Reflections on the Spirit of Independence

Declaration_independenceI admit it.  I’m a bit of a history nerd.

Make that an American history nerd.  It’s difficult for me to get interested in the ancient history of Old Europe or the Greeks or the Roman Empire.  For me, it’s a matter of direct effect.  Although American society has its foundation atop the successful and advanced societies that preceded, it’s difficult for those ancient predecessors to elicit an excitement in me that overshadows the more recent authors of purely American success.

But that’s just me …

What really holds my fascination whenever I take the opportunity to reflect on our earliest American history is the foresight and fortitude demonstrated by our Founding Fathers, and the difficult and sordid compromises they made to bring to fruition a tenuous but entirely necessary experiment in Independence from tyranny.

In 1776, an eclectic collection of leaders, renown primarily within their regional communities, met for a second time in Philadelphia.  (The first Continental Congress met in 1774.)  They brought with them the depth and breadth of institutions, economics, religious beliefs, and governing philosophies prominent where they lived to Philadelphia in order to argue and decide the fate of British colonies chafing under the capricious actions of rulers residing a full ocean away.

These men were far from perfect.  Some held some views on women and slavery that many – living now – would characterize as appallingly backward or downright inhumane.  Some of them surely recognized - or at least refused to confront – their conflicted positions on the Equality of all Men, while themselves holding men in slavery.  And in the end, we like to think their better angels had no choice but to kick several very large cans of worms into the future.  These cans or worms required generations to resolve.  The biggest unresolvable issue - Slavery – eventually demanded the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands 85 years later in a civil war that threatened to tear apart a still fragile Union.

These compromises they made because they were blessed with a yearning that rendered one choice paramount to all irreconcilable differences …

Independence from England …. Freedom from oppressive rulers!

What I find most fascinating of all is that this Second Continental Congress was successful at all!

Think of the mindsets that drove a loose collection of men from geographically extended colonies with no standing army or navy; rife with regional differences; and faced with moral shortcomings that differed not just on Equality, but the actual definition of Man to slap the insolent glove of challenge across the face of the largest and strongest empire that existed on Earth at the time!

Battle_of_Guiliford_Courthouse_15_March_1781Yes, they were fallible; and perhaps they were morally weak by today’s standards.  But they were also the social and political elite, who in the end had the most to lose if the insurrection failed.  Many of them would have been hunted down and killed, and their families as well.  Their property scattered among the triumphant British generals, if the miracle of victory was not somehow accomplished.

When I read about those days in the latter stages of the 1700s, I like to think that the stronger minds that were present knew that what they were putting into motion was an imperfect solution to an unavoidable problem.  That their only choice was a somewhat soiled compromise to accomplish a greater good.

They had faith that an initial success, no matter how unlikely to succeed against a well-trained British military, would allow for growth and an abiding strength for future generations to tackle the problems they could not resolve when forming a less perfect Union.  If they did think that way, they were prescient, even if those changes came by way of dramatic sacrifice and untold sufferings.

The image that comes to me this year on Independence Day is a fanciful look back through these 238 years into that hot, stuffy room in Philadelphia.  In that moment those brave men can also see the progress, the obstacles, the conflicts, and the sacrifices that have been experienced and overcome; and what those efforts have wrought.  They can see exactly how far their not-so-little experiment has grown.

At either ends of this fantastic time tunnel, both groups stand 238 years apart and in absolute awe of each other.

Enjoy your 4th of July!

 

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Why we celebrate Memorial Day

memorial-dayAs we enjoy another long weekend, courtesy of those who fought and died to ensure the success of our national experiment, remember those who made it possible even though they never made it home.

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Col. Francis J. McGouldrick Jr. returned home this past December, 45 years after being lost over Laos during the Vietnam War.

COL Francis J. McGouldrick Jr.

COL Francis J. McGouldrick Jr.

On Dec. 13, 1968, McGouldrick served as a navigator on a B-57E Canberra on a night strike mission when the aircraft collided with a C-123 Provider over Savannakhet Province. McGouldrick was never seen again and was listed as missing in action. In July 1978, a military review board amended McGouldrick’s official status to presumed killed in action, according to a DOD POW/Missing Personnel Office news release.

Between 1993 and 2004, several attempts to locate the crash site proved unsuccessful, but on April 8, 2007, a joint team located a possible crash site near the village of Keng Keuk. From October 2011 to May 2012, joint U.S. and Laos teams recovered human remains and aircraft wreckage consistent with a B-57E.

Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command scientists and the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory used circumstantial evidence and forensic identification tools, such as mitochondrial DNA, which matched McGouldrick’s great nephew and niece, to identify McGouldrick, according to the release.

Before the family received the answers they’d been searching for since they first learned McGouldrick was declared missing, his wife Jacqueline and two siblings died. However, his children and grandchildren were able to finally see him return and receive the burial with full military honors he was due.  (Taken from www.af.mil)

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Army SGT 1st Class Joseph E. Gantt – On December 28, 2013 the remains of SGT 1st Class Joseph E. Gantt were returned to his widow 60 years after he went missing during a Chinese offensive in North Korea.  His wife, who met him in 1942 as he prepared to fight in his first war, never remarried in hopes that some day she would be reunited with the man she loved.

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SGT 1st Class Joseph Gantt

Joseph Gantt was reported missing in action on November 30, 1950, while serving with Battery C, 503rd Field Artillery, 2nd Infantry Division, according to the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office in Washington, D.C.

According to the office, elements of the 2nd Infantry Division were attacked by greater numbers of Chinese forces near the town of Kunu-ri, North Korea.

The division disengaged and withdrew, fighting its way through a series of Chinese roadblocks.  Numerous U.S. soldiers were reported missing that day in the vicinity of Somindong, North Korea.

After a 1953 exchange of prisoners of war, returning U.S. soldiers reported that Gantt had been injured in battle, captured by Chinese forces and died in a POW camp in early 1951 from malnutrition and lack of medical care. (Excerpt taken from mailonline.com)

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USMC jets pass in tribute the memorial on Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima

Flyby tribute to the USMC memorial on Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima

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Private Joseph Gandara – On March 14, 2014 President Barack Obama presented 19 long overdue Medals of Honor.  Among the recipients was Private Joe Gandara of Santa Monica, CA.

From his Medal Of honor citation:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty:

Private Joseph Gandara

Private Joseph Gandara

Private Joe Gandara distinguished himself by acts of gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty while serving with Company D, 2d Battalion, 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 17th Airborne Division during combat operations against an armed enemy in Amfreville, France on June 9, 1944.

On that day, Private Gandara’s detachment came under devastating enemy fire from a strong German force, pinning the men to the ground for a period of four hours. Private Gandara voluntarily advanced alone toward the enemy position. Firing his machine gun from his hip as he moved forward, he destroyed three hostile machine guns before he was fatally wounded.

Private Gandara’s extraordinary heroism and selflessness at the cost of his own life, above and beyond the call of duty, are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit and the United States Army.

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Edward J. Kelley

Edward J. Kelley

Please take the time to read the story of Philadelphian, Edward J. Kelley, a graduate of Roman Catholic High School, who was killed while in service with the all-volunteer American Ambulance Corps during World War I in France months before the United States entered the war.

One could argue that his story, as it appears in Sunday’s The Philadelphia Inquirer is not technically recognition consistent with the true meaning of Memorial Day, since Kelley was not serving in a conflict yet including direct U.S. involvement.  My argument would be that Kelley’s actions magnificently demonstrate American heroism in its desire to make a difference when other people are suffering the inhumanities of war.

