“Something Charming in the Sound”

 

“I heard the bullets whistle, and, believe me, there is something charming in the sound.”

George Washington, letter to his brother May 31, 1754, telling him about his victory at the battle of Jumonville.   What might have been mere bragging by virtually any other man, was not the case with the Father of our Country.  As far as we can judge from outward evidence, Washington was absolutely fearless.  Time after time in the French and Indian War and in the American Revolution,  he exposed himself to enemy fire.  At Braddock’s Defeat in 1755 Washington had two horses shot out from beneath him, and four enemy musket balls were lodged in his clothes by the end of the fight.  Washington believed that he could not be an effective leader unless he led from the front, and that is precisely what he did, often to the distress of his aides.  His only emotional reaction to being under enemy fire was apparently complete contempt for the fire of the enemy.  Men who observed him often wrote that they were amazed that anyone could be as fearless as he was. (more…)

Published in: on May 31, 2019 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on “Something Charming in the Sound”  
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Hill 875

Charles J. Watters

Medal of Honor

On January 17, 1927  Charles Joseph Watters first saw the light of day.  Attending college at Seton Hall, he made the decision to become a priest and went on to Immaculate Conception Seminary.  Ordained on May 30, 1953, he served parishes in Jersey City, Rutherford, Paramus and Cranford, all in New Jersey.

 

While attending to his priestly duties, Father Watters became a pilot.  His longest solo flight was a trip to Argentina.  He earned a commercial pilot’s license and an instrument rating.  In 1962 he joined the Air Force National Guard in New Jersey.  A military tradition ran in his family with his uncle, John J. Doran, a bosun’s mate aboard the USS Marblehead, having been awarded a medal of honor for his courage at Cienfuegos, Cuba on May 11, 1898.

In August 1965 he transferred to the Army as a chaplain.  At the age of 38, a remarkably advanced age to be going through that rugged course in my opinion, Father Watters successfully completed Airborne training and joined the 173rd Airborne Brigade, the Sky Soldiers.  In June of 1966 Major Watters began a twelve month tour of duty in Vietnam with the 173rd.

Chaplain Watters quickly became a legend in the 173rd.  He constantly stayed with units in combat.  When a unit he was attached to rotated to the rear, he joined another unit in action.  He believed that his role was to be with the fighting units serving the men.  Saying mass,  joking with the men, giving them spiritual guidance, tending the wounded, Chaplain Watters seemed to be everywhere.   PFC Carlos Lozado remembered decades later that when he lacked the money to buy a crib for a new-born daughter Father Watters sought him out and gave him the money.  The word quickly spread in “The Herd”, as the 173rd was called, about the priest who didn’t mind risking his life with them, a reputation sealed when Father Watters made a combat jump with the troops during  Operation Junction City on February 22, 1967. (more…)

Published in: on May 30, 2019 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Hill 875  
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Pitchfork Ben Tillman and The Ending of Reconstruction in South Carolina

I trust that regular readers of this blog can tell from my posts that I take pride in being an American and enjoy studying the history of our nation.  Alas, no American can take pride in all aspects of our history.  One feature of our history that is a matter of shame and not pride is the treatment that Black Americans endured in our nation for centuries.

After the Civil War, “Redeemer” white governments arose after Reconstruction and fought to take away the newly won franchise from Blacks .

Senator “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman of South Carolina, he got the nickname Pitchfork  from stating in his 1896 that he would drive a Pitchfork into President Grover Cleveland’s ribs, on March 23, 1900 in a speech in the Senate summed up what happened to the rights of blacks throughout the South:

We did not disfranchise the negroes until 1895. Then we had a constitutional convention convened which took the matter up calmly, deliberately, and avowedly with the purpose of disfranchising as many of them as we could under the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments. We adopted the educational qualification as the only means left to us, and the negro is as contented and as prosperous and as well protected in South Carolina to-day as in any State of the Union south of the Potomac. He is not meddling with politics, for he found that the more he meddled with them the worse off he got. As to his “rights”—I will not discuss them now. We of the South have never recognized the right of the negro to govern white men, and we never will. We have never believed him to be equal to the white man, and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him. I would to God the last one of them was in Africa and that none of them had ever been brought to our shores. But I will not pursue the subject further.

Of course “Pitchfork” Ben prettied up the process for a national audience.  Rights were taken away from Blacks in South Carolina through a long process of violence and murder.  Tillman was involved in one notorious incident, the Hamburg massacre of 1876, that Tillman bragged about when he ran for governor in 1890.

