Wednesday, December 12, 2012

100 Years of Army Aviation

The Army first took to the air in balloons
Photo from www.army.mil
The Wright brothers made their famous flight of the first heavier-than-air, engine-powered aircraft on December 17, 1903 at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. I knew that. The United States Army purchased their first airplane on August 2, 1909, less than six years after the first powered flight. I did not know that. Less than 90 days later, the first two Army pilots had passed their check rides and by 1914 the Army had created an operational Aviation Section under the command of the Signal Corps. That means that we've had over 100 years of Army Aviation. Having served as an Army aviator in my impetuous youth, I'm a little embarrassed about not knowing that.

My wife, Sheila, actually rescued me from my ignorance when she sent me a link to an Army website titled "100th Anniversary of United States Army Aviation." She thought I "might be interested in it." Was I?! You betcha. The site contains historic photo sets from different periods in Army Aviation history, and a really excellent timeline. Way to go, Army! This website inspired my to do a little more investigating and write up a "Summary History of Army Aviation" for MilitaryVetShop.com.

An early Wright Flyer, circa 1909.
Photo from www.army.mil
Of course we used balloons for military observation since the Civil War. Nevertheless, it is amazing to me that certain leaders within the Army could see the potential military use of powered flight, even when it was in its infancy. (We'll conveniently omit the fact the the Wright brothers did a spectacular sales presentation.) As a matter of fact the Army had its personnel participating in the trials, resulting in the first aviation related death of a soldier on September 17, 1908. Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge was killed in an aircraft crash while doing a test flight with Orville Wright. Orville was injured, but obviously survived.

A much thinner and younger
Roving Historian, back when I
was blissfully unaware of my
 own mortality.
I went through Rotary Wing Flight School at the U.S. Army Aviation Center at Fort Rucker, Alabama in 1984-85. It was the hardest school, in both academic performance and demonstration of acquired (flying) skills, of any course of instruction I have ever been though. That is, of course, with the exception of the Instructor Pilot course three years later. During just over ten years of service I became rated in the UH-1 Huey, the OH-58 Kiowa Scout, the UH-60 Blackhawk, and the CH-47 Chinook. It was a very exciting period in my life, and at times it could be scary too. Many came before me and did what I did. That made every new experience easier to imagine and then make happen. I like to think that I trained more than a few others to take my place before I left. However, I just can't wrap my brain around the level of courage it required to walk out and look at that funky Wright Flyer and climb in beside the former bicycle mechanic who was now selling this contraption to the Army. But aren't we glad they did?

Congratulations, Army! On 100 years of Aviation.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Indifferent Stars Above

Need I admit it on every post? Yes, I have a book problem. So many intriguing titles come up on my radar that I am constantly adding to my stacks of books in the house and my Amazon wishlists. Some sit in the queue for years while others jump into line ahead of them. I'm still trying to get around to reading all of the classics of American history, not to mention working through all of the great history books that come out every year. For example, can you believe I'm just now getting around to reading Dee Brown's "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee?" And not that new version either. I'm reading the paperback version from 1971 that I found in a used bookstore years ago...but I digress...

The Indifferent Stars Above cover imageIn 2010 I saw a book about the Donner Party that looked interesting at the time, but I put it on the back burner while I was into a WWII phase with occasional injections of Civil War and French and Indian War books. Lately I have been getting into western history (Wild West?) subjects and California history so I went down to the library (my library's online catalog has wishlists too!) and checked out "The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of A Donner Party Bride" by Daniel James Brown. I liked it. I would urge you to give it a read.

If, for some reason, you've never heard the story of the Donner Party, here's the gist: In 1846, the first major year of travel on the Oregon Trail and the California Trail, several families including a few single workers, their oxen, horses, dogs, etc. take a recommended "shortcut" that in fact puts them more than a month late in crossing the Sierra Nevada mountains. They are trapped for the winter at the top of the mountains, running out of food, eating all of their animals, and eventually some of their own people who died from starvation and exposure. After the survivors were rescued the event became stuff of legend. Donner Pass along Interstate 80 and a California State Park were named for the pioneer group and every student in California public schools learns the tale.

I'm sure I've mentioned before that one of the hallmarks of a good book for me is when I either learn about something I didn't know, or some mythology was dispelled. That was certainly the case with Indifferent Stars. Having grown up in California I held on to the sanitized version of the Donner Party tale as taught to me in school. I thought that they were a cohesive group of family and friends who, under the leadership of (obviously) the patriarch of the Donner family and through no fault of their own, were caught by early snow storms in the mountains and suffered the consequences. A cautionary tale indeed, meant to make the junior high version of the Roving Historian understand the hardships of the pioneers.

Here's the truth as illuminated by Daniel Brown:
The group of three families and some single hired men that became known as the Donner Party did not really come together until they left Fort Bridger in modern day southwest Wyoming. The wagons caught up to each other attempting to make it through "Hastings Cutoff," a supposed shortcut blazed by historic ne'er-do-well Landsford Hastings. The cutoff turned out to be a trail uncut for wagons through the Wasatch mountains of Utah. Rather than saving time it cost the pioneers weeks, thus causing the emigrants to get caught in the Sierras by impassable amounts of snow.

The party was under the leadership of George Donner in name alone. Actually Franklin Graves, the father of the bride referred to in the subtitle of the book, turns out to be a more capable, while informal, leader of the group. Rather than operating as a cohesive team fighting against the elements, the situation more or less turned into "every family for themselves." There were actually three different camp sites in the pass and, with few exceptions, each family hoarded their own supplies. Yes, there were several, independent, incidences of cannibalism.

Daniel Brown writes well. But it is the story itself that makes "The Indifferent Stars Above" a page-turner. There is intrigue, there is murder, there is stupidity, selfishness, and cowardliness. Yet this story also has examples of self-sacrifice, bravery, and fortitude. You'll have the opportunity to transport yourself across time and try to understand what would make a man pack up his family and everything he owns to travel to a mythical land that the only things you know about it were read in a tourist guidebook and where there is a rather good chance that someone you know will die along the way. You will certainly appreciate the hardships of the emigrant trail in reading this "worst case scenario." Much more than the junior high version of you could ever comprehend.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment


Image of 503d Infantry crest and patch
courtesy of MilitaryVetShop.com
For regular readers of this blog, you know that the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion started out the World War II designated as the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment. When I was doing my research for The Boldest Plan is the Best, I of course wondered what happened to the rest of the original 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment that the Geronimos left behind at Fort Bragg in 1942. After some reading I found out that the 503rd PIR had an equally fascinating combat history. While I was living in Pennsylvania I visited the National Archives and the Army Heritage and Education Center and conducted the research to write a combat history of the 503rd PIR, "The Rock Regiment," during their time in the Pacific Theater. Unfortunately, life gets in the way and that book (which I thought would make an excellent companion to The Boldest Plan is the Best so that the pair will cover early WWII airborne operations) will not be completed until next spring. In the meantime, I wrote a Summary History of the 503d Infantry Regiment for Military Vet Shop. That article covers the 503rd from their formation, through WWII, service in Vietnam as part of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, the 173rd ABCT in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and the 503d Infantry's current participation with Operation Enduring Freedom. I thought I would take the opportunity to provide some of the highlights of this little known unit's record during WWII here.