Finally, experience the somber respect demonstrated by airline passengers this past October, when a hero was transported back to his family on a Delta Airlines flight from Atlanta to Los Angeles.

And as we all enjoy what looks to be a gorgeous weekend here on the East Coast, be sure to take a few moments to remember those – both past and present, living and passed – who make it all possible.

That day in November …

riderless horse

A look at the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy through the eyes of a 7-year-old …

My memories of that day in 1963 are disjointed and spotty.  About what you would expect from a 7-year-old, who was too young to grasp the significance, the gravity of what had happened … A child too innocent to realize how harsh the world could be.

I was barely aware that John F. Kennedy was President.  My appreciation for what he meant to the country politically or to my Irish-Catholic parents culturally was lost among the toys and activities of a sheltered childhood.

Lyndon B. Johnson  takes The Oath of Office

Lyndon B. Johnson
takes The Oath of Office

I can remember sitting in Sister Ann David‘s first-grade class at the Immaculate Conception grade school on Chelten Avenue in the East Germantown section of Philadelphia, PA.  It was nearing lunchtime.  I had yet to completely synchronize my internal clock to the rigidity of your typical Catholic school day.  So I was constantly counting down the minutes to when I could leap from my seat (single file line, of course!); grab my lunch; then run around the schoolyard until the interminable afternoon session began.

The first announcement was sudden and confusing.  Something along the lines of “Please say a prayer, the President has been shot!”

Then several minutes later the statement - much more subdued and uncrushed than the first - resulting in days of dread for those older than me, including those selfless Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary …

TV shot“The President is dead.”

Much of the rest of that morning is lost, that is until I got home early that afternoon after a hurried dismissal.

The oddities in a chain reaction, started on an unknown street in Texas, rippled for days through the country and the rest of the world like a rock that’s dropped into a still pond.  Our home was no different.

Coming home to find Mom on the living room couch, tears in her eyes, hand to her mouth as she watched the small black and white TV.  Dad coming home from work at the steel plant early and joining her in front of the TV - before even showering – for what seemed like hours.  Watching unfolding scenes from Dallas, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia.  Mom beside herself; Dad comforting her with that dazed look on his face.

philly.com: When TV discovered what it could do

caissonDays where even the slightest sound or disturbance would illicit an urgent ‘Shhhhh …!” or a more comforting invitation to watch with them something I could not quite grasp.  A nighttime broadcast of an airplane, a hearse, a coffin on a high lift, groups of solemn people, a woman named Jackie, a new President …

Even in my child-eyed innocence I knew something profound had occurred … something ominous, unexpected, and shocking to every adult I saw.  You sensed their disbelief, their anger, their mourning.

They tried to explain what had happened, to whom it had happened, and why it was so incredibly sad.  You tried to understand.  You stayed close to your parents because you could feel an overwhelming sadness coming from them.  As a child, it was unsettling.

For four days our little world among a small strip of working-class homes revolved around a tiny TV set.  Back then this was an extraordinary exception to normal life.  I struggled to make sense of the images.

AP: Nation stopped for funeral

Entering Arlington National Cemetary

Entering Arlington National Cemetary

A closed casket sitting for days in front of a ceaseless procession of everyday citizens and dignataries, a parade like no other you had ever seen … a riderless horse, a two-piece caisson, funeral dirges in lieu of John Phillip Sousa marches, a church funeral service shown live on TV, a little boy caught in a child’s salute, something called an eternal flame …

At some point, it seemed like everything went back to normal, although I doubt any of those people I had seen or stayed close to over those four endless days ever felt that it did.

eternal flame

JFK’s Eternal Flame
at Arlington National Cemetary

When finally they came Home

Corporal Michael J. Crescenz

Corporal Michael J. Crescenz

Veterans Day 

November 11, 2013

As has been my habit here from time to time, allow me to honor the following individuals in recognition of Veterans Day 2013.  I use their stories in memory of all who have served.

My only expectation from this small gesture is for the reader to spend a few moments reflecting on the immensity of their sacrifice and the anguish of those who loved them.

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William H. Pitsenbarger joined the U.S. Air Force after graduating high school in 1962.  He volunteered to become a pararescue specialist and arrived in Vietnam in August 1965.  On April 22, 1966 his unit (38th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron, Detachment 6) was sent to support elements of the Big Red One surrounded in the jungle near Saigon.

As Pitsenbarger’s HH-43 Huskie attempted to extract wounded soldiers from the triple canopy jungle battlefield, his crew observed ground troops having difficulty loading the wounded onto the litter hoists.  Pitsenbarger volunteered to be lowered to the ground to assist the ground troops.

William H. Pitsenbarger

Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger

As fighting intensified, the helos were driven off by ground fire and Pitsenbarger was forced to stay with the infantry as they fought through the night.  Not only did he tend to the wounded, he helped the ground troops fight on by running ammunition to where it was needed.  At some point he was mortally wounded while fighting beside the infantry.

Pitsenbarger was 21 years old when he was killed in action.  He was awarded the Medal of Honor on December 8, 2000.

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SGT Dominick Licari, born on October 18, 1912, was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942.  In 1944 his flight of three A-20G Havoc bombers went missing after a mission in northeastern New Guinea.

Sergeant Dominick Licari

Sargeant Dominick Licari

The wreckage of the plane which carried him and pilot 2nd Lt. Valorie Pollard was not located on the thick jungle mountainside into which they crashed until 1989.  It took three additional visits until 14 bone fragments were discovered in 2012 to finally identify his remains through DNA analysis.

His brother, Mort, always held out hope that his brother would be found and returned to the family’s cemetary plot during the 67 years he was away. Licari was scheduled to be interred at Mt. Olivet near Utica, NY.

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The story of Michael J. Crescenz‘s childhood sounds a lot  like many of us who grew up in big cities.  A Roman Catholic education in the West Oak Lane section of Philadelphia and playing stickball, wall ball, wiffle ball, etc. with his five brothers from dawn to dusk.  Then off to Cardinal Dougherty High School and graduation in the era of the Vietnam War.

I was lucky.  I graduated from Father Judge High School (a rival school located in Northeast Philadelphia) in 1974.  The war was winding down; and an armistice was signed in the midst of my junior year.  There was no pressing need for service in the military, so off I went to college, a good job, and raising a family.

bildeMike Crescenz landed in in Vietnam in September 1968 as a rifleman in Alpha Company, Fourth Battalion, 31st Infantry, 196th Brigade, Americal Division.  Just two months later, on November 20, his unit walked into an ambush near Nui Chom, a 3000-foot high, thickly covered jungle redoubt laced with enemy machine gun bunkers near Da Nang.

His unit was pinned down with several men wounded on the point.  Crescenz grabbed an M-60 machine gun and charged the length of a football field to assault the bunkers.

His Medal of Honor citation reads in part:

Immediately, Cpl. Crescenz left the relative safety of his own position, seized a nearby machine gun and, with complete disregard for his safety, charged 100 meters up a slope toward the enemy’s bunkers which he effectively silenced, killing the 2 occupants of each. Undaunted by the withering machine gun fire around him, Cpl. Crescenz courageously moved forward toward a third bunker which he also succeeded in silencing, killing 2 more of the enemy and momentarily clearing the route of advance for his comrades. Suddenly, intense machine gun fire erupted from an unseen, camouflaged bunker. Realizing the danger to his fellow soldiers, Cpl. Crescenz disregarded the barrage of hostile fire directed at him and daringly advanced toward the position. Assaulting with his machine gun, Cpl. Crescenz was within 5 meters of the bunker when he was mortally wounded by the fire from the enemy machine gun. 