The Attorney General of South Carolina made a report on the Massacre shortly after it occurred: (more…)

Published in: on May 29, 2019 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Pitchfork Ben Tillman and The Ending of Reconstruction in South Carolina  
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Rogers’ Rangers

If he had fought with the patriots instead of against them in the American Revolution, I have small doubt that today Robert Rogers would still be remembered as one of America’s great heroes.  Instead, he wavered at the beginning of the Revolution before eventually supporting the British.  Now he is largely forgotten except by Army Rangers.  The movie Northwest Passage (1940), based on the novel of the same name by Kenneth Roberts, is one of the few times since his death that the figure of Robert Rogers has emerged briefly from obscurity.

Rogers developed during the French and Indian war the concept of long-range attacks  behind enemy lines that has remained an element of American military operations since.  He and the rangers he led specialized in daring raids through trackless wilderness against enemy positions.   The film Northwest Passage depicted the immensely successful raid on Saint Francis in 1759 that broke the power of the Abenaki who, under French guidance, had been raiding New England and upstate New York for four generations.

Several members of the Rangers played prominent roles fighting for American independence, most notably John Stark of New Hampshire, the victor at the battle of Bennington, and the originator of the New Hampshire state motto Live Free or Die. (more…)

Published in: on May 28, 2019 at 5:30 am  Comments (2)  
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Memorial Day: A Debt to Repay

 

 

 

When you go home, tell them of us and say,
For your tomorrow, we gave our today

Inscription on the Memorial to the dead of the British Second Division at Kohima

I have always been careful, as best as I am able, to repay any debts I have incurred in this life.  Of course some debts are unrepayable.  How, for example, do we repay the debt to our parents for their care of us as children, especially, as in my case, when they died relatively young, before they endured the ravages of age and required our assistance?  Our salvation, bought by Christ on the Cross, is completely beyond our poor power to repay.  On Memorial Day we honor those who we can never repay, those who have died in our wars.  They had the sweetness of life taken from them, usually after a short twenty years or so on this Earth.  Most of them are long forgotten, as the decades remove from the scene those who knew and loved them.  We owe our peace and freedom to them, and we are in their debt, a debt we can never hope to pay.

 

Thus we do the best we can.  We erect monuments to them which they will never see in this Vale of Tears, give speeches that they can never hear, hold parades that they will never march in.  We do our best to care for their widows and orphans, and that is something, but it is not enough.  When a man dies for you, your gratitude seeks for an outlet.  Gratitude is one of the noblest impulses of Man, just as ingratitude is one of the most ignoble features of our fallen nature.

The only real way to even begin to pay this blood debt is to make it mean something.  As Lincoln noted in the Gettysburg Address:  that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.

We can do this by preserving our freedom and fighting, when needs be, against those who seek to take that freedom from us.  To ensure that the nation remains strong to deter threats from abroad.  To never take for granted that this nation that has been purchased for us with the blood of others, over a million others.  It is a fought for nation, and it will always be a fought for nation as long as it is free.

For most Americans Memorial Day is the unofficial beginning of summer and the long weekend is filled with fun activities, and there is nothing wrong with that.  If our war dead could come back for a Memorial Day weekend, I am sure that most of them would be joining in the fun.  However, the day means so much more than that.  The debt it symbolizes must be never forgotten, and we should do our best with our lives to repay a debt impossible to repay.

 

 

 

Published in: on May 27, 2019 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Memorial Day: A Debt to Repay  
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A Second Review of the Grand Army

Recently I have been reading of the Grand Review of the Armies which occurred in Washington DC on May 23 and May 24, 1865.  This was a victory parade of Grant’s Army of the Potomac and Sherman’s Army.  I was struck by a banner that was spread on the capitol dome those two days: “The Only National Debt We Can Never Pay, Is The Debt We Owe To Our Victorious Soldiers.”   Indeed.    So the boys in blue enjoyed two days of being cheered as heroes and saviors of their country, before they were demobilized and went back to their homes, the War left behind to fading memories and imperishable history.

However, there were silent victors who could not march in the Grand Review, and humorist Bret Harte remembered them in this poem:

I read last night of the Grand Review
    In Washington’s chiefest avenue,–
Two hundred thousand men in blue,
    I think they said was the number,–
Till I seemed to hear their trampling feet,
The bugle blast and the drum’s quick beat,
The clatter of hoofs in the stony street,
The cheers of the people who came to greet,
And the thousand details that to repeat
    Would only my verse encumber,–
Till I fell in a revery, sad and sweet,
    And then to a fitful slumber.
   
