I mean you’re writing of course.
Chris Isleib: Actually, I wanted to go to Hollywood. As a young man growing up, I always thought that that would be kind of fun and glamorous, and I liked writing. I thought, “What better place to write than Hollywood?” Right? I went to a film school, Boston University, and then went out to Los Angeles and I worked as a script reader, a story editor, and a writer and a producer for about 15 years. In all that time I was also in the Navy Reserve at the same time.
Andy Ockershausen: Any broadcast activity?
Chris Isleib: We did some. I did some with actually through the Military, through my Military connections and so on. Not like you, you’re the king of this stuff.
Andy Ockershausen: I was the luckiest man ever to live. I still see that. We have a group that still gets together once a month that all of us were in International Guard and went on Active Duty at the same time. And then we spread all over the world after that. The experience will never, never leave me, that what a great experience to be in that Military mold, and it worked for so many of us. It’s what it was at the time, you know? It was the Korean War and it was heating up. None of us wanted to be involved in the Korean War, but it’s something you had to do. You had to go in the Military.
Chris Isleib: Sure.
Andy Ockershausen: One of the great things that you know and I know about our city is that as that growing up here, one of the dates I’ll never ever forget was November 11th. It meant so much. Much more than I ever realized, but I want to get into that, and we’re going to take a break right now, Chris. Remember that date, November 11th. This is Andy Ockershausen, and this is Our Town.
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Our Town: You’re listening to Our Town.
Andy Ockershausen: This is Andy Ockershausen, and this is Our Town. I’m having a wonderful, nostalgic conversation with Chris Isleib to talk about WWI and about what it means to our country and particularly to Our Town. I ended the segment on November 11th, which meant to me a holiday. But now, I know what it really meant and that was the ending of the war.
November 11 | Veterans Day
Chris Isleib: Yeah. WWI started in 1914, and the US got involved with it pretty late.
Andy Ockershausen: Very late.
Chris Isleib: They’re combatants at the time were just ground to this awful stalemate and the Germans were, in fact, having a stalemate on the other side too against Russia. But then Russia fell and gave up the war, and so Germany was trying to rush their troops over to the western front in order to capture Paris and win the war. That’s when America really got started in earnest, and actually we declared war on the 6th of April 1917. At the time, our Army only had 100,000 people in it.
Andy Ockershausen: It started from scratch.
Chris Isleib: Yeah.
Andy Ockershausen: Absolutely, I knew that.
US Involvement in WWI – All In – Swift and Efficient Implementation
Chris Isleib: But luckily we had people that had vision. General Pershing was not the only one that just had this real flare for being able to grow what was needed in time to do that. They were efficient about it. I’m not a historian, but historians tell us that among the first troops that we sent over were people to train. We would do conscription here in the United States and then ship the troops over to actually train in France with the best combat experienced teachers that they could find. Then they also brought over what they called pioneers. They brought over people to start lumberyards and the lumber was used to build railroads because the railroad infrastructure in France was nonexistent.
Andy Ockershausen: Ripped up, I guess.
Chris Isleib: These Americans had this vision to just grow this thing by millions. Sure enough by the end of the war, two million Americans had deployed over to France to fight.
Andy Ockershausen: It’s amazing, really, to get those people over there so fast.
Chris Isleib: Yeah.
Andy Ockershausen: With no airplanes, they had to go by boat.
Chris Isleib: Yeah.
Andy Ockershausen: That’s interesting because I had no idea that we were training the people. I though they brought them up, but like you said, they were raw recruits and they trained them with the French over there.
Chris Isleib: Yeah, and they also trained here, but we also built huge infrastructure in hospitals.
Andy Ockershausen: Oh my God.
Chris Isleib: We built huge infrastructure in roads, we built huge infrastructure in so many different other efforts, administrative efforts even, that war, when they decided to go, the Americans went all in.
Andy Ockershausen: That really put France back on their feet, correct?
Chris Isleib: Yeah.
Andy Ockershausen: Without that, it would have been a still probably a deserted land. But that put the country back. American people. So that’s also important for WWI. Instead of the Marshall Plan, we had the Black Jack Pershing Plan and put them back on their feet and go home. And that’s what we did.
Chris Isleib: Yeah.
Andy Ockershausen: We didn’t want anything out of that war. The boys wanted to come home.