Michael Crescenz was 19 years old.  He was the only Philadelphian to earn the Medal of Honor for actions taken in the Vietnam War.

A bill is before Congress to name the Philadelphia Veterans  Medical Center in honor of Michael J. Crescenz.

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Major Louis Guillermin

Major Louis Guillermin

This past October 7 Donna Stoyko was amazed at the turnout for a husband she had lost 45 years ago in a plane over Laos.

MAJ Louis Guillermin was a navigator on an A-26A aircraft on a night mission to disrupt supply routes along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  His plane, flown by Lt. Col. Robert Pietsch, flying his last mission before moving to a desk job, was blown to pieces in an explosion.

Stoyko, who had married Louis just a year before, knew from those who were there that night that her husband would never be coming home.  Yet she had to wait those 45 years to lay him to rest.

Lt. Col. Robert Pietsch

Lt. Col. Robert Pietsch

Their plane wreckage was not found until 1994.  However recovery efforts had to wait until the area could be cleared of explosives.  When the site was eventually excavated they found a wristwatch, a strand of Gulliermin’s hair, and one long leg bone.  His dog tags were found in the soil beneath the wreckage.

When Stoyko returned to West Chester, PA last month to bury her first husband, she was grateful to see the turnout which included over 100 motorcycles in escort provided by the Chester County Vietnam Veterans of America, hundreds of American flags posted around the Oxford (PA) funeral home, and flag-draped fire trucks on every overpass along Route 1.

It was a far cry from the way many Vietnam veterans were greeted when they came home from a very unpopular war.

Please remember them and all veterans who served and are serving our country.

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power (Jon Meacham)

Thomas Jefferson 3rd President of the United States

Thomas Jefferson
3rd President of the United States

Jon Meacham‘s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power is the fourth book of his I have read.

Meacham makes history easy to read for even the most casual fan of U.S. history.  His management of theme through the issues of the day and the personality of the subject helps the reader see a broader picture of a man like Thomas Jefferson.

His approach to describing in overview the important events and critical issues; developments and solutions that evolved; giving the reader the essential insights without bogging down in a load of minutia.  Meacham’s works are thoroughly footnoted, which helps the real history junkie decide where they might like to do more in-depth reading or research.

The American Revolution, and the birth of the country which followed is a favorite subject of mine.  Of particular interest is the collection of men that came together in challenging times to take a dangerous stand against England; risking life and property for Liberty; then steering a course towards constitutional government that resulted in a Republic now over two centuries old.

These men were the wealthiest, most educated, and most successful in the American colonies.  But …

These men were not perfect.  They had their flaws.  Yet they came together and created a politically complex national union out of disparate regions and competing interests in such a way that enabled growth; promoted its survival through the tests of time; and allowed it to emerge from the crucibles of several dramatic – even catastrophic – national and international crises as an even stronger nation.

George Washington appointed Jefferson  the first U.S. Secretary of State

George Washington appointed Jefferson
the first U.S. Secretary of State

Thomas Jefferson‘s contributions to the success of The Great American Experiment in the period between George Washington‘s inaugural as our first President and Jefferson own presidency (following John Adams) were – in my opinion – the most compelling .

Citizens with a casual appreciation for American history might believe that once the U.S. Constitution was ratified as the Law of the Land, the Forefathers simply finger-skimmed the honored document whenever a question of function or politics arose.  But The Constitution was but a “blueprint” with many operational and philosophical issues undefined or at the very least open to all manner of nuance and interpretation.

Thomas Jefferson was one of those flawed individuals that rose to play a prominent role in taking that constitutional blueprint and – if I can stretch an analogy – installing the wiring and plumbing that allowed the Government to relate as best as possible to the People it would govern.  It was a herculean task that required the input and at times the nastiest of opposition between Federalists and Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans to negotiate a national vision from contending philosophies of governance.

Jefferson was a study in contradictions throughout his personal life and public service.

Sally Hemings

Sally Hemings

1.  He was a man who passionately subscribed to the concept of Individual Liberty.  He made several attempts early in his public career to advance the concept of slave emancipation in the Virginia colony.  He provided insights for the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen via the Marquis de Lafayette, which became the central theme of the French Revolution; and he fought hard against John Adam’s Alien and Sedition Acts.

Yet he continued to own slaves; using one – Sally Hemings – as a concubine; and went so far as to maintain their offspring as slaves until they turned age 21 or until his death in 1826.

2.  As a member of Washington’s first American government, serving as its first Secretary of State, Jefferson fought aggressively with fellow Democratic-Republican James Madison to counter the Federalist’s efforts (Led by Alexander Hamilton and John Adams.) to create a strong national government with a singularly powerful Chief Executive.  Jefferson was fearful that such a strong centralized authority, with the prospects for close ties with Great Britain, would eventually whittle away at individual liberties.

James Madison Fellow Democratic-Republican

James Madison
Fellow Democratic-Republican

However, when he served as President himself, he found a way to expand the powers of the presidency in order to take full advantage of a French proposal to effectively double the size of the United States through the Louisiana Purchase.

3.  Jefferson was an accomplished author of A Summary View of the Rights of British America (a list of grievances against King George III), The Declaration of Independence, and as contributor to the French Constitution.

But he wrote only one published book in his life, Notes on the State of Virginia.  And he was not much of a public speaker for such a renown politician and communicator!

Meacham’s primary theme emphasizes that in his quest for power, that he wanted for the good he felt he could accomplish, Jefferson was a practical politician.  He had his ideologies, his strongly held positions.  But Jefferson believed in “limited government” only to the extent that it was practicable.  If he thought a more expansive government was the better option in the best interests of the country (e.g. Jefferson’s quick actions to accept and ratify the Louisiana Purchase), he held no qualms about pushing the National Government’s reach and authority.

In the end, both the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans enjoyed a mixed success influencing the path of The Grand Experiment.  As bad as contentions grew in the early years of the Republic, it was clear both Federalists and Democratic-Republicans were advocating what they believed was best for The Country.

One can only hope the current crop in Washington, D.C. feels the same way for all the right reasons.  They certainly give you reason to question their over-arching objectives

A very cool John Adams

A very cool John Adams

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams formed the opposing poles of American political thought from 1790 to 1809, when Jefferson left the presidency.  They were close friends at one point, including Jefferson’s pleasant plutonic relationship with Abigail Adams; strong allies during the colonial confrontations with Britain; friends and co-commissioners to Europe (along with Ben Franklin) for the infant U.S.; and then nasty political opposites during those formative years of the constitutional republic.

They served as consecutive Presidents, then went to their separate corners of the country after leaving office.  They eventually renewed their friendship years later with frequent letters.  And on July 4, 1826 – coincidentally the 50th anniversary of the issuance of The Declaration of Independence - within hours of each other, first John Adams and then Thomas Jefferson shook lose their mortal coils and left the rest of the work on the grand experiment to later generations of Americans.