July 2, 1944 – Members of 503rd Parachute Infantry
descending on Kamiri Airstrip, Noemfoor Island.
SC-287126 from the National Archives
After the departure of the 2nd Battalion for England in June 1942, the 503rd PIR formed its 3rd Battalion at Fort Bragg and continued to train as a two battalion regiment. The departed Fort Bragg on October 10, 1942 headed to Australia to join MacArthur's growing force in the Pacific Theater. On the way they formed their missing 2nd Battalion from a company out of the 504th PIR recently formed at Fort Bragg, and three companies of the 501st Parachute Infantry Battalion that had been serving in the Panama Canal Zone. The old 2nd Battalion was at this time in England preparing to jump into North Africa as part of Operation Torch.  They were now designated the 2/509th PIR.

It took the 503rd PIR until December 2 to make it to Australia. The regiment spent the next nine months training in Australia and New Guinea. At the time of their first combat operation, one could argue that they were the most well trained airborne unit in the American army. The first entry into combat was a jump on Nazdab airfield, in the Markham Valley of New Guinea, on  September 5, 1943.

Two battalions of the 503rd Parachute Infantry made an unopposed jump on Kamiri airfield on Noemfoor Island, off the coast of Dutch New Guinea beginning on July 3, 1944. The third battalion made an amphibious landing a few days later. Once Noemfoor was secured, the regiment was moved to Leyte in the Philippine Islands. The 503rd PIR was turned into a regimental combat team with the attachments of the the 462nd Parachute Field Artillery Battalion and Company C, 161st Airborne Engineers. On December 15, 1944 the 503rd Parachute Regimental Combat Team made an amphibious landing on the Philippine island of Mindoro, where they fought to secure airstrips that would be used to support the invasion of the island of Luzon, and hence the retaking of Manila.

February 16, 1945 – Parachutists of the 503rd Parachute
Infantry landing on “B” field, Corregidor Island.
SC 201041 from the National Archives
The 503rd PRCT earned their nom de guerre when, on February 16, 1945, they made a combat jump onto the island fortress of Corregidor, "The Rock." Corregidor had become an important symbol to the United States as the last outpost of any size to fall to the enemy in the early stages of the Pacific War. Japanese sources have estimated that there were 6700 Japanese soldiers on the Island when the 503d Combat Team landed. Only fifty of those defenders survived. Almost 200 American soldiers died taking back Corregidor. The 503rd Parachute Regimental Combat Team was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for taking back "The Rock."

The 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment finished WWII fighting on Negros island in the Philippines. They were deactivated shortly after the war. After a history of activation and deactivation and a redesignation as the 503d Infantry, two battalions of "the Rock Force" are serving with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, the "Sky Soldiers." Their home station is Vicenza, Italy, but the soldiers of the 503d Infantry have participated in multiple deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan (where they are currently deployed) during the Global War on Terror.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Recommendation: Make Your Own Documentary

I really enjoy watching documentaries. Heck, I like the American Experience better than most movies that have come out lately. I was seriously thinking about writing Ken Burns an email and telling him he's not working hard enough; I'm tired of waiting so long between premieres. So it shouldn't come as a shock to you that I (and I suspect there are many others out there) have always had a closeted desire to make documentaries myself.

Geek that I am, the first thing that I do when something bright and shiny floats by in my mind is to go to Amazon or the library and look for a book on the subject. Like my dad told me when I was a kid: "Anything you can think of, someone's written a book about it. In the library you can learn how to do anything." A few months ago I picked up the book "Making Documentary Films and Videos: A Practical Guide to Planning, Filming, and Editing Documentaries" by Barry Hampe. I've had it on the shelf for a while and I recently picked it up and read through it. You know how it goes, more bright shiny things distracting me, but I can honestly say I wish that I had read it sooner. Why? Because, along with technique, the book gives you an appreciation for how much work goes into producing, writing, filming, and production of the simplest of documentary films.

Right out of the gate let me say that this book is not for those who want to make a two-minute short for YouTube. The author acknowledges that with the technology available to us today, just about anybody can become a documentary filmmaker. But the book is written for those who might want to work on a production that rivals a full-length film, like Mr. Burns' Prohibition. That's not to say that there isn't a great deal of useful information for those of us who want to do short videos.

Probably the most valuable part of the book for me was Chapter 20 The Script. I'm proud to say that I've written a book and a number of articles, but I had no idea how to write a script for a documentary. Trust me, from my limited experience in playing with my little handheld Panasonic Video Camera, and Pinnacle Studio for editing and voice-over, I know that the end result will be tremendously more professional if you write down what you are going to film and what you are going to say long before you start filming. The author devote sixteen pages to writing and formatting the script, which is all I really felt I need. (Although I know that there are many volumes dedicated to the art and science of script writing.) The "Two-Column Script Format" (pg 201)  just makes sense. The book includes a chapter sample of a script and a full treatment of a couple of documentary scripts is included in the appendix.

The author, Barry Hampe, has had a long and full professional career having participated in the making of over 200 documentaries. He talks to his reader in a forthright and straightforward style. This book is about no-nonsense information, presented in an interesting and palatable form. This might not be the sole-source for you if you want to make documentary films but I think it should be on your reading list. After all, I now know what "shooting B-roll" means. ;-)

Sunday, September 30, 2012

National Public Lands Day...

And our trip to Sol Duc Falls...


Sol Duc Falls in Olympic National Park.
National Public Lands Day

Saturday, September 29, 2012 was National Public Lands Day. In honor of that day, access to many State and National Parks, as well as other federal lands was free. When I heard about that, I thought it would be a nice "date day" to take Sheila up to Sol Duc Falls in Olympic National Park. Of course we had fun and enjoyed remembering the other times we'd visited (it took us a while to piece together that we had first visited sometime around 1995, then took relatives there again in 2005, and 2009). This morning, being the geek that I am, I thought about our day trip yesterday and then decided to do a little checking up on what National Public Lands Day was all about and the history of Olympic National Park and the Sol Duc area.  Here's what I found out:

National Public Lands Day (NPLD) is an annual event whose purpose is to educate Americans about the environment, our natural resources, and our responsibilities as stewards of those resources. Participating agencies and organizations plan educational events and volunteer projects to enhance the use of publicly held lands. The first NPLD was in 1994 with three sites and 700 volunteers participating. That initial success created an annual event. Last year, more than 170,000 volunteers worked at 2,067 sites across the United States. According to the NPLD website, here's some of what those volunteers accomplished:

  • Collected an estimated 23,000 pounds of invasive plants
  • Built and maintained an estimated 1,500 miles of trails
  • Planted an estimated 100,000 trees, shrubs and other native plants
  • Removed an estimated 500 tons of trash from trails and other places
  • Contributed an estimated $17 million through volunteer services to improve public lands across the country

Bridge over the Sol Duc River, at the falls.
This year eight federal agencies as well as those at the local, regional, and state level participated, making the NPLD the nation's largest single day volunteer event for public lands. To my chagrin, I did not know any of this when I set out on Saturday morning. Next year, rather than just enjoying a free day in a National Park, I promised myself I would volunteer. 

