Monday, December 19, 2011

THOMAS online, brought to you by the Library of Congress

I really enjoy finding a new resource on the web.  Sometimes it’s kind of a Homer Simpson moment though (“Doh!”), when I think I should have known about this thing earlier.  Thanks to a blog post about the Federalist Papers by my friend Paul over at History Delivered, I discovered THOMAS, brought to you by the wonderful folks at your Library of Congress.  I thought I would share it with you here.

THOMAS, named for Thomas Jefferson, is the section of the Library of Congress website that provides a bit of transparency to our government.  Here’s an explanation from the site’s About page: “THOMAS was launched in January of 1995, at the inception of the 104th Congress.  The leadership of the 104th Congress directed the Library of Congress to make federal legislative information freely available to the public.”

The site provides all of the legislative information you could want to get your eyes on, so you don’t have to suffer the biased summations of the media, whatever your political philosophy.  On this site you can read the real text of bills and resolutions that our Congress is debating, along with treaties, the Congressional Record, and more (not to mention the Federalist Papers).  The site has actually been around since 1995.  Realizing that and having not looked into it sooner is definitely one of my Homer Simpson moments.  But who has time for all of this reading?  Well, perhaps I do watch too much television, but since all of my favorite shows are in repeats, the holiday season is an excellent time to do a little extra reading and research.  ;-)

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Significant Pearl Harbor Day

My thanks to Barry Simpson from the 509th Parachute Infantry Association for posting a link via Facebook to a newspaper article in the Birmingham Press Register.  This was how I found out that this year will make the last formal December 7th ceremony for the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association chapters around the country.  This is the 70th anniversary of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.  With most of their members in their nineties, and fewer and fewer able to attend events, the national organization and many local chapters plan to disband on December 31st of this year.

I find this news saddens me more than I thought it would.  December 7th is not only “Pearl Harbor Day,” but also signals the anniversary of the United States’ entry to the Second World War.  As a student of this war, the most tumultuous event of the twentieth century that set the stage for the Cold War and formed our current international landscape, I hope that despite the passing of our veterans we will continue to honor the day and remember the sacrifice.

Friday, November 18, 2011

War Diaries and Green Berets

War Diaries
I’m thrilled at the positive response to The Boldest Plan is the Best: The Combat History of the 509th Parachute InfantryBattalion during WWII.  We’ve had some positive feedback from readers, and the most exciting is the letters I’ve received from two WWII veterans that I had not heard from prior to the release of the book.  I’ve also had an email from the son of a 509th veteran who was looking for more detailed information on his dad’s service.  This last item is what prompted us to add another primary source document to the website.  The S-3 Journal and the Headquarters Company War Diary for November 1943 has been posted.  These documents cover the period of time that the gingerbread men were on Mt. Croce in the Venafro area of Italy.

So what is a “war diary”?  Military units down to the company level are required to keep a daily journal of their activities during periods of combat.  They are focused on the administration and operations of the unit, and as such often list the names of soldiers killed and wounded, or returned or departed for leave, school, or hospital.  However, that is not a requirement and just as often the document will only list numbers.  These journals are found at the National Archives and Records Administration along with After Action Reports, Operations Orders, and other official documents.  Together with veteran’s oral histories tell the story of what a military unit did in combat to complete the historical record and help the military improve its training and doctrine.

50 Years of Green Berets
November 17th marks the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy authorizing Special Forces to wear the distinctive green beret.  The Special Forces were formed in 1952, but the President personally approved the wearing of their unique headgear in 1961.  I note that date here because two of the former commanders of the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion, Colonel Edson Raff and Lieutenant General William Yarborough, were instrumental in bringing about the President’s authorization.  That story is contained in the epilogue of "The Boldest Plan is the Best," so I won't post it again here. An article in Army Times tells us, though, that even though the Green Berets have expanded their 8,500 man force by 1,000 over the last four years they might have to fight for their share of the budget pie.  We’re reminded that the Special Forces were formed for the express purpose of training indigenous troops and conducting counter insurgency operations.  Let’s keep our terminology straight: Army Green Berets are officially designated “Special Forces.”  They and any other organization that performs a special mission from any other service branch (like Navy Seals) are collectively called “special operations” units. 

