A little more than 100 years ago — Oct. 14, 1918 — infantry Soldiers in the 32nd Division pierced the Kriemhilde Stellung, Germany’s strongest position along the Hindenburg Line in the Meuse-Argonne sector. They were the first American Soldiers to breach that fortified enemy defense, an iconic battlefield victory that garnered the division its enduring symbol — a red arrow piercing a line.
Though not nearly the same magnitude, showing an 80-minute documentary about how 15,000 Wisconsin National Guard Soldiers and another 8,000 Michigan National Guard Soldiers transformed into a fearsome fighting unit greatly regarded by the French military and people represents a significant breakthrough for members of the Wisconsin National Guard public affairs office.
Initial planning for Dawn of the Red Arrow — the name for the overall commemorative campaign which included a website, Facebook page, e-book and documentary as well as articles, presentations and panel discussions — began in early 2016, as the public affairs office was already researching and publishing articles about the 100th anniversary of the Mexican Border mission of 1916. The National Guard from every state was called to federal active duty for several months to protect the southern border, while Brig. Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing led a punitive expedition into Mexico in an unsuccessful attempt to capture Francisco “Pancho” Villa. The last Wisconsin National Guard unit returned from border duty weeks before the United States declared war on Germany.
During discussions about how best to tell the story of the formation of the 32nd Division and its World War I exploits, Lt. Col. Gary Thompson — who had just begun a yearlong assignment as the public affairs director — suggested a documentary.
“I suppose it is my background in television, and putting together longer-length programs in the Indiana National Guard in my enlisted days, that made me think of doing a full-length documentary,” Thompson — now retired from the military — explained. “The logic, for me, was that today’s cross-platform media needs would require photos, video, sound — in short, all the things needed to make a documentary. If we planned to do a full-length documentary, the day-to-day publication needs would be at our fingertips when we needed them.”
Though Thompson would craft the script and draft much of the outline for the documentary, most of the cinematic effort fell to Staff Sgt. Alex Baum, a combat medic who parlayed a serious interest in photography and videography into a full-time position with the Wisconsin National Guard public affairs office.
“At the time, I had made a few short videos — between one and five minutes in length — and thought it would be relatively easy to just put a dozen of those one after another, and have a longer piece that tells the story of the beginning of the 32nd Division,” Baum said. “But it turns out making a feature-length movie is exponentially harder than short videos.”
Baum studiously applied himself to learning the Adobe Creative Cloud suite, particularly Premiere Pro for video production, but also After Effects, Illustrator and Audition. But he found he had to develop additional skill sets — time and asset management, cinematography and story arcs, research methods and record keeping, understanding how to best use historic photos and video, maintaining a work/life balance, and knowing when to stop tinkering and move on to the next phase.
“I think the toughest part of working on the documentary was trying to balance normal work responsibilities with the creative process and learning on the job,” Baum explained. “Normal feature-length movies often take hundreds of thousands of man hours to produce, and that’s with industry experts working full-time solely on that project. There were some periods in there that I couldn’t touch the documentary for more than a month, and it was very difficult to get back in the flow when time did become available.”
“We conducted this project in addition to the regular work flow,” said Maj. Brian Faltinson, Dawn of the Red Arrow project officer and a deputy public affairs director, “which meant that the documentary would get put on the shelf for a bit while we focused all our attention on events like emergency responses by the Wisconsin National Guard.
“While all major events [of the 32nd Division’s World War I campaign] were covered,” Faltinson continued, “unfortunately we did have to drop some interesting vignettes because we did not have the time.”
Thompson knew that a documentary needed sufficient imagery, very little of which was on hand at the Wisconsin National Guard public affairs office.
“As I was writing, I was constantly kicking myself for creating an impossible need for pictures or video that don’t exist,” Thompson said. However, with some keen negotiating, he was able to send Faltinson — formerly the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s command historian, and a civilian historian — to the National Archives in Washington, D.C., in search of historic video and photos of the 32nd Division from 1917 to 1919. Faltinson and Baum also scoured the Wisconsin Veterans Museum in Madison, Wisconsin and the Wisconsin National Guard Museum at Volk Field, Wisconsin for other imagery and information.