Other interesting aspects of Thomas Jefferson learned from Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power:

  • Jefferson received his early inspiration for public life and politics at the age of 22, when he heard Patrick Henry give his treasonous Stamp Act speech in opposition to British taxation.
  • Jefferson’s term as Governor of Virginia changed his view on the use of authority.  His oft criticized indecisiveness and timidity during the British invasion of the colony in 1780 were also valuable lessons in leadership and government.

    Patrick Henry gives his Stamp Act speech

    Patrick Henry gives his
    Stamp Act speech

  • Jefferson was derisively referred to as “the negro president” by opposing Federalists, who disliked the congressional advantage Virginia and the other southern states enjoyed due to the 3/5 clause on The Constitution.
  • It took 36 ballots in the House of Representatives to finally confirm Thomas Jefferson as the 3rd U.S. President.  (Electoral College ties, which go to the House of Representatives, were common early in the Republic.)
  • Jefferson may have been the earliest President subject to an assassination plot (December 1804), although no overt attempt was actually made.
  • He requested just three of his accomplishments be etched upon his gravestone:  The Declaration of Independence, the Statute of Virginia for Religious Liberty, and Founder of the University of Virginia.

    Memorial marker at Jefferson's Monticello gravesite

    Memorial marker at Jefferson’s
    Monticello gravesite

  • Sally Hemings accompanied Jefferson’s daughter when he summoned her to France during his ambassadorship there.  By French law, as soon as she stepped foot in France Hemings was a free person.  Jefferson convinced her to return with him to America (additional evidence of their relationship) by negotiating an agreement with her that ensured eventual freedom for their offspring.
  • Philly Connection:  Jefferson leased a house from Thomas Leiper, a merchant and politician, at 274 High Street in the east Germantown section of Philadelphia when he served in the then nation’s capital as Secretary of State under George Washington.
The real John Adams

The real John Adams

Interesting Jefferson quotes …

  • Jefferson’s oft quoted words on fertilizing the Tree of Liberty was written in a letter to John Adams in comment on British criticism of U.S. instability in the wake of Shay’s Rebellion in western Massachusetts, which erupted over early financial difficulties in the infant U.S.

” … what country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to the facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”

  • Jefferson’s famous position on the separation of Church and State came from a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in Ceaderbrook, Connecticut as they planned to celebrate religious liberty.

“Believing as you do that religion is a matter between Man and his God, that he owes account to no one for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of the government reach actions only, and not opinions. I contemplate with solemn reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.”

  • Jefferson loved the use of guns for hunting and sport, and recognized their importance in defending Home and Homeland.

“I am a great friend to the manly and healthy exercise of the gun.”

  • Finally, Jefferson felt that  the U.S. Constitution was a worthy effort as imperfect as the brave men who declared independence in ’76.  But he was much dismayed by the lack of a bill of rights in the original version.  Still he saw hope for the good conscience of the American people.

“If they approve the proposed Convention in all its parts, I shall concur in it cheerfully, in the hopes that they will amend it whenever they find it work wrong.”

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Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Consolidated B-24 Liberator

Consolidated B-24 Liberator

When it comes to book reviews, I can get a bit wordy.  (Hard to believe, I know!)  Usually this occurs because my goal is to encourage people, who might hold the same interests, to read a book I have found enjoyable or educational.

Such encouragement won’t be necessary for Unbroken, one of the few books I had to ask coworkers not to discuss in my presence so as not to spoil a highly anticipated read.  As an entry at the top of best-seller lists for quite some time, it had a rather large following long before I got around to picking it up.

Laura Hillenbrand, who also wrote the best-seller (and eventual movie) Seabiscuit, masterfully chronicles the true life and trials of Louis Zamperini.  The main character of Unbroken, Zamperini led a fascinating – and at times tragically graphic – life.

Born of Italian parents and living as a teen in Torrance, California Zamperini fought the allure of juvenile delinquency early in life through competitive running.  He developed into a record-holding high school track star, qualified for the 1936 Olympics held – appropriately enough considering the main theme of his story – in Berlin, Germany during the swelling of European Nazism and the reign of Adolph Hitler.

Zamperini tied 5000 meter world-record holder, Dan Lash, to qualify for the '36 Olympics as a high school runner

Zamperini tied 5000 meter world-record holder, Don Lash, to qualify for the ’36 Olympics as a high school runner

While still in high school, Zamperinin’s 56-second final lap performance in the 5000 meter in the 1936 Olympics was so impressive, Der Führer Adolph Hitler pointedly asked to meet him.  Legend has it Zamperini made off with one of the Führer’s personal flags before leaving Berlin.

The circle of karma to which this event belongs is but a small segment of a truly amazing story.

Zamperini, not quite ready to call 1936 the apex of his athletic career, trains hard for the 1940 Olympics, scheduled to be held – of course – in Tokyo, Japan.  But with the drums of World War II beating throughout the world, the 1940 Olympics never occur and Louis Zamperini marches off, along with millions of other young Americans, to a world-wide conflagration to beat back fascism and the Asian Pacific designs of the Japanese Empire.

Louis Zamperini becomes one of the recognizable icons representing all those who risked everything to free half the world from tyranny.   He becomes one who survives perhaps the one collective ordeal that might rival death in combat as a more favorable outcome.

Trained as a bombardier flying in B-24 Liberators in the Pacific Theatre, Zamperini survives a non-combat air crash; barely survives a 47-day ordeal floating in a raft through the Central Pacific with two fellow crewmen - one of whom does not survive the ordeal; then spends the rest of the war at the mercy of several sadistic Japanese prison camp guards.

green hornetThere is no “spoil” in laying out the major waypoints of the Zamperini saga here because you must read the details of his journey to truly appreciate the mind-numbing difficulties faced by Zamperini and the thousands of POWs and civilians held by a Japanese culture where surrender and capitulation rendered the subjugated as inferior beings unworthy of humane treatment.

The telling of this part of the Zamperini tale would normally make the events that preceded it nothing more than prelude, yet his early life challenges and his evolution into an Olympian admired throughout the world is equally interesting.  And his fame in pre-war life has its effects on his captivity at the hands of the Japanese, a scary intersection that may have saved his life while at the same time rendering his time as a prisoner-of-war barely survivable!

Mr. Zamperini still resides in Torrance, CA at the extraordinary age of 96!

Mr. Zamperini still resides in Hollywood, CA at the extraordinary age of 96!

It is – very simply – a story that must be read to be believed.

As one might expect, his life immediately after his return from imprisonment includes post-traumatic symptoms and problems in his attempts to return to a normal life.  In this regard, Zamperini’s experiences are no different in most regards to those suffered by thousands of POWs in WWII and hundreds of others in dozens of wars.

In these “book reports” I tend to share those new things I learned or the more interesting perspectives a good read can bring to light.  But to do this here would simply spoil a fascinating twist to Zamperini’s psychological and spiritual recovery.

So if you are one of the few who – like me - waited too long to pick up a fascinating book, grab Unbroken before the movie comes out!

  • In 1998, at the spry age of 81, Zamperini was afforded the opportunity to run a leg of the Olympic torch relay for the Winter games in Nagano, Japan.  While there he requested the opportunity to meet his worst POW tormentor, but was frustrated in his attempt.
  • For those of us Philadelphia Eagles fans, Mr. Zamperini continues to attend USC football games, and is purportedly a friend of recent Eagles draft pick, QB Matt Barkley!
  • Unbroken, to be directed by actress Anjolina Jolie, is slated to appear in movie theatres for Christmas 2014.