Sol Duc Falls, Olympic National Park

If you've never been, go. I think that Olympic National Park is one of the most beautiful places on earth. That's why between bouts of wanderlust, Sheila and I have lived in the Puget Sound three different times in our lives. Olympic National Park is 632,000 acres of preserved wilderness. This park includes alpine meadows, glacier topped mountains, temperate rain forest, and about 63 miles of wild northern coastline.

Sol Duc Hot Springs Hotel, c. 1913. Image courtesy of
the Forks, WA Timber Museum.
Americans came to the Olympic Peninsula beginning in the 1850s, attracted by the natural resources available here, meaning land, lumber, and fish. The first step in protecting the area that would become the National Park was in 1897 when President Grover Cleveland designated portions of the peninsula as the Olympic Forest Reserve. FDR signed the Act that created Olympic National Park in 1938. In 1976 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Olympic part of an international system of Biosphere Reserves. For more in-depth history of the park, check out this pdf from the NPS.

Visitors in the 1920s travel to Sol Duc Hot Springs. Image
courtesy of the Clallam County Historical Society.
The bridge at Sol Duc Falls, c. 1920.
Image from Univ of Washington
Library Special Collections Division,
PH Coll 341.
On the north side of Olympic National Park is the Sol Duc Valley, carved out of the mountains by the Sol Duc River. Along with excellent hiking opportunities, you'll find two attractions at Sol Duc: the Sol Duc Hot Springs and Sol Duc Falls. I don't know who the first European settler was to see Sol Duc Falls. However, in the very early twentieth century, large tracts of timber were purchased around what would later become  national park and national forest land. On of these "timber barons " Michael Earles, built a grand hotel at the sight of a natural mineral hot spring on the Sol Duc river. The hotel opened on May 15, 1912 and one of the obvious attractions for city folk coming to take a mineral bath was the waterfalls a short 2 to 3 mile hike up the river. Visitors have been making their way to view the falls ever since. Unfortunately, the hotel was short-lived, burning down in an accidental fire in 1916. But the reputation of the hot springs and waterfalls had already gotten out. The National Park Service eventually purchase the Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort in 1966 and made it park of the park. The trail up to the falls is an easy hike of only eight tenths of a mile. The falls are beautiful year-round, but come in the spring and early summer when the rain and snow melt make for a magnificent experience. You'll know why Native American people, the Quileute, named this river valley "Sol Duc," which means sparkling waters.

These historic images, and others, can be viewed at the Olympic Peninsula Community Museum online.

Friday, September 7, 2012

History of the Labrador Retriever

Did you know that the Labrador Retriever did not come from Labrador? Actually, the dogs originated in Newfoundland. The fishermen of the island used a type of dog they called a "St. John's" dog that would dive in the water to retrieve lost fishing gear. The dog became coveted by hunters of waterfowl and the next thing you know some well-to-do English types had taken some of the dogs to Great Britain to breed as hunting dogs. To distinguish from the larger "Newfoundland" breed of dog, the Brits started calling the St. John's dogs "Labrador dogs." Hey, both islands are in Canada, right?

As you know, my main interest is military history.  But on occasion I like to go do something different.  So for the Thinky Tees store I wrote a brief history of the Labrador Retriever. (I actually appreciated the break from an article on U.S. Navy destroyers I'm working on.) Go read the long version, it turned out to be a really fascinating story. I enjoyed learning where and how our most popular breed of dog came to be.

Book Recommendation:

Along those same lines of "doin' somethin' differnt," I went back the other day and re-read a book that we used in one of my college classes. I had liked it so much in school that when I ran across it on the shelf in the local library I had to check it out and read it again. In Daily Life in the United States, 1920-1940: How Americans Lived Through the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression author David E. Kyvig reviews the advent of incredible technologies that we take for granted today. It's a fascinated read where you'll discover when household electricity became readily available.  With it came an incredible age of technological innovation that brought to your home everything from items that ushered in social change, like the radio, to what we now consider mundane conveniences, like washing machines and vacuum cleaners. I absolutely give it five stars. ;-)

Monday, August 20, 2012

66 Years

I've mentioned before that I enjoy different newsletters and "this day in history" type factoids.  Every morning I look forward to my History Channel "This Day in History" email. Today's lead article informed me that on August 20, 1911, the first around-the-world telegram was sent. Started by the New York Times to see how long it would take to travel the 28,000 plus miles around the globe, the message left New York at 7:00 pm and was passed by 16 different operators to arrive back to the sender sixteen and a half minutes later. The article also points out that 66 years later, to the day, on August 20, 1977, NASA launched the Voyager II spacecraft. Voyager II was the one that carried the copper phonograph record called "Sounds of Earth" with greetings in 60 languages, etc.

In only 66 years we went from sending Morse code by cable around the world to sending a record across the solar system. Amazing. That number, 66, stuck in my head.  Later, I recalled that it was 66 years from the Wright Brothers' first flight at Kitty Hawk (December 17, 1903) to Neil Armstrong's walk on the moon (July 20, 1969). More amazing.  Okay, I know it's just coincidence. But already this morning I talked on a cell phone, sent a text message, and I'm about to publish my observation on the Internet for anyone in the world to read. It sure makes me wonder what we'll be doing 66 years from now.

Monday, August 6, 2012

In The News: Wreck of German Submarine Found off Massachusetts

I've been doing some reading on U.S. Navy destroyers in WWII recently. So when I saw this item come up in the news, it really got my attention.  Marine archaeologists recently found the German submarine U-550 on the bottom of the Atlantic ocean, about 70 miles south of Nantucket Island.

On April 16, 1944, while on its first deployment, U-550 attacked the tanker ship SS Pan-Pennsylvania. The Pan-Pennsylvania was at that time the largest tanker in the world, carrying a cargo of 140,000 barrels of aviation gasoline. The tanker had fallen behind the rest of her convoy that was making its way from New York to Great Britain, making her an inviting target. The torpedo attack set the cargo on fire, killed 25 of the Pan-Pennsylvania's  crew of 81, and eventually sink the huge tanker.  While the escort destroyers USS Joyce (DE-317), USS Gandy (DE-764), and USS Peterson (DE-152) went to work rescuing the surviving crew, U-550 hid under the mayhem.