For those that might be wondering, let me save you the time of looking up the history of the other colors of berets worn by the American Army.  Of course, the maroon beret was authorized for wear by the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion in 1942 as honorary members of the British Parachute Regiment.  However, that headgear was never officially recognized as a uniform item by the American Army.  Berets of various colors were worn unofficially be various special operations units during Korea and Vietnam.  In 1973, as a morale building venture, local commanders were allowed to approve distinctive headgear for their command.  As a result airborne units chose to wear a maroon beret while the ranger battalions wore a black beret.  Non-standardization in other units (like the cav wearing their Stetsons) prompted the policy on headgear to be rescinded temporarily in 1979.  By 1980 the regulation was in place for airborne units to wear the maroon and rangers to wear the black beret.  As another move to boost the morale of conventional units, the Army chose to make the black beret a standard uniform item for all soldiers in 2001.  In that year, the rangers switched to a tan beret.  The color was chosen to honor the buckskin berets worn by the original Roger’s Rangers of the French and Indian War.  The airborne continues to wear the maroon beret and Special Forces the green.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The “High Water Mark” of the Confederacy

The phrase “high water mark of the Confederacy” is traditionally applied to Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg. It’s meaning is that before the assault there was hope for a Confederate victory and after the charge was repulsed the “tide had been turned” and the South was rolled back like the tides to their eventual capitulation. However, if we look at the Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania from strictly a geographical perspective, then the “high water mark” would have to be the farthest penetration north by Confederate military forces. That point just happens to be very near my home in Mechanicsburg – Camp Hill area of Cumberland County. So, after procrastinating for some months I finally got out early on a Sunday morning to go see how these locations are remembered. For a complete history of Civil War events in Cumberland County, visit

During the Gettysburg Campaign in the summer of 1863, Confederate General Richard Ewell moved his corps north from Chambersburg through the Cumberland Valley lead by General Albert Jenkin’s cavalry brigade.   Faced with overwhelming odds, the Union forces in Carlisle withdrew to defend the approaches to Harrisburg.  On June 28, 1863, Mechanicsburg, about ten mile east of Carlisle, was the northernmost town to surrender to Confederate forces.  The Rupp House, just outside of Mechanicsburg at the time, was occupied as headquarters for General Jenkins.  A monument commemorating Jenkins and his Confederate cavalry is now located at the location (an office building at 5115 Trindle Road in Mechanicsburg).

Union forces set up defenses on the west side of the Susquehanna to protect the approaches to Harrisburg, about five miles northeast of Mechanicsburg.  Under the command of Major General Darius Couch built two earthwork forts on Washington Heights (then known as Hummel’s Heights) in today’s community of Lemoyne, overlooking Harrisburg across the Susquehanna River.  Fort Washington was the main fortification was located in an area around Cumberland Road between Walnut and Indiana Avenues.  (I found no commemoration of the fort, but it’s a nice neighborhood.)  A few blocks west was built a smaller, forward position that was dubbed Fort Couch.  Honoring Fort Couch is a large monument and remains of the earthworks set aside in a small park at 8th Street and Indiana Avenue.  This park is surrounded by residences on all sides and there is no dedicated parking.  Unfortunately with the urban growth you can’t see the approach that General Couch would have seen, but you can certainly appreciate the military significance of the positions on Hummel’s Heights.

Pennsylvania State Historic Markers commemorating the northernmost skirmishes are a little harder to spot if you are whizzing by in your car.  Two small engagements took place between Mechanicsburg and Lemoyne.  On June 28, General Jenkins sent a small force to engage Union militia units that fled Mechanicsburg as the Confederates entered the town.  The Union troops set up a battery of artillery and a hasty defense at Oyster Point, a tavern located on Market at 31st Street in Camp Hill.  The Confederates returned the next day with a larger force, but could not dislodge the Yankees.  The engagement at Oyster Point was probably a diversion to cover Jenkins reconnaissance of the river crossings to Harrisburg from Slate Hill in New Cumberland.  The state marker was hard to spot.  It was a foggy morning and the sign was hidden behind some trees.  I’ve probably driven past it at least eight times without ever noticing it before.