US Entered WWI Simply to Help Save Democracy | Tremendous Loss American Lives
Chris Isleib: And that’s actually a big part of what made WWI so important and continues to be important, and also what made the 20th century really what they call it … the historians tell us the American Century, because America, we didn’t go into this war for treasure. We didn’t go into to gain land. It was called the War To End All Wars because we wanted to enter it just to stop this fighting, because this fighting was just going on-
Andy Ockershausen: The carnage.
116,516 American Men and Woman Lost Their Lives in WWI
Chris Isleib: It was around the world. I mean Japan involved, Russia was involved, fighting was happening in Singapore and Guam. The thing was just such an awful thing that America just … democracy was under very real threat and America joined in, in order to help save democracy, in order to keep them from that threat, and also to just end this fighting. They did so successfully, but enormous human cost. Americans lost 116,516 men and woman-
Andy Ockershausen: In a short period, really.
Chris Isleib: Yeah, and it was in 18 months. That’s more than in the Vietnam War and in the Korean War combined.
Andy Ockershausen: Now that’s an unknown fact there, about how bloody WWI was. Even though we were only there for a short time, it compared to four years in the Pacific and who knows what’s going on now? We’re still involved in a war. But now they get one casualty and it’s like the end of the day and they would have thousands of casualties in WWI, and the word never got back for a long time. The communications were very, very … what do I say? New at that time, and they had no fast communication like we have now. Now, you can watch the war on television now. It’s a show. But that war was sort of forgotten, WWI.
How WWI Still Affects Us Today | Communication, Transportation, Medicine
Chris Isleib: Yeah, and it shouldn’t be. The war touches us to this day, every day. I mean the war led to the downfall of five empires. It changed everything about the way we do diplomacy, it changed everything about technology in this short period of time. Enormous advances were made, all for reasons, but advances in communication, transportation, medicine. A thousand different other efforts. As a result, it also changed our cultures. It change our art, it changed the way we look at life, the way we look at government, the way we look at democracy and the way that we look at citizenship.
Again, the borders that were created after this war was over are still being fought. They’re still places that haven’t settled into what was a very bad plan, created after the War, sometimes to punish people, sometimes to grab land in this final negotiation after the war was over. But ultimately, today you’re talking on the phone, phones went from nothing to being available popularly during WWI, driving in a car, cars same thing. People rode into this war on horseback and by the end of it-
Andy Ockershausen: It’s amazing.
Automotive and Aeronautices
Chris Isleib: Automobiles were everywhere.
Andy Ockershausen: There were no tanks at the beginning. At the end, that was a land war.
Chris Isleib: And the airplanes, the airplanes that we fly down here, this was a training area for the very first airplanes that came to America, especially for the Military. In fact, the Wright brothers flew right here in Washington, DC.
Andy Ockershausen: It was one at College Park was when they flew. It’s amazing. Well Chris, I’m so glad you brought all these things up. We’re talking about Our Town and all the great things that are here. There’s a lot more, and we’re going to take a break now, Chris and come back and talk more about Our Town.
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Our Town: You’re listening to Our Town with Andy Ockershausen, brought to you by Best Bark Communications.
Andy Ockershausen: This is Our Town, Andy Ockershausen talking with Chris Isleib about his duties right now, and how much we owe to him and how much we owe to this town, and what we’re going to do for the WWI celebration. Chris.
Chris Isleib: Honestly, I’m part of the team, as I mentioned earlier. Our Centennial Commission is-
Andy Ockershausen: You are the team to us, though.
Chris Isleib: Oh, well to you. God bless you for it.
Andy Ockershausen: There are millions of people listening to you right now.
Three Things US WWI Centennial Commission Set Up to Do
Chris Isleib: Our commission was set up by Congress in 2013 to do really three things: To do public outreach about our American veterans in WWI, to set up education programs and partnerships, which we’ve been doing with History Channel and Gilder Lehrman Institute, the National History Day and a number of other partners. And, then finally also to conduct commemorative events as appropriate. We’ve been working with the American Battle Monuments Commission for their overseas sites and their overseas efforts, including most recently in Meuse-Argonne and Saint-Mihiel this past weekend.
Then also the DOD, the Defense Department, the Department of Veterans Affairs, to help create events to mark the start of American involvement in the war. And also now we’re going into the period of the end of the war. So in November we’ll have a number of events, especially in the weeks surrounding November 11th, which is now called Veterans Day, but it used to be called-
Andy Ockershausen: Armistice Day.
Chris Isleib: Armistice Day. Exactly.
Andy Ockershausen: And that was a very important part of the holiday season, was Armistice Day was a big thing in the Fall.
