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!

 

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.