As the Joyce was about to withdraw, the German submarine moved from its hiding place and was picked up by sonar above.  Joyce laid a spread of 13 depth charges that drove U-550 to the surface. The crew of the U-boat meant to fight it out and began to fire its deck gun at the American ships.  All three escort destroyers returned fire, with Gandy moving to ram the soft target of U-550's conning tower. The German sub's attempt to move out of the way caused Gandy to strike about 30 feet from the stern. Meanwhile, Peterson dropped two more depth charges that exploded near the submarines hull. The U-boat's guns were silenced. Joyce hailed the Germans, demanding they abandon ship. With his vessel doomed, the German commander chose to scuttle his boat rather than let it fall into American hands. Another explosion was heard, only this time from within the hull of the German submarine. Only 40 minutes after the Joyce had first detected her, U-550 was sunk. The USS Joyce was only able to find 13 surviving Germans, one of whom died while in route to England.

A little over 68 years later, on July 23, 2012, the wreck of U-550 was found by a private group of shipwreck hunters funded by Joseph Mazraani, a successful attorney from New Jersey. Some of the members of this group have been searching for this wreck for two decades. They are currently working on a project to document the wreckage of ships from the Battle of the Atlantic.  To see some great pictures taken of this engagement during WWII and some links to videos, visit the Discovery Channel page for this event.  If you are not familiar with this part of WWII naval history, I've picked out an excellent video (10 minutes, in color!) for you, courtesy of YouTube:

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Book Review: “Man of War” by Charlie Schroeder

Spoiler alert: I didn’t like it and the book made me mad.

In 1999 Pulitzer Prize winning author Tony Horwitz wrote a book titled "Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War." In major portions of the book Horwitz tagged along with Civil War reenactors that to the uninitiated came across as quirky at best, totally insane at the worst.  But the theme of the book was that even though the Civil War (at the time) was over 140 years old, that period of American history had an effect on the lives of people today. I like that book.  I've been a fan of Horwitz ever since I read it.

Charlie Schroeder took Horwitz’ idea of participating with reenactors (he pays homage to Horwitz on page 46) with the intent of including reenactors of all periods of history.  Like the rest of us, Charlie wanted to know why these people do what they do, why they choose a certain time period or event, why civilians willingly “choose to experience war,” and “why people liked to spend their weekends without any of modern life’s creature comforts” (pp.39-40). In my opinion, he failed to answer any of these questions.

Before researching "Man of War: My Adventures in the World of Historical Reenactment" (Hudson Street Press, May 2012), Schroeder says that he knew virtually nothing about American history but that he became interested in part by attending a living history event in southern California called Old Fort MacArthur Days, where seventy-five different reenactment groups were displaying periods from Roman to Vietnam (p. 11).  It reminded me of an event I had attended at the AHEC called "Army Heritage Days."  That experience at Old Fort MacArthur Days (and obviously reading Confederates in the Attic) gave Charlie the idea that he would travel around the country participating in reenactor events and get into these people’s heads. He spent the next year traveling the country, participating with Roman, Viking, Colonial, Civil War, WWII (Nazis), and even Vietnam era reenactors.

Schroeder blames his prior lack of knowledge – along with his apathy – on his high school history teacher, who would give out extra credit for attending the varsity basketball game.  He also says that he used to make fun of the kids who participated in the Renaissance Fair, calling them “Ren Rats” (p. 14). It doesn’t appear that he changed his attitude much over the years.  In fact, one gets the impression that Charlie Schroeder had already made up his mind that reenactors are a bunch of wackos.  Most, according to Charlie, are politically right-wing and he goes about trying to prove it by quoting a number of fringe political statements he heard while on his year-long adventure. Charlie doesn't "get it," therefore he decided to just mock it. He seems to have cherry picked the oddest and strangest among this group of history fanatics in his attempt to prove the myth that they are all a bunch of crackpots. 

I'm very disappointed that Mr. Schoeder never got down to some serious Q & A with his victims to tell me why they do what they do and what it means to them. The book served to document a succession of missed opportunities, after having devoted so much time and money traveling around the country. I believe that the book was supposed to be humorous and “whimsical.” I did chuckle a few times but Charlie thinks he’s funnier than he really is. Actually, he comes across as rather elitist. If you don’t think he “doesn’t get it” and isn't mocking those who love history in the first person, wait until you get to the end. Charlie’s circus stunt "history ambush" walk between the two California missions in the last chapter was just idiotic.

A living historian interpreting a Native American warrior
during the French and Indian War.  Photo taken by the
Roving Historian at a reenactor event at the AHEC in 2007.
Charlie Schroeder never uses the term “living historian” which is a more appropriate moniker for what these folks do. Sure, some are strange and “out there.” Others are just interested in running around in the woods and playing army. But Schroeder never emphasizes the dedication to historical accuracy, and the commitment of time and money that many of these people give to the public. What about the guy who demonstrates glass plate photography and the women who spend time carding wool? Take a look at the picture to the left. Is anyone going to doubt that guy’s dedication to history?  Charlie doesn't talk about the positives of reenacting. Without dedicated living historians, most documentaries and movies would suck. I have a high degree of respect for people who turn other people (of all ages) on to history in a real first person way. You know, like those living historians did for Charlie at Old Fort MacArthur Days as he describes in the beginning of his book. Mr. Schroeder has done a great disservice to those living historians whose main goal is to educate the public, rather than just play dress up. Don't judge the living historians you encounter at our state and national parks based on what you read in this book. 

Monday, July 2, 2012

Gingerbread Man's Dog Tag Found Near Rome

Here's a great news item: The Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal reports that the dog tag of a 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion paratrooper was unearthed by gardeners in a suburb of Rome.  Sgt Mike Baranek of Akron, a WWII veteran of the 509th PIB in North Africa and Italy, made three combat jumps, and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, four Bronze Stars, and two Purple Hearts. The Geronimo returned home to Ohio after the war. He passed away in 1980.

The Italian gardeners, Olga Romagnolo and a friend, sent the dog tag to Nellie Baranek, Mike’s widow, in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. Nellie will be sending the tag on to Niagara Falls in Ontario, Canada where Mike’s granddaughter, Tammy Mahoney, is receiving treatment for breast cancer. The finding of the dog tag is viewed as a heavenly sign by Mahoney, who believes her grandfather is watching over her.

