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.

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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!

70 years ago this week: Battle of Midway Island (June 4-7, 1942)

(Today our Navy command observed the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Midway as in commemoration of the recent Memorial Day holiday.  This was a different take on Memorial Day observations as it took a look at a specific, historical battle.) 

Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto

As was mentioned in my previous Memorial Day post, the Japanese fleet set off for Midway Island on May 27, 1942.  Their intent was draw U.S. Navy carrier forces into a trap by attacking Midway Island, one of the few military installations U.S. forces occupied west of Pearl Harbor and the Hawaiian Islands.  Once U.S. carriers responded to the Midway attack by seeking out Japanese carrier force, the hammer of Japanese battleship forces would then attack and destroy the U.S. carrier fleet.  All the U.S. battleships assigned to the Pacific theatre had been destroyed or damaged just six months prior to the Battle of Midway when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

Several factors contributed to the eventual U.S. victory at Midway.

  • U.S. cryptologists had successfully figured out the Japanese code used for its operational forces.  The Japanese had been delayed in fielding their own more advanced code in the weeks leading up to Midway.  As a result, Allied forces in the Pacific were able to read Japanese message traffic, and knew both where and when – within a day or two – the Imperial Forces were expected to hit Midway Island.
  • Aircraft carrier U.S.S. Yorktown (CV-5), heavily damaged and thought by the Japanese to have been sunk during the Battle of the Coral Sea (May 7-8), limped back to Pearl Harbor on May 27 and was turned around in sufficient fighting condition in just 3 days!  Yorktown was able to sail as the core of Task Force 17 on May 30.
  • On 29 May, seaplane tender (destroyer) USS Thornton (AVD-11) arrived at French Frigate Shoals to relieve light minelayer USS Preble (DM-20) on patrol station there. The presence of U.S. ships at French Frigate Shoals prevented the Japanese from refueling flying boats to reconnoiter Pearl Harbor.  As a result, the Japanese had no intelligence on the departure and makeup of Task Forces 16 (U.S.S. Enterprise and U.S.S. Hornet) and 17 (U.S.S. Yorktown). 
  • Radio silence insisted upon by Japanese Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto prevented what sporadic information Japanese intelligence could discern about Task Force departures from Pearl Harbor from reaching Vice Admiral Nagumo Chuichi‘s Carrier Strike Force.

Overview of the fighting during the Battle of Midway, as taken from the Naval History and Heritage Command, Battle of Midway link:  

U.S. Admiral Chester W. Nimitz

Just after midnight on 4 June, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, based on patrol plane reports, advised Task Forces 16 and 17 of the course and speed of the Japanese “main body,” also noting their distance of 574 miles from Midway. Shortly after dawn, a patrol plane spotted two Japanese carriers and their escorts, reporting “Many planes heading Midway from 320 degrees distant 150 miles!”

The first attack on 4 June, however, took place when the four night-flying PBYs attacked the Japanese transports northwest of Midway with one PBY torpedoing fleet tanker Akebono Maru. Later that morning, at roughly 0630, Aichi D3A (“Val”) carrier bombers and Nakajima B5N (“Kate”) torpedo planes, supported by numerous fighters (“Zekes”), bombed Midway Island installations. Although defending U.S. Marine Corps Brewster F2A (“Buffalo”) and Grumman F4F (“Wildcat”) fighters suffered disastrous losses, losing 17 of 26 aloft, the Japanese only inflicted slight damage to the facilities on Midway. Motor Torpedo Boat PT-25 was also damaged by strafing in Midway lagoon.

Over the next two hours, Japanese “Zekes” on Combat Air Patrol (CAP) and antiaircraft fire from the Japanese fleet annihilated the repeated attacks by the American aircraft from Marine Corps Douglas SBD (“Dauntless”) and Vought SB2U (“Vindicator”) scout bombers from VMSB-241, Navy Grumman TBF (“Avenger”) torpedo bombers from VT-8 detachment, and U. S. Army Air Force torpedo-carrying Martin B-26 (“Marauder”) bombers sent out to attack the Japanese carriers. Army Air Force “Flying Fortresses” likewise bombed the Japanese carrier force without success, although without losses to themselves.

Between 0930 and 1030, Douglas TBD (“Devastator”) torpedo bombers from VT 3, VT-6, and VT-8 on the three American carriers attacked the Japanese carriers. Although nearly wiped out by the defending Japanese fighters and antiaircraft fire, they drew off enemy fighters, leaving the skies open for dive bombers from U.S.S. Enterprise and U.S.S. Yorktown. VB-6 and VS-6 “Dauntlesses” from Enterprise bombed and fatally damaged carriers Kaga and Akagi, while VB-3 “Dauntlesses” from Yorktown bombed and wrecked carrier Soryu. American submarine Nautilus (SS-168) then fired torpedoes at the burning Kaga but her torpedoes did not explode.

