Archive for November, 2009
By Jim Dolbow
Savannah, GA is one of my favorite cities and so it was a real treat to e-interview Tony Cope about his book, On The Swing Shift: Building Liberty Ships in Savannah.
What inspired you to write On the Swing Shift: Building Liberty Ships in Savannah?
I am a native of Savannah and was a child during World War II. I never saw the shipyard, but remember hearing the various whistles during the day and seeing the lights from my second story bedroom windows at night. The yard closed just after the war and the site remained basically derelict for many years. As an adult I drove past the site twice a day on the way to work with no recollection of what took place there. In the late 1980s, I was asked to chair a local committee established to develop some interest in establishing a museum to commemorate the Mighty Eighth Air Force which was created in Savannah and then moved to Britain to fight the air war against Germany. To create this interest, I wanted to come up with a slide show to use for talks to civic clubs and other groups and asked a friend at the local paper to run a request in his column for wartime photographs of Savannah. I received a call from a woman who had a set of six photos of her mother christening one of the Libertys launched by the yard in Savannah. That got me thinking about the yard and wondering that if I had forgotten what happened there maybe most other Savannahians had as well. That assumption was correct…the only people who remembered it were the people who had worked there or sailed on the ships. I just thought that there was a great story there and those people ought to be remembered.
What were some of your more insightful sources for On the Swing Swift?
The most insightful sources were certainly the people involved…the 120 shipyard workers, merchant seamen, Navy and Coast Guard personnel that I was able to interview. All were so excited to talk about their experiences and that someone was taking an interest in what they had done. Some were people that I had known in other circumstances, but never knew anything about this part of their lives. All were fascinating, but one early interview stands out. A friend who worked at the Georgia Ports told me of a retired Merchant captain who had sunk a U-boat, but warned me that he didn’t suffer fools gladly. I had a great two hour interview with Capt. Clifford Thomas who was master of a number of Libertys after the war, but was Third Mate on the S. S. James Jackson when it did fire on a U-boat, but was not credited with its sinking. Captain Thomas not only related his own experiences, but also gave me many names of other merchant seamen who could help with my project. It was a really enlightening and enjoyable interview and contrary to my friend’s warning, we got along splendidly. Unfortunately, when I got home, I found that I had failed to punch the record button on my brand new tape recorder. It was with great fear and trepidation that I called Capt.Thomas and asked if he could do the interview over again. He understood perfectly and we did the two hours again the next night. After I moved to Ireland, we talked by phone a number of times and he wrote very detailed accounts of situations that I asked him about. Unfortunately, he died before the book was published.
Can you tell us a little bit about a day in the life of a shipyard worker?
From the various interviews that I conducted with workers, a typical day at Southeastern was exciting and often very dull. The assembly line method of building Libertys meant that much of the work was repetitious; doing the same job over and over. Many of these workers had never seen a ship before much less built one and had to be trained to be welders, shipwrights and the various other skills necessary to building a ship. It was hot…over 100 degrees in the summer made even hotter by working on and around so much steel. It was freezing in the winter with any bare skin sticking to frozen steel. Then there were the bugs, swarms of mosquitoes and deer flies that bred in the marshes close by the yard in the summer. It was dangerous work; banging, cutting, shaping steel, huge ship parts being carried overhead by gantries. It was exciting though…to see a completed hull slide down the ways or a fully loaded Liberty sail down the river past the yard on its way to a war zone, to know that they were part of the effort to defeat the Axis powers.
Savannah has such a proud history. Can you tell us a little bit more about the city’s contribution to the war effort?
Savannah’s contribution to the war effort was certainly great. Southeastern was one of three shipyards building ships during the war and many other industries produced ammunition, trailers, boxes and bags for military use and many other products vital to the war effort. Many of its sons and daughters went to war and many never returned. As school children we participated in scrap drives, war bond drives, collecting Bundles For Britain and tending Victory gardens. There are monuments dedicated to the dead of that war and The Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum is now a very successful reality in Savannah. There is no monument to commemorate the shipyard and those who worked there. There are displays in the Savannah History Museum and the Ships of the Sea museum. There was a monument to Merchant Marine seamen killed in that war and the other prior wars that our nation has been involved in, but it was taken down and replaced with a monument to commemorate the Viet Nam War dead. The bronze plaques from the Merchant Marine monument are in storage somewhere in Savannah and it is my hope that “On The Swing Shift” will help to develop interest in restoring that monument and recognizing the workers at Southeastern, some of whom died or were injured doing very dangerous work there.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
The research for and the writing of this book was an amazing experience for me; meeting the people and hearing their stories, trying to find information from a variety of sources in an attempt to be as accurate as possible in telling the story of this shipyard. It was a bit like a detective trying to find pieces of evidence in different places and putting it all together to solve a case. For me, some of that evidence came from across the continent and across the Atlantic Ocean. I have been fortunate in that I have had the opportunity to do a lot of very interesting things during my lifetime. This ranks right up there.