The Admirals (Walter R. Borneman)

Fleet Admirals Chester W. Nimitz, Ernest J. King and Bill Halsey

Fleet Admirals Chester W. Nimitz, Ernest J. King and Bill Halsey

I have always enjoyed reading American history, especially about both the American Civil War and World War II.  One – a domestic conflict - determined the future course of America’s development as a “united nation”; the other – a world-wide conflict – resulted in America’s emergence as a global leader.

That’s not to say I have read everything out there on either subject.  And from time-to-time I run across a book that teaches me a new thing or two.  In the case of The Admirals, I gained a new perspective on America’s military leadership during the last world war to end all world wars.

Walter R. Borneman ‘s enlightening work focuses on the four admirals, who transcended the U.S. Navy’s pre-World War II rank hierarchy, to become the first five-star admirals in American history.  This development was made necessary by the British Allies’ penchant for Fleet Admirals and Field Marshalls.  The 5-star rank was added (by Act of Congress in June 1944) to the American military ranks to place U.S. admirals and generals on equal footing with their European counterparts.

Flag of the Fleet Admiral of the U.S. Navy

Flag of the Fleet Admiral of the U.S. Navy

Five-star ranks of Fleet Admiral were bestowed on the four U.S. Navy Admirals and subjects of the book: William D. Leahy, Ernest J. King, Chester W. Nimitz, and William F. Halsey, Jr.  Fifth stars have not been issued to a Navy officer since 1945 and the conclusion of World War II.

Prior to reading The Admirals I was much more familiar with the four U.S. Army Generals, who carried the five-star rank of General of the Armies:  George C.Marshall, Douglas MacArthur, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Henry H. Arnold.  (Omar Bradley was added as a five-star General in 1950, the only officer in U.S. military service so honored after WWII.)

In The Admirals a new appreciation is gained for the leadership exhibited by two men often overlooked in most media presentations on the War in the Pacific.  Those men are Admirals Leahy and King.  Until I picked up The Admirals, I had no appreciation for the contributions they made in the prosecution of America’s WWII efforts.

The exploits and accomplishments of Admirals Nimitz and Halsey during the Pacific campaign are well-known and referred to relatively often.  For instance, the other night I could not resist watching part of the movie, Midway in which Nimitz and Halsey are prominent.  For that reason, the following speaks mostly of Bill Leahy and Ernest King.

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Admirals King, top left and Leahy, behind FDR, at the Yalta Conference in June 1945

Admirals King, top left and Leahy, behind FDR, at the Yalta Conference (June 1945)

Bill Leahy had been age-retired and was serving as Governor of Puerto Rico when the long-anticipated conflict with Japan broke with the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.  His friendship with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, cultivated during a period in his Navy career when – as a Navy captain - Leahy ferried the then Assistant Secretary of the Navy up and down the U.S. eastern coast.  Their relationship led to Leahy being named the Ambassador to Nazi-controlled Vichy, France when the Germans had overrun most of Western Europe.

Leahy’s role as ambassador was to influence the Vichy government from total subservience to the Nazi government, especially when it came to the remnants of the French fleet.  When the Vichy eventually fell in line with the Nazis through the elevation of the pro-German Pierre Laval to the head of its government, FDR kept his promise to the previously retired Admiral Leahy; brought him home from France; and recalled him to military service to help fight the war.

Leahy, left, and King, top right, in conference with Generals George C. Marshall, right, and Henry "Hap" Arnold, top left

Leahy, left, and King, top right, in conference with Generals George C. Marshall, right, and Henry “Hap” Arnold, top left

Tragedy befell Leahy as he prepared to leave the Vichy.  His wife, Louise died suddenly from medical complications of a rushed hysterectomy performed in France.

In time Leahy came to be viewed by  FDR and – almost as importantly – General George Marshall as the perfect candidate to become Chief of Staff to the Commander-in-Chief and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  From this position Bill Leahy would not only coordinate the military’s strategic implementations with FDR’s global considerations, he became the man The President relied upon more and more for all manner of domestic and foreign policy execution.

Admiral Leahy accompanied President Roosevelt to most of the major war conferences, being left behind once in Tunis and missing Casablanca due to a high fever.  He acted as a gatekeeper to information, communications, and personal access to FDR; coordinated execution of the both military and domestic presidential directives; and as Roosevelt’s health diminished, assumed responsibility for the daily functions of The Chief Executive.

The true testament to Admiral Bill Leahy’s effectiveness in those positions was his retention by Harry S Truman as his Chief of Staff for the entirety of his first term following FDR’s death in April 1945.

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Fleet Admirals Nimitz and King with Admiral Raymond Spruance aboard the U.S.S. Indianapolis

You gain keen insight from the earlier, less exciting chapters of The Admirals for the process through which the U.S. Navy ensures its officers and future leaders are well-rounded and thoroughly trained.  In the pre-World War II chapters, Borneman concentrates on the early careers of his four study subjects.  What is learned is the important role played by the Navy’s Bureau of Navigation (Bureau of Navy Personnel since 1942), an administrative position that controls the assignment and detailing of naval officers throughout the vast opportunities offered by Navy service.  Each of the World War II five-stars is exposed to the various types of boats, ships and planes.  From destroyers, to submarines, through cruisers, battleships and aircraft carriers …

Although none of the four officers Borneman follows gains experience in every possible Navy assignment, the reader sees how each officer’s background developed and how those experiences contributed to their efforts, ideas and strategies during the war.

For a U.S. Navy plying the seas leading to an intriguing World War II theatre of operations in a Pacific Ocean covering tens of millions of square miles, this background provides perspective to the Navy’s evolution from a force built around the great battleships of the Great White Fleet to a fighting force oriented around the aircraft carrier and the long-distance reach of ship-borne aircraft.

It was this kind of ingenuity, an ability to take what was experienced and learned in career assignments that led to a vastly improved vision of modern ocean combat.  The kind of vision that most adequately prepared the U.S. Navy for the challenges of fighting a veteran Japanese navy in the expansive Pacific Theatre.

For this reason, Borneman’s focus remains almost exclusively on the Pacific side of the two-front war America faced during World War II.  There is little mention – aside from Admiral King’s assignment as Commander-in-Chief, Atlantic Fleet – of the Atlantic conflict that was more narrowly focused in the fight against the German U-boat.

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Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King

Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King

Ernest J. King was known as cold, career-oriented, hands-on boss with a penchant for hard-drinking, something which changed in the years just before the war broke out.  One of the most senior Navy officers, who was on the short list for mandatory retirement when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

Recalled to active fleet duty, King was initially assigned to lead the Atlantic campaign against the German U-boats.  After convincing FDR to use his flag-ship, U.S.S. Augusta in his initial meeting with Winston Churchill off the coast of Newfoundland, King began consolidating a leadership position that would eventually land him as Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Fleet (COMINCH).  From this position he would direct the overall strategy of fending off the advances of the Japanese in the Pacific even as the U.S. and its allies pursued its Germany First war strategy in Europe.

King realized that to leave the Japanese free to roam the Pacific, if the Allies became exclusively focused on Fortress Europe, would make retaking the largest ocean in the world that much harder.  Throughout the war King would beg, borrow and steal to keep the Japanese at bay, then slowly start pushing them back towards their home islands.