For pictures of Mike Baranek taken during WWII and the recently found dog tag, visit the 509th Parachute Infantry Association website's "soldier page" for Sgt Mike Baranek.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Working on the Locks

For those of you who have known me for a while, or the two or three who have been reading this blog from the start, you know that I did a project for my MA in History at the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks in Seattle back in 2009.  The site is more commonly known as "the Ballard Locks" for the Seattle neighborhood in which it is located.  The Army Corps of Engineers site along with the co-located Carl English Botanical Gardens is typically listed as one of the top three visitor attractions in Seattle.  The volunteer group we started to accomplish that archive project is still going strong.  Since I've moved back to western Washington, I've been able to visit at the locks and help out the organization the best way I can (being that I live a two-hour journey by car and ferry away) by helping out with their blog.

The Abner Coburn along with the tug Wanderer move east 
through the Ballard Locks, circa 1916.

In case you had not checked in for a while, I thought I would put the "Friends of the Ballard Locks" back on your radar.  One of their members, Kyle Stetler, let us know in his article for the FOBL blog that June 25th is the 102nd anniversary of the passage of the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1910, which appropriated the funds to begin construction of the locks.  A good investment, I'd say.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Remembering the Cold War

For me, one of the frustrating things about getting older is that what seems like ancient history to young people just happened yesterday in my mind.  But after finding a couple of videos on YouTube that have to do with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment during the Cold War, I counted up the years.  It’s been almost 23 years since the fall of the “Iron Curtain,” and going on 24 since I left the "Fulda Gap."  It did seem like yesterday, at least until I took a look at these old clips.

I have not written much about my own military service in this blog.  I share a portion of it here, just to contribute part of my own "oral history."  I served in the 11th ACR, the Blackhorse Regiment, as an aviation officer and scout helicopter pilot from 1985 to 1988.  During those Cold War years, the mission of the 11th Armored Cavalry was to patrol approximately 230 miles of the East German border.  We linked up with the 2nd Armored Cavalry to our south, and the British Army of the Rhine on the north.  The Regiment’s headquarters was based in the town of Fulda, about twenty miles from the border.

Just before I came to the unit, the Regiment had made a promotional video that everyone called “The Blackhorse Movie.”  Self-serving and corny, but man, as a new lieutenant in the Blackhorse, I thought it was cool.  I had a copy of my own until the VHS tape finally disintegrated.   But isn’t YouTube wonderful?  Someone posted a copy.  It’s just under fifteen minutes long, but I think you’ll enjoy it.  It’s got a good history lesson on the beginning of the Cold War in Germany:
Fast forward two years to a day or so before Thanksgiving in 1987.  The whole community was abuzz, because the Today Show was going to broadcast live from the “frontiers of freedom” in Fulda, Germany.  That same week the morning show had been filmed at an Air Force base in England and on the deck of an aircraft carrier at sea.  The largest building available was our aircraft hangar on Sickles Army Airfield, so that’s where they would broadcast from.  For days prior to the broadcast our operations were curtailed.  No training flights, only the required daily border surveillance missions.  The hangar had to be cleared out and all of the aircraft were lined up on the runway.  I assumed that any conflict with the Soviets would be put on hold until Jane Pauley and Bryant Gumbel had left town.

I had just recently been made the squadron’s S-2 (staff intelligence officer).  I was given a mission to lead a flight of helicopters carrying a camera crew up to a border outpost (O.P. Tennessee).  The flight was delayed due to forecasted clouds over a pass we had to fly through to get to the border.  When our squadron commander took command a few months earlier, he gave a speech where he promised that safety was paramount and there would be no more launching of “weather birds” to prove the Air Force weather forecasters wrong.  Well, when he saw me on the flight line he sternly reminded me that these were important people with a schedule to keep.  He strongly suggested that I get in my little helicopter and go see for myself whether or not the pass was open.  So much for no weather birds.  We eventually got the camera crew up to the border.  The Russians were kind enough to send up a couple of their aircraft to see why we showed up with so many aircraft ourselves.  So the NBC folks shot a great segment and for a brief moment you could catch a glimpse of the tail of my aircraft on television.

Here’s a segment of that episode of the Today Show I found on YouTube:
I didn’t go to the hangar to watch the filming.  Instead I stayed in my office and watched it on television.  I was told that as soon as it was over, Jane Pauley and Bryant Gumbel walked off stage without looking back.  But Willard Scott (the jovial weatherman before Al Roker) stayed and signed autographs for every soldier and family member who wanted one.

Photo from article "Soviet Tanks As Far As The Eye Can See" 
We saw the Wall come down on television but we never really celebrated the end of the Cold War here in the United States.  It just sort of ended one day without notice and Bob’s your uncle, it wasn’t there anymore.  But we won it, sure enough.  And we did our job so well we never had to experience the horrors of the war we imagined with the Warsaw Pact.  It brought a smile to my face when I read an article at military.com and saw the pictures of all those Russian tanks we were so afraid of.  They’re for sale… and currently gathering rust in the Ukraine.  

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Bridge in West Virginia Named for 509th PIB Veteran

Photo from WBOY.com Channel 12 in Upsur County, West Virginia.
The Route 151 bridge across the Middle Fork River in Ellamore, West Virginia is now named the "U.S. Army Technician Fifth Victor A. Osburn Memorial Bridge."  Victor Osburn was a medic in the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion during WWII.  He joined the battalion in North Africa, participated in the Avellino jump, Anzio, and Operation Dragoon.  Victor Osburn was killed in action on August 21, 1944 in southern France.  For gallantry in action, he was posthumously awarded the Silver Star.  You can read Victor Osburn's Silver Star citation at the 509th Parachute Infantry Association's website.

The dedication ceremony was held at the bridge in Upshur county on Sunday May 27, 2012.  An honor guard from the 1/509th at Fort Polk was present, as well as members of the 509th PIB WWII Living History Group. Victor Osburn's nephew Joe Osburn, who was instrumental in having the bridge dedicated to his uncle's memory, had graciously sent me an invitation to the ceremony.  Unfortunately, being in the process of relocating to the other coast, I was unable to attend.  However, I was able to watch a well done video clip from local TV news WDTV covering the dedication.  Congratulations, Joe. It looks like the event was a success.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

509th PIB News Roundup for Memorial Day

Parachute Trooper Johnson (the dummy) at the 504th 
Parachute Battalion dance, held in the Third Hangar, 
Lawson Field, Fort Benning, GA October 21, 1941.  
Army Signal Corps Photograph 124264
National Archives, College Park, MD.
From the time I started research for The Boldest Plan is the Best: The Combat History of the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion During WWII, I've been keeping up with news about the unit and its veterans.  Here are a couple of news items that came up on the radar today:

- According to the Avon (Connecticut) News, Morton N. Katz will be the keynote speaker for the Memorial Day events in Avon.  Katz served as a lieutenant in the 509th PIB during World War II.  He served in North Africa, Italy, France, and Belgium.  Katz is active in the local VFW Post 3272 and continues to practice law in Avon.

