Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Why You Should Write A History

I used Grammarly to grammar check this post, because friends don't let friends read blog posts that have not been properly proofed. 

Because History Needs You
I’m writing to those people who enjoy reading history, watching documentaries, visiting museums, and traveling to historic sites. In other words, people like me. Why should you write a history book? Because all history is local and our collective memory needs you to document it.

Let me give you an example. Perhaps during WWII there was a POW camp that housed German or Italian prisoners, or maybe a Japanese-American Internment camp near where you live. If you write a book about that site, perhaps a historian who is working on our treatment of prisoners of war or Japanese internees on a national scale will use your book and others about camps at other locations for references in writing his or her tome. Congratulations! You just added to the historical record and helped to maintain our collective national memory. This is the same scenario that benefits me when veterans write about their experiences or a history of their military unit.

Yes, you have to write it. Audio oral histories are great, so are documentary videos, but the written word is still our medium of expression in the field. If you want, you can make someone help you, but you still have to write it down. One of the “writer’s blocks” I've heard most often is the idea that one shouldn't bother writing a book if they think they will never get it published. Well, that’s where today’s technology makes that kind of stinkin’ thinkin’ completely obsolete.

There are plenty of books and articles about researching and writing a nonfiction book. I just want to add in my admonition to edit, fact check, and then proofread. Make sure you can document every factual statement in your text (that’s what footnotes are for). Once you’re done, give your manuscript to someone else to proofread, and then someone else and someone else. The more eyes on the manuscript the better. When I wrote my book, “The Boldest Plan is the Best,” I had three people review the manuscript and there were still errors found after publication. If you need help in this area, you might look at an automated editor like Grammarly, or hire a low cost human to proof your book. Luckily, it doesn't cost you anything to make corrections when you are self-publishing with print-on-demand.

With print-on-demand services like CreateSpace, you can be both writer and publisher. Check out some of these services. I like CreateSpace and highly recommend it. You can format your manuscript in Microsoft Word, upload it to your account, and have it automatically produced in both print and Kindle format, listed for sale on Amazon. The proceeds from any sales will be paid to your bank account every month. But making money is your business. I’m pleading with you to add to the historical record, so I want you to donate a few copies to some very specific places.

First I want you to register the copyright on your book with U.S. Copyright Office. To accomplish this, you will have to send two copies of your book. One copy will go into the vault and the other will be available for circulation in the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. Next donate copies to your local libraries, both public and university. Finally, if you would be so kind, make sure to donate a copy to every archive and research library, especially your local historical society, where you found information to include in your book. That way, the historians who follow will be able to locate your book, read what your thoughts were, and add to them with their own work.

What’s in it for you? There are definitely some great benefits to writing a book; unfortunately money isn't one of them. Face it, the vast majority of history books sell in the hundreds of copies, not the tens and hundreds of thousands. We are an extreme niche market, we consumers of history. So unless you are Rick Atkinson, Nathaniel Philbrick, Hampton Sides, or Eric Larson (some of my favorite narrative history authors) you will be lucky to earn enough to pay for picture rights or even just the postage to mail out some promotional copies. However, what is more valuable in my opinion is the feeling of accomplishment you gain from writing a book and “putting it out there.” You will have completed something that very few people ever start, much less complete. And you will have left a lasting legacy that will be appreciated for a long time. So I thank you in advance and wish you luck on your project!

Monday, August 19, 2013

Book R & R: The Last Battle

This Book Review and Recommendation is on "The Last Battle: When U.S. and German Soldiers Joined Forces in the Waning Hours of World War II in Europe" by Stephen Harding.

"The Last Battle" is the story of the Battle for Schloss Itter in Austria that took place on May 5, 1945. This was five days after Adolf Hitler committed suicide and just two days before the end of WWII in Europe. The castle outside the village of Itter, Austria was used by the Nazis as a VIP prison for (mostly French) political prisoners during the war. It was under the administration of the Dachau concentration camp, less than a hundred miles to the north in the suburbs of Munich. As the war was winding down and American forces were advancing, the castle's guards deserted and left the prisoners to their own devises. The French diplomats correctly assumed that retreating SS units would arrive at the castle and execute them. They sent runners to find American forces to come to their aid, while also contacting the local Wehrmacht (German Army) commander who had let the local resistance forces know that he was anti-Nazi and wished a peaceful surrender.

