Monday, August 10, 2015

Book R & R: The First "Great Escape"

This "Book Review and Recommendation" is on "Zero Night: The Untold Story of World War Two's Greatest Escape" by Mark Felton.

I must have watched the movie "The Great Escape" with Steve McQueen more than a dozen times. Of course, since the first time I watched it was back in the sixties when I was just a kid (it was one of my dad's favorites) I never got around to reading the book it was based on. This movie and book are about a mass escape of allied POWs from Stalag Luft III in 1944. In this escape the prisoners dug a tunnel under the camp's perimeter fence. Because of the movie, this "Great Escape" has long over shadowed an earlier escape, that while did not free as many prisoners, certainly scores just as high in audacity.

In "Zero Night" author and historian Mark Felton tells the story of an escape from Oflag VI-B in August 1942. Unlike the great escape of Stalag Luft III nearly two years later, the forty allied officers who attempted this breakout chose to storm the double fence perimeter with ladders. They called their escape plan Operation Olympia, but it became known as the "Warburg Wire Job," named for the local town in Germany where the camp was located. The twelve-foot ladders were constructed out of bed slats and other scrounged wood. During preparation they were hidden in plain sight as bookshelves. Because of a design error in the camp's construction, a prisoner was able to cut the lights that enabled 36 men to escape during a mad three minute, well rehearsed, scramble over three scaling ladders.

St. Martin's Press provided an advance copy for this review. The book will be available on Amazon on August 25th. I found the book to be a fast paced read that kept my interest through the entire book. I was reminded of the movie "The Great Escape" several times while reading the book, not only because of the same POW jargon, but also because of the pace and suspense that the author has woven into this reality tale. So much so that the book has already been optioned for a movie version. For more information and pictures of the ladders over the perimeter fence, check out these two articles on War History Online.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park

Day Trip to Sequoia NP or "A Tale of Two Trees"

The vacation part of my summer has consisted of a few day trips and overnighters rather than a long trip. It's a good thing, California has a lot to see. Since we live only an hour and a half drive from Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, and my daughter had not been there since she was very young, a day trip to see the big trees again was a logical choice to start out the summer.

The sequoia tree or "Sierra redwood" should not be confused with the coastal redwoods in northern California's Redwood National and State Parks. The coastal redwoods grow taller, up to 379 feet. However, the sequoia grows in heights up to 311 feet and have thicker trunks and branches. So in mass the sequoias are larger, and live to be older at up to 3,200 years. Reminiscent of the Griswold's family vacation, we set out to visit the two largest trees in the world, the General Grant Tree and the General Sherman Tree.

Highway 180 will take you from Fresno to the Grant Grove in Kings Canyon National Park in about an hour and a half or a little less if there is no traffic. Lucky for us we are early risers and were the second car to arrive in the parking lot about 7:30 in the morning. There is a short walk of about a half mile on a paved path (completely ADA accessible) around the General Grant tree. The General Grant tree is the second largest living tree in the world at 267.4 feet tall and a trunk diameter at the ground of 107.6 feet. Although these famous named trees are a huge tourist attraction, if you arrive before the crowds it is still a peaceful walk in nature and you stand a good chance of seeing some wildlife. We saw a mule deer, chipmunks, and squirrels. You also stand the chance of seeing a black bear. Some other visitors told us they had spotted one.

After a quick stop in the Kings Canyon Visitor's Center to look at the books, we drove the fifty minutes down the General's Highway (198) to visit the General Sherman tree that is located in Sequoia National Park. The General Sherman is the
largest tree (by volume) in the world. It is approximately 275 feet tall and 106.4 feet around its trunk at the ground. The walk to the Sherman tree is a little more challenging, about a mile with an elevation drop of about 300 feet. Then of course it's a mile climb back up to your car. But the Sherman tree is still ADA accessible with a special parking area closer to the end of the trail for cars with
handicap placards. By the time we got there (around 11:00 am on a Friday) there were already a large number of tourists. This includes several tour buses full of visitors speaking French and German. Most people are well behaved and courteous. But like anywhere else you go, the more people trying to see the same thing the more frustrating it gets. So we finished our day with a scenic drive down from the mountains on Highway 198 through Visalia then back up to our home in Fresno.

Image from
If you've seen one sequoia, have you seen them all? Well, maybe. No doubt it is hard to tell from the ground which trees are taller or bigger around. It is more impressive to me to see the forest rather than the trees. What I mean is that in the groves of sequoias located in the Sierras there are some impressive groups of trees and some individuals that I find more attractive than either the Grant or Sherman tree.  They have an interesting history. Protected before the area was made into a national park and before park rangers were in service, these trees were originally guarded by the United States cavalry. And of course there are other things to do in these national parks besides standing at a large tree looking up. Years ago, before the bad knees came on, the wife and I hiked into the mountains on several occasions. There is indescribably beautiful scenery in the mountains, away from the giant trees but also away from the crowds. But everyone should come to visit the giants at least once.When you do look at them, you might wonder, like I do, why anyone would have wanted to cut them down.

Since it's hard to capture these giant trees in one photograph up close, here's a couple of videos courtesy of my daughter's iPhone. First the General Grant tree:

And the General Sherman tree:

Monday, July 13, 2015

Professional Development Idea: DailyLit

Summer is in full swing. Although I’ve always enjoyed summer for getting outdoors, riding my bike, and taking vacation trips, in previous years I just didn’t get it. Now that I have spent a year as a teacher I know how important it is to have this time to recharge. Along with a little R & R it also makes me very happy to have the time to do some research and whittle down my reading pile. So while I compile what I’ve been reading and doing this summer, I thought I would share with you a website I’ve been using to help out with professional development.