- The Bullard Banner News ran an article about 509th veteran Lloyd Wells of Upshur County, Texas.  Mr. Wells is also a veteran of North Africa, Avellino, Anzio, Southern France, and the Battle of the Bulge.  Unfortunately, Wells lost his medals (and his house) during the Texas wildfires last year.  On May 19, Wells was presented with his medals once again at a surprise ceremony at a local museum.  The article goes on to tell us that Lloyd Wells, just short of his 92nd birthday, still works full-time at Walmart in Gilmer, Texas, assembling bikes, barbecues, and furniture.

What I noticed about both news items is that these veterans, both over the age of ninety, are still working full-time.  It never ceases to amaze me...those paratroopers just don't know how to quit.

Please take a moment this Memorial Day weekend to thank a veteran for their service, and remember those who have fallen.  I've included a picture from the National Archives for you that didn't make it into the book.  It was taken during a happier moment in Geronimo history.  Enjoy the holiday.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

New Home Base: Sequim, Washington

Here's Jim at Railroad Bridge Park, and there's a new bike trail to conquer!
We have arrived at our new home base of Sequim, Washington.  Sequim is a small town in the northeast corner of the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state.  Sheila, Sydney, and I are very excited to be back in the Pacific Northwest.  For those of you not familiar with the area, the town's name is pronounced "skwim" and you'll most likely pass through on your way to Olympic National Park.

Between getting ready to move, moving across the country, and settling in to our new home, I've been out of the loop for about a month.  Before I left Pennsylvania, I completed researching the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment at the AHEC and NARA.  That of course is my next writing project, as a companion to The Boldest Plan is the Best, about the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion.  I wanted to complete the story of the first airborne units to deploy in WWII, before the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions went overseas.  However, as I learn more about my new surroundings I'll be passing on some information here.  For instance, did you know that back in the 1970s, some mastodon bones were found in the area?  They contained a spear point that dates the inhabitants of the area to pre-Clovis period, which means that travelers have been coming to the Sequim for more than 14,000 years!

As the two or three regular readers of this blog know, my interests are mainly in the twentieth century.  Luckily we've arrived in time for the 117th Irrigation Festival.  Sequim, and the Dungeness Valley, are in a rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains.  So unlike the rest of Puget Sound, the area gets only approximately 15 inches of rain a year, which is about the same as southern California.  In 1895 the local farmers began an irrigation project that brought economic prosperity to the area.  The annual celebration of that agricultural endeavor is the oldest in Washington state.  More to follow as I head down to join my local historical society. ;-)

Monday, April 2, 2012

A Visual of the New Museum of the U.S. Army

For several years now, the Army Historical Foundation has been raising money for the new Museum of the United States Army to be constructed at Fort Belvoir, Virginia.  A recent article in Army Times helped to spread the word that conceptual renderings of what the new museum will look like are available.  This pdf provides some of the details of the planned museum and renderings of what the concept looks like.

The Army has donated 55 acres of land on Fort Belvoir, just outside of Washington, D.C. and has also paid for site preparation and some “design activities.”  The remainder of the $300 million for the project is the responsibility of the Army Historical Foundation.  So far the foundation has raised $64 million, most of which has been donated by defense contractors.  About $3 million has come from the sale of commemorative coins.  Groundbreaking is tentatively scheduled for mid-2013 with and anticipated opening date sometime in 2015.

There has been some controversy around the building of this museum.  On the upside, the new museum will provide a one-stop location to teach the public about the 236-year history of the United States Army and its contribution to the building of the nation.  Located in the D.C. metro area, the Foundation (according to the Army Times article) expects to receive from 750,000 to 1 million visitors to the museum each year.  Obviously they estimate a large spinoff of visitors from other D.C. attractions.

Some of the criticisms of course have to do with cost, who is paying for it, what other facilities will close in order to support this project, and the fact that the Army has a long list of other, more specialized, museums.  For example in Virginia alone there is currently operating the Corps of Engineers Museum in Alexandria, the Army Transportation Museum at Fort Eustis, the Casemate Museum at Fort Monroe, and the Army Women’s Museum, the Army Ordnance Museum, as well as the Army Quartermaster Museum, all at Fort Lee, Virginia.  There is also the Airborne and Special Operations Museum at Fort Bragg, North Carolina and in recent years, the Armor Museum at Fort Knox was moved and co-located with the Infantry Museum at Fort Benning, Georgia.

Personally, I was disappointed that the museum was going to be built in already congested, over-crowded Washington, D.C.  I had hoped that the Foundation would put the Museum of the U.S. Army near one of our larger bases, like Fort Hood, or Fort Lewis (Washington State doesn't have an operating Army museum), or maybe in a city that could use the economic stimulus.  The opening of this museum really affected me when rumors came about that the Army was considering closing the Army Heritage and Education Center here in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, moving the archives to the Army Center for Military History (again in D.C.) and their museum artifacts to the new museum at Fort Belvoir.  As you can imagine, I’m a museum fanatic and I’m glad that the Museum of the United States Army is being built.  But we must be aware of what the “hidden” costs of this project are and protect what we’ve already built.

Monday, March 19, 2012

News Item: Relics Found in Gettysburg! (and a new museum soon)

Did you really think that we know everything there is to know about the battle of Gettysburg, or have discovered every relic or manuscript with a link to the famous Civil War battle?  No, of course you didn’t.  The Hanover Evening Sun reports that construction workers found a treasure trove of artifacts while working on a remodeling project on a dormitory at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg.

The building, known as the “Old Dorm” is undergoing a 15-month remodel that will turn it into an interpretive museum.  The building had been used as a hospital during the battle.  Tucked into the walls were old worn out shoes from the 19th Century.  It was believed that putting old shoes between wall joists would bring luck.  In the ceiling, believed to have fallen through the cracks in the floor above, were several letters belonging to civil war soldiers.  Several bottles were also found.

The work is being funded with a $4 million grant from the State of Pennsylvania.  When the project is completed, visitors will be able to have access to the cupola, where Union General John Buford surveyed the opening moves of the battle, as portrayed by Sam Elliot in the movie, Gettysburg.

Monday, March 5, 2012

509th PIB Colors to go to the Airborne Museum

L-R: Kelly, Tomasik, and Katz in Naples,
1944.  Soldier on the balcony unknown.
Photo courtesy of Mike Reuter.

One of the great things happening since the release of “The Boldest Plan is the Best” is coming in contact with more veterans and their family members.  One example is my correspondence with Mr. Morton Katz over the past couple of months.  Katz was a lieutenant in, and the last adjutant of, the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion.  It was his sad duty to oversea the turn-in of all of the battalion’s equipment and records after the unit was disbanded in February 1945.  Mort is now a retired colonel, and still practicing law in Avon, Connecticut.  I did not have the opportunity to interview Mort.  After the book came out, he got in contact with me.  I do wish I had met him during my research.

