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Japanese surrender signatories arrive aboard the USS MISSOURI in Tokyo Bay to participate in surrender ceremonies.

75 years after WWII ends, discussions remain relevant

By

Rachel Bunning

Arizona State University's School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies partnered with the National World War II Museum two years ago to help create the first master’s degree program in World War II studies. Part of the partnership includes offering continuing education courses through the museum for those who want to learn more about the war.

No class is as relevant today as the continuing education course “The 75th Anniversary of the End of WWII in a Global Perspective.” Sept. 2, 2020, marks the 75th anniversary of World War II's official end with the Japanese delegation formally signing the instrument of surrender on board the USS Missouri.

This course includes lectures from Arizona State University faculty, WWII Museum scholars, faculty from other universities and McCain Institute faculty ambassador Edward O'Donnell and Lt. Gen. Benjamin C. Freakley.

“Memory of World War II is neither static nor solitary,” said history Assistant Professor Volker Benkert, a School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies faculty member who helped teach the course. “Our perception of the past changes over time and it is subject to constant negotiation nationally and internationally. This continuing education course explores memory cultures of WWII in the U.S. and across the globe through a discussion of monuments, memorials and memory acts.”

Although the war ended 75 years ago, Benkert argues the study of it is important today politically, culturally and personally. Culturally, we are surrounded by memorials and media referencing the war and personally, people have relationships with those who fought in the war.

“World War II shaped the world as we know it today and its commemoration can lead to reconciliation and renewed conflict,” Benkert said. “For example, between Japan and South Korea over Japanese cabinet members visiting the famous Yasukuni Shrine where many Japanese war dead — but also convicted Class-A war criminals — are commemorated.”

This course worked with students from all over the country to engage them with the history and stories of the war. One focus of the course is showing students of all backgrounds how they connect to the war through their relatives who were either at home or on the front lines. Another focus is understanding the global comparative of how the war and genocide impacted people around the world.

One student in the class is Kathryn Fuller, who grew up mostly in Indiana but has lived in several states. She has degrees from American and British universities and is now a permanent resident of the U.K. and has always had an interest in WWII. 

“I found the course while wandering around on the website of the World War II Museum in New Orleans,” Fuller said. “I wanted to do something beyond books and webinars or similar to further my knowledge and I wanted a bit of challenge. I wanted to meet, even remotely, other people who shared my interest.”

Both of her parents served in the war, her mother in the Coast Guard and father in the Navy. However, she was surprised by how many of her peers had veteran parents or had served in the military themselves. 

“Although I had known that the program would ‘include discussion forums,’ I hadn’t realized that that meant we would be able to read each other’s assignments,” Fuller said. “Seeing what my classmates have written has been one of the best things about the course. I have learned a lot from them.”

Another student in the course is Paul D. Belczak, who retired from the U.S. Army in 2010 after a 30-year career and was hired as a Department of the Navy civilian at United States Indo-Pacfic Command located at Camp H.M. Smith, Hawaii. This course is the third continuing education course he has taken and he is now enrolled as a master’s degree student in the World War II studies program.

“Camp Smith is located above Pearl Harbor, allowing me to see the Arizona Memorial and the USS Missouri,” Belcza said. "In a glance, I view the beginning and end of the United States' participation in World War II.” 

Both sets of his grandparents immigrated to the U.S. in the 1930s, lived through the Great Depression and saw their sons go off to war. For Belczak, supporting the war effort was almost a family effort.

“The heroes of my life, my father and my uncles, served in the military during the war," Belcza said. "Although they did not discuss it, I was very proud that they willingly defended our country. My mother and most of my aunts worked in the defense industry; my mother helped assemble sights for bombers.”

These students learned how to connect with their personal past and the larger effects of the war, allowing them to develop a greater understanding of the impact it has today.

“These courses are truly communities of interest in which participants have the opportunity of trading insights on the war,” Belczak said. “Similar to me, I expect some desiring a greater burst of learning in WWII will enroll in ASU's master's degree program.”

For more information on continuing education courses and the master’s degree in World War II studies, visit the program’s webpage or the museum’s webpage.