It was King who charged Nimitz with preserving the vital ocean links from the U.S. west coast to Hawaii and Wake Island as well as the ocean routes to Australia through New Caledonia and Saipan. A strategy that led to the early and successful battles at Coral Sea and Midway.

Admiral "Fighting Bill" Halsey on a Victory poster

Admiral “Fighting Bill” Halsey on a Victory poster

King also endorsed a plan, developed by his Operations Officer, Captain Francis “Frog” Low to bomb Tokyo with Army Air Force bombers launched from aircraft carriers known as the Doolittle Raid.  King’s global strategic vision made winning the war in the Pacific less costly than a myopic obsession with Germany First could have cost the Allies in time, lives and treasure.

As with such major world conflicts, even Allies don’t always get along.  Besides clashes with British and Soviet priorities and strategic visions, American military leaders had to deal with their own internecine struggles over power, resources, and tactical ideas.  As one would expect the U.S Army and Navy did not always see eye-to-eye on how and where the great battles should be fought.  And with personalities as large as Generals George Marshal and – more pointedly – Douglas MacArthur there were more than a few opportunities for paralyzing disagreement.

Borneman credits Admiral King for smoothing the often ruffled feathers of his Army counterparts, particularly MacArthur.  King’s relationship with General Marshall got off to a slow start; would never be particularly close; but was always of mutual respect.  King wholeheartedly endorsed Eisenhower to head the North African invasion (Operation Torch), a success that led to Ike’s leading of the D-Day invasion of Normandy, France (Operation Neptune).

MacArthur, as most who competed with or tried to control would learn, was another story.  But King was deft at keeping MacArthur from interfering too much in the Navy’s war efforts; and usually was able to keep him happy enough to remain an effective threat to the Japanese.

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In an attempt to summarize this very long post, Borneman’s The Admirals forces the reader to focus on the complexities of developing properly trained, strategic-thinking naval officers; the prosecution of wide-ranging global warfare on a scale rarely seen in any generation; and the way personalities and the politics of leadership comes together in just one arm of the U.S. military.  In a war that encompassed much of the globe and no less than three major Allied powers, respective political establishments and military organizations, it is a tribute to confident and visionary Allied leadership that the effort didn’t simply collapse under the weight of its divergent personalities and priorities.

Admiral of the Fleet Chester W. Nimitz at Japanese surrender Behind him stand MacArthur, Halsey and Admiral Forrest Sherman

Admiral of the Fleet Chester W. Nimitz at Japanese surrender
Behind him stand MacArthur, Halsey and Admiral Forrest Sherman

Other random bits of knowledge picked up from reading The Admirals:

  • Vice Admiral Ernest King staged an attack on Pearl Harbor in 1938 from the U.S.S. Saratoga as part of Fleet Problem XIX manuevers.  The result was complete surprise.
  • When asked what won the war in the Pacific, Bull Halsey stated, “I would rank them in this order: submarines first, radar second, airplanes third, bulldozers fourth.”
  • By FDR’s fourth inaugural, Roosevelt was so weakened and Bill Leahy so trusted by the President that it was Leahy who rendered Roosevelt’s remarks at his fourth inaugural dinner.
  • In early December 1941 Vice Admiral Bill Halsey commands Task Force 8 on a mission to reinforce one of America’s isolated island bases.  Bad weather delays their expected return to Pearl Harbor on Saturday, December 6.
  • Ensign Chester A. Nimitz ran his very first ship command, the destroyer U.S.S. Decatur, aground on a reef near Manila Bay in 1908, an event that usually dooms a Navy officer’s career.  He also once jumped into the water to rescue an overboard sailor who could not swim.
  • Admiral Nimitz almost died in a PB2Y Coronado (flying boat) crash at
    PB2Y Catalina

    PB2Y Catalina

    NAS Alameda after the Battle of Midway.  The crash was caused by a telephone pole-sized piling allowed to drift into the landing area.  The aircraft flipped onto its back and broke apart.  Although Nimitz escaped without injury, the co-pilot, Lt. Thomas M. Roscoe of Oakland, CA, was killed.

  • Early in the war, U.S. submarines were plagued by a host of defective torpedoes.  Many exploding prematurely or, when they did hit, simply emitting a hollow thud and sinking.  The problem wasn’t solved until well after the summer of 1943.
  • In another torpedo story, as FDR - with Admiral Leahy in tow – was sailing across the Atlantic Ocean to the Teheran Conference (November 1943 with Churchill and Stalin) aboard the battleship U.S.S. Iowa, the destroyer U.S.S. W.D. Porter decided to track the Iowa in a targeting exercise.  Inexplicably, with the President on the main deck watching a gunnery exercise, someone on the Porter accidentally hit the FIRE button for one of the torpedo tubes.  The Iowa’s skipper, Captain John McCrea, was forced to take violent evasive action to prevent the accidental assassination-by-friendly-fire of much of the country’s war leadership!

As you can see, there’s a lot of good sea and war tales in this very enjoyable and informative book.  And despite the length of this post, it barely scratches the surface.  If you have a “WWII habit” like I do, you should find a few new topics in The Admirals to scratch that itch.

Thoughts for a Memorial Day

memorial-dayAnother Summer is upon us!  As always, the quasi-official start of Summer is marked by the three-day Memorial Day weekend and its rituals of beach days, barbecues, and neighborhood parties.

It is no doubt the most favorite time of the year for Americans from Georgia to Oregon, Minnesota to New Mexico.

As Americans however, it is also important that we take a bit of time during what looks to be a glorious weekend in the greater Philadelphia area to remember the meaning of Memorial Day, a day set aside to honor the sacrifices made by thousands and thousands of citizen soldiers since the founding of the United States of America in 1776.

Common people – not unlike many of us - chose to leave families, to forego careers, and to risk the opportunities that a full and vibrant life offers in order to preserve those same possibilities for their fellow Americans.  It’s a Choice many of us, be it through luck or timing or fortuitous periods of peaceful coexistence, may never have had to face.

This post is dedicated to those who faced the danger, to the sacrifices they made, and to the loved ones they too often left behind.

There but for the Grace of God …

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One Congressional Medal of Honor posthumous recipient only recently returned home after 50 years lying in a North Korean grave.

Army Lt. Col. Don C. Faith Jr.

Army Lt. Col. Don C. Faith Jr.

Army Lt. Col. Don C. Faith Jr. of Washington, Indiana

At the time of his death, Faith and his unit — 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment — were attached to the 31st Regimental Combat Team as it advanced along the eastern side of the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea.

During attacks by the Chinese People’s Volunteer Forces, Faith assumed command with his supervisor missing, and he continuously rallied his troops, personally leading an assault on an enemy position.

He was seriously injured by shrapnel on Dec. 1, 1950, and died a day later from those injuries. However his body was not recovered by U.S. forces at the time.

In 2004 a joint U.S.-North Korea team returned to the spot where Lt. Col. Faith was last seen and recovered his remains.  He was returned to his family and interred on U.S. soil just this past April.

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Throughout American military history, there have been 15 Congressional Medal Honor recipients who earned The Medal for actions taken on the date May 27th.  Eleven of those 15 Medals were awarded during the American Civil War, five of which were earned by crew members aboard the Union ironclad U.S.S. Cincinnati when the ship was shelled and sank during a maritime assault on Confederate gun emplacements in the Siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi.