If you need additional information, I have a website, http://ontheswingshift.wordpress.com which gives a description of the book, my bio and some reviews.
A few of us (here and over at Galrahn‘s site) have been banging the drum for the last few years re. the potential threat posed by China’s ASBM (Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile) which appears to be a variant of the DF-21 (itself, an apparent derivative of the Pershing II MRBM). There has been limited releasable (e.g., unclassified) information from DoD agencies, most of it in the annual DoD report on China’s capabilities. What little else can be gleaned from the open press is primarily Chinese in origin and oft times, in Chinese. Most of the extensive writings have tended to be more generalistic as a result, focusing at the strategic-political level on the implications and challenges such a weapon would pose in a future Taiwan Straits scenario (or some other that takes place at or inside the first island chain). Chief focus has been on the aspect of sea denial to US carriers and the attendant impact that would have on providing tactical airpower in the face of land-based PLAAF forces conducting bluewater ASUW and land attack strikes. The most recent open press article was that found in the May 2009 issue of the Naval Institute’s Proceedings
With the autumn 2009 issue of the Naval War College Review, that body of knowledge has been significantly expanded via two articles. The first, “Using the Land to Control the Sea?” (link directly downloads a PDF of the article) addresses the larger technical and political challenges, opening with an argument is a familiar to readers of this and the aforementioned blogs:
For China, the ability to prevent a U.S. carrier strike group from intervening in the event of a Taiwan Strait crisis is critical. Beijing’s immediate strategic concerns have been defined with a high level of clarity. The Chinese are interested in achieving an antiship ballistic missile (ASBM) capability because it offers them the prospect of limiting the ability of other nations, particularly the United States, to exert military influence on China’s maritime periphery, which contains several disputed zones of core strategic importance to Beijing. ASBMs are regarded as a means by which technologically limited developing countries can overcome by asymmetric means their qualitative inferiority in conventional combat platforms, because the gap between offense and defense is the greatest here.
Today, China may be closer than ever to attaining this capability. In addition to numerous outside reports suggesting Chinese efforts in this area, technical and operationally focused discussions on the topic are appearing in increasing numbers and in a widening array of Chinese sources, some clearly authoritative. This suggests that China may be close to testing and fielding an ASBM system—a weapon that no other country currently possesses, since the United States relinquished a distantly related capability in 1988. In the view of Chinese and Western analysts, even the mere perception that China might have realized an ASBM capability could represent a paradigm shift, with profound consequences for deterrence, military operations, arms control, and the balance of power in the western Pacific.
Discussion that follows is worth the read, but of particular interest is the end analysis where the authors contemplate the impact a range of US responses would have, spanning from indifference to measured and then major response,and what the implications would be if the Chinese were to go ahead and conduct an operational tes:
Responding to the unprecedented strategic challenge presented by an ASBM capability would require the American military and civilian leadership to face hard truths, and continue to develop innovative new capabilities. The United States has many options here, and it must be prepared to exercise them. The most perilous approach would be to neglect such military innovation while continuing to insist that the United States maintained its ability to keep the peace, when in fact the military capabilities that underpin that ability were diminishing, at least in a relative sense. Such a discrepancy between rhetoric and reality would erode America’s regional credibility and fuel Chinese overconfidence. The prospect of documenting that discrepancy publicly might motivate China to conduct a demonstration of an ASBM; a successful test could create the impression that American power projection capabilities—and the regional credibility that depends on them—had been dramatically diminished. Managing the proper response to this potential “game changer” will demand close scrutiny from scholars, analysts, and policy makers alike, as it will critically influence America’s place in the Pacific for decades to come.
