As anyone who has traveled with Stephen Ambrose Historical Tours knows, our historians are, simply put, the best. They are leaders in their field, world-renowned authors, podcast hosts, documentary filmmakers and sought after experts for articles, movies and TV shows.
But who are they really? To give you an inkling, we thought it would be fun to modify the Proust Questionnaire for our historians. Popularized by Marcel Proust, the French novelist and essayist, this set of questions is said to reveal a person’s true nature.
Today, Kevin Hymel answers our Historians Proust Questionnaire. Kevin leads our In Patton’s Footsteps Tour and is the author of Patton’s War: An American General’s Combat Leadership, Volume I, November 1942 -July 1944 and Patton’s Photographs: War as He Saw It. His article “WAC Corporal Lena Derriecott and the 6888th Central Postal Battalion” that he wrote for WWII History magazine is being made into a movie by actor and filmmaker, Tyler Perry.
Kevin Hymel Answers the Historians Proust Questionnaire
What is your idea of perfect happiness on tour?
When I tell my guests something they had no idea about and they not only appreciate it but tell me later how much they liked it. On one of my tours, after taking my group from the German bunker on Omaha Beach to the American Cemetery I took them to a headstone of an African-American woman. I had studied her unit, the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, had interviewed several veterans from the unit, and had written about it. At her grave I told the group about all the prejudices the women faced while serving their country with honor. I noticed a lot of my guests nodding their heads while I spoke. Throughout the rest of the tour, people came up to me and told me how much they appreciated learning about something they never knew about before. It made me so happy that I made it a regular part of my tours.
What do you consider your greatest achievement on tour?
Bringing people to locations where their relatives fought. On one tour, a group of about four people presented me papers showing where their father served in an anti-aircraft battery near the Moselle River. Since I was familiar with the area, I led them up a huge hill to a bunker complex north of Thionville, France. Atop the fort was a large, flat area where the anti-aircraft guns took up positions. The entire family was grateful.
On another occasion, one of my guests told me his father fought in a tank destroyer. I knew we would pass a tank destroyer outside of Fort Hackenberg, France. I kept my mouth shut and when we passed it the guest shouted out in joy. We arrived to the fort early for our tour, so I sent our bus driver back down the hill with the guy and his two daughters to check out the tank destroyer. When they returned 20 minutes later, he told me, “I can die a happy man now.”
What do you most value in your guests?
People who are as excited as I am to be on the tour. I don’t expect them to know everything about the war in Europe, that’s what I am there for, but I appreciate when they are excited, curious, and engaged. I had one guest on my tour who always apologized for being the last one to leave the museums and I repeatedly told her she had nothing to apologize for. I appreciated her fascination and desire to read everything.
What is your greatest extravagance while on tour?
Eating croissants with Nutella. I usually eat eggs or fruit for breakfast, but the croissants across France are so damn good!! And they always have Nutella in the hotel restaurants. I usually put on five pounds on tour (if I’m lucky).
What is your most marked characteristic as an historian?
My high energy. I always pump myself up before I get on the tour bus every morning. Then I get on the microphone and ask, “How’s everyone doing this morning?” I usually get a muted response, so I remind everyone we’re on a Patton tour and we’re going to see amazing things, then I ask them again in a louder voice: “How’s everyone doing this morning?!?” and I always get a more energetic response. I want to give my clients my best. I want them to know I’m excited to be in my element and I’m happy to answer any questions and engage them in conversations.
In which period of history would you most like to live?
Obviously, during World War II. I’ve studied that part of history for almost 30 years. Like a lot of people, I’d want to see how I’d make it through military training and living in the elements. While I would be all for the cause, I have no desire to take another life, nor do I have a death wish. I think everyone wonders if they could survive what that generation went through.
What is the quality you most like in historical figure?
The ability to fight and see the larger objective while on little sleep or food and knowing good people were going to die to achieve the objective. Not everyone can do it and it breaks everyone in some way. Patton suffered stomach aches and worried in his diaries that he was failing in some way, but he always hid that when talking to his commanders and soldiers. This might explain the bond between soldiers that cannot be found anywhere else.
What is the trait you most deplore in a historical figure?
Prejudice. It always disappoints me to read the “N-word” in historical figures’ diaries or papers, or to see antisemitic, or anti-women diatribes in their papers. I have to remember that these people lived in a different time where those prejudices were encouraged and reinforced.
What do you consider the most overrated virtue of a historical figure?
That they were perfect people with no flaws. Everyone is human. Every leader, both famous and not-so-famous, had weaknesses. Part of my job as a historian is to tear down that veneer of perfection and highlight their rough spots. In a way, it makes the historical figure more impressive, because despite their setbacks, they were capable of courage, and sometimes genius, to get the job done.
Which talent of a historical figure would you most like to have?
I would like General George S. Patton’s creativity in discipline. He came up with the idea to fine soldiers who did not follow orders.
If you were to die and come back as a historical figure, who would it be?