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U.S.S. Drexler (DD-741)

U.S.S. Drexler (DD-741)

On May 27, 1945 - Okinawa, Japan - American forces attacking southward, continue to encounter heavy Japanese resistance. Japanese aircraft begin a two-day series of strikes against the Allied naval forces around the island. The destroyer U.S.S. Drexler is hit by two kamikaze planes and sinks so quickly 158 sailors are killed.

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One particular Medal of Honor recipient from the Vietnam era caught my attention for his selfless bravery.

CHARLES CLINTON FLEEK

Rank and organization: Sergeant, U .S. Army, Company C, 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry, 25th Infantry Division. Place and date: Binh Duong Province, Republic of Vietnam, 27 May 1967. Entered service at: Cincinnati, Ohio. Born: 28 August 1947, Petersburg, Ky.

UnknownCITATION:  For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. Sgt. Fleek distinguished himself while serving as a squad leader in Company C, during an ambush operation. Sgt. Fleek’s unit was deployed in ambush locations when a large enemy force approached the position. Suddenly, the leading enemy element, sensing the ambush, halted and started to withdraw. Reacting instantly, Sgt. Fleek opened fire and directed the effective fire of his men upon the numerically superior enemy force. During the fierce battle that followed, an enemy soldier threw a grenade into the squad position. Realizing that his men had not seen the grenade, Sgt. Fleek, although in a position to seek cover, shouted a warning to his comrades and threw himself onto the grenade, absorbing its blast. His gallant action undoubtedly saved the lives or prevented the injury of at least 8 of his fellow soldiers. Sgt. Fleek’s gallantry and willing self-sacrifice were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit on himself, his unit, and the U.S. Army.

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The purpose of these posts during our most American of holidays is not to spoil the mood of a dawning Summer or to lay guilt at the feet of those of us who benefitted from selfless acts in far, far away locales.  It’s simply a reminder that as you enjoy your long weekend, take a moment or two to reflect on those – both living and deceased – who have made good times and fun weekends possible.

Lifting-an-Inflatable-Tank-620x412In closing I leave you with a happier story.  It’s about a group of soldiers in World War II, known as The Ghost Army, whose actions were purported to have saved many American lives in the lead-up to the invasion of Normandy, France and later in battles across western Europe

These soldiers were responsible for the creation of fake Army units designed to mislead German intelligence-gathering efforts and the tactical decisions that would result.  The unique way in which they were able to deceive enemy strategists was through the use of inflatable forms in the shape of tanks, vehicles, airplanes and artillery.

Although there is no definitive way to determine how many Allied soldiers might have been spared over Ghost Army efforts, one would conclude that the efforts German units undertook to destroy what amounts to an Army of Balloons, including artillery bombardment and air attacks, certainly had the desired effect on enemy decision-making!

And with that, I send wishes for a glorious Memorial Day weekend!

Killing Kennedy

300806jfkIt has become cultural cliché that everyone – old enough to be aware that day – remembers where they were when they heard JFK had been shot … or when the planes hit the World Trade Center … or 70 years ago when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

Yet by whatever definition we now describe such memories does not change the fact that they indeed will last a lifetime.  And as in the events described above, they will also transcend generational experience.

Friday, November 22, 1963 was a pleasant day for the week before Thanksgiving.  I was a first-grade student at the Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic elementary school located on Chelten Avenue in the Germantown section of Philadelphia.

UnknownIt was close to lunch when the quiet of the classroom was broken by the unexpected squawk of the intercom system.  At first just a confusing message to this 7-year-old, “Please say a prayer, the President has been shot!”  Initially all of us were puzzled, but the one image that was seared into my memory was the look of horror on Sister Anne’s normally placid face.

Minutes later came the words I remember so clearly, as though it was only yesterday, “The President is dead.”

111026.1L

A sign of those times in a Romans Catholic family, though not exactly what hung in our home.

What I remember most from then, particularly those days after the assassination was the reaction of my parents.  As Irish Catholics, the Kennedy election and inauguration held a special sense of pride for them.  In our house one wall contained two pictures, one of John F. Kennedy, the other Pope John XXIII … side by side.  The days after November 22 were filled with an almost non-stop vigil in front of the television, where we first witnessed some of the images that accompany our never-fading memories of those emotional days.

Recently I came across Killing Kennedy: The End of Camelot (Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard) in an unexpected place - my 23-year-old son’s bedroom.  It was a bit surprising given the way many historical events get lost within our natural focus on more current events.  But Brian has always been a bit of a book-worm, and was never very parochial about his reading choices.

And in his room I also found a Steven King fiction, 11/22/63, that revolves around the Kennedy assassination.  Of course I immediately confiscated it; and added it to my reading list as well.

Apparently, the Kennedy assassination had indeed transcended Brian’s generational experience and interests.

Lee Harvey Oswald

Lee Harvey Oswald

This is certainly not the first book on the Kennedy tragedy I have picked up.  My first in-depth look into that day in Dallas was Josiah Thompson‘s conspiracy piece Six Seconds in Dallas, a book that sowed all sorts of doubts in my young mind on the official version of the assassination as set forth in the Warren Commission Report.

O’Reilly and Dugard do a credible job of identifying those organizations and criminal elements long considered as potential conspiracists in the Kennedy assassination.  Yet they do an even better job of describing Lee Harvey Oswald as a dejected reject of both the Soviets and Cubans, a man who always believed he was deemed for “greatness” despite doing little to achieve even a passing notoriety.

Even his relationship his wife, Marina, an increasingly disenchanted spouse, shows a man who had a very difficult time living up to even pedestrian expectations.  Oswald was the loser lone gunman that has become the all too familiar figure in many objectified killings, be they the assassination of key public figures or the serial killing of more common citizens.

Oimages-1ne of the well-developed themes of Killing Kennedy is the ability to look back through the perspective of time and pull an entire picture together.  The book looks back at the figures and events that led up to that bloody day in Dallas.  But it is even more interesting to relive those legends that surrounded the troubling facade of the Kennedy Camelot.

  • Most Americans from that era are familiar with JFK’s propensity for extra-marital relationships.  Chapter 5 of Killing Kennedy deals openly with Kennedy’s well-known affair with Marilyn Monroe.  But how many people dazzled by the Kennedy mystique ever considered the lengths to which his wife, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (and later Onassis) went to enable – if not condone - said dalliances?

    Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy

    Jacqueline Bouvier kennedy

Jackie was known to leave The White House almost every Thursday for weekends away at the family’s Glen Ora estate in Virginia.  She was no fool when it came to JFK’s escapades, yet she left him each weekend alone with Dave Powers, who kept a constant stream of young women accessible to the President.

Kennedy actually claimed that he needed sex almost every day to prevent debilitating headaches (the male twist on the headache-sex relationship?).  As for Jackie, she eventually took the unusual step for the 1960s and sought frank, explicit sex advice from Dr. Frank Finnerty, a cardiologist and family friend, in an attempt to improve the First Couple’s intimacy and keep The President from wandering.

  • Another interesting facet of Killing Kennedy is its frank discussion of the Bay of Pigs disaster, that ill-advised, poorly executed attempt to invade Cuba and overthrow the young revolutionary, Fidel Castro.  One  factor in the military disaster was Kennedy’s own part in forcing the Bay of Pigs plans to its infamous conclusion.  Kennedy was particularly hard on the images-2Eisenhower Administration’s for what he described as its soft stance on Communism – and Cuba in particular – in the 1960 election campaign against Vice President Richard Nixon.