When, lo! in a vision I seemed to stand
In the lonely Capitol. On each hand
Far stretched the portico, dim and grand
Its columns ranged, like a martial band
Of sheeted spectres whom some command
    Had called to a last reviewing.
And the streets of the city were white and bare;
No footfall echoed across the square;
But out of the misty midnight air
I heard in the distance a trumpet blare,
And the wandering night-winds seemed to bear
    The sound of a far tatooing.

Then I held my breath with fear and dread;
For into the square, with a brazen tread,
There rode a figure whose stately head
    O’erlooked the review that morning.
That never bowed from its firm-set seat
When the living column passed its feet,
Yet now rode steadily up the street
    To the phantom bugle’s warning:
   
Till it reached the Capitol square, and wheeled,
And there in the moonlight stood revealed
A well known form that in State and field
    Had led our patriot sires;
Whose face was turned to the sleeping camp,
Afar through the river’s fog and damp,
That showed no flicker, nor warning lamp,
    Nor wasted bivouac fires.
   
And I saw a phantom army come,
With never a sound of fife or drum,
But keeping time to a throbbing hum
    Of wailing and lamentation:
The martyred heroes of Malvern Hill,
Of Gettysburg and Chancellorsville,
The men whose wasted figures fill
    The patriot graves of the nation.
   
And there came the nameless dead,–the men
Who perished in fever-swamp and fen,
The slowly-starved of the prison-pen;
    And marching beside the others,
Came the dusky martyrs of Pillow’s fight,
With limbs enfranchised and bearing bright;
I thought–perhaps ’twas the pale moonlight–
    They looked as white as their brothers!
   
And so all night marched the Nation’s dead,
With never a banner above them spread,
Nor a badge, nor a motto brandished;
No mark–save the bare uncovered head
    Of the silent bronze Reviewer;
With never an arch save the vaulted sky;
With never a flower save those that lie
On the distant graves–for love could buy
    No gift that was purer or truer.
   
So all night long swept the strange array;
So all night long, till the morning gray,
I watch’d for one who had passed away,
    With a reverent awe and wonder,–
Till a blue cap waved in the lengthening line,
And I knew that one who was kin of mine
Had come; amd I spake–and lo! that sign
    Awakened me from my slumber.

Published in: on May 26, 2019 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on A Second Review of the Grand Army  
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Fanfare for a Common Soldier

Something for a Memorial Day weekend.  Fanfare for the Common Man by Aaron Copland.  Composed in 1942, it was Copland’s reaction to the US entering World War II. This song brings back memories to me from 43 years ago.

Back in the summer of 1976 I was on vacation between my freshman and sophomore years at the University of Illinois.  My father ran the steel shears at a truck body plant in Paris, Illinois.  They were hiring summer help and I got a job working on the factory floor.  Although I liked the idea of earning money, I was less than enthused by the job.  The factory floor was not air-conditioned, and the summer was hot.  Additionally I had never worked in a factory before, had no experience with heavy machinery and did not know what to expect.

I was placed under the supervision of a regular worker at the plant.  He looked like he was a thousand years old to me at the time, but I realize now that he was probably then around six years  younger than I am now at age 62.  I would assist him at a press in which we would manhandle heavy sheets of steel and use the press to bend them into various shapes.  Before we began he pointed to a little box and said that if I lost a finger or a part of a finger as a result of the press, I should toss it in the box and proceed with the job.  Thus I was introduced to his macabre sense of humor.

I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but he was engaged in a rough and ready form of instruction.  He had to take a completely green kid, and teach me various tasks, all the while keeping up with the jobs the press was assigned.  He did it pretty skillfully, and I learned.  I never got to like the job, but I learned how to do it.  I also learned to grudgingly respect my mentor.  He obviously wasn’t well read, but he was handy with machinery, and under his tutelage I learned how to operate the press without losing one of my digits, or costing him one of his.  He kept me out of trouble at the factory, and included me in his conversations with his fellow veteran workers.  All in all I probably learned more that summer of future value for me in life, than I learned from any of my courses in college.

One day during the half hour we had for lunch, I asked him if he had served in World War II.  I was in Army ROTC at the University, and I had a keen interest in military history.  He told me that he had been an infantryman in the Army and that he had participated in Operation Torch.

 

Operation Torch, the landings of which began on November 8, 1942, were the liberation of French North Africa then controlled by the Vichy government.  These landings by British and American troops would seize Morocco and Algeria and allow the Allies to attack Rommel’s Afrika Korps in a pincer movement, between American and British troops from the west and the British Eighth Army moving from the east from Egypt after the British victory over the Afrika Korps at El Alamein, which concluded on November 4, 1942.