Chris Isleib: Yeah. The Armistice was signed to take place at 11:00 on the 11th day of the 11th month. Worldwide to this day, it’s seen as Remembrance Day and Veterans Day in so many countries. But mostly, it still maintains its WWI roots. For us, you can go to our website. Our website is very simple, it’s ww1cc.org. There, you can find a lot of different things. We’ve got a whole activities calendar and events calendar that’s huge. Nationwide, we’ve got probably, even right now, about 50 to 100 events per day that are going on nationwide.
Andy Ockershausen: Wow.
Chris Isleib: We’ve got about 49 state-level organizations in almost every state and territory in the United States, about 56. We have a number of different programs, special programs, for education for restoration of WWI … restoration of existing WWI memorials in communities around the country, we’ve got social media. You can find us on Facebook, you can find us on Twitter, you can find us on Instagram. Again, as the handle @ww1cc. Then we also have a newsletter. We’ve got a newsletter that’s got about 30,000 subscribers. It comes out once a week. Finally, we have a podcast. I’m not sure it’s as shiny and polished as yours, but we’ve got about 2,000 downloads a day.
Andy Ockershausen: Right. Right.
Chris Isleib: We’ve got a number of people who are doing really well with telling the stories. It’s about an hour long. I think we’re up to about 100 episodes right now. We do it weekly. Matter of fact, we’re shooting it today, just like you guys are shooting yours too.
Andy Ockershausen: You probably wrote most of them.
Chris Isleib: No, actually we’ve got a team. Like I say, I’m a smart part of a big effort. Our folks get the word out.
Andy Ockershausen: Chris, you make such an impression and I’m not going to accept that because you have enlightened us tremendously, and fortunately enlightened this radio station, which is part of our lives. But John will follow up. He will be with you there. It’s still a powerful voice WMAL radio is, and our little podcast is going to be powerful because of you and what you brought to it, and talking about something that we have sort of forgotten. That’s sad. I’m so glad that Susan called us and told us that she was involved, and obviously got you involved. We just seized upon it as an opportunity to help remember WWI.
Chris Isleib: Well thank you. We have one gift that we’re also working on for the community of Washington, DC, and that is the new National WWI Memorial. We’ve got the mission of public outreach, we’ve got the mission of commemorative events, and so on. But really, Congress gave us one of our most important missions in 2014, and that was authorizing us to build, to stand alongside the Vietnam Veterans Memorial down in the mall, the Korean War, Veterans Memorial.
Andy Ockershausen: Korean War.
Chris Isleib: The WWII Memorial, they authorized us to create a WWI National Memorial to honor the men and women, the 4.7 million Americans suited up for that war. 2 million of them deployed. And I said earlier, sadly, 116,516 never made it home.
Andy Ockershausen: Didn’t survive.
Chris Isleib: So we’re going to create this memorial. It’s a site that Congress gave us. It’s a two acre site. It’s currently called Pershing Park, so it’s branded already for WWI, and it’s right in front of the Willard Hotel and right next door to the White House.
Andy Ockershausen: I know it well. This is part of Our Town, and that is one of the things that we did at WMAL and we are doing with our podcast, is trying to focus on the fact on how important Our Town is to each other. There’s so much great in this … we don’t call it our city, we call it Our Town.
Chris Isleib: Totally.
Andy Ockershausen: Even if you live in Vienna, or live on the Chesapeake Bay, or you live in Frederick or Fredericksburg, it’s Our Town. But Chris, you have been such a very, very enlightening guest and we appreciate it. We will give you a time. We will air this podcast before November 11th, somewhere around that week. I don’t even know what day of the week it is.
Janice Iacona Ockershausen: Yeah, it’ll be the Monday before November-
Andy Ockershausen: The Monday.
Chris Isleib: Thank you.
Janice Iacona Ockershausen: Yeah, yeah.
Chris Isleib: Thank you. It’s been an honor being here.
Andy Ockershausen: So whatever we can do-
Chris Isleib: It’s been an honor being here. Thank you very much for this opportunity to talk about the American women and men that suited up and served during that war, during that important time.
Andy Ockershausen: Chris, you are a fountain of information and anybody that gets the opportunity, go down to the Museum at the Post Office. And we know it, it’s thousands of museums around Washington that still are a WWI. Nothing’s more honorable than you, Chris. Thank you so much.
Chris Isleib, I did that right, didn’t I?
Chris Isleib: You nailed it.
Andy Ockershausen: This is Andy Ockershausen. This has been Our Town.
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