The other day I received a letter from Mort Katz with some big news.  His letter included a copy of a letter to him from the Army Center for Military History.  The letter is informing him that his request, through his congressman, to have the colors of the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion donated to the Airborne and Special Forces Museum in Fayetteville, North Carolina, has been approved.  The colors are currently in storage at the Center’s storage facility in Anniston, Alabama.  They are in good condition, but will require some conservation treatment before they can be framed and transferred to the museum.  Therefore, an exact date for the transfer or information on any kind of ceremony is not available at this time.  So as they say, more to follow.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Book Review: Admiral Nimitz


I will admit that I am not as familiar with naval history and the Pacific Theater during WWII as I would like to be.  I’m working on improving that condition.  I’m researching an army unit that deployed to the Pacific Theater (the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment) for the next book.  Also, I recently wrote an article on the history of the aircraft carrier and another on the history of the submarine for Military Vet Shop.  So when I was asked to review Admiral Nimitz: The Commander of the Pacific Ocean Theater by Brayton Harris, I readily accepted the task.

I enjoyed this biography of one of our "under sung" heroes of World War II. We tend to study history as a series of events, but often it is beneficial to look at a period of time through the biography of someone who had a great influence upon it. This is a well written history of Fleet Admiral Chester William Nimitz, who was commander of the Pacific Fleet during WWII and the Chief of Naval Operations during the early days of the Cold War. It is also a history of our Navy during the first half of the twentieth century.

Nimitz graduated from Annapolis in January 1905, just a little over a year after the Wright brothers made their flight at Kitty Hawk and more than five years before an airplane would take off and land from an aircraft carrier.  Submarines were also new technology.  In 1909 Nimitz took command of the United States Navy’s second commissioned submarine, the USS Plunger (SS-2).   Nimitz would continue to have a variety of command and staff assignments throughout his career until the dawn of WWII found him in charge of the Naval Bureau (precursor of today’s Bureau of Naval Personnel).  In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, Nimitz replaced Admiral Kimmel as Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet (CINCPAC) as the personal choice of President Roosevelt.

Nimitz was responsible for a Pacific Fleet that was not only rebuilding and rapidly expanding, but also embracing a completely new way of conducting warfare.   Pearl Harbor signified the end of the “battleship navy.”   The war would be won by the submarine and the aircraft carrier. Additionally, after the fall of the Philippines, there was more than one supreme commander in the Pacific.   General Douglas MacArthur was named allied commander of the Southwest Pacific Area which included Australia, New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and the Philippines.   Nimitz was designated Commander-in Chief of the Pacific Ocean Areas (CINCPOA) that covered everything else.   As such, Nimitz presided over famous battles like Guadalcanal, Midway, and Iwo Jima.   After reading Brayton Harris' book you might come to believe that the bigger obstacle to our success was not the Japanese, but rather the ego of General Douglas MacArthur and the bureaucracy in the Navy Department and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Admiral Nimitz was a natural choice to take over as Chief of Naval Operations (CNO).   He defended the Navy in a time when, due to the belief that the Air Force’s ability to drop an atomic bomb convinced a lot of people that we no longer needed a navy for anything other than transportation.   This turned out to be a most interesting part of the book.   The Air Force wanted to do away with the Navy, the Army wanted to do away with the Marine Corps.   It is amazing how close we came to having a single uniformed service that was built around the long-range bomber.   Luckily men like Chester Nimitz could see the future and realize that each service has its place in defending the country.

In this book you will learn, in an entertaining, brief, and casual read, how Nimitz was instrumental in not only winning the Pacific war, but also helped to guide the structure of our modern navy that would be instrumental in winning the Cold War.   By an act of congress, the five-star rank was created in 1944.   Nimitz joined Generals of the Army MacArthur, Marshal, Eisenhower, and Arnold, along with Fleet Admirals Leahy and King in this new rank.   For some time after WWII, Nimitz was a national hero.   Today Nimitz has a tendency to be overshadowed by MacArthur and Eisenhower as a household name, although Chester Nimitz’ contributions to winning WWII and the Cold War security of the United States deserve to be recognized and remembered equally.   Brayton Harris’ book, Admiral Nimitz, helped me realize that.  

Monday, February 20, 2012

John Glenn, 50 Years Later

I really enjoy the “on this date in history items.”  I get an email newsletter every day.  It allows me to take a daily devotional of history on a variety of subjects.  However, this anniversary was pointed out to me by an article in the New York Times: Fifty years ago today, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth.
John Glenn photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Fifty years ago, the Soviets were ahead of us in space technology, having launched the first rocket into orbit, Sputnik, in October of 1957.  We don’t give much pause for our space program now.  But back in John Glenn’s time as an astronaut, we were in the midst of the Cold War and the American public didn’t take these things in stride.  By the time we got John Glenn into orbit, the Russians had already carried a dog and two men around the earth.  This was, of course, on three different flights with Yuri Gagarin being the first human to enter orbit (I don’t know the name of the dog). 

This information made me wonder what Glenn had done before becoming an astronaut.  I knew he had been a marine fighter pilot, but I had forgotten the details.  Turns out John Glenn from Cambridge, Ohio was in college studying science and had just gotten his private pilot’s license when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.  He immediately dropped out of college and signed up with the Army Air Corps.  But the Army didn't call him to active duty fast enough, so Glenn enlisted with the Navy as an aviation cadet and was later transferred to the Marine Corps.  He flew F4U Corsairs in the South Pacific and logged 59 missions, mostly in close air support.  After WWII, Captain Glenn returned to the States and served as a flight instructor.  Glenn logged 90 combat missions over two tours flying jets during the Korean War.  On his last tour he downed three MIG-15s in aerial combat.

After Korea, Glenn became a military test pilot.  On July 16, 1957, John Glenn became the first pilot to complete a continuous transcontinental flight (in a F8U Crusader) while averaging supersonic speed.  The flight from NAS Los Alamitos in southern California to Floyd Bennett Field in New York was accomplished in 3 hours, 23 minutes, 8.3 seconds, and included three aerial refuelings.  Glenn was awarded his fifth Distinguished Flying Cross for the feat.

In April 1959 John Glenn joined the original group of seven astronauts in NASA’s Project Mercury.  All of these men had training and experience as military pilots.  Glenn was, of course, a marine.  Alan Shepard, Wally Shirra, and Scott Carpenter were naval aviators.  Gus Grissom, Gordon Cooper, and Deke Slayton were Air Force pilots.  Their story is told in detail in Tom Wolfe’s1979 book, The Right Stuff.