Operation Torch was the largest American amphibious operation up to that time and taught valuable lessons as to improvements needed for future landings.

I was impressed that my fellow factory worker had taken part as a young man in such a momentous event.  He, on the other hand, did not make much of it, a reaction similar to what I have found with most World War II veterans.  They had a job to do for the country, they did it, and then they came home, took off their uniforms and went on with their lives.  Normally they didn’t talk much about the War unless they were with fellow veterans.  If asked they would talk about it, but it obviously was not foremost in their minds.

At the end of my summer, my mentor and I went our separate ways.  When my father died in 1991, he was part of the American Legion honor guard.  We chatted a bit.  I learned that he was retired, and he learned that I was married and an attorney.  That was the last time I saw him.

Of the over 16,000,000 Americans who put on their country’s uniform during World War II, slightly under a half million are still alive.   348 of them die on average each day.  Soon, sadly, World War II will pass from the living memory of the men  who fought it.  I hope my mentor is still alive and in good health, he would now be near the century mark if he is still alive, and when the 77th anniversary of Operation Torch rolls around in November, I hope someone will remember to give him a salute for a job well done.

Published in: on May 25, 2019 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Fanfare for a Common Soldier  
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American History: Memorial Day Weekend Movies

When You Go Home, Tell Them Of Us And Say,
For Your Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today”

              Inscription on the memorial to the dead of the British 2nd Infantry Division at Kohima.

A few films to help remember that there is much greater significance to Memorial Day than sun and fun:

 

 

1.  American Sniper (2015)- A grand tribute to the late Chris Kyle and to all the other troops who served in Iraq.

“I am a strong Christian. Not a perfect one—not close. But I strongly believe in God, Jesus, and the Bible. When I die, God is going to hold me accountable for everything I’ve done on earth. He may hold me back until last and run everybody else through the line, because it will take so long to go over all my sins. “Mr. Kyle, let’s go into the backroom. . . .” Honestly, I don’t know what will really happen on Judgment Day. But what I lean toward is that you know all of your sins, and God knows them all, and shame comes over you at the reality that He knows. I believe the fact that I’ve accepted Jesus as my savior will be my salvation. But in that backroom or whatever it is when God confronts me with my sins, I do not believe any of the kills I had during the war will be among them. Everyone I shot was evil. I had good cause on every shot. They all deserved to die.”
Chis Kyle

2.   Hamburger Hill (1987)- A moving film about our troops in Vietnam who served their nation far better than their too often ungrateful nation served them.

3.  Porkchop Hill (1959)-Korea has become to too many Americans The Forgotten War, lost between World War II and Vietnam.  There is nothing forgotten about it by the Americans who served over there,  including my Uncle Ralph McClarey who died a few years ago, and gained a hard won victory for the US in one of the major hot conflicts of the Cold War.  This film tells the story of the small American force on Porkchop Hill, who held it in the face of repeated assaults by superior forces of the Chinese and North Koreans.  As the above clip indicates it also highlights the surreal element that accompanies every war and the grim humor that aspect often brings.

 

4.   Hacksaw Ridge (2016):  Mel Gibson fully redeemed his career as a director with this masterpiece.  A film that goes far beyond mere entertainment and illustrates what a man of faith can accomplish when he stays true to his beliefs and cares so much more about helping others than he does about his own mortal life.  Incredibly, the movie does justice to Desmond Doss, a true American hero.

 5.   Sergeant York (1941)-A film biopic of Sergeant Alvin C. York, who, during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive  on October 8,  1918, took 32 German machine guns, killed 28 German soldiers and captured another 132.  Viewers who came to see the movie in 1941 must have been initially puzzled.  With a title like Sergeant York, movie goers could have been forgiven for thinking that Sergeant York’s experiences in World War I would be the focus, but such was not the case.  Most of the film is focused on York’s life in Tennessee from 1916-1917 before American entry into the war.  Like most masterpieces, the film has a strong religious theme as we witness York’s conversion to Christ.  The film is full of big questions:  How are we to live?  Why are we here?  What role should religion play in our lives?  How does someone gain faith?  What should we do if we perceive our duty to God and to Country to be in conflict?  It poses possible answers to these questions with a skillful mixture of humor and drama.  The entertainment value of Sergeant York conceals the fact that it is a very deep film intellectually as it addresses issues as old as Man.

The film was clearly a message film and made no bones about it.  The paper of the film industry Variety noted at the time:  “In Sergeant York the screen has spoken for national defense. Not in propaganda, but in theater.”

