UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Jared Frederick’s passion for history has taken him to the battlefields of Gettysburg, rivers of Harpers Ferry National Historic Park and shores of Normandy, France.
Today, the WWII historian and former park ranger is an instructor of history at Penn State Altoona (also his alma mater) and author of a new book “Dispatches from D-Day: A People’s History of the Normandy Invasion,” which explores the stories of America’s Greatest Generation. The Greatest Generation refers to Americans who lived through the Great Depression and went on to fight and serve in World War II.
To help celebrate Military Appreciation Week at Penn State — which this year specifically honors the Greatest Generation — Frederick shares how he makes history relevant for his Gen Z students and what it’s like suiting up as a soldier in a WWII reenactment group that travels the East Coast. His group, the Furious Fourth, will be participating at various military appreciation events this month, including the military appreciation breakfast on Nov. 11 and tailgate on Nov. 16 at Penn State University Park.
Q: What sparked your interest in history?
Since I was a child, I’ve been inspired to explore America's past. Believe it or not, my interest really started in first grade when I saw the movie “Gettysburg” for the first time. Shortly thereafter, my parents took me to the park and I really fell in love with the place — 15 years later I was working there as a park ranger.
Q: How do you try to make history relevant for your students?
What I enjoy most about teaching is presenting students the opportunity to engage with the past in a unique way — it’s much more than a job for me, it’s a mission. I believe history is a guiding force and a moral compass, and I try to bring that energy into the classroom. This sometimes means teaching in unconventional ways. For example, every spring, we coordinate a living history encampment on the Penn State Altoona campus with reenactors from the colonial era to the Vietnam War who set up a military timeline for students. I’m there too, dressed up as a WWII foot soldier!
Q: What makes living history a valuable teaching tool?
Whether or not a person is 4 or 84, I think there’s something they can learn from living history interactions. It’s an opportunity to have immersive experiences and gain new perspectives of what the life of a WWII soldier was like, for example, whether it’s what they ate, wore or how they spent their time.
Q: What was life like for the generation who served during WWII?
They’re referred to as the "Greatest Generation' because they not only went through the Second World War, but they survived the worst economic catastrophe in American history, the Great Depression. I think it was the hardships they experienced as kids in the 1930s that prepared them for the rigors that were to follow in the 1940s. The levels of service demonstrated by those folks should be an inspiration to all of us.
Q: What’s something new you learned about the Greatest Generation while researching your latest book?
I poured through 150 digitized newspapers to find the best and most revealing stories from all over the country, including Huntington, Bedford and Altoona, Pennsylvania, to represent a people’s history of the Normandy invasion. I learned quickly how much this generation celebrated education and literacy. One of the ways this love of reading and learning was instilled was through the Army newspaper and free books they were given in the service.
Q: How did their desire to learn impact higher education?
Modern education is built on the foundation of the huge influx of veterans who went to college after WWII. In part because they went through the Great Depression, a lot of them concluded that the only way they’d be able to rise in society was through higher education, which is why millions made use of the GI Bill when they got out of the service. I think it’s safe to say a lot of our universities wouldn’t be what they are today if it wasn’t for that bill. Penn State Altoona is a case study.
Q: How did Penn State change demographically during and after WWII?
It was a drastically different place in contrast to just a few years prior. The war offered this huge opportunity for social empowerment through education for women and minorities throughout the United States. As a large portion of the male student body disappeared because they joined the service or were drafted, a growing number of the faculty were refugees or exiles who brought a big dose of global diversity. At the same time, female enrollment skyrocketed. This is when you really begin to see more women taking engineering courses. They stood up collectively to contribute during the war effort.
There were so few students at the tail end for the war, and people were so consumed by the war effort, that Penn State published a single volume of the yearbook for the years 1944 to 1946 dedicated to their peers and teachers who had been killed. It's a very telling artifact that speaks volumes to the war’s impact on the student body and the University as a whole.
Q: What inspired you and your brother to form the Furious Fourth?
Our grandfather, Thomas W. Nycum Jr. He served in the 4th Infantry Division in WWII, which is the unit we portray. Most of us have family members who fought in the war — some of whom didn’t come home. Even today, the connection is very real and very alive and it’s one of the things that bind us together.
Q: What do you know of your grandfather's experiences during the war?
He fought all the way from the beaches of Normandy, France, to Germany, and he came home without a scratch. Luck was on his side, especially since his division suffered 250% casualties [encompassing the original soldiers sent to the front-line plus several waves of replacements]. He ran the telephone wires for the men shooting the artillery, and I suspect he was a little further back from the front, which was probably a defining factor that spared his life.
Q: What does a typical reenactment entail?
Our goal is to keep veterans’ stories alive and share a story that needs to be told. We don’t assume a character or do mock battles. Instead, we tend to do a lot of campouts where we set up tents, cook food and dress in soldiers’ kits, while the women in our group portray nurses, organize ration drives or display victory gardens.
Q: What does the public find most fascinating?
Canned food! There's a curiosity about what soldiers ate and how they ate it. Interestingly, for all the artifacts and reproductions we have laying around, people are most intrigued by food. When we get out a can of food and start cooking it on a Sterno stove, people are drawn to it like a magnet. It’s a means of connection that opens a door to another time period and a better understanding of the daily plights of a WWII solider.
Q: Do you have a favorite memory with the Furious Fourth?
For the 75th year anniversary of D-Day this summer, eight of us traveled to Reville, France, a town on the Normandy coast, which was liberated by my grandfather’s 4th Infantry Division. Nearly a century later the whole village turned out to commemorate the day the Americans liberated their ancestors. They paid special tribute to my grandfather who moved through the town. It was very moving and there was a sense of togetherness that was almost surreal to experience.
Q: What does Penn State’s Military Appreciation Week mean to you?
My role as faculty adviser for the veterans’ fraternity on campus has given me new perspective about how different life can be for our student veterans. They go through unique challenges and have different experiences, worldviews and needs. Penn State is committed to supporting student veterans and my hope is that Military Appreciation Week will continue to be a jumping-off point for our community to have a broader dialogue. It's a great start to the conversation — saying “thank you” to student veterans should only be a first step. “What can we do to assist you?” should be the question we continue to ask.
Military appreciation at Penn State
Penn State has a longstanding and proud tradition of serving the men and women of our military through education benefits, resources, support and more. This year's Military Appreciation Week from Nov. 8 to 16 will honor America's “Greatest Generation” with a weeklong series of campus events, including a film screening, Veteran’s Day ceremony, student veteran panel and more.