Finding a Home at Temple

By David J. Ulbrich
Ph.D. candidate, Department of History

Coming to Temple University in fall 2001 has been one of the best decisions of my career. Years ago, I would never have guessed that my career path would bring me to Temple. The faculty members and other graduate students at Temple have provided a supportive and stimulating environment for me. I remain grateful for this.

After graduating from the University of Dayton with my B.A. in history, I entered the M.A. program at Ball State University in 1993. I had no idea what my thesis topic would be. I only knew that I wanted to study military history. During that year, it was my good fortune to work with Dr. Phyllis Zimmerman. She suggested that I write my M.A. thesis on Commandant Thomas Holcomb’s role in creation of the U.S. Marine Corps Defense Battalion in the late 1930s. Fortunately, I took Dr. Zimmerman’s advice. Researching and writing this thesis cemented my interest in Marine Corps history. Although the marines do not lack primary source materials, their archival collections are not so ponderous as to preclude sweeping studies. I found that it was possible to examine the whole corps while using specific examples to support my argument. My time at Ball State also strengthened my desire to earn a doctorate in military history.

I first applied to doctoral programs in 1995. Temple University, among other schools, rejected me that year. I took the next academic year off to complete my thesis and teach part-time back at the University of Dayton. In 1996, my applications to doctoral programs went out once again. I received an acceptance letter from Kansas State University. Dr. Robin Higham taught graduate courses there, and he served as my mentor. In addition to his seminal works on aviation history and British military history, Dr. Higham served as editor of Military Affairs and Journal of the West. Other Kansas State professors seemed supportive of my career goals and research interests. Many positive experiences as a student, instructor, and football fan filled my first three years at Kansas State. I found working on several projects at the nearby Eisenhower Library to be especially rewarding. These projects afforded me opportunities to do real archival-based research that evolved into seminar papers and publications. Because of Dr. Higham’s retirement and another professor’s death, however, Kansas State grew increasingly uncomfortable for me after 1999. It ceased to be an environment where I could achieve my goals and pursue my interests.

In November 2000, I decided to transfer to another doctoral program to finish my degree. This fateful decision involved considerable financial and professional risks. After investigating several possible schools, my list narrowed to Auburn University and Temple University. Both History Departments included outstanding faculty in military history as well as other areas of history. Their programs of study possessed enough flexibility to allow me to receive credit for most of my previous doctoral coursework. I did expect, however, to retake doctoral examinations and reapply for doctoral candidacy.

I can still remember my visit to Temple University in February 2001. Dr. Gregory Urwin spent three hours with me discussing the possibility of my move to Temple. He offered to support my application and serve as my advisor should I be admitted to the program. Dr. Richard Immerman also took thirty minutes out of his busy schedule to hear my story. Later that day, I chatted with several graduate students, all of whom treated me with dignity and respect. They made me feel that Temple University could (and would) be a good home for me. The next five years have passed quickly, and my initial impressions of Temple have proven accurate. The History Department definitely provided a place where I could flourish as a scholar. Helping to organize the 2004 Barnes Club Conference turned out to be a major highlight of my time at Temple. Most importantly, Dr. Urwin and my committee members wholeheartedly encouraged me to continue my work on Commandant Thomas Holcomb and the Marine Corps.

Beginning in fall 2001, I took courses with Drs. Gregory Urwin, Richard Immerman, James Hilty, and the late Russell Weigley. These professors helped refine my historical knowledge and hone my research skills. Dr. Immerman, for example, supervised a project on Eisenhower and Cuba that culminated in a published research note. After two years of coursework and preparation, I passed my doctoral examinations in spring 2003 and advanced to candidacy later that year.

Throughout my three years in the Philadelphia area, I taught two or three courses per semester at West Chester University, University of Delaware, or Temple University. Teaching provided me with more than professional experience or financial support. It made me a better historian. I learned to answer the “so what” question when making decisions about which facts or themes to cover. Teaching thus helped me visualize how the big picture and the supporting details fit together. This process can likewise be translated into writing book reviews, seminar papers, or entire dissertations, because historians must arrange details and ideas in a logical manner.

During the 2003-2004 academic year, the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation honored me with its Lemuel C. Shepherd Dissertation Fellowship. It permitted me to spend a full semester commuting to Washington, D.C., and conducting research for my dissertation titled, “Managing Marine Mobilization: Thomas Holcomb and the U.S. Marine Corps, 1936-1943.” I spent most of my time plowing through hundreds of boxes at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, and the Marine Corps University Research Archives in Quantico, Virginia. This represented one of the most pleasurable parts of the dissertation process: reading through decades-old documents, assessing the value of each primary source, and piecing them in a coherent fashion. Setting up a systematic filing system became an absolute necessity because some two thousand documents would otherwise overwhelm me.

My dissertation examines the Marine Corps’ transition from the Great Depression to the Second World War. Commandant Thomas Holcomb exhibited the traits of a shrewd publicist, meticulous planner, visionary leader, and efficient manager. He labored tirelessly to secure resources so the marines could fulfill their strategic responsibilities of island defense and amphibious assault. The Corps expanded from 18,000 marines, when Holcomb assumed the commandancy in 1936, to more than 300,000 marines, when he retired in 1943. His aptitude, intellect, and temperament can be favorably compared with those of Generals George C. Marshall and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Examining the corps during Holcomb’s commandancy provides unique opportunities to track institutional change over time. His reaction to technological innovations could be progressive as evidenced in his active support of the development of amphibious assault vehicles. Conversely, Holcomb could be technologically conservative such as in his resistance to the corps’ adoption of a new, more advanced infantry rifle.

Beyond institutional and biographical history, this study illuminates the Corps’ place in American society. Marines viewed themselves as a standing force of elite warriors. This public image seemed to contradict the American ideal of the citizen-soldier. Nevertheless, marines maintained high levels of respect and popularity with the American people. Issues of race, gender, and sexuality make this picture more complex and more interesting because only heterosexual Caucasian men were considered by Commandant Holcomb to be ideal marine recruits.

After completing my research, I left the Philadelphia area in summer 2004 to take a teaching position at Ball State University. These last eighteen months have been hectic yet exciting. Teaching three courses each semester and trying to write one chapter each semester has challenged not only my time management skills but also my endurance. The dissertation writing process — organizing my thoughts, creating logical arguments, and writing clear and elegant prose — has been difficult. It is, however, getting easier as I progress further through the process. I look forward to completing my dissertation next year and hopefully starting a tenure-track job thereafter.