Thompson himself visited the Milwaukee County Historical Society in search of memorabilia related to Capt. Gustav Stearns, a longtime Wisconsin National Guard chaplain who served with the 32nd Division in World War I and also pastored a church in Milwaukee. His letters to his congregation provided one of the main voices for the documentary. During that visit, Thompson came across a diary — with typed and hand-written pages — for Maj. Gen. William Haan, who commanded the 32nd Division in Europe.
“This would have been a hollow and empty project without the Haan information,” Thompson said. “With it, there are some awesome insights into how a division commander works, thinks and drives his forces forward — and rest them when they need it. It was clear that he loved his Soldiers.”
While a significant part of the commemoration effort, the documentary itself was poorly suited for marking individual anniversaries as they occurred — even though short videos were produced about the Zimmermann telegram that prompted the United States to enter World War I, and the attack on the Tuscania troop ship resulting in the 32nd Division’s first wartime fatalities. Some events resulted in articles posted on the Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs website, while others were observed with Facebook notes — shorter, blog-like narratives — or photos. As more of these accounts — mostly written by Faltinson — were published online, another staff member recognized that a print narrative of the 32nd Division’s origin was possible.
“With the growing number of articles, and particularly with the photos from the National Archives, I thought we had an opportunity to put together an interesting print-style e-book,” said Vaughn Larson, a retired Wisconsin National Guard Soldier whose military career began as a military historian and ended as a senior public affairs noncommissioned officer. Now a state employee with the Wisconsin National Guard public affairs office, he also had experience editing the Wisconsin National Guard’s official publication, At Ease.
“The idea was not to make a book version of the documentary, but a complementary publication,” Larson said. “It’s still the same story — the origin of the Red Arrow Division — but told in a different way.”
Baum said the best part of working on the documentary has been audiences sharing how the 32nd Division is part of their family history.
“I love when people come up and talk about family members that were part of the Red Arrow, and how this project helps bring that connection to them,” Baum said. “It was amazing, too, seeing messages from around the world come in to our Facebook page about family or community connections to the Red Arrow throughout history.”
Faltinson said that the Dawn of the Red Arrow is very much a true Wisconsin story, with communities raising up units of volunteers to grow the Wisconsin National Guard from its prewar strength of around 5,000 to the 15,000 men it sent to train at Camp MacArthur, Texas.
“There was very little federal or state effort to find these Soldiers,” Faltinson said. “It was truly the responsibility of local community and Guard leaders.
“The National Guard is powered by its communities, families and employers,” he continued. “It cannot accomplish those missions without that support. Our Soldiers need to know the history of where our organization came from, but those who support us while we serve both state and nation need to know their legacy of community support. The Wisconsin National Guard’s record of excellence began with our communities, and continues today because of them.”
Maj. Gen. Don Dunbar, Wisconsin’s adjutant general, explained why it was important for the Wisconsin National Guard to tell the early exploits of the 32nd Division.
“During World War I, communities across Wisconsin raised over 15,000 — sons, brothers, husbands and fathers — to serve in harm’s way,” Dunbar said. “Those communities supported our Soldiers and were invested in the war effort. The tremendous story told in this documentary and through Facebook captured the Red Arrow’s essence as told by those who served.
“The Dawn of the Red Arrow campaign serves to remind us of that tremendous spirit of Wisconsin communities 100 years ago,” Dunbar continued, “and the incredible accomplishments of those men from Wisconsin — some with many years of National Guard experience, some who enlisted shortly after we declared war with Germany in 1917 — who served in the 32nd ‘Red Arrow’ Division. Further, it connected that previous generation with today’s generation who continue to serve our state and nation. The Red Arrow remains ‘Always Ready, Always There.’”