I remember reading several of the classics when I was in school. Books like A Tale of Two Cities and The Scarlet Letter. But no one has read them all. I find that in teaching high school we wind up talking about certain classics that find their way into the history class. Immediately The Red Badge of Courage, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and The Jungle come to mind. I mean, these books had an influence on history and we talk about them in class. I'm thinking we should probably have read them, no? So, being the type A nerd that I am I added these titles to my reading list for the summer. But who has time to read these along with everything else you want to get through? That’s where Daily Lit comes in.

All you have to do is go to and signup for free. Then look through their catalog and choose a book that you would like to read. Daily Lit will then send the book to you in short email installments. I’m currently on the 20th installment out of 50 of Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage. The installments are less than a thousand words and I’m guessing it takes me about five minutes to read each day. Seeing the email in my inbox provides me a form of discipline to read the installment before deleting and also to not allow the installments to pile up. Daily Lit allows you to make these classics into the bathroom book of the Internet age. Give it a try!

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Book R & R: Some Spring Reading

One of the great things about spring break was the opportunity to read some books of my choosing. I've had a couple on the shelf that I've been saving for the break. One is historical fiction, the other is California history. Both were good reads.

The Road to Kandahar, A Novel of the Second Afghan War, 1878-1880 by David Smethurst.

I've said before that I believe that reading a historical fiction is a great way to gain some familiarity with a historical period or event. David Smethurst sent me a copy of his book several weeks ago. I've been a bit of an Anglophile lately, having read a number Bernard Cornwell's Richard Sharpe series. So given the chance to read a book about the British competing with the Russians for influence and control over Afghanistan peaked my interest. Here's the description from the author:
October 6, 1879. The roar of guns and the shout of men reached a heightened pitch as the Highlanders and Gurkhas crested the ridgeline and attacked the Afghani trenches. Khaki and green uniforms mixed with the scarlet of the Afghans as the battle sea-sawed for a few minutes. Then the line of scarlet-clad Afghani troops wavered and broke. British Army lieutenant Robert Burton watched as thousands of Afghani troops fled in headlong retreat. The British had seized the first line.
The Road to Kandahar is an historical fiction novel about a forgotten period of history when Britain and Russia fought the very first Cold War in the heart of Asia. In this book, a British political officer, Robert Burton, and his friends, Richard Leary and Ali Masheed, fight a battle of wits against a cunning Russian political officer, Count Nikolai Kuragin. Against a backdrop of the high passes and deserts of Afghanistan, Burton, Leary and Ali must stop a potential Russian invasion during the Second Afghan War (1878-80) and fight against treachery and injustice within their own ranks.
Without giving anything away, that pretty much sums up what the book is about. But I have to say that it is well written, and has all the elements of a good adventure story: a likable protagonist, a sidekick, a girl (of course) and an easy to hate bad guy. There's plenty of action and the book is faithful to its historical accuracy. As the author sums up in his historical notes, there might be a lesson for the United States in evaluating the British experience in Afghanistan during the nineteenth century.

On September, 13, 1859, just south of San Francisco, a California State Supreme Court judge shot and killed a United States Senator from California. It was the culmination of a decade long argument over whether to allow slavery in the Golden State. 

These days we teach California history in the fourth grade. So you can imagine that the story get sanitized a little bit. For many years I accepted the version that California was rushed to statehood because the gold rush. Well, what does that even mean? Author Leonard Richards will explain that the forty-niners wanted to keep Southerners from bringing slaves to work the claims in the gold rush. Moreover, if California skipped the whole territory status thing and went straight to being a state, the residents could decide whether the new state would be free or allow slavery. This situation also upset the delicate political balance in Washington that had been kicking the can of possible secession down the road for decades. Needless to say, coming to a compromise was a bit of a pickle. 

This was my nonfiction choice for spring break, and it turned out to be very enlightening and very readable. My one criticism might be that the book goes into too much detail on the debates and political moves in both California and Washington D.C., but that might be that I'm not a huge fan of political history. That being said, the history of California is a lot more interesting when told at a level above fourth grade.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

La Purisima Mission State Park

Or, what I did on my Spring Break.

As you can tell by my lack of posts that I am still busy with working on a masters in education and working full-time at an alternative education school. I will not kid you, having a Spring Break is as good for the teachers as it is for the students. Sheila and I had our first days off together in two and half months. So what's the first thing we do? That's right, road trip to a historic site.

The first stop is the museum at the  
visitor's center.
We chose to visit La Purisima Mission State Park in Lompoc, California.  La Purisima was the 11th of the 21 missions established in California. The first mission was established at a site that is now in Lompoc on December 8, 1787. But that site was destroyed by an earthquake in 1812 and the mission was rebuilt on its present site about three miles northwest of the city. When you visit you'll notice that the new site is actually an improvement over the old. The mission is tucked into a hillside that will help block the winds that come with being so close to the ocean. There is a fresh water source via a spring and creek that flows through the site. Also, being at a slightly higher elevation you have an excellent view of the farm fields in the valley below.

