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
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.

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