On June 30th two New York militia regiments supported by a battery of Pennsylvania artillery engaged two Virginia cavalry regiments around the McCormick farmhouse, just north of Mechanicsburg along the Carlisle Pike.  This engagement became known as the skirmish at Sporting Hill.  There is a state marker at the corner of Sporting Hill Road and the Carlisle Pike.  It’s a busy intersection, but you can pull into the parking lot of the “Ye Old Ale House” and walk out to the corner to read the marker.  Sporting Hill was the northernmost engagement in the Gettysburg Campaign, and as such can be called the high water mark of the Confederacy.  In fact, Pennsylvania historian Robert Grant dubbed it so in his article “Highwater 1863: The Confederate Approach to Harrisburg” in Pennsylvania History, 1963 (placed online courtesy of

Sporting Hill can be considered a Union victory, in that the Confederates left the field.  But in all fairness, their hurried departure was due to Ewell’s orders to move his corps to Gettysburg, the famous battle kicking off the next day.  The Cumberland County Visitors Bureau has produced an excellent self-guided tour brochure/map for “The Civil War on the West Shore.”  It is available in pdf for download.  Get the full feel of the Gettysburg Campaign by taking this tour.  It’s worth it. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

There You Have It

One of the reasons I named this blog “The Roving Historian” is that not only do I like to travel and live in different areas of the country, but I have an eclectic mix of historical interests as well. I enjoy military history from any era and usually buy books along those lines, but occasionally I “rove on over” to business, social, and political history as well. Though I have to admit that other than watching Ken Burns’ documentary on baseball; I have never ventured into the area of sports history before. This week that changed a little bit when I read “There You Have It: the life, legacy, and legend of Howard Cosell” by John Bloom.

I took a couple of classes from Dr. John Bloom going on five years ago, when I was going through the masters program at Shippensburg University. When I saw that he was the author of this book about sportscaster Howard Cosell, I wanted to give it a try even though I'm not a fan of sports history. I'm glad that I did. Stepping out of the comfort zone once in a while is not a bad thing. It was a really good read.

I grew up with Howard Cosell, Monday Night Football, Wide World of Sports, and Muhammed Ali. However I was not aware that behind the scenes of what, until I read this book, I considered to be simply sports entertainment programming, was a demonstration of social change at work. I was unaware that Howard Cosell was the first broadcaster to acknowledge Muhammed Ali's name change from Cassius Clay, nor did I ever stop to recognize Cosell's further support of civil rights. I was also unaware of the prejudices against Mr. Cosell's ethnicity that had to be overcome for him to rise to his position in sports broadcasting. Quite frankly, it never occurred to me that Howard Cosell was Jewish, or that it mattered. Things have certainly changed in the last forty years, and some credit can be given to Mr. Cosell.

For this work the author went to the source and interviewed members of Howard Cosell's family, and legends in the field of sportscasting like Frank Deford, Keith Jackson, Frank Gifford, and others. John Bloom has expertly weaved together a work of popular sports history with academic social analysis. The best evidence I can provide is that the book lead to a lively discussion about 70's sports around my house. If it makes you talk about it, it must be a good book.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Government Funding Is Not Always Required

I’m always impressed when I hear of people preserving history through voluntary efforts. In these times of shrinking budgets the monumental task of honoring and caring for our historical sites and records does not lessen. Just many archives, museums, and historic sites have volunteer programs and use unpaid college interns. Volunteers working under the guidance of paid history professionals have my appreciation and thanks for the donation of their time. But here I have some examples of groups and individuals who take on their chosen task without pay, training, or supervision.

The group we started in Seattle called the Friends of the Ballard Locks is still working hard. While they have points of contact with the Corps of Engineers, the operating agency for the Hiram Chittenden Locks and the Carl English Botanical Garden on the Seattle Ship Canal, there is no trained history or archive professional available to provide guidance and supervision. However, local people in the community saw the need for organizing archival materials and artifacts that have to do with the facility and have stepped up to donate their time and often their money for out of pocket expenses. When they are in need of professional opinion, they seek it through contacts at surrounding museums and archives. The FOBL does not have a budget, because they don’t need one. All they really need, and always welcome, is new volunteers. Read about how the FOBL is doing at their website and blog:

I saw an article recently in the local paper in Carlisle, Pennsylvania that the Molly Pitcher monument needed some work. Molly was a legendary figure here in the Cumberland Valley. The story goes that Molly got her nickname by carrying a pitcher of water to soldiers during the Battle of Monmouth on July 28, 1778. When her husband, who was part of a cannon crew, was wounded during heavy fighting, Molly stepped in to take his place. A statue and cannon are placed at her grave in the old Carlisle cemetery on South Street. For a number of years the Sunrise Rotary Club volunteers to landscape around the monument. And when the statue needed maintenance and the cannon needed a new coat of paint, that organization of local businessmen stepped up and raised the money to get it done.