The walking tour will take you past
the heritage animals kept at the
Mission: sheep, pigs, foul, donkeys...
and this critter. Very impressive.
Your first stop is a fairly new visitor's center with a great little museum that devotes a large amount of space to the Civilian Conservation Corps project that rebuilt the mission in 1934. We joke that once you've seen one mission, you've seen them all. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. I visited seven missions at different times in my life and they are all a little different. What they usually have in common is a beautiful garden surrounded by historic buildings. Many are still owned by the Catholic Church and are still active. What is different about La Purisima is that it is not owned by the Church but rather the State of California and operates as a state park. The only way I can describe it is that La Purisima seems to be in more of its "natural" state. There is not a perfect garden and there are no church services. But there are historic buildings that are not surrounded by suburbia. There are active displays and even heritage animals on display (the bull and the donkeys are very popular). As a result it's a lot easier to get your history on and try to imagine what mission life was really like.

A real benefit is that the mission
buildings are not surrounded by
modern life.
Admission is free but it will cost you a dollar for a brochure/walking map to the site, which is worth much more than a buck. There are no food or drinks sold on the site, but there are some nice shaded picnic benches. I highly recommend brown bagging it, but Lompoc is only three miles away for restaurants and hotels. Some weekends there are living history folks demonstrating weaving, woodworking, and other skills from the mission days. So check out the State Parks site or much better the foundation site, Prelado De Los Tesoros, at, for hours and a calendar of events.

Nothing like a nap after breakfast.
We finished our weekend with drive up the Pacific Coast Highway through Big Sur to Monterey. So enjoy a picture of a pile of elephant seals just north of Cambria. :-)

There is a recreation of the Native
American Chumash houses that would
have been located at the mission.
Inside the buildings are working
museum displays.
If you visit during the week, you'll have
the place to yourself. That is until the
elementary school field trip arrives.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Soccer Game That Probably Wasn't

The Christmas Truce of 1914

Christmas vacation has started for most public schools and colleges. Finally there is time to relax and pick up the blog again. I also have the time to watch one of my favorite news magazine shows on television, CBS Sunday Morning. This morning there was a segment on the Christmas Truce of 1914 (since we're now at the 100 year anniversary of the events of WWI).

You can click the link to read the whole story, or watch the video below. But along with the interesting anecdote about an event that occurred during the First World War, the more interesting thing for me was the way in which people remember it.

Here's the gist: during this time of year, military history buffs like to bring out the Christmas Truce that occurred spontaneously between British and German troops in 1914. The story goes that both sides were singing Christmas carols in their respective trenches and one side put up a tree, etc. With a verbal promise of "if you don't shoot, I won't either," troops from both sides met in the middle of "no man's land" and traded Christmas greetings. Before long, by popular belief, a friendly soccer game was started between teams from the units that were shooting at each other just hours before. The story has become mythologized, spawning multiple books, as well as movies.

There are two issues with that story. First, it is not an isolated event. Many enemies in many wars made temporary truces for reasons that range from clearing dead and wounded off of the field to celebrating a holiday. And second, while the associated Wiki article tells us that soccer games were played, the CBS story says that there is no evidence of a game of football during the truce of 1914.

That's one of the things you have to love about popular history. While we struggle for the facts, the truth is what people create for themselves. I really take pleasure in the story part of history, and I admit that sometimes you just have to say, "well, if it ain't true, it outta be." Enjoy.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Day Trip: Mission San Juan Bautista

About a week ago my wife and I had a day off together (that doesn't happen as often as you might think), so we decided to take a little day trip to Mission San Juan Bautista. We had been there before about six years ago. It is one of those peaceful, beautiful places that you just want to go back to.

Mission San Juan Bautista was established on June 24, 1797 by Father Fermin de Lasuen, the successor to Father Juniper Serra. San Juan Bautista was the fifteenth of the twenty-one Spanish missions built in California between 1769 and 1833. Read more about Mission San Juan Bautista's history at the mission's website or at the Wikipedia entry for the mission.

San Juan Bautista, California, is located about 125 miles west of my home in Fresno, or approximately 33 miles northeast of Monterey. So it makes for a nice day trip. If you don't want to spend the whole day at the mission, there are other attractions nearby like the Steinbeck Center in Salinas, or the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Or you might just want to check out some of the small agricultural towns that have an interesting history all of their own like Hollister or Gilroy. On this particular day, we spent the morning checking out the mission and then visited Gilroy in the afternoon (more about Gilroy in a future post).

San Juan Bautista, like several of the other missions, is an operating Catholic church, even though the buildings are nearly 200 years old. For that reason it is not a playground but more of a place to quietly view. The mission opens daily at 9:30 am. We arrived about thirty minutes early and walked around the outside of the mission taking pictures. I always like to arrive early before the crowds. There is a small gift shop where you pay your entry fee ($4 for adults). From there you can tour the mission's museum, visit the church, and walk through the mission gardens.

The mission is operated by the Catholic Church, however, there are historic buildings that surround the mission that are part of San Juan Bautista State Historic Park and are managed by the California Department of Parks and Recreation. These buildings are worth walking through as well, particularly for viewing the stables and the collection of nineteenth century buggies and wagons. I know how geeky that sounds, but they really are pretty cool.

We brought our lunch with us and ate on a picnic table situated in a large grass area that was formerly the mission's plaza. Very relaxing. If you don't want to pack your own, the small town of San Juan Bautista has a grocery store and a deli so you can go buy a sandwich. I highly recommend it. Because that is one of the benefits of visiting a California mission: the quiet park-like atmosphere.

We have a bit of a dearth of historic buildings here in California, especially compared to some of the places we visited back east. The exception is the California Missions. If you are interested in visiting them all, then check out The California Missions Resource Center website for historical information before you travel. Happy wandering!


Monday, August 18, 2014

A Cure for Cultural Incompetence?