On February 20, 1962, as stated earlier, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth in his spacecraft, Friendship 7.  However, he was the fifth person to be in “space” and the third to orbit the planet.  Regardless, John Glenn was hailed by Tom Wolfe as “the country’s last true hero.”  America certainly treated him as such.  President Kennedy went to meet him at Cape Canaveral and Glenn received a ticker tape parade in New York.  John Glenn went on to serve four terms as senator from Ohio, and was a candidate in the 1984 Democratic presidential primaries.

In 1998, at the age of 77, Glenn made a flight on the Space Shuttle Discovery, volunteering to study the effects of space flight on the elderly.  He has continued to fly, finally as a private pilot, until just last year.  John Glenn is now 90 years old and has been married to his wife, Annie, for 69 years.  When asked about his status as a “hero,” according to the Times article Senator Glenn responded, “I don’t think of myself that way.  I get up each day and have the same problems others have at my age.”  In my book, that statement just adds to the evidence that John Glenn is in fact one of our last living American icons. 

Friday, February 10, 2012

A New Jeff Shaara Book Is Coming Soon!

Lot's of news about books lately.  I read a lot in the winter.  Mostly nonfiction, but not always.  I do love a good historical fiction, especially one that doesn't depart from historical facts.  I’m talking about authors like Kenneth Roberts, James Michener, or Alexander Thom.  However, the best example of this quality of historical fiction writer I've found is Jeff Shaara.  I was first turned on to his father Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels (a novel of the Civil War battle of Gettysburg) way back in the 80s.  The Killer Angels inspired me to travel to Gettysburg and visit the battlefield the first time.  After reading the book, I said to myself, “Man, I want to write like that some day.”  Naturally, when Jeff picked up the torch and wrote his first book, Gods and Generals (a prequel to Killer Angels), I was immediately hooked on his work as well.  He has since written about the Revolutionary War, the War with Mexico, World War I, and both theaters of World War II.  The thing about Shaara books is that they are historically accurate, and the characters are real people.  For the most part I can safely assert that only the dialog is fiction.  The most common reaction from someone who first reads a Shaara novel is “Why don’t we teach history this way?”  You might say that I am a fan.

I found out that the next Jeff Shaara book will be out on Amazon on May 29.  Titled A Blaze of Glory, it is a novel of the Civil War battle of Shiloh.  A Blaze of Glory is the first in a new trilogy about the western theater of the Civil War.  I will admit that the excitement of finding out this information was somewhat lessened by the fact that my book pusher, Jeff Bezos over at Amazon, notified my wife Sheila before telling me.  I was hurt until I remembered that Sheila bought me the last Shaara book I read, The Final Storm set in the Pacific Theater during WWII.

So let me recommend to all of you readers of strictly nonfiction, or those of you on the opposite end of the spectrum who have never found a “history book” that has excited you.  You can’t go wrong with a Jeff Shaara novel.  I’ve read them all, and I’ll put in my pre-order for A Blaze of Glory.  When it arrives, the Shaara book goes straight to the top of the reading pile.  Can you get a better book recommendation? 

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Get their stories while you can.

I was contacted by the son of a WWII veteran of the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion yesterday to let me know that his father had passed away.  Harold Seay was one of the veterans of this unit that answered my questionnaire and assisted in my research for “The Boldest Plan is the Best.”  Our thoughts and prayers go out to Mrs. Seay, her son Roy, and their family.  I am grateful that I had the opportunity to be in communication with Harold and the rest of these amazing veterans, and I only wish I had started the project years ago.

On the same day, I saw a segment on the NBC Nightly News that reminded us that we are losing (their reported estimate) over 700 World War II veterans each day.  The story was about the members of the WWII generation who live in a retirement community in Hanover, New Hampshire called Kendal at Hanover who are compiling their memories into a book.  There are 56 vignettes in the book, titled “WWII Remembered.”  If you would like to see a video of the news segment with Brian Williams, here is a link.  I found it moving, and I would like to echo the appeal made in the piece to gather the stories from our greatest generation while you are still able.
I think the rest of America was moved by the story as well.  Out of curiosity, I looked up the book on Amazon.  Due to be released tomorrow, it is already number one in the category of WWII History.  I’m looking forward to getting my copy.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Which Groundhog are you going to believe?

Image of Punxsutawney Phil from an LA Times Article
It’s Groundhog Day!  In case you had not heard: This morning Punxsutawney Phil, the world’s most famous groundhog, saw his shadow and thus predicted six more weeks of winter.  For some of the blow back on Phil’s prediction this year, check out his Facebook Page.

The roots of Groundhog Day are found in the German tradition of Candlemas Day (during the Christmas season) when their clergy would distribute candles to the poor to use in the winter.  How many candles would be needed?  Well, let’s ask an animal.  The early Germanic people chose the hedgehog.  When German immigrants came to America (a bunch to Pennsylvania) they replaced the hedgehog with the groundhog, or as some call it the woodchuck, which were abundant here.  Punxsutawney Phil has become the most famous groundhog not just because of the movie.  Back in 1887, a newspaper editor that belonged to the “Punxsutawney Groundhog Club” – whose members liked the sport of hunting groundhogs – said that their groundhog, Phil was the only true weather forecasting rodent.  A long line of Phils have been honored at an annual party on Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania ever since.

I’ve really enjoyed the tongue-in-cheek hoopla surrounding Groundhog Day ever since I saw the 1993 movie of the same name starring Bill Murray.  Even more so since moving to Pennsylvania, a state that is teeming with the cute little rodents.  We even have one that lives in the field behind our house and occasionally comes up to the yard to forage.

Although Phil will not admit that he is ever wrong about the coming of an early spring, almost every human would agree that he is, in fact, wrong about half the time.  Perhaps we should consult some other groundhog?  We’re in luck!  In order to get in on the fun and the tourist dollars, many cities across the country have their own weather prognosticating woodchucks.  There’s Birmingham Bill and Staten Island Chuck.  There’s Woodstock Willie and Dunkirk Dave.  There’s even Shubenacadie Sam up in Canada, eh?

Central Pennsylvania has an overwhelming number of these weather hogs that sometimes have trouble agreeing on how much more winter we’re going to have this year.  In York County, Dover Doug and Poor Richard are both opting for an early spring.  So is Patty Pagoda over in Reading, as did Octoraro Orphie from Quarryville, Lancaster County.  On the other hand, Mount Joy Minnie, also from Lancaster County, and Uni from Lebanon County both predict six more weeks of winter.  Grover and Sweet Arrow, recent newlyweds from Schuylkill County also join Phil in predicting six more weeks of cold. (But I really don’t know what they base that on, since it was reported that they didn’t even get out of bed this morning to see if their shadow was there or not!)

So, calendar wise we surely have six more weeks of winter.  Spring will arrive on March 20th.  But as to whether or not we have to deal with more cold and snow, I guess we could ask an animal.  But in the end, which groundhog are you going to believe?