I recently became aware of Jack Loveday’s website, Jack is a marine veteran of Headquarters Company, 9th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division during Vietnam (also, Jack’s dad was a veteran of the 509th PIB during WWII). Jack put together this website that has brought together, in his estimation, about a hundred veterans from his unit. That is awesome on its own, but what impressed me the most was that the site is a treasure trove of pictures, videos, and primary sources like rosters and unit logs. The website has a professional look and straightforward navigation that makes these resources easy to find. If I was researching the 9th Marines in Vietnam, I would refer to this site. Well done, Jack.

So my suggestion is this: a large amount of government funding is not always required in a history project. Don’t wish that someone would do the thing that you plainly see needs to be done. Volunteer and get others to volunteer. Remember the old saying, “If not us, who? If not now, when?”

Monday, September 19, 2011

News items: Reenactors and reviews

I have the utmost respect for historical reenactors. Whether they are working at a historic site or a private group, these living historians work hard at an accurate portrayal of the period that they are reenacting. They bring history to life for every age group. I would like to give a shout out to one group of World War II reenactors who, as far as I know, are they only group to represent the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion: The 509th Historical Reenactment Group. They will be participating in WWII Days at the Midway Village Museum in Rockford, IL this coming weekend, September 24-25. If you are in the area, check out the event. Or, if you live too far away like me, check out their website soon for some pictures.

Since we released “The Boldest Plan is the Best: The Combat History of the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion During WWII” I’ve sweated out the most critical review possible, from my dad. He is a combat veteran of the 187th Regimental Combat Team (Airborne) in Korea, and an avid reader of military history and military historical fiction. He received his copy of “The Boldest Plan is the Best” last Saturday and told me to give him a couple of days to read it, and then he’d give me a critique over the phone. ;-)

One of the best things about the U.S. Army Center for Military History is that just about everything they publish is available online for free download. I wanted to pass along that the latest issue of their journal, Army History, is available online in pdf format. Looks like a great article on the U.S. Cavalry that I’m looking forward to reading. It’s a subject that is near and dear to my own heart.


Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Questions Re: “The Boldest Plan is the Best”

“The Boldest Plan is the Best: The Combat History of the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion during WWII” is now available on We will soon be launching an “author’s website” with maps and extra pictures that did not make it into the book. More details on that very soon. Sheila and I are thrilled with the response so far. As a matter of fact, I have already received some questions via email that I thought I’d share with you here:

In writing your book, how is it distinguishable from “Stand in the Door” by Charles Doyle and Terrell Stewart? What will I find that is not covered in previous books? Was there anything that you found in your research that was not accurately described in previous accounts?

“Stand in the Door: The Wartime History of the Elite 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion” was written by two veterans of the 509th PIB and published in 1988. It is now out of print and difficult to find short of visiting the AHEC or having your local reference librarian borrow it through WorldCat. The co-authors of the book gathered narratives from many other veterans to tell the story of their experiences during World War II. Stand in the Door was a major reference for “The Boldest Plan is the Best” and as a historian I wish more veterans had undertaken a project for their unit like Doyle and Stewart did. However, Stand in the Door is a veteran’s narrative written for other veterans and their families. I tried to present the story of the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion in WWII in a greater historical context for a broader audience. There is also more devoted to the wartime commanders of the 509th PIB: Edson Raff, Doyle Yardley, William Yarborough, and Edmund Tomasik, than I feel was presented in Stand in the Door. You’ll see in the bibliography that I gathered every source available to bring in some voices that aren’t heard in Stand in the Door.

The target audience for “Boldest Plan is the Best” is one that is not necessarily familiar with early airborne, much less the Geronimos. There really is no other “one source” volume, other than perhaps “Stand in the Door,” devoted to the gingerbread men of WWII. Other works of military history mention the 509th Parachute Infantry when they appear at a certain point in their narrative, but I have no knowledge of any other books devoted solely to this unit.