Okay, not to get too preachy here, or start a political debate or anything like that, but you have to admit that most of us Americans are horribly ethnocentric and pretty weak in cultural competence. Speaking of cultural competence, I had mentioned in a previous post that I was working on a masters in education and my teacher credential in social science. For educators, cultural competence has got to be part of their fundamental skill set. (For those interested, here is a link to a great Ted Talk video on the subject.)

I'll give you a personal example of the need for cultural competence. I have been substitute teaching since last January at a rural high school here in Fresno County, where (in this particular high school) about 77% of the students are Hispanic, and approximately 10% are Asian, which in this case that statistic means a large number of immigrants from India. Better than 14% of the students are designated as English Language Learners (ELL). Most are native Spanish speakers, but there are a variety of other primary languages like Punjabi or Hindi. I have spent a great deal of time thinking about how to make American history interesting and relevant to these students. That is a subject for another post, but the point is that I came to realize that I know very little about the history of their native countries (like Mexico and India) and their relationship with the United States.

So of course being the way I am (obsessive about knowing things?), I have to set this right. We'll start with Mexico, as a majority of the students I encounter are of Mexican heritage. I want to begin with learning the language. I purchased and started working with Fluenz software which I highly recommend; it is not fluff, there is some serious workouts in this learning program. But of course that wasn't enough. Now we have to tackle the history and culture. My first go-to is the local library. I've got a list, but I'll share the first book with you here: "A Brief History of Mexico" by Lynn V. Foster.

Now, I knew that Cinco de Mayo commemorates the Mexican victory over French forces at the Battle of Puebla in 1862, but what the heck was a French army doing in Mexico? And who was this Maximilian guy? I knew about Pancho Villa's raid on Columbus, New Mexico. But what was the course of events in Mexico that brought that about? How about a little background on the Bracero program, and immigration to the United States? Wouldn't you like to know how NAFTA has affected Mexico? (Hint: it hurt their working class too.) This book will answer these questions and give you the bottom line in a very readable style. It's not a page turner, but it's not a dry textbook either.

Foster provides what I found to be an amazing statistic. That in 2002, one in every three adult Mexicans has been in the United States and twenty-one million people in the U.S. have family in Mexico and only half of those have been in the U.S. for over five years (p. 251). Another interesting tidbit, those with ties to Mexico are sending a lot of money home, in excess of $13 billion in 2002. This "Remittance" is the third largest source of foreign income after manufactured goods and oil exports (p. 259). Does it sound like we should be more familiar with Mexican history, politics, and current events? I certainly think so.

Can working with language programs and reading books cure a lack of cultural competency? Not completely, of course. We need to travel. We need to meet people and talk. But in lieu of that, head to your local library and invest in a few hours of personal/professional development. It is just amazing what you can learn.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Highway Patrol Turns 85

California Highway Patrol officers on the newly opened
Golden Gate Bridge, circa 1937
My dad often passes along his copy of the AAA magazine for the southern California area, Westways, for me to page through. I found a little historical tidbit in the latest issue that I thought was really interesting. It seems that this August the California Highway Patrol will turn 85 years old. This bit of trivia reminded me of watching the old reruns of the television series "Highway Patrol" with Broderick Crawford when I was a kid. (Here's an episode with a young Clint Eastwood appearing as a member of a motorcycle gang.)

The California Highway Patrol was created by an act of the California State Legislature on August 14, 1929. They were made responsible for enforcing traffic laws on county and state roads. The initial manpower was 280 officers. The CHP started out as a branch of the Division of Motor Vehicles in the Department of Public Works. By 1947 there were 730 uniformed personnel and the Highway Patrol was reorganized as their own department. In 1995 the CHP was merged with the California State Police and are now also responsible for protection of state property and state officials, including the Governor. Today the California Highway Patrol is the largest state agency in the United States. They have over 11,000 employees, 7500 of whom are uniformed officers.

The "Highway Patrol" used to be the name of AAA's
roadside assistance service.
One final bit of history trivia. The Automobile Association, or "Triple A," has the California Highway Patrol beat as far as age goes, having been formed in 1901. At the time the CHP was organized, the Auto Club had a roadside-assistance program they called the "Highway Patrol" that had been around since 1924. Since the AAA program had no law enforcement function, they gave up the name so there would be no confusion with the new Highway Patrol.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Memorial Day

Of course I have to add my voice to all of those who are lamenting that we as an American society have forgotten (or really don't value) the real meaning of Memorial Day. I went for a bicycle ride this morning. There happened to be a group from a local church who were doing an organized walk down the bike trail to honor veterans. That's great. However, some of the folks had written inspirational messages in chalk on the path. That's fine too. But one of them said "Have a Happy Memorial Day." I always cringe when I hear that. As this video from the History Channel states that Memorial Day is our most solemn holiday. Now I'm no stick in the mud. Of course I realize that this weekend is the unofficial start of summer and that most people will be out at a barbecue. Heck, I took advantage of the holiday to take an extra long bicycle ride. But please folks, take a moment to think about our veterans, particularly those who have died and are still suffering from wounds. And then enjoy the weekend.

The History of Memorial Day:

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Book R & R: "Eighty Days" by Matthew Goodman

This Book Review and Recommendation is on "Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around The World" by Matthew Goodman.

By the 1880s, the world was getting smaller. Communication was facilitated by the telegraph and soon the telephone would take over. Transportation was almost reliable with regular railroad and steamship schedules. We were on the verge of the the world we would know today, however, during this period mass media was comprised of newspapers and magazines. Daily newspapers competed with each other for the most readers and to beat the competition they needed the most sensational stories possible. If they couldn't find them, sometimes they created them.