An American rescue mission comes in the form of a platoon-sized task force from the 12th Armored Division commanded by CPT Jack Lee. Unfortunately because of various problems on the road during this behind the lines mission, Lee arrives with only one Sherman tank and about fourteen American soldiers. The Wehrmacht contingent who voluntarily chose to join the Americans and help defend the castle against the approaching SS forces consisted of two officers and about ten soldiers. This small force of Americans and Germans, along with a few of the French prisoners, defend Schloss Itter against an attack by the Waffen-SS from the early morning hours of May 5th until a relief column from the American 142nd Infantry Regiment arrives late in day.

This story is a perfect example of the legitimacy behind the cliche that "sometimes truth is stranger than fiction." Stephen Harding tells a good story and is to be congratulated for bringing it to us. Unfortunately it is a short story, although that is not the fault of the author. The Battle for Schloss Itter is too long a tale to be abridged into a magazine article, but too short for a 300-page monograph. "The Last Battle" comes in at about 173 pages not counting the back matter. That includes a thorough history of the castle and the biography of each of the French prisoners, which slows the story down for those who are anxious to hear of this unique situation where "regular" German soldiers joined with their American and French enemies to fight the SS. Other than that, once the Americans come into the area of operations, the story becomes a "page turner." What I found most interesting (as I usually do) is the epilogue where the reader learns what the players in this story did with the rest of their lives.

"The Last Battle" is a good story well told of an improbable episode in WWII history.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Book R & R: The Sword of St. Michael

This Book Review and Recommendation is on "The Sword of St. Michael: The 82nd Airborne Division in World War II" by Guy LoFaro.

There are books that cover all airborne operations in WWII like "Paratrooper!" by Gerard Devlin. There are books that cover airborne operations in the European Theater of the Second World War like "Ridgway's Paratroopers" by Clay Blair. Additionally there are multiple unit histories of the parachute infantry regiments and battalions that were part of the 82nd Airborne. But until "The Sword of St. Michael" was released in 2011 (practically on the same day that we published "The Boldest Plan"), there was a real scarcity of books that were devoted strictly to the All American Division's WWII combat history. (Contrary to what the book description for "The Sword of St. Michael" claims, it is not the only history of the 82nd Airborne in WWII. Most notably, Phil Nordyke's "All American, All the Way" from 2005 comes to mind, also with very positive reviews.)

Author Guy LoFaro is a West Point graduate with a Ph.D. who served several tours with the 82nd Airborne Division. He has written a comprehensive (and I do mean comprehensive, coming in at 784 pages) history in an engaging style that will hold the reader's attention.  I found it interesting how LoFaro treats the points where the history the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion intersect with that of the 82nd Airborne Division. Since there is not much more that I can add to the twenty 5-star reviews (at the time of this writing) of the book on, I thought I might share those points with you here.

Of course LoFaro covers the history of airborne from da Vinci to the Test Platoon. That's pretty much obligatory for a book on the early days of the airborne. Though I was disappointed that the author did not mention the deployments of the 509th PIB (then as the 2/503rd PIR), or the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment as preceding that of the All-American Division. However, the book is about the 82nd Airborne Division, so I have to concede that in the long view that information was not germane to the unit's history.

The first mention of the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion is when the units came together in Oudja (p.70). LoFaro talks about the attachment of the Geronimos and is very forthright in explaining General Matthew Ridgway's dislike of Edson Raff. He also explains the tiff between Ridgway and British General Browning. The author confesses that because of these situations, for the 509th PIB, "it meant banishment to Ridgway's doghouse."

"The Sword of St. Michael" discusses the Geronimos' Avellino jump in conjunction with the 82nd Airborne's jump on the Salerno beachhead (pp. 142-144). In my opinion, the author took the view that the 509th PIB's Avellino operation had no affect on the battle for Salerno. In fact, he says that the drop was "a disaster," which is not untrue. However, he further submits that the Geronimos' operations behind the lines were only "a minor nuisance" to the Germans. LoFaro quotes General James Gavin when he said that "it is doubtful that it had any decisive bearing on the outcome of the Battle of Salerno." But the author chose not to include any quotes of those who felt the Avellino jump was necessary and paid dividends. Like General Mark Clark, the Fifth Army commander, for example.

The only other point where the Gingerbread Men appear in "The Sword of St. Michael" is when the author mentions that the 82nd received replacements from the 509th and the 551st PIBs (p. 526). He states simply that those units were disbanded because of such heavy combat losses.