For you military history aficionados, you’ll appreciate that I did find a number of minor differences and discrepancies in, and between, secondary source works by Devlin, Flanagan, and Breuer. But they were minor; mostly in time, date, place, numbers of casualties, etc. The usual, I assume, that would occur in the absence of the volume of primary source documentation that exists with the airborne divisions from WWII, and nothing that would change the course of the story.

I’m always looking forward to your feedback. Feel free to email me at

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Book Released Today!

The day has finally arrived. Today we released The Boldest Plan is the Best: The Combat History of the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion during WWII. I say “we” because a lot of people helped with the book, not the least of which is my wife, Sheila, who did the maps, the cover design, and helped with the proofing and editing.

I’ve been working on this project for about ten months, but a lot longer when if you add in the time I thought about it, talked about it, and casually researched it, before finally sitting down to write it. I haven’t talked a great deal about it on this blog because I wanted to have the project completed before bringing it out to the public. After all, it was bad enough having my dad ask me once a week when the book would be done. ;-)

Before writing this book I had no affiliation to the 509th Parachute Infantry, the “Geronimos,” other than being tortured by some of their members when I went through an air assault school they were running at Fort Rucker, Alabama in 1984. But in 2009 I did meet a former “gingerbread man” by the name of Mike Ponzini of Helper, Utah. Mike told me about the history of the unit and really sold me on the idea. Here’s some points on why this unit history is so compelling:

- They were the first American Airborne unit to deploy to England in WWII.

- They were the first American Airborne unit to make a combat jump during WWII (North Africa).

- The unit fought as an independent battalion alongside other elite units like Darby’s Rangers and the First Special Service Force at Anzio, in southern France, and at the Battle of the Bulge. The 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion was awarded three Presidential Unit Citations during the war. Twice, at Anzio and during the Battle of the Bulge they held off attacks by superior numbers of the enemy, which had they not, would have arguably changed the outcome of the battle.

In the coming weeks I’ll post more information on the 509th PIB and some excerpts from the book. Soon we’ll have a companion website for the book with some extra pictures and copies of some of the primary source documents. In the meantime, I truly hope you’ll give it a read and let me know what you think:

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Pretzels, Chocolate, and History: Lititz, Pennsylvania

Where has this guy been for two months?! Not roving, I’ll tell you that much. A couple of weeks got shot down when we moved from Hagerstown, MD up to Mechanicsburg, PA. No offense, Maryland, but we like it a lot better up here in Yankee-land. Besides, now I’m only a twenty minute drive from the AHEC!

The rest of the time I’ve been finishing up the manuscript for the book on the 509th Parachute Infantry. When I say “finishing up” I mean editing, which seems like it’s taking as long to do as it did to write the book. We are also now in the layout stage, which means formatting and putting in pictures and maps. All very exciting. I’ll tell you more about that later.

In the meantime, Sheila and Meaghan convinced me to take a day off a couple of weeks ago, so we went for a drive over to Lititz, Pennsylvania, “Lancaster County’s Sweet Spot.” Lititz is a charming (yes, I said charming) little town about ten miles north of Lancaster. Our first destination: The Julius Sturgis Pretzel Bakery.

In 1861, Julius Sturgis established the first pretzel bakery in the New World. It says so on the plaque outside, dedicated by the National Pretzel Bakers Institute. So you know it’s true. Go early, it’s a popular tour and worth it. Our tour guide, Ivy, was very knowledgeable, articulate, and friendly. During the presentation, that lasts about 30 minutes or so, the tour group gets a lesson in how to twist a pretzel. I think “hands on” history is great. And fun too. But it probably wasn’t for the 19th century pretzel makers who had to stand there twisting pretzels all day. After the tour, stop by the shop and pick up a bag for the way home. They also have fresh baked soft pretzels for sale, my favorite.

I admit that I had forgotten that the Wilbur Chocolate factory was in Lititz. That turned out to be a pleasant surprise. I had seen Wilbur featured on one of the Travel Chanel shows. They weren’t kidding, the chocolate is better than Hershey’s, in my humble opinion. So from the Sturgis Pretzel Bakery it is worth a stroll through Lititz a few blocks to the house of chocolate. For over 125 years, Wilbur has been making chocolate in Lititz. Their signature product is the “Wilbur Bud” (not to be thought of as the other guy’s “kiss,” this is waaaay better!). Admittedly, the majority of the square footage in Wilbur’s is devoted to the store. But in the back there is a viewing window where you can watch the chocolate treats being made. On the way is a self-service museum of sorts with lots of antique kitchen utensils and Wilbur ephemera on display.