In 1873 Jules Verne published his novel "Around the World in 80 days" and it was a hit worldwide. The story is still popular today, with a couple of noteworthy movie interpretations.  By 1889 there were those who thought that the record set by Verne's fictional adventurer, Phileas Fogg could be beaten. One of those was newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer, owner of the New York World. Pulitzer chose to send his only female feature reporter, Nellie Bly, on an around the world trip. The goal was to make it back to New York in 75 days.

Nellie Bly was a ground breaking investigative reporter. In a Victorian era in which society viewed women as not too bright, not too tough, and better off staying at home, Nellie Bly was one of the few female reporters who were not chained to the society column. She first gained notoriety by going undercover to expose corruption in an insane asylum. Pulitzer sent her on her trip heading east across the Atlantic on November 14, 1889.

Unknown to Bly, on the same day The Cosmopolitan magazine sent their own female traveler, a literary essayist by the name of Elizabeth Bisland. Thinking there would be an advantage, Bisland's editor sent her west. The race was on and the world couldn't read enough about it.

I admit that when I think about the 1880s, my mind immediately jumps to the wild west, or the Indian wars. I should never limit myself like that, and I wish I had read this book sooner. "Eighty Days" is an enjoyable read that will expose the reader to what life was like along the travelers' routes during this time of European powers (particularly Great Britain) controlling transportation and commerce around the world. You will learn about steamships and railroads, social class, and the mass media of the day. All this is most palatable as the background to the story of the race around the world. You might also come to realize as I did that this period of time, over 125 years ago, was both vastly different and eerily similar to our world today.

"Eighty Days" is women's history, it's social history, and it's just plain fun and interesting. I highly recommend it for your vacation reading list.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Happy Easter!

Happy Easter, to all! I've been remiss in posting for a couple of months. My only excuse is that I have been busy with my own school and work. I've entered a masters in education program this spring, the end result will also include earning my California teacher's credential in social studies. My desire is to teach high school history, economics, and political science. So, along with the usual articles, book reviews, historical site visits, and commentary on historical issues you might begin to see here some postings about education and teaching history in particular.

In the meantime, I ran across a nice 3-minute video from the History Channel about Easter that I thought was very well done. So much so that I thought I would share it with you here. It sums up the history of the Easter holiday so much better than I could. Enjoy!

If the player is not showing for you, here's a link:

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Book R & R: Verdun

This Book Review and Recommendation is on "Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War" by Paul Jankowski.

We are quickly approaching the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War. I think that, apart from military history aficionados, this benchmark will pass with little examination, even though veterans of WWI lived until just a few years ago. I'm afraid also that even less attention will be paid to the significant events of the "Great War" that occurred prior to the United States' entry into the war in April, 1917.

With the recent release of "Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War," American historian and writer Paul Jankowski has turned his focus to one of these key battles of the war that took place prior to American involvement. Verdun is in northeast France, where the battle between the French and Germans began on February 21, 1918. The ten month battle lasted until December 18, 1916. The battle kicked off with the German Fifth Army launching an offensive against the French Second Army in fixed defenses near the Meuse River. The stubbornness of French commander Marshal Joseph Joffre and German commander General Erich von Falkenhayn turned the extended battle into a war of attrition. One village in the area of operations changed hands sixteen times during the course of the battle. Verdun is noteworthy mostly for the number of casualties compared to the lack of results for either side. Estimates for combined casualties range from over 714,000 to 976,000. The French lost more men, but held their terrain. Verdun became known as one of the longest, and most costly battles in history.

Paul Jankowski is a professor of history at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. Appropriately, he has devoted more attention in his book to the cultural and political ramifications of Verdun, rather than the nuances of combat operations. His writing is clear on concise, helping both the military historian and the lay reader to understand the battle, the results, and the influence (or lack there of) on the war as a whole.

Although the French are able to claim victory at Verdun, for the number of casualties and lack of net gains for either side the battle had little influence on the outcome of the First World War as a whole. However, Verdun is a good battle to study in that it speaks to the futility of the war and way it was fought with modern technology and outdated tactics. As Jankowski writes, "Verdun remains the epitome of senseless industrial warfare."

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Gingerbread Men in Ireland

American paratroopers prepare to load onto their planes, "somewhere in
England" or in Northern Ireland?  Dated 7 Oct 42.
One of the frustrations for those with an affinity for the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion and researching their service during WWII is the scarcity of official documentation. Since the unit had no immediate higher headquarters and was disbanded in the midst of combat, not many records made their way into the National Archives or other repositories. A great deal of the history of this unit has to be pieced together by a combination of veteran narratives and some work by a few "history detectives."

One of these dedicated individuals is Clive Moore from Belfast, Northern Ireland. Clive contacted me recently about some WWII photographs he has come across that depict American paratroopers loading onto planes. On the photos are written the usual Signal Corps description of "somewhere in England" and a date of 7 Oct 42. But several of the photos also have a label stuck on them that says "US Paratroopers in Northern Ireland."