USS Yorktown – June 4, 1942

At 1100, the one Japanese carrier that escaped destruction that morning, Hiryu, launched “Val” dive bombers that temporarily disabled Yorktown around noon. Three and a half hours later, Hiryu’s “Kate” torpedo planes struck a second blow, forcing Yorktown’s abandonment. In return, “Dauntlesses” from Enterprise mortally damaged Hiryu in a strike around 1700 that afternoon. The destruction of the Carrier Strike Force compelled Admiral Yamamoto to abandon his Midway invasion plans, and the Japanese Fleet began to retire westward.

On 5 June, TF 16 under command of Rear Admiral Spruance pursued the Japanese fleet westward, while work continued to salvage the damaged Yorktown. Both Akagi and Hiryu, damaged the previous day, were scuttled by Japanese destroyers early on the 5th.

The last air attacks of the battle took place on 6 June when dive bombers from Enterprise and Hornet bombed and sank heavy cruiser Mikuma, and damaged destroyers Asashio and Arashio,as well as the cruiser Mogami. At Admiral Spruance’s expressed orders, issued because of the destruction of three torpedo squadrons on 4 June, “Devastators” from VT-6 that accompanied the strike did not attack because of the threat to them from surface antiaircraft fire. After recovering these planes, TF 16 turned eastward and broke off contact with the enemy. COMINT intercepts over the following two days documented the withdrawal of Japanese forces toward Saipan and the Home Islands.

Meanwhile, on the 6th, Japanese submarine I-168 interrupted the U.S. salvage operations, torpedoing Yorktown and torpedoing and sinking destroyer USS Hammann (DD-412). Screening destroyers depth-charged I-168 but the Japanese submarine escaped destruction. Yorktown, suffering from numerous torpedo hits, finally rolled over and sank at dawn on 7 June.

Luck also turned out to be on the American side as well; but it was luck that was made possible through better intelligence gathering, cryptology breakthroughs, industrial capabilities (e.g. U.S.S. Yorktown’s quick shipyard turnaround), superior naval leadership and carrier tactics.  Not the least of any of the aforementioned factors, the fighting spirit, dedication, and bravery of U.S. military personnel determined the course of the Battle of Midway and by doing so, defined the high-water of Japanese designs for the Western Pacific.

Casualties were relatively light for American forces (300 dead, U.S.S. Yorktown sunk) compared to the over 3000 dead and four aircraft carriers lost by the Japanese.  The real measure of U.S. and Allied success was what the defeat did to Japanese designs to force the Allies out of the central Pacific so that Japanese forces could have their way in the western Pacific. 

From Midway forward, the World War II Pacific Theatre would slowly but decidedly turn to the Allies favor.  Due to the significant losses in aircraft carriers, airplanes, pilots, and even their trained aircraft mechanics, Japanese forces would suffer from the loss of air superiority.  And Japanese weaknesses in manufacturing capacity and the flow of raw materials made replacing lost ships extremely difficult and virtually impossible in the case of aircraft carriers.  As a result,  Japanese military operations would turn from offensive to defensive in nature as the Allies slowly closed the circle around the Japanese homeland.

The Battle of Midway, along with those at Coral Sea and the Doolittle Raid over Japanese home islands, marked the beginning of the Age of the Aircraft Carrier, which after 70 years still serves as the backbone of any prolonged American military presence in oceans around the world.

So despite that our Memorial Day has already passed, take a few moments to reflect on what these men and their machines accomplished in interests of freedom and American interests 70 years ago this week.

Beyond Barbed Wire

Beyond Barbed Wire, Kit Parker Films production, is a thought-provoking, emotional look at one of the most controversial events in American history.  The film takes a personal look at the Japanese-Americans affected by the American government’s short-sighted, knee jerk reaction to the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor and other targets in the Pacific that kicked off America’s direct involvement in World War II.  The message is amplified by the primary focus of the documentary, those Japanese-American men who – despite the humiliation foisted upon their families – still felt duty and honor bound to fight for their country.

This is one of those incidents in American history that has always intrigued me.  And so, it was another foray to the Horsham Library looking for cheap music (Read: Free!) and something interesting to watch.  The interment of Japanese- Americans holds a fascination for me for the following reasons:

  • Only Japanese-Americans were ever interred in large numbers during World War II.  This despite the early war whispers of atrocities being committed by Germans on Jews and other “undesirables”.  Never were German- or Italian-Americans interred nor were they prohibited from fighting against their ethnic homelands. 
  • As the above would suggest, the racial implications are quite telling at a time when most Americans did not even know where Pearl Harbor was located.  Oriental cultures and their people were unfamiliar to most Americans.  Even in areas along the Pacific Coast where Americans of Japanese descent had been living for decades, they were often misunderstood or outright distrusted due solely to their racial and cultural differences.
  • These events occurred during the Democratic administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, arguably the most socially conscious, socially activist and – some might say – socialist Presidents.  In every other facet of the war’s management, execution and victory, Roosevelt is rightfully praised; which makes it all the more confounding how this suspension of liberty for a people both innocent and in many cases generations removed from direct contact with their ethnic homeland was allowed to occur.

