Trazzler

What you can learn at a battlefield

From Gettysburg to Omaha beach, these bloody spots help foster a concrete understanding of historical events

  • Hunting for ghosts among the ruins in Corregidor Island, Philippines

    Bombed-out ruins crumble in the midday sun; ravens with blood-red eyes fly around, a sinister reminder of what is nevermore here on Corregidor Island in Manila Bay. The aura of this devastated place is intense, yet hopeful. Walk among the ruins of the World War II army presence — the old cinema, the mile-long barracks, the swimming pool — eerie, jungle-eaten mementos of a bygone era. Then thread your way through the laterals of Malinta Tunnel, where brave nurses tended to the wounded in complete darkness. The memorials are a testament to bravery — the siege here lasted from December 1941 to the end of April 1942 with the Allied forces surviving on spare rations of food and water and suffering relentless aerial and naval attacks. On May 6, Lt. Gen. Jonathan Wainwright ended the final battle in surrender: “There is a limit of human endurance, and that point has long been passed.” Psychics say ghosts are everywhere here—paranormal or not, it’s worth imagining the lives lived and lost on this peaceful, hauntingly beautiful island.

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  • Imagining a mythologized battle in Charlestown, Mass.

    A granite obelisk at the top of a surprisingly steep hill stands watch over stately town homes — a spot more important for its mythology than its history. The Bunker Hill Monument is actually located on Breed’s Hill, but it’s not likely to be renamed any time soon. And the battle wasn’t really a victory for the Patriots (but that’s not leaving the textbooks, either). That the outgunned Rebels bloodied the Redcoats’ nose has become part of our national hagiography, and much of that mythos began here. In the summer, the monument’s manicured lawns are perfect for a picnic; in winter, the city and the harbor look clean under a new snow. High above the tugs and tankers to the east, the Bunker Hill Monument offers a serene quiet befitting a battlefield — and a calm ripe for historical reflection, regardless of how the archives were written.

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  • Following the WWI Remembrance Trail close to Amiens, France

    The last French survivor of WWI died last year, but the French don’t want anyone to forget the Great War. It’s a melancholy pilgrimage, peering into the trenches where some 1.5 million soldiers died in the 1916 campaign. Some of the bomb craters scarring the river valley are stadium-size, so big the shock waves of the original explosion killed soldiers miles away. The Battle of the Somme saw the single bloodiest day in British military history and J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Dead Marshes” were inspired by what he saw here as a young soldier. (Ask the tourist office for a map of the major battle sites and cemeteries or a list of guides for a small-group tour.)

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  • Wrapping your head around history in Gettysburg, Pa.

    It’s hard enough to comprehend the decisive Civil War battle at Gettysburg on paper — 165,000 men engaged in three straight days of fighting that would claim as many as 50,000 casualties in the bloodiest battle ever fought on American soil. Harder still when you’re standing on Little Round Top at the 6,000-acre military park. You need perspective, a broader view of the battlefield as it appeared in July of 1863. Luckily, Michigan man Jim Daugherty and Gettysburg guide and historian Jim Kralik spent three years building a massive 1/72-scale model depicting all three days of battle. The end result is the Gettysburg Diorama, an 800-square-foot world populated by more than 20,000 hand-painted men, horses and cannons, that offers visitors a comprehensive, bird’s-eye view of the battle that turned the tide of the Civil War.

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  • Surveying a field where a nation was forged in battle, England

    Standing in the silence of a ruined abbey and peering down on a rutted English meadow, home to a handful of dozy sheep, this seems an improbable setting for a cataclysmic upheaval in European history. But there is a spine-tingling thrill in knowing that here on Senlac (“Bloodlake”) Hill, in 1066, the armies of William, Duke of Normandy, and Harold II, King of England, squared up in the Battle of Hastings, one of those rare, savage events where history abruptly remakes the world. The invading Normans’ defeat of the Anglo-Saxons turned England’s orientation from Scandinavia to Western Europe, transforming England into a major power whose military, cultural and linguistic influence would spread around the globe. The power of human imagination means that the vicious brutality of the battle hangs heavily over this tranquil rural scene, and visitors remain transfixed for a lengthy time, compelled to picture the bloody fighting in the mind’s eye, and perhaps to ponder how 1,000 years ago, if a few hundred hot-headed Anglo-Saxons hadn’t been duped into descending the hill to fight a battle on flatter ground — where they were massacred — what a different place the world could now be.

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  • Sipping the Chinese tea in the Golden Triangle, Thailand

    Today it’s tea farms, hilltop bungalows, and a stream of tourists coming up for crispy Chinese pork, mountaintop temples and long views into Myanmar. But behind the knowing, betel-stained smiles of the men that greet you in Doi Mae Salong is a less placid history — one that embodies every element of Golden Triangle rowdiness. It started with a group of Chinese anti-Maoist fighters who fled into Burma as nomadic insurgents after the 1949 communist revolution. From there it was constant battles with the Burmese, flights across the border (to this snug summit settlement), a reward of Thai citizenship for fighting Thailand’s own communist uprising in the 1970s, an explosive hold in the violent border opium trade, and eventually, amazingly, serenely, a Yunnanese mountain town of tourism and tea.