Officers conferring over a map, L-R, RAF Air Vice Marshall J. Cole Hamilton,
U.S. Lieutenant Colonel "Roff" (who I believe is Edson Raff), and
RAF Group Captain S. Gray. Lough Neagh is visible on the map they are
holding. This photo is also dated 7 Oct 42.
Because of terrain features visible in some of the photos (particularly Lough Neagh, visible on a map in one of the photos), Clive is convinced that these pictures were taken at an airfield at St. Angelo, in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland. In another photo, two RAF officers flank an American identified as a Lieutenant Colonel "Roff." I've included the photo in this post. If you have seen the pictures in "The Boldest Plan is the Best," you'll probably agree with me that "Roff" is a typo, and this is a picture of Edson Raff. Clive has identified the RAF officers as Air Vice Marshall J. Cole Hamilton, who was Air Officer Commanding (AOC) for Northern Ireland until November 1942, and a Group Captain S. Gray.

We know from veterans narratives that the Geronimos took part in an exercise in Ireland in September. Clive has also informed me that a training exercise, code named PUNCH, was held in Northern Ireland from September 21 to 29, 1942. The exercise involved the U.S. 1st Armored and 34th Infantry Divisions, along with the British 59th and 61st Infantry Divisions and the British 72nd Infantry Brigade. Signal Corps photos were often dated several days after they were taken as often the people developing them were not the ones who took them. These photos dated 7 Oct 42 could very well have been taken the last week of September. Although we don't have documentation, I think it's a safe bet that the 509th PIB is the airborne contingent that participated in this exercise.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

PT-305, Restoration Under Way

USS PT-105 running at high speed, during
exercises off the U.S. east coast, with
other units of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron
Five, 12 July 1942.
Okay, everybody knows what a PT boat is, right? You did see the movie "PT-109" with Cliff Robertson, yes? Or certainly "They Were Expendable" with John Wayne? If not go get those classic movies today. The "PT" stands for "Patrol Torpedo." Pretty straightforward, it's a patrol boat that is armed with torpedoes. The PT boats were designed similar to pre-WWII motor racing boats, so they were fast. But they were made out of wood, so they were vulnerable. PT boats were used in every theater of WWII, but are particularly well known for their work in the Pacific.

An article in the Times-Picayune came up on my radar this morning about the project to restore PT-305 at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans. Apparently this project has been ongoing for more than a year. The article has a great video embedded that is certainly worth viewing. The dedication of the skilled volunteers who are putting in their time and effort to extend the life of this boat is amazing. I was so impressed by the article, that I wanted to know more. I found a video on YouTube that has some shots of the boat when it was brought it to the museum. Contrast that image with the shots in the video in the Times article. Those volunteers have come a long way in a year.

PT-305 has basically been in service since it was built at the Higgins Industries shipyard in New Orleans in 1943. The video gives the boats service history, so rather than tell you, I thought it would be easier to just show you:

An amazing project, isn't it? Of course, PT-305 is not the last or only PT boat to be restored. The restoration of PT-658 has already been completed in Portland, Oregon. But once the boats are brought back to their original condition, they have to be maintained, hence there will always be a need for volunteers and donations. Help save our history where you can, when you can, and however you can.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Book R & R: Hazelet's Journal

This Book Review and Recommendation is on "Hazelet's Journal" by George Cheever Hazelet, edited by J.H. Clark.

I admit that I predominantly read (and write!) military history. But I also have a fascination for American History of the western frontier. The last true frontier, and the last rush to claim it, was the Alaska Gold Rush. So when I was contacted by editor and publisher J.H. Clark, asking if I would enjoy receiving a review copy of "Hazelet's Journal," I readily agreed.

George Cheever Hazelet was a former school principle and business owner living with his wife and two sons in Nebraska in 1897. His business collapsed that year due to the financial panic and economic downturn that swept the country in the mid-1890s. Hazelet felt his opportunity to get his family back to their previous economic status was to try his hand at prospecting as part of the Alaska-Yukon Gold Rush. He left his family behind and struck out with his partner, Andrew Jackson Meals, for Alaska. An educated man, Hazelet kept a detailed journal of his experiences.

Hazelet and Meals outfitted in Seattle. Most of the thousands of prospectors who were headed for the Klondike landed in Skagway or Dyea (in southeast Alaska) to take either the White Pass or Chilikoot trails to the Yukon River, then raft down to Dawson (in the Yukon Territory, Canada). The Hazelet party was one of the fewer numbers who landed in Valdez, Alaska to climb the Valdez Glacier and cross over the mountains to the headwaters of the Copper River. In Hazelet's Journal, you'll read about the struggle to overcome the terrain, the climate, and the loneliness of prospecting the Alaska wilderness. Mortal danger exists on a daily basis from river crossings, freezing temperatures, and claim jumpers. Hazelet is straightforward in his entries, his journals are engaging yet hyperbole is refreshingly absent. His descriptions ring true. This is a primary source document at its entertaining best.

George Hazelet did not "strike it rich" in Alaska in that he was not able to set up a commercial mining operation. He and his partner did, however, homestead 720 acres in what is today the city of Valdez, Alaska. Hazelet and Meals returned to Alaska with their families and left behind a legacy that is part of the collective history of the 49th state. Editor J.H. Clark is George Hazelet's great grandson. He is also president of the Port Valdez Company, which traces its history back to those original 720 acres of land and the various other business ventures started by George Hazelet. Clark has done a wonderful job of editing and publishing "Hazelet's Journal," keeping the original voice of the author. I must also comment that the book is beautifully formatted, with dozens of historic photos, and maps that can only be described as works of art. My only criticism of the work is that I would have liked to see a more in-depth introductory chapter on the various gold strikes in Alaska and the Yukon. For those that are not familiar with this segment of American History, I would recommend also reading "Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush" by Pierre Berton. But even still, this does not detract from "Hazelet's Journal," as few are familiar with the exploration of the Copper River Country.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Book R & R: Giap

This Book Review and Recommendation is on "Giap: The General Who Defeated America in Vietnam" by James A. Warren.

Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap recently passed away on October 4, 2013 at the age of 102. From the time he was born in 1911 until the communist victory over South Vietnam in 1975, his country was either occupied by a foreign power, or at war. Next to Ho Chi Minh, Giap is probably the most revered Vietnamese "founding father." Certainly the most well known in the United States. He is the mastermind behind the French defeat at Dien Bin Phu, the Tet Offensive, the Easter Offensive, and the 1975 Spring Offensive (which finally defeated South Vietnam and united the country under the communist government).

The publication of Warren's book is timely, but that's not the reason to read a biography of this man. Vo Nguyen Giap's life is a history of Vietnam in the Twentieth Century and the United States was one of the key players. His leadership and military decisions were instrumental in ending the American involvement in Southeast Asia. James Warren conveys this without pounding the reader over the head with it. The book is not lengthy (at just over 200 pages) but it is thorough enough so that the reader gets a clear picture of not only the life of a self-taught military genius (too much?) but also a summary history of the French and American involvement in Vietnam.

Giap was in fact a self-taught military strategist. While studying in Hue before WWII, he was a voracious reader of military history and politics (p. 7). He also spent time as a history teacher (p. 10). However, his greatest insight (with a little help from his political mentor Ho Chi Minh) and implementation of the concept, was that "the army and the people are one."(p. 25) This set the stage for building a guerrilla army whose key to victory was outlasting their opponent. Although it took thirty years, Giap served as commander-in-chief of an army that defeated both France and the United States.

Warren's writing style is straightforward and readable. His conclusions are also clear and in my view inarguable. When I was an army officer, I read quite a few biographies of military figures. It was part of how you learned your trade. I would have added this book to my reading list. If you would read a book about Rommel or Robert E. Lee, then you might want to read a book about Vo Nguyen Giap. James Warren's book is a great choice.

Palgrave Macmillan provided a review copy of "Giap: The General Who Defeated America in Vietnam."

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The 187th Airborne Infantry, the "Rakkasans"

Bob Broumley (my dad) at Kumwha, Korea.
I've always thought that the 187th Airborne was another seriously under appreciated parachute infantry unit in American military history. Especially for their service in Korea. I was even more amazed at the dedication of these paratroopers after I read Edward Flanagan's "The Rakkasans: The Combat History of the 187th Airborne Infantry." Not only did they make two combat jumps, but as the theater's strategic reserve were used as a stopgap to avert disaster on more than one occasion. As some of the regular readers know, my dad is a Korean War veteran who served with the 187 Airborne Regimental Combat Team (RCT), as did one of my uncles. I recently wrote a summary history of the 187th Infantry Regiment (Airborne) for Military Vet Shop. I thought I'd share it here with you:

A Summary History of the 187th Infantry Regiment


Shoulder Sleeve Insignia of the 187 RCT.
Soldiers of the 187th Infantry Regiment (Airborne) have the distinction of belonging to the only airborne regiment that has served in every conflict since the inception of American airborne forces. Today, the First Battalion (1/187) and Third Battalion (3/187) of the 187th carry on the tradition while assigned to the 3rd Brigade Combat Team (BCT) of the 101st Airborne Division. The 3d BCT carries on the nickname “Rakkasans,” the nom de guerre of the 187 Airborne.

The Regiment was constituted on November 12, 1942 and activated on February 25, 1943 as the 187 Glider Infantry Regiment (GIR) at Camp MacKall, North Carolina. The two-battalion regiment was assigned to the 11th Airborne Division for the duration of World War II.

The first major milestone for the 11th Airborne Division, which along with the 187th Glider Infantry included the 188th Glider Infantry and the 511th Parachute Infantry, was to convince the War Department that the divisional airborne concept was viable. Airborne operations during 1943 in Sicily and the Italian mainland had not gone well. The 11th and 17th Airborne Divisions conducted the Knollwood Maneuvers in late 1943 and early 1944 that demonstrated to observers that an airborne division could be flown at night, land on their planned drop zones, be resupplied by air, and hold their objective until relieved. The success of the Knollwood Maneuvers was a major factor in the approval of future parachute operations during WWII.

Paratroopers of the 187th Airborne RCT
on a training jump in Korea, circa 1953.
The 187th Glider Infantry and the rest of the 11th Airborne Division embarked for the Pacific Theater out of Camp Stoneman, California in May of 1944. Their first combat action was to join the campaign in New Guinea on May 29, 1944. The regiment joined the fight in the Philippines, landing on Leyte on November 18, 1944. The 187 GIR then landed on Luzon on January 31, 1945. The regiment, along with the 188th GIR, entered Luzon by making an amphibious landing on the enemy-held Lingayen Gulf in order to flank the Japanese lines. The 187th Glider Infantry fought in other notable actions on Luzon, like “Purple Heart hill,” Tagatay Ridge, Nichols Field, and Mount Macelod. As part of the 11th Airborne Division, the 187 GIR was one of the units instrumental in liberating the Philippine capital of Manila. The regiment was given the honor of garrisoning the city. Moreover, the 187th was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation for action at Tagatay Ridge and later a Philippine Presidential Citation for valorous combat performance in the liberation of Luzon and Manila.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Book R & R: The True German

This Book Review and Recommendation is on "The True German: The Diary of a World War II Military Judge" by Werner Otto Muller-Hill, introduction by Benjamin Carter Hett.

