Keeping the Memory Alive


It all started in 2001 when Professor John Weiss, Cornell University, approached the Ithaca Police Department with a request to borrow a weapon.

The professor was inquiring if the department had, or knew of a civilian who had, an M-1 Garand he could borrow to help his teach his students about military history.

Professor Weiss, a history professor, teaches a class that covers World War II, the Holocaust and the United Nations. Each year, he offers an optional event to his students: study war through hands on learning.

In years past Weiss had taken interested students to Fort Drum, New York but after 9/11 he needed to change his plan.

Officer John Barber knew just the person to help when the professor approached the Ithaca Police Department – his brother, U.S. Army Reserve Sgt. 1st Class James Barber, an Ithaca resident and drill sergeant with 2nd Battalion, 389th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade, 98th Training Division (IET).

Sgt. 1st Class Barber had an M-1 Garand and was more than willing to help. Beginning the following year (2002), he worked with Weiss to develop what turned into a wonderful tradition.

Barber, and eventually Staff Sgt. Aaron Bickal, a Lansing, New York resident and drill sergeant with the same unit, brought their personal collections of over 1,000 war artifacts for students and family to look at, learn from, try on, and even shoot.

Collectively, the two U.S. Army Reserve Soldiers have over 47 years of experience in the Army. Not only are both drill sergeants but Barber served previously as a combat engineer and Bickal as an Infantryman, bringing expertise as valuable as the equipment they share to the event.

Barber and Bickal have provided not only M-1 Garands, but also an 8mm German Mauser for students to shoot. Over the last 16 years, the collection has grown to include British, French, Russian, Spanish and Japanese weapons, making it a full, well-balanced understanding of what weapons each side has used to defend themselves in battle. The Soldiers have expanded the weaponry display to include the more recent wars and participating students now see bazookas, an assortment of mines and improvised explosive devices.

Planning for this event starts months in advance with the two 98th Training Division drill sergeants get together strategize, plan the theme and the presentation to the students. Days before the event they begin the set up.

This year, the 100th anniversary of WWI and professor Weiss’s final year before retirement, the Soldiers set up a “barbed wire” theme bunker with claymore mines, concertina wire obstacles and entanglements. Along with tables full of equipment, there were period uniforms and the Soldiers set up a variety of sections representing WW1, WW2, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.

Soldier Manuals from 1911 and 1917, as well as civilian newspapers were displayed for students to see how manuals and equipment have changed over the last 100 years.

With class participation students voluntary rather than required, the participation in the event varies from year to year. Some years, there have been as few as six students, but on other years, there has been as many 40.

Arriving in the early afternoon, students are encouraged not only to touch and try on equipment, but to shoot the M1-Garand, the 8mm German Mauser, and an assortment of other weapons. The range is open from mid afternoon to dark and night sights are available for those who would like to try night shooting.

One year, Barber remembers a Battle of the Bulge veteran attending and shooting both the M1 and the 8mm and stating, “It’s a lot nicer to be on this side of the gun than the receiving end!”

Depending on the availability of volunteers, there will occasionally be demonstrated maneuvers for the students. One year, the Soldiers were even able to set up a simulated IED lane in which students learned how easily IEDs can go unnoticed and subsequently detonate causing damage to Soldiers and equipment.

Barber and Bickal have enjoyed volunteering and organizing this event and hope that they can continue this event to raise awareness of military history, whether with college students or with other community programs. A very work intense program to set up and organize, it is nonetheless worth it to them to keep the memory and sacrifice of WWI and WWII Veterans alive.


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