Overall "The Sword of St. Michael" is an outstanding history of the All American Division. It is, however, a very pro-82nd Airborne book and my only other criticism is that I would have liked to hear more from the veterans of the Division describing their experiences in their own voices. Nevertheless, if you are only going to read one book about the 82nd Airborne Division during WWII, "The Sword of St. Michael" would be a good choice.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Museum Visit: Presidio of Monterey

The Presidio of Monterey Museum
Corporal Ewing Road in Lower Presidio Historic Park
Monterey, California

The Presidio Museum is a small building located in the
Lower Presidio Historic Park in Monterey, California.
Some of our most interesting history trips materialize on the fly, and for some reason that seems to happen quite often in California. For example, a few years ago Sheila and I were headed out for a day hike in Pinnacles National Park when a rain drop hit the windshield (Californians DO NOT go hiking in the rain, unlike our Seattle-selves). So we just steered right over to Salinas to see the Steinbeck Center, which turned out to be one of my favorite museum experiences of all time. But I's how we wound up at the Presidio:

A couple of weeks ago, Sheila and I are headed over to Monterey to ride our bikes on the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail. This "Monterey Bay bike path" runs about 18 miles from Castroville through Seaside and old Monterey right past Fisherman's Wharf and Cannery Row up to Pacific Grove. Anyway...we unload the bikes and we've got a flat with no spare tube or patch kit. As I almost never say (out loud), when disaster strikes go find a museum. Instead of biking we decided to spend the day walking around Monterey, which included a stop at the Presidio of Monterey Museum.

During our visit the museum was staffed by a very
well-informed docent.
The Presidio of Monterey started out as a Spanish military installation established by Captain Gaspar de Portola in 1770, the same year that Father Junipero Serra founded the nearby Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo. The mission and military presence in Monterey Bay was, according to Portola's orders, "to occupy and defend the port from the atrocities of the Russians, who were about to invade us." Makes sense. But as I'm sure you know, the Russians did not exploit their position in California. Not did the Spanish fully occupy California either. The port, the fort, and the rest of the Golden State came into U.S. possession in 1846 during the war with Mexico. Since then, the Presidio has been an American military installation to some degree or another. Most important to me is that the Presidio of Monterey was home to the 11th Cavalry Regiment from 1919 until 1940. As a veteran of the Blackhorse Regiment, you feel kind of drawn to the place. Today, the Presidio is home to the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center (DLIFLC) or, as everyone in the Army called it, "the army language school."

Unfortunately, the museum has only a few artifacts, but
has well prepared waysides and photo displays.
The Presidio is a small post, surrounded by the city of Monterey. But the post museum is easy to drive to. The Defense Department gave a portion of the installation to Monterey, which has dubbed it "Lower Historic Park" and there is no gate guards or security to pass to reach the museum. I highly recommend driving up to the museum though. Although you can see it from Fisherman's Wharf, traffic and lack of sidewalks makes it really not feasible to walk or bike there from the marina area. The museum is a small building, and unfortunately they do not hold a great many artifacts. Also, if you are a fan of museum bookstores, there really isn't one here. So I would suggest you read up on the history of the Presidio before you come. If you don't want to invest in some pre-visit reading, not to worry. The volunteer docent on duty during our visit was quite knowledgeable and very eager to share that knowledge with everyone who stopped by. There were two things that I enjoyed most about the Presidio of Monterey Museum. First was that the museum had acquired some copies of old Signal Corps film footage and had set up small theater station to watch it. My favorite video of course was the film of cavalry recruits in the 1930s learning how to ride and care for their horses. The second thing was simply the location. If you walk across from the small museum parking area toward the bay, you'll see a monument to Father Serra. From the location of that monument you'll be able to see why that position was originally chosen as a location for a fort. One has a commanding view of Monterey Bay.

The location of the Spanish Fort would have had command
over the entire Monterey Bay.
Although the museum visit probably only took about 30-45 minutes, by an odd coincidence, we were there at the same time, and we had the opportunity to meet the current Command Sergeant Major of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, CSM Stephen J. Travers. He was on vacation with his family (on their way back down to Fort Irwin, the current home of the 11th ACR), when they decided to stop and see the former home of the 11th Cavalry, just like us. Did I tell you that this place has a certain draw? CSM Travers was a very personable and impressive individual and I enjoyed meeting and talking with him briefly. He graciously invited us to visit the Fort Irwin and 11th Armored Cavalry Museum at the National Training Center (NTC), which I fully intend to do one day soon.

Recommended Reading
I'm going to hazard a guess that the Presidio of Monterey does not get as much visitor traffic as they would like. Heck, even the Monterey County Convention and Visitors website fails to mention the POM museum from their "Historic Attractions" page! I admit that it is a small museum that doesn't take much time to walk through, but it is an enjoyable visit. Additionally, with no maneuver units based at Presidio and Fort Ord now closed and turned into a park, a visit to the Presidio of Monterey Museum will show you how important the Army was to the development of the central California coast. You won't regret adding the museum to your Monterey itinerary.

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