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  • Rising from the bombed-out desert in Kuwait City, Kuwait

    Sand dunes are still working on reclaiming abandoned tanks and felled Iraqi aircraft. Bombed-out aircraft shelters bear witness to Kuwait’s violent past. Bullet-riddled concrete walls, rebar hanging like spider webs, charred concrete from fires enemy soldiers set decades ago — war is impossible to forget, yet many here are weary of remembering. Still, after the desert flames were extinguished, a modern-architecture phoenix rose from the ashes. The Oz-like Kuwait Towers were hit hard and stood strong. Preserved on the walls are photographs of the destruction, honest and straightforward. No need for narrative; the images speak for themselves. Juxtaposed with the scenes of war is the observation deck a few steps away, with grand views of this minuscule desert country, strong again and standing proud in the midst of a still uncertain future.

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  • Considering the demise of ancient Selinunte in Marsala, Italy

    Selinunte and Istanbul are, in a certain peculiar sense, sister cities. Both were founded by Greeks from the city of Megara, who spread throughout Europe during 7th century BC. But their modern situation could not be more different: Istanbul is a thriving metropolis of millions, while Selinunte is a skeleton with the bleached bones of its Doric columns mouldering in the unforgiving sunshine. The site stirs dual emotions. On the one hand, you’ll be overcome by awe for the beauty of perfectly chosen ground. Selinunte was built along a river flowing into the Mediterranean on the south coast of Sicily. Its temples — or what’s left of them — rise on a promontory overlooking the sea, and alien weeds and fluorescent hibiscus color the ruins. On the other hand, the silence of this place — broken only by bird song and the whisper of distant waves — underscores the totality with which an army of at least 100,000 Carthaginians laid waste to the city and its people in 409 BC. Thus, as you marvel at the mammoth proportions of the re-erected Temple of Hera, spare a moment to reflect on the colonists who lost their lives in an ancient struggle for power.

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  • Going for a swim at Omaha Beach in Colleville-sur-Mer, France

    “We’ll go to the cemetery and then straight to the beach,” said my French friend. She saw the look on my face. “Or is that strange for you?” Well, yeah; I’d seen “Saving Private Ryan.” But it was a beautiful day and you can’t count on weather in Normandy. It’s still a beach, so we went swimming under the tree line where 9,387 boys who wanted to free France are lying. There’s a vacation colony here now, too — a carnival/cemetery. The Caen Memorial (27 miles away) takes on the difficult task of explaining the invasion. It’s not that we’re bored of speeches and solemn faces and dwelling on painful, frightened death. No one forgets here. We were just remembering why to live. Even in August, the water here is cold.

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  • Exploring NATO Tomahawk urban remodeling in Belgrade, Serbia

    The scars of war from over a decade ago can still be seen in the very center of Belgrade. It is haunting to see the impact of modern military weaponry on urban buildings and relive a time when the night air was punctuated with the sounds of blaring warning sirens and bombs blasting, while curfewed Belgraders took shelter or gathered outside to watch the pyrotechnics from afar. The imposing, grim-looking buildings — like the still half-collapsed Army Headquarters — are a unique feature of the Belgrade cityscape and an important part of local history, although the surly local military guards tend to not appreciate camera-trigger-happy tourists.

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  • Commanding a view of Lake Erie in South Bass Island, Ohio

    South Bass Island, reachable in 20 minutes by ferry from Catawba Point in Northeastern Ohio, is rich in naval history. Towering 352 feet above the two-by-four-mile island, Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial is the world’s largest Doric column and offers a spectacular bird’s-eye view of the lake from the top. The memorial commemorates Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s victory over the British in the Battle of Lake Erie — the same battle that made famous his saying, “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” Commodore Perry’s inferior fleet defeated the British and gave the Americans control of Lake Erie, which ultimately led to the defeat of the British during the largely forgotten War of 1812. The memorial also celebrates the lasting peace between the USA and Canada.

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  • Pit-stopping politically incorrectly in Despeñaperros, Spain

    When your straight-as-an-arrow road trip through Spain’s dusty, high-altitude central plateau ends abruptly in a rumple of mountains and canyons, it becomes clear why the transition from the center of Spain to the south has always been a difficult one. From the outside looking in, the country’s transition from fascism to a modern democracy may seem to have been a comparatively relatively easy ride … until you happen upon a place like Casa Pepe. This roadside bar teeters on the Puerto de Despeñaperros, the mountain pass between La Mancha and Andalusia best known for the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212, a key victory for the Christian reconquista, the beginning of the end for Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula. Regardless of your political or religious affiliation, a stop here now is almost inevitable. There’s nowhere else to pull off along this remote and scenic white-knuckle stretch of highway. What to expect: a bizarre, in-your-face shrine to el Generalísmo Francisco Franco and Spanish nationalism, a ceiling covered in antlers, a cornucopia of delicious local pork products, and a growing appreciation for the plentiful potholes on the road to Spanish democracy.

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