The film was a huge success upon release in 1941, the top grossing film of the year.  Gary Cooper justly earned the Oscar for his stellar performance as Alvin C. York.  It was Cooper’s favorite of his pictures.  “Sergeant York and I had quite a few things in common, even before I played him in screen. We both were raised in the mountains – Tennessee for him, Montana for me – and learned to ride and shoot as a natural part of growing up. Sergeant York won me an Academy Award, but that’s not why it’s my favorite film. I liked the role because of the background of the picture, and because I was portraying a good, sound American character.”

The film portrays a devout Christian who had to reconcile the command to “Love thy Neighbor” with fighting for his country in a war.  This is not an easy question and the film does not give easy answers, although I do find the clip above compelling. (more…)

Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Indianapolis

 

It has been said ‘The world loves, not those who would sacrifice themselves for others, if they could find an opportunity, but those who have found one and used it.’ She, our mother, the state, saw the distinction, and applied it to her sons of the sword and gun; and now it is the text of the sermon she means these stones to preach immemorially. In other words, making this matchless structure speak for her, she says: ‘They are my best beloved, who in every instance of danger to the nation, discover a glorious chance to serve their fellow men and dare the chance, though in so doing they suffer and sometimes die.’

General Lew Wallace, speech on the dedication of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Indianapolis in 1902

 

My family and I vacation each year in Indianapolis in August as we attend the GenCon Convention.  A city of approximately 850,000, the state capitol of Indiana is a very livable city where it is still possible to park on the street in the major business section.  Indianapolis is filled with monuments and the most striking by far is the Civil War memorial, the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in downtown Indie.  Dedicated in 1902 to Indiana’s silent victors, the Hoosiers who fell in the War, the monument stands 284 feet tall on Monument Circle.  The Monument is huge, taking up an acre of space.  Costing a bit over a half million when built, the estimated cost to build such a structure today is half a billion.

There is an observation deck on top and tourists can either take an elevator or climb the seemingly endless and narrow winding  331 steps.  I recommend the elevator.  Twelve years ago I climbed the steps with my kids.  Being young teenagers then, they had no trouble.  I was about fifty at the time, and on that muggy day almost killed myself getting to the top! (more…)

Published in: on May 22, 2019 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Indianapolis  
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They Shall Not Grow Old: A Review

 

 

 

Well, my bride and I watched They Shall Not Grow Old (2018) last Sunday, and technically it was as magnificent as I had heard.  The expertise applied to make World War I era films look like contemporary colored films was awe-inspiring.  The skillful use of sound with these films allowed us to think that we were seeing a modern broadcast from 1914-1918, if the current broadcast technology had existed back then.  It reminds us powerfully that the men who fought were not merely figures from old, grainy black and white films, but flesh and blood like us going through a great and terrible experience.  The voice over in the film is from World War I veterans, presumably from broadcasts decades ago, or recreated readings from memoirs and/or written interviews.

One thing I very much liked is that the film totally reflected the views of the British soldiers who fought.  No Twenty-First century sensibilities were imposed on these soldiers from a century ago who fought for King and Country at the dawn of the Twentieth century.  The film skillfully takes us through the experience of the soldiers:  recruitment, training, meals, life in the trenches, medical care, etc.  The time allotted to the actual fighting does not dominate the film, as it did not dominate the wartime lives, at least those who survived, of the men who fought.  Battle was obviously the most important element in the lives of the soldiers who were at the front, but few soldiers spent more than a few months in combat, at most, even for the small minority who served throughout the entire War.  At the end of the film, the soldiers are looking for work, some of them missing serving in the Army, for many of the young soldiers the first real job they had held.

At the beginning of the film, some of the Tommies talk about what a life altering experience the War had been for them, and how they would not have missed it for the world, and that is the general sentiment portrayed by most of soldiers at the end of the film.

 

 

To say all this is out of step with popular perceptions today of World War I, a useless war where the soldiers were only pawns, or, at best victims, is to engage in considerable understatement.  My hat is off to Peter Jackson to allow the men five generations removed from our time to have their say.

My only mild criticism of the film is that a viewer will gain no knowledge of the actual campaigns fought by the British Army on the Western Front.  However, this is clearly a result of the film’s firm focus on the perceptions at the time of the front line soldiers.  The fabled Big Picture was for Generals and civilians safely reading newspapers back in Britain.  For the soldiers, the battles all blurred together into small scale fights of attack and defense, where life and death were all that mattered, and for these combatants the Big Picture simply didn’t exist.

 

A truly great film.  I cannot recommend it highly enough.

 

Published in: on May 21, 2019 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on They Shall Not Grow Old: A Review  
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