Beyond Barbed Wire focuses on the Nisei (Japanese descendents born in the U.S.) who fought in Europe and in the Pacific theatres of war.  Both the 442nd Infantry Regimental Combat Team and the 100th Infantry Battalion served with distinction in France and Italy respectively.  Their actions overcame initial resistance expressed by American military leaders to trust Japanese-Americans to fight during the war.  In fact, Japanese-Americans were prohibited from fighting in the Pacific against hostile Japanese forces  (unlike the the welcomed participation of German and Italian-Americans in Europe).  Many other Japanese men, fluent in their native tongue, were recruited or ordered to serve in the Military Intelligence Service (MIS) as spies and translators.

Many of these men came from families that were stripped of homes, businesses and all the comforts of normal American life.  The distinction made between Japanese living on the Mainland as opposed to those living in Hawaii is a story unto itself.  Hawaiian Japanese were treated differently than those on the Mainland.  Many Hawaiian Japanese had no idea what was happening to their Mainland cousins.  One of the interesting segments of the film deals with the visit of a group of Hawaiian Japanese to a Mainland interment camp.  The contrast is powerful.

It is very easy to become misty-eyed over the emotional stories being told and written by the slowly disappearing Greatest Generation.  Those men and women who set aside personal lives, goals and the safety of civilian life to rescue Europe and the peoples of the Pacific.  The stories of war’s horrors, of friends lost, of emotional traumas so difficult to imagine – for those of us who have never had to face war – are magnified by the realization that many of these aging Japanese warriors volunteered despite the way their country treated them and those they loved.

I continue to find this moment in history both troubling and extremely gratifying.  Beyond Barbed Wire is well worth the investment of one’s time to gain an appreciation for a vastly under-appreciated segment of America’s Greatest Generation!

Franklin and Winston

Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship by Jon Meacham, an accomplished author, media executive and social/political commentator, is a great read on the close, personal relationship of the primary protagonists – Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill – behind the Western Hemisphere’s defeat of German fascism and Japanese hegemony during World War II. 

I became a fan of Meacham’s approach to historical figures and concepts through my weekday habit of catching segments of MSNBC’s Morning Joe while getting dressed for work.  Meacham has always struck me as a down-to-earth commentator on political and social issues.  He won the Pulitzer Prize for his treatment of Andrew Jackson in American Lion (not reviewed here); and his book on religion’s influence on the American experiment in American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers and the Making of a Nation is an excellent guide to discussions on the spiritual foundation of American governance.  

Meacham’s approach in Franklin and Winston is similar to the other works mentioned above.  He takes an overview approach to the subjects, and provides plenty of source notes and references for the serious scholar who wishes to dig deeper.  It is this approach that makes his books enjoyable reads regardless of your reasons for picking up a Meacham historical study.

In Franklin and Winston Meacham focuses on the personalities of FDR and Churchill, including their family lives and how their personal backgrounds, ambitions and political situations played into the Allied war effort and the friendship that developed between the two during the war. 

Both men were the products of rich American mothers; Churchill’s mother marrying Lord Randolph Churchill, Member of Parliament, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Leader of the House of Commons (1886).  Their parental relationships – or lack thereof – influenced both men in their very public lives.

Churchill’s parents were almost entirely absent; his father did not like him; and his upbringing and education was left to his nanny and the prescribed boarding schools for England’s power elite.  As a result, Churchill was driven to be the center of attention.  He was vigorous in all things he did, but was also impulsive and stubborn.  Churchill needed to be liked by those he highly regarded.  This would become a continuing theme in the Roosevelt-Churchill relationship, as Churchill found himself constantly chasing the more aloof, confident Roosevelt. 

FDR’s upbringing was quite the opposite.  He was doted on constantly by his mother.  Very little is mentioned of his father.  His mother’s coddling became even more prevalent when Roosevelt was diagnosed with polio in 1921 at the age of 39.  What FDR found at home as a child and even as an adult was everything Churchill’s early home life lacked.  As a result FDR did not feel compelled to seek anyone’s approval, even Churchill’s.  FDR greatly admired Churchill’s strength and leadership however, especially his skills at oratory during the dark days of 1940-41 (Battle of Britain). 

The friendship that these men forged in the year-and-a-half leading up to America’s entering the war and throughout the conflict resulted in a vision and strategy that freed Europe from the Nazis and chased the Japanese back to their home islands.  In this regard, Churchill did not have much choice but to follow the lead of Roosevelt on most matters of strategy.  Britain desperately needed the resources and manpower of the United States for their ultimate survival.  Only the thinnest of margins kept the Germans from attempting a cross-Channel invasion in 1940-41. 