I know this is sounding a lot like a travel piece, but I have to give a shout out to the girls working at the Sandwich Factory, located about a block north of Wilbur’s. Fantastic burgers, sandwiches, and my personal favorite, batter-dipped and deep fried onion rings. The service with a smile was even better than the food.

You know that every once in a while you have to take a break from military history, for family harmony, if nothing else. I highly recommend a trip to Lititz, PA. A little food history with some samples to bring home, what’s not to love?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Army Heritage Days at the AHEC

This past weekend (May 21st and 22nd) was “Army Heritage Days” at the Army Heritage and Education Center (AHEC) in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Sheila, Meaghan, and I went on Saturday, of course, along with about four thousand fellow military history buffs. It was awesome.

The event was held mainly on the Army Heritage Trail, that I recommended you visit last September. However, the AHEC Foundation also unveiled a new building at the complex that houses a multi-purpose meeting room, and new museum area, and…wait for it…a museum shop and bookstore!

This event drew reenactors from every era of American Military History. Some, naturally, were better than others. But everyone did a great job and shared their enthusiasm for their favorite period of history. My special favorites were the World War I reenactors. Why? First, they were not overweight, [sorry reenactors, you’ve got to look the part, there are way too many chubby Civil War soldiers out there.] Second, they were dirty, [if you are bright and clean, you are not looking realistic, unless of course you are reenacting being in a parade or something.] And third, they really knew their subject [some of you German soldiers were a little weak, hit the books!]

I have traveled around quite a bit, and I have never encountered another place like the Army Heritage Trail, where people can look at, climb on, and immerse themselves in, military history like this. The WWI trench is my favorite; I also like the Vietnam Firebase. I also get to look at a WWII era tank destroyer, which I encountered in my research for my book on the 509th Parachute Infantry during WWII, but had never seen one before.

AHEC Under Threat of Closure

So why would someone want to close this facility? That’s right, the AHEC has been placed on a list for consideration to be closed. The archive materials would go to the Center for Military History at Fort McNair (who says they don’t have room for it) and the museum collection would go to the planned Museum of the United States Army at Fort Belvoir (which hasn’t been built yet and still needs to raise close to $50 million in additional funds to complete). If the AHEC is indeed closed, it will take effect in the 2013 budget year.

Normally, I try very hard to not be political. Oh, I have opinions, but I don’t like to debate because I find that most people argue with their emotions and are pretty short on facts. I must make an exception in this case, however. It is true that I am biased in favor of keeping the AHEC open. I do research there. I enjoy visiting there. But there are valid reasons to protect this facility from the budget ax.

The AHEC provides jobs for Cumberland County. The AHEC brings tourist dollars to Cumberland County. Moving the research material to congested downtown D.C. is in fact inhibiting access to it. Removing the exhibits on the Army Heritage Trail will sadly remove a valuable, one-of-a-kind education resource. Here’s one more for you: It reportedly costs $6 million a year to operate the AHEC. In the recent spending cut mania our country finds itself in, it sounds like that would be big savings. But as the DOD budget goes, that’s like one of us regular folks buying a pack of gum. We’d be able to run the AHEC for years if we would just bring our forces home from Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Libya, a few days early. Why are people crying out to save a few dollars by closing facilities that add to the quality of life, yet ignore our troops overseas and the massive debt we are piling up in order to accomplish…what?

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Paw Paw Tunnel on the C&O Canal

I’ve talked a lot about the C&O Canal on this blog, but that’s because with 184.5 miles of trail, there’s a lot to see. One of the locations I’ve waited all winter to go see is the Paw Paw Tunnel. The spring weather finally arrived and I got in a few bicycle rides to get back to the level of shape I was in last fall. It was finally time to go for a big ride last Saturday.