Werner Otto Muller-Hill was an upper-middle class German from Frieburg. He served as a military judge in the First World War before he went home to pursue a legal career. He was recalled to active duty in the German Wehrmacht, again to serve as a military judge in 1940. He was very pro-German, and very anti-Nazi. He started keeping a journal in March 1944 as a record for his young son, in the event he did not survive the war. Defeatism and criticizing the Fuhrer were crimes in Hitler's Germany, so if the things Muller-Hill wrote in his diary were ever found out, it could mean his death. But he survived the war, closing his journal two weeks after the German surrender to the Allies. He was sixty years old at the end of the war. Muller-Hill died in 1977.

German military justice was draconian during WWII. For example, the introduction provides the statistic that during WWI, German military courts sentenced 48 soldiers to death. However, under Nazi rule from 1933 to 1945 at least 20,000 and maybe as many as 33,000 or more soldiers, civilians, and POWs subject to military justice were put to death. (p. xvi) As Benjamin Carter Hett says, "Nazi military law...specified both harsh penalties and a speedy procedure, with few rights for defendants." (p. xix) Werner Otto Muller-Hill was one of the "good" judges though, who obviously thought a soldier would perform better back in his unit rather than hanging on the end of a rope.

What makes Muller-Hill's diary so interesting, and so valuable as a historical tool, is the amount of information he had, or moreover, what he knew. On April 5, 1944 Muller-Hill wrote that "We are rushing head-long into the worst kind of defeat...In a year we'll know more!!!" He almost predicted the outcome of the war and the date of Germany's defeat. Filtered through propaganda, briefings through his chain of command, newspaper and radio, this rear echelon officer knew quite a bit about things that previously we thought the average German did not. Along with his insight, he was often sarcastic and sometimes humorous. He talks of missiles being fired at London as "retribution" for the landings in Normandy (pp. 49-52) and also predicts the futility of the Battle of the Bulge (p. 131). He praises the attempt on Hitler's life (p. 59) and is upset about the use of 14-year old boys being put into defensive positions toward the end of the war (p. 92).

Most startling is Muller-Hill's rant about a speech given by Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, where he writes "What nerve this man has! How dare he talk about gruesome maltreatment of women and children, when we've summarily murdered hundreds of thousands of Jewish women and children in Poland and Russia!" (p. 155). For me this helps to dispel the myth that the general populace of Germany, particularly the Wehrmacht, had no knowledge of the Holocaust before the end of the war.

"The True German" is a quick read, and in the real voice of an astute observer of what was going on around him. Reading this book provides the opportunity to hear what a very knowledgeable German officer was thinking at the time the events unfolded around him. His words are not filtered by a historian or other writer. The book is, in fact, a primary source document, both enlightening and entertaining. A nice addition to your WWII library.

The publisher, Palgrave Macmillan, provided a review copy of "The True German."

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Pinnacles National Park

This is not an article about the government shutdown. Occasionally I share pictures or video when we go out to a National Park or Bicycle Rail Trail that we'd like to recommend to others. My wife, Sheila, and I just happened to visit Pinnacles National Park in California on the day before the government shutdown. We were blissfully unaware that the park would be closed the following day. Please be aware that the best source of information about this park, is the National Park Service website at However, the website is unavailable during the federal government shutdown, as is the park. :-( 

We searched the sides of the canyon all day, but there was no sign
of the elusive creature.
Pinnacles is one of our newest national parks, but it has been around forever. (That's a joke, get it? Been around forever?) Actually President Theodore Roosevelt established the area as a National Monument on January 16, 1908. The monument boundaries were expanded over the years. A Civilian Conservation Corps camp was located there during the Great Depression in order to improve the trails. Pinnacles received National Park status on January 10, 2013. The park is very popular with hikers and rock climbers. Birders can spot up to 181 different species in the park at different times of the year. However, you've hit the jackpot if you happen to spot a California Condor. The Condor is an endangered species and reportedly 32 of the elusive creatures live in and around Pinnacles NP. The Park is one of three release areas for rehabilitated Condors. If you can't visit the National Park Service website because of the shutdown, try a rather good Wikipedia article for more information on the history, geology, climate, flora, and fauna of Pinnacles National Park.
Sheila: photographer, birder, adventurer.

While it's true that Sheila and I went to Pinnacles for an enjoyable day hike, we really wanted to see a California Condor. (Sheila is a "birder" and this was a perfect opportunity to add to the life list.) Unfortunately, the day was pleasant and cool, the first real fall day here in Central California - weather-wise. What that meant was without some heat there were no thermals rising up the sides of the canyons. That means pitiful conditions for soaring, and nothing was, no regular buzzards, no eagles, nada. Oh well, maybe some other day, because we really will go back. The hike was a lot of fun. We chose to go up the Bear Gulch trail to a small reservoir that was created when the CCC built a dam across the top of the canyon (gulch?) in the 1930s. The hike took us through some talus caves that in some spots required not only a flashlight, but for this big guy to get on hands and knees. All-in-all a great place to visit if you are every in the neighborhood.

I've included some pictures of our day at Pinnacles, but also a video from YouTube that shows you what the park has to offer:

This sign warns you before you go in...
And eventually come out through here...

To see this, and hope we don't have an earthquake right now.

At the top of the canyon you find the Bear Gulch Reservoir.

We have to assume that this is how "Pinnacles" got its name.

Perfect big black bird habitat, but none to be found on this day.

After a wonderful day, Jim and Sheila leave Pinnacles National Park, with
a photo-bombing buzzard, the California Condor that they never saw. ;-)