Roosevelt – on the other hand – had to deal with an American electorate that for the most part wanted nothing to do with another war in Europe.  Yet he understood that the United States had to eventually enter the war or Europe would be lost to fascism.  He characterized his plight as ” … no leader should get too far ahead of his followers.”  FDR’s political strength permitted him to push such programs as Lend-Lease, which allowed for the sale of supplies and munitions to England (and eventually to all Allies) on a cash-and-carry basis.  Earlier under the Destroyers for Bases Agreement Roosevelt was able to send 50 aging destroyers to England for basing rights in the Caribbean.  Britain’s loss of those bases – though painful – provided FDR with necessary political cover, allowing the country to fulfill Roosevelt’s vision as “the arsenal of democracy”.

Despite Churchill’s standing as #2 in his relationship to FDR and to a greater extent England’s relationship to the U.S., he was a loyal and sensitive confidante to Roosevelt.  He protected FDR’s image in light of his crippling disease when the two met for the first time as world leaders at sea aboard the U.S.S. Augusta.  And he admired Roosevelt’s ability to transcend his disability and to accept the dependence on others that it required.  The description of the two leaders enjoying the view atop La Saardia in Marrakech in January 1943 is one of a caring Churchill overseeing the spiritual well-being of a cherished friend.

Like all friends, they also had their disagreements and slights that resulted in hurt feelings.  Churchill was upset when Roosevelt neglected to acknowledge Churchill’s cable of congratulations following FDR’s successful election in 1940.  And Roosevelt was miffed when Churchill sought a meeting of minds with Wendell Wilkie, FDR’s opponent in the 1944 election.  To make matter worse, Churchill ends up with Roosevelt on the phone due to a miscommunication and fails to recognize Roosevelt’s rather unique voice when the call goes through to the wrong man.  As the war winds down, Roosevelt realizes that stability in the post-war world requires greater interaction between the U.S. and Soviets as opposed to the British; and Churchill is – for a time – left out in the cold.

At the core of what would normally be an arm’s-length diplomatic relationship, the two most important men at such a critical juncture of history shared much.  Both had children serving in theatres of war.  Something not seen much these days aside from Britain’s royal family.  They leaned on each other at times of darkness, be it Dunkirk or Pearl Harbor.  They not only cooperated strategically and politically during the most trying of times, but genuinely liked each other and were lifted in spirit whenever they had the chance to get together.

And at times like those, what else are friends for?

On this date in 1945 …

… One of the most iconic events in American history occurred with the raising of the Stars and Stripes by U.S. Marines on the Pacific island of Iwo Jima (now known as Ioto). 

Raising the flag on Mount Suribachi

It is important to keep these incredible feats of bravery in the collective field of vision.  Generations of Americans to follow will become – very naturally – more removed from and less aware of these proud military accomplishments.

I readily admit, I have very little knowledge on the heroics of those who served in World War I.  This due to the fact that fewer and fewer of those veterans were around, and their exploits were in many ways overshadowed by other events – like WWII – that followed.

Whenever I take the time to sit and watch a favorite WWII flick (Saving Private Ryan and In Harm’s Way are two of my favs) or docudrama (Band of Brothers), I always have to remind myself that these were kids doing incredibly difficult and mortally dangerous acts. 

So simply take a moment from time to time to consider the immense sacrifices made in the past to the benefit of the nation and its people, from the American Revolution to present day Afghanistan and Iraq. 

An overwhelming majority of the real heroes never make it home again.  So if the opportunity presents, thank a veteran for their service and sacrifice.  Appreciate the fact that for so many that opportunity was lost long ago.     

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Other events from this date:

1836 – Alamo besieged by Santa Anna; entire garrison eventually killed .

1847 – 5000 U.S. troops under General Zachary Taylor defeats 15,000 Mexican soldiers under General Santa Ana near Buena Vista, Mexico.

1861 – With assassination threats rampant, President-elect Lincoln arrives secretly in Washington DC to take office.

1896 – Tootsie Roll introduced by Leo Hirshfield

1903 – Cuban state of Guantanamo leased to USA.

1904 – Control of Panamá Canal Zone acquired by US for $10 million.

1960 – Demolition begins on Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field.

1967 – 25th amendment (Presidential succession) declared ratified.

Birthdays:

George Handel, German-born composer (1685)

W. E. B. Du Bois, black American historian and sociologist (1868)

Peter Fonda, actor (1940)

Deaths:

John Keats, Romantic poet (1821)

John Quincy Adams, 6th POTUS (1848)

Thomas Woodrow Wilson, 28th POTUS (1924)

Aleksei Tolstoi, Russian poet/writer (1945)