No one. Just me. I’ve studied generals and common soldiers enough to know they all had their faults. I have enough of my own.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse on tour?
“I’ll put my best people on it.” When I have smaller groups, I lead my tours without an assistant. Whenever there is a question that I cannot immediately answer or some other issue, I’ll tell my clients, “I’ll put my best people on it,” knowing that they know I’m the person who will do it. Regardless, if there’s a problem, my best person will always solve it.
When and where were you happiest when on tour?
When I reach Luxembourg City. The Patton tour lasts about 11 days. There is plenty of traffic my bus driver has to maneuver through, but when we reach Luxembourg City, I know the traffic is behind us. I also know that we will be staying in Luxembourg city for three days. That means no packing up bags when we head up to follow the German attack into Bastogne, or when we follow Patton’s relief of Bastogne.
What is your most treasured possession?
My copy of Stephen Ambrose’s Pegasus Bridge. I attended Dr. Ambrose’s last lecture as a historian at the University of New Orleans. After his talk, they set up a table to buy his books and he sat at a table, autographing copies. I had always wanted to read Pegasus Bridge but I wanted a hard copy, not a paperback. So, I bought the hardback of Pegasus Bridge and brought it to him to sign. He opened the book and spotted four names already written on the first page. He looked at me angrily and asked, “where did you get this?” I pointed at the table. Then he asked, “Do you know who’s names these are?” I said “I don’t know? The guys who took the bridge?” He said, “Yeah, this is worth a lot of money.” So I told him, “then hurry up and sign it!” He got a laugh out of that.
Years later I read Hans Von Luck’s memoir. He was the German in charge of the bridge. He wrote that on the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day he traveled to Pegasus Bridge where some of the veteran British glidermen were sitting at a long table, signing copies of the book. He joined them and signed some books. Somehow, one of those copies made it across the Atlantic and ended up on the sales table where I bought it. That’s why it is my most prized possession.
Who are your favorite writers?
Cornelius Ryan. I read all three of his books on the war in Europe (though out of order) and was fascinated with his story-telling abilities. Years later, Martin Blumenson was editing my writing and asked me if I knew how many times Ryan rewrote the opening sentence to A Bridge Too Far. I told him I didn’t know and he said, “over one hundred times.” When I got home I cracked open the book and read: “Everyone in the ancient town of Driel listened intently.” Wow! That’s a great opening sentence. I have always labored to write interesting opening sentences in my books and articles to make the reader want to read the next sentence.
Rick Atkinson. I’ve read most of his books. Like Ryan, he is a fantastic story teller and has such a command of the English language that I find myself constantly looking up some of the words in his chapters. He understands how important the right word is.
Russell Weigley. He was a history professor at Temple University and wrote several books on military history and the history of the American Army. While he was an academic writer, he was always engaging. In most history books I’ve read, the writer will either quote Weigley or write something like “and even the distinguished historian Russell Weigley wrote…” I was very lucky to get him as a professor while getting my Master’s degree from Villanova.
Who is your hero of historical fiction?
Captain John Yossarian from Catch-22. While not really someone to look up to, reading Catch-22 was a joy and I laughed at a lot of his, and his friends, antics. I don’t really read historical fiction.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
George C. Marshall. As chief of staff of the U.S. Army during World War II he held incredible responsibility over the entire globe. In his early career as a captain in the 1st Infantry Division in World War I, he was present when General John J. Pershing reviewed the division and chewed out the division commander for the condition of his troops. Marshall broke ranks and confronted Pershing for humiliating his commander in front of his men. Instead of firing Marshall, Pershing put him on his planning staff and he planned the basic strategy for the entire American Army in France. In 1939, President Franklin picked Marshall, only a brigadier general, to be the chief of staff just as Germany invaded Poland. He planned the size of the Army and its strategy to win World War II. I’ve always been impressed with his calm demeanor and logical mind.
Who are your heroes in real life?
Martin Blumeson and Carl Gnam. Martin wrote The Patton Papers and other WWII works. Carl founded World War II magazine and now runs WWII History magazine and WWII Quarterly. When I wrote my first paper on Patton for the Society of Military History, I learned that Martin lived in Washington, D.C. and I visited him at his home for guidance. He asked me to do some research for him and we became friends. He helped me write my first book, Patton’s Photographs, and wrote the Introduction. We also wrote a short book on Patton together but he passed away before we finished it. I met Carl Gnam at a party when I worked for World War II magazine. He later hired me as an editor and researcher for WWII History and WWII Quarterly. I’m glad to say I met my heroes and developed friendships with both of them.
What is your motto?
I have two:
“Never take counsel of your fears.” It’s a quote from Patton. He explained that everyone has fears but only a brave person does not give into them. I’ve tried to live by it.
“ABR!” It stands for “Always Be Reading.” It’s my own motto. I always tell people, “Once you’ve read a book, no one can take that away from you.” I tell everyone that. I also ask people, “what are you reading right now,” as a way to break the ice with them—especially young people. I feel bad when people don’t have an answer for that.