After such a showing Kennedy was in no position to forego a plan that had its origins in the Dwight Eisenhower administration despite his obvious misgivings in the lead-up to the invasion.  Once it became apparent that the invasion would fail, Kennedy further complicated his mistake by being indecisive and timid; and then abandoning the effort completely, leaving many of the Cuban expatriates spearheading the invasion to die or to suffer years of imprisonment in Castro’s new Cuba.

  • Amazingly enough it appears that the Soviet-Cuban Missile crisis resulted in Kennedy’s far wiser embargo strategy against Communist Cuba; and it also may have saved the Kennedy marriage.  Many within the Kennedy inner circle, even the men on the Secret Service detail, saw a marked change in JFK’s womanizing after the Soviets almost forced a nuclear showdown over placing offensive, nuclear-capable missiles on the island just 90 miles from Florida.  As a result of that nuclear near-miss, the President appeared to become a much more family oriented and accessible husband and father.
  • It is not difficult to appreciate JFK’s actions to end racial discrimination in the South.  Although his
    Martin Luther King, Jr and LBJ at a meeting in the Kennedy White House

    Martin Luther King, Jr and LBJ at a meeting in the Kennedy White House

    civil rights efforts really found their impetus in Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, the actions - and reactions – taken in the early stages of the 1960s would continue as a central theme of the Lyndon B. Johnson administration and culminate in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

As I read Killing Kennedy much attention was being given to the 50-year anniversary of the Birmingham campaign to protest racial discrimination .  It’s sobering to consider that just 50 years ago African-Americans – some as young as elementary school students - were motivated to expose themselves to physical violence at the hands of white law enforcement authorities to press their case for equal treatment under the law in the racially hostile South.  The author’s description of the Birmingham Children’s Crusade is provocative.

Other facts I found interesting and enlightening in Killing Kennedy:

  • Jack Kennedy was hardly the decisive Navy PT boat Commander immediately after PT-109 was cleaved in half by a Japanese warship in the South Pacific.  Initially Kennedy is hesitant to make command decisions, instead polling his crew as to the best course of action.  But he certainly made up for his timidness as the episode progressed.
  • Kennedy was in constant pain over most of his adult life as the result of injuries from the PT-109 incident.  To relieve his back pain, Kennedy liked to swim naked in the since removed White House pool.  This activity also led to some embarrassing episodes with young female staff members.
  • During the Bay of Pigs Kennedy was beset with diarrhea and urinary tract infection that severely tested his ability to concentrate.
  • Jackie Kennedy was a closet chain-smoker, who continued the practice even during pregnancy!
  • UnknownThe Kennedy’s despised LBJ; and him them.  This is not difficult to understand, given the way the Kennedy brothers brought Johnson onto the 1960 ticket in order to land the Electoral College votes of Texas then eviscerated his political power as Vice President.
  • Just weeks before his death, Kennedy already has the U.S. heavily involved in the survival of the South Vietnamese government.
  • JFK greatly embarrassed Frank Sinatra when he cancelled long-made plans to stay at Sinatra’s Palm Springs home following a speech at UC-Berkeley in 1962. This after Sinatra had already gone to the trouble of making significant changes to his property, even adding a helipad.  Instead Kennedy stayed at Bing Crosby‘s estate, purportedly bedding Marilyn Monroe for the first time there, because of Sinatra’s alleged relationship with La Cosa Nostra.  Sinatra, irate when Peter Lawford - a Kennedy by marriage - was forced to break the news, eventually became a Republican.

Regardless of whether you come from my generation, an earlier one, or a generation much younger and far removed from the shock of an assassinated President, you will enjoy the historical perspective provided by Killing Kennedy!

Veteran’s Day 2012

A few stories and events to consider as we observe Veteran’s Day 2012:

Congressional Medal of Honor

LINDSTROM, FLOYD K.
Rank and organization: Private First Class, U.S. Army, 3d Infantry Division. Place and date: Near Mignano, Italy, 11 November 1943. Entered service at: Colorado Springs, Colo. Birth: Holdredge, Nebr. G.O. No.: 32, 20 April 1944.

Citation: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at risk of life above and beyond the call of duty. On 11 November 1943, this soldier’s platoon was furnishing machinegun support for a rifle company attacking a hill near Mignano, Italy, when the enemy counterattacked, forcing the riflemen and half the machinegun platoon to retire to a defensive position. Pfc. Lindstrom saw that his small section was alone and outnumbered 5 to 1, yet he immediately deployed the few remaining men into position and opened fire with his single gun. The enemy centered fire on him with machinegun, machine pistols, and grenades. Unable to knock out the enemy nest from his original position, Pfc. Lindstrom picked up his own heavy machinegun and staggered 15 yards up the barren, rocky hillside to a new position, completely ignoring enemy small arms fire which was striking all around him. From this new site, only 10 yards from the enemy machinegun, he engaged it in an intense duel. Realizing that he could not hit the hostile gunners because they were behind a large rock, he charged uphill under a steady stream of fire, killed both gunners with his pistol and dragged their gun down to his own men, directing them to employ it against the enemy. Disregarding heavy rifle fire, he returned to the enemy machinegun nest for 2 boxes of ammunition, came back and resumed withering fire from his own gun. His spectacular performance completely broke up the German counterattack. Pfc. Lindstrom demonstrated aggressive spirit and complete fearlessness in the face of almost certain death.

1865 - Dr. Mary Edward Walker, 1st Army female surgeon, was awarded Medal of Honor by Pres. Andrew Johnson for her work as a field doctor for outstanding service at the Battle of Bull Run, at the Battle of Chickamauga, as a Confederate prisoner of war in Richmond, Va., and at the Battle of Atlanta.

MULLIN, HUGH P.
Rank and organization: Seaman, U.S. Navy. Born: 20 March 1878, Richmond, Ill. Accredited to: Illinois. G.O. No.: 537, 8 January 1900. Citation: On board the U.S.S. Texas during the coaling of that vessel at Hampton Roads, Va., 11 November 1899. Jumping overboard while wearing a pair of heavy rubber boots and at great risk to himself, Mullin rescued Alfred Kosminski, apprentice, second class, who fell overboard, by supporting him until he was safely hauled from the water.

Interesting Veteran’s events occurring on November 11:

Inscription on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

1921 - Exactly three years after the end of World War I, the Tomb of the Unknowns is dedicated at Arlington Cemetery in Virginia during an Armistice Day ceremony presided over by President Warren G. Harding.

1942 - Congress approves lowering the draft age to 18 and raising the upper limit to age 37. In September 1940, Congress, by wide margins in both houses, passed the Burke-Wadsworth Act, and the first peacetime draft was imposed in the history of the United States. The registration of men between the ages of 21 and 36 began exactly one month later. There were some 20 million eligible young men-50 percent were rejected the very first year, either for health reasons or because 20 percent of those who registered were illiterate. But by November 1942, with the United States now a participant in the war, and not merely a neutral bystander, the draft ages had to be expanded; men 18 to 37 were now eligible. Blacks were passed over for the draft because of racist assumptions about their abilities and the viability of a mixed-race military.

1992 - By letter, Russian President Boris Yeltsin told U.S. senators that Americans had been held in prison camps after World War II and some were “summarily executed”.

2000 - President Bill Clinton led groundbreaking ceremonies in Washington DC for the National WW II Memorial.

(The above information extracted from This Day in U.S. Military History.)