On Saturday, St. Mary’s University history professor Teresa Van Hoy’s students will be part of the World War I Centennial Commission’s celebration of Armed Forces Day at the Brooks City Base Hangar 9. The luncheon will kick off celebrations for the 100-year anniversary of WWI.

Retired Major General Alfred Valenzuela, a commissioner with the U.S. World War I Centennial Commemoration and once the highest-ranking active duty Hispanic officer in the U.S. Army, is a native San Antonian and St. Mary’s alumnus. He will be speaking at the event on May 20.

It was Valenzuela who enlisted Van Hoy’s students to engage their generation in the commemoration.

“We have the World War I Centennial Commission to thank for the genesis of this project. Because the WWICC was listening, my students felt empowered to speak,” Van Hoy said in an interview with the commission.

For the past four semesters, Van Hoy has assigned mini-documentaries as semester projects to her classes, and she plans to continue throughout the centennial. The five-minute videos will be combined into a “Mobile Mural” of WWI themes. Van Hoy plans to upload the last batch on Veterans Day 2018.

“Our project ends at the 11th minute of the 11th hour of the 11th month of 2018 – the Centennial of the Armistice – with a big reunion of all our student filmmakers and a prayer for peace,” Van Hoy said.

The students’ mini-documentaries available on YouTube cover a range of subjects and perspectives. They highlight both the diversity of St. Mary’s students and the diversity of those who served in WWI.

Some topics are as specific as the story of a single person like Maury Maverick, and some are as broad as the role of Mexican Americans in the war effort. Many of the stories focus on local connections to the war.

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Other students chose issues of continuing importance in their field of study.

Ashley Brittaly Zapata, St. Mary’s class of 2019, chose shell shock for her mini-documentary. As a psychology and criminology major, she has studied America’s evolving appreciation for the power of the mind.

After witnessing the horrors of the WWI battlefields, soldiers suffering from shell shock – a severe manifestation of post-traumatic stress disorder – were often dishonored, even being executed for cowardice. “Back then they thought that the person could control it,” Zapata said.

While strides have been made, Zapata said, the stigma continues for many veterans.

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Because the students were required to use visuals from the war, authentication was both essential and laborious. Sheila Gonzalez, class of 2019, found a striking photo while researching the Armenian genocide.

The photo showed a group of men standing at the foot of posts where Armenian girls were being crucified. At first it appeared that the Bedouin men were participating in the crucifixion, a conclusion that would have been devastatingly far from the truth.

Upon further investigation, Gonzalez found WWI era newspapers where the image had run, revealing that the Bedouin men were actually trying to help the young women.

Van Hoy wants to impress upon her students the importance of accuracy in telling the stories of history, especially when privileged with an audience like the one that will be viewing the students’ work at Hangar 9.

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For Maria Guera, class of 2020, who focused on feminism during WWI, fact-checking was critical because the unsubstantiated reports were so dramatic. She could not validate the stories of women being asked to sleep with soldiers as part of their rehabilitation, so she decided not to include it in the documentary. Giving up the salacious story was a good exercise in responsible recording, Guera said.

Danielle Costly’s mini-documentary subject was deeply personal, another tricky matter for a historian. Costly is a black student and comes from five generations of military service. As she researched the role of African American soldiers in WWI, she had to work hard to keep an objective eye on a topic of great significance to her. 

“A lot of the guys who gave their lives on the battlefield weren’t awarded until 70 years later,” Costly said.

Saturday’s celebration will begin at 11 a.m. with registration, and include a living history exhibit with re-enactors and a display of WWI artifacts and posters. The mini documentaries will play on a continuous loop during the event.

Hangar 9, recently renovated at a cost of $2.5 million, is the only surviving WWI wooden hangar in the U.S. At the time of publication, Gonzalez, Costly, and Guera had not yet uploaded their films to the Mobile Mural YouTube page.

Historic Hangar 9 at Brooks City-Base. Courtesy photo.
Historic Hangar 9 at Brooks City-Base. Credit: Courtesy / Brooks

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.