The Paw Paw Tunnel lies between mileposts 155 and 156, near the appropriately named town of Paw Paw, West Virginia. The builders of the canal decided to cut the tunnel through a ridge to save 5 miles of canal and towpath rather than follow all of the switchbacks of the Potomac River known as the Paw Paw bends. Construction on the tunnel began in 1836, but it took twelve years to complete due to the financial problems of the company and different episodes of labor unrest. After the workers punched through the mountain, it took another two years to place the approximately 5,800,000 bricks that line the tunnel.

The tunnel is about 3100 feet long, or three fifths of a mile. It is only wide enough for one canal boat to transit the tunnel at a time. Therefore, the Paw Paw Tunnel caused a few traffic jams in the heyday of the canal. Boats going down stream would have to yield for those going up river. Before entering the tunnel, a boat would hang a white lantern on their front and a red lantern on the rear, so others would know which way they were going.

You can get to the Paw Paw Tunnel by car. It’s about a half an hour drive from Cumberland, Maryland or an hour from Hancock, Maryland. Plenty of parking is available in the campground just across the river from Paw Paw, West Virginia. Let Google Maps tell you how to get there. For my bike ride on Saturday, I had Sheila drop me off in Hancock. The 32-mile ride along the towpath was full of pretty scenery, but for the most part the several locks and aqueducts on this section of the trail are not nearly as interesting as Williamsport’s aqueduct over the Conococheague (mile 99.6) and Lock 44 (mile 99.1) with its restored lockhouse. The towpath trail narrows as you climb a slight rise into the gorge leading to the tunnel. A boardwalk was built into the side of the gorge and small waterfalls are spilling onto the trail. When you go to visit the tunnel, BRING A FLASHLIGHT or a headlamp. It is mad dark in there and you are going to want a light.

Visiting the Paw Paw Tunnel is definitely worth an afternoon. For all practical purposes, there are no facilities in the town of Paw Paw…a couple of diners, a gas station that sells sodas and snacks, but that’s it. It is a pretty drive through West Virginia and there is a nice park there to eat a picnic lunch. I, of course, recommend riding your bicycle. It is about 28 miles by bicycle from Cumberland and 32 miles north from Hancock. Or bring your bikes with you and take a little ride up and down the towpath. I was pretty happy having my ride home waiting for me on the south side of the tunnel. And that Subway sandwich after the ride was pretty good too. ;-)

Reference for the history of the Paw Paw Tunnel, and mileage locations are from The C&O Canal Companion by Mike High (John Hopkins University Press, 2000).

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Spring has sprung in Maryland!

I knew it would get here if we just waited long enough. Spring is finally here. I’m sure you’ve noticed a reduction in the number of posts over the winter. That is because I turned up the burner on the book and haven’t really been out to any new sites for several months. Nevertheless, my way of checking in with you will be to provide a weather report from Antietam and bring you up-to-date on the writing project.

Antietam by Bicycle

The last post I told you about going for a winter hike at Antietam Battlefield and showed you some pictures of the trails covered in snow. Well, how things change in just a few weeks. Yesterday was our first day over 70 degrees (Thursday it was in the middle 60s). I feel like a groundhog coming out of hibernation. Thursday I took a short bike ride on the C&O Canal. Yesterday, my lovely wife Sheila and I went for a bicycle ride around Antietam.

We parked by the Poffenberger Farm (Auto tour stop number 2) and rode down to Burnside’s Bridge and back. There are a couple of decent hills on the battlefield, but nothing that the average recreational bicycle rider can’t handle. The only thing that made it hard was the fact that we haven’t been working out all winter. Bicycling is a great way to tour the battlefield. It is quiet, you can take in the terrain, and enjoy the warm weather. This is a great time of year for it too, before the summer crowds arrive. We know how lucky we are to live so close to sites like Antietam, Gettysburg, and the C&O Canal. But when you are heading out on vacation, plan a stopover and bring your bicycles. ;-)

When we left the battlefield, we drove out the east side of the park on Mansfield Ave. This country road winds through farmland and intersects with Keedysville Road at the upper bridge over Antietam Creek. This area is outside of the park boundaries. It is the bridge that some of the Union forces, under Hooker and Mansfield, used to cross the Antietam the night before the battle. We saw a man working with a metal detector in a farmer’s field. It all reminded me that the Civil War was not just limited to the area claimed by the National Park Service.

