The History Club at Von Steuben High School on Chicago’s Northwest Side has made a project—several projects, in fact—of learning about and, in so doing, honoring the graduates of the high school who gave their lives as members of the military to protect the freedom we today hold dear.
One project seeks to restore a plaque that was mounted in the school in 1945, a memorial that honored graduates who gave their lives in the campaigns of World War II. The principal at the time said the plaque would be a permanent record, but it was removed by a teacher during renovations in the 1980s.
It turned up in that teacher’s garage and is somewhat degraded, according to columnist Mary Schmich in the Chicago Tribune. A project seeks to restore it to the school’s hallways.
Along these lines, the History Club, under the guidance of Meghan Thomas, sounded the “Bring Back the Plaque!” rallying cry as part of the “Gold Star Project,” all in an effort to make good on that 1945 promise to the students who walked these halls.
The club has also come across original documents, many of which have been posted to the club’s Twitter feed, concerning former students at the 1930 school.
The letter above, written by a military personnel officer after one of Von Steuben’s students was killed in battle, is one such original source document. That “Dickie” Monnot was killed by German forces in December 1944 can be confirmed independently, of course, as can the authorship of this letter and the young man’s final resting place in Belgium.
But the letter also speaks of a “December breakthrough” and says that Allied forces “routed” the enemy and their light machine guns. That’s where analyzing the letter as a historical document gets tricky. We must ask:
- Why did the personnel officer use the word “routed”?
- Was the war still going on when the letter was written?
- What factors might have influenced this officer in writing this letter?
Neither the date nor the personal identity of the writer can be seen in the copy posted to the club’s Twitter account, but in thinking about this source as a historian, ask yourself whether or not you trust the facts asserted in the letter, including facts related to a “December” 1944 “breakthrough” in Belgium, in which German forces were “routed” by Allied troops.
So in the context of World War II (December 1944, very near the end), there might be more to the picture of this battle than was painted by the personnel officer in this response.