Book Project Update

The book project on the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion continues. We now hope to get the book “on the street” sometime in May or June. Again, as it is my first book project, it is hard to estimate how long it will take to accomplish our intermediate goals. I’m currently working on the sixth of nine chapters. This one concerns fighting in Italy prior to Anzio. As I’ve said before, I wish someone would write a book on how to write a history book. I have started to keep a spreadsheet with daily average writing goals. This seems to be the perfect cure for procrastination, sometimes misidentified as “writer’s block.” Unfortunately, life does get in the way and that makes it hard to estimate completion. The whole family had a bout of the flu the week before last, which kept me from writing for almost a week. And then there was the weekend festival that was my 50th birthday. I’m sure that right now, anyone reading this is probably thinking “quit messing around and finish the book!” Well, I’m right there with you. But even though we want to get to the destination, I’m really enjoying the journey. I only wish I had started sooner.

In December, I sent out a survey letter to a list of surviving WWII veterans who served in the 509th. I’m happy to say that I’ve been in contact with about a half dozen of them. With a couple, I have had lengthy written correspondence or telephone conversations. I’m sure I will have more. I cannot begin to describe what a privilege it is to have these veterans share their stories and pictures with me. I only hope that the book will do them the honor and convey the gratitude that I hope for.

The last bit of news is that Sheila is starting to work on a companion website for the book. We will post some of the primary source documents, additional pictures, some video clips, and appendix articles that compliment the book. Stay tuned, more to follow.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

New Years Roundup

I know I have been remiss in keeping up my blog. An error that I will endeavor to rectify. I hope your New Year is off to a great start. Mine is. I’ve been diligently working on my book project. However, I thought I might take an afternoon off to write about that a few miscellaneous items.

Who says you can’t walk a battlefield in the wintertime?
Okay, I know I did in an earlier post. Nevertheless, this past Saturday morning we walked the Snavely Ford Trail at Antietam Battlefield. This easy hiking trail is under 2 miles. It begins and ends at the parking lot above the Burnside bridge and most of the trail is beside Antietam creek. It was beautiful. We had a good ten inches of snow in that area two days prior. Only a few people had walked it before us. We did not need them, but we actually could have used our snowshoes. The point here is that although the area is historic, hallowed ground…our National Parks like Antietam, Gettysburg, Harpers Ferry, and the C&O Canal are wonderful recreation opportunities. Get off the sofa, get out of the house, and take a hike! It’s a great cure for the winter blues. (or winter grouchiness, whichever the case may be.) If you are not here in Maryland to enjoy the trail yourself, here’s some pictures for you.

Learning how to be a writer…
One of the best things my dad ever did was to teach me how to read. When I was a little kid, still in elementary school, he’d take me to the public library to get books. He told me that whatever you wanted to know, someone had written a book about it. I used to think that was true, but unfortunately I have never found a book that tells you how to be a popular history writer. I wish Steven Ambrose had written about his methods of research, organization, writing habits, etc.

This is my first book. Therefore, there is a learning curve. I have never written anything this long before, and the majority of my other writing was done in a more academic style. I hope that I will do the veterans of the 509th Parachute Infantry justice. While I will not disclose any of the work until it is finished, I can talk about the process, which is exciting. Well, if you are a history geek like me, it is exciting. I’ve gathered my research through several trips to the AHEC and NARA. I’ve corresponded and conducted telephone interviews with several veterans of the 509th, which is an honor. They have been very open, forthright, and have even shared photographs that I have not seen in archives or other sources.

I’m enjoying this process so much that Sheila and I are already talking about the subject of the next project. It might be something during the Vietnam period, or Army Aviation, of which I am intimately familiar having served as an instructor pilot. A veteran of the unit suggested the 509th project to me and I am forever grateful for him steering me toward this compelling story. I know there are others out there.

I’ve completed the first draft of about a third of this book. I have a sense of urgency to finish the project by the time of the next 509th reunion this summer. I’ll share with my fellow would-be writers the perfect cure for writer’s block (procrastination). Just make up a spreadsheet with a column for the day and one for the number of words you wrote. Pick an average number of words a day you want to write like 500 or 1,000 (harder than it sounds). If you fall behind your goal average, you don’t get a day off. Treat it like a job or that long-term project will never get finished. So if you don’t hear from me, I’m in the office working, where I’m supposed to be. ;-)

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