Two events point to the efficacy of such a scenario: one, the operational ASAT test conducted in 2007 and the other (and used by the authors) – the bombing tests off the VACAPES prompted by General Billy Mitchell and carried out by Army and Navy aircraft against stationary capital ship targets. In the case of the former, it clearly illuminated not only China’s tchnological capabilities, but some have said that it also demonstrated a certain ascendancy of the military and its ability to veto civilian policy makers who were not favoring an operational test. In the case of the latter – there were major budgetary, policy and even changes in tactics as the nascent Army Air Corps received substantive funding boosts, the Navy began to seriously investigate the use of dive bombers as a means to attack ships and other nations, notably Japan, began to redraw their force structures.
But what of the system itself? How much of it is real and how much is just vaporware? Maskirovka designed to confuse and direct US allocation of forces and funding down blind alleys? The second article, “China’s Antiship Ballistic Missile: Developments and Missing Links” (same warning as above re. the hyperlink) takes a systemic approach to assessing this ‘system of systems’ by an extensive analysis of available open-press Chinese literature. It is worth noting that when conducting a content analysis, one not only focuses on what is found in the body proper of individual texts, but as that body grows, there are larger trends and directions that can be ascertained and from which, judgments as to the status and progress of a program may be made – even absent declaratory supporting statements. As the authors point out, for example, early literature tends to view the problems presented in the complex kill chain of an ASBM with a wider aperture, with wide-ranging, generalist discussions that identify problem areas. As sub-groups of supporting literature grow in number while parsing ever-finer details, say in developing algorithms used to detect, identify and track large surface vessels using space-based assets, or there is wider discussion of the problems associated with exo-atmospheric maneuvering while maintaining targeting (as is the case in the civilian space program and the problems associated with unmanned docking), the fact that such bodies of literature exist lends credence to assessments of the state of development and deployment of a weapons system.
Beyond the ASBM, the authors see far-reaching impacts on the larger military capabilities and force structure. Developing, building and deploying an operational ASBM with all of the technical, operational and even political challenges posed along the way would have reverberating effects throughout – from Command and Control, to multi-spectral imaging, rapid re-targeting, battle assessment and more – every bit a modern revolution in military affairs and industry as the US experienced in the late 80’s and 90’s with technology crossovers from the space and micro-computer industries.
Points to ponder while working on a “balanced” approach to forces…
(cross-posted at steeljawscribe.com)
The investigation into the mass murder on Ft. Hood continues, but there is no doubt who was responsible, and his motivations are clear. He (his name doesn’t deserve mentioning) acted out of a radical belief in Islam and a hatred of the United States.
One decision by the Army will determine how the service, and the administration, view this attack. Will it be viewed only as a crime, or will it be viewed as a terrorist attack committed by an enemy of this nation? The answer lies in whether or not the victims are awarded Purple Hearts.
Army Regulation 600-8-22 (regulation page 20, pdf page 40), article 2-8 b.(6), requires that “the act must be recognized by the Secretary of the Army as an international terrorist attack.”
(6) After 28 March 1973, as the result of an international terrorist attack against the United States or a foreign nation friendly to the United States, recognized as such an attack by the Secretary of Army, or jointly by the Secretaries of the separate armed services concerned if persons from more than one service are wounded in the attack. (http://www.army.mil/usapa/epubs/pdf/r600_8_22.pdf)
The victims of this cowardly and monstrous attack deserved better than to die or be wounded in what was otherwise a place of safety. Their sacrifice must be properly recognized. They earned and deserve the Purple Heart. What, and when, will the Secretary decide?
Manned fighter vs. UAV – who would win? Lots of conjecture in the open and closed press at the moment as we move ever hesitatingly towards more autonomous operations. Still, in one sense, the debate took upon itself flesh and blood (and aluminum and hydraulic fluid) in the skies over Southern California in the summer of 1956.
It all began with an F6F drone that was operating autonomously, just not by design. Following the war, F6Fs were plentiful and being replaced by newer versions of the F4U Corsair and F8F Bearcat (briefly) and in short order, by the first generation of carrier-based jet fighters like the FH Phantom and the FJ Fury. During the war and afterwards, the Navy was very much involved with development of drones and unmanned aircraft in its pursuit of long-range cruise missiles. As such, considerable expertise was gained in unmanned aircraft command and control, which was readily applied to the spare F6Fs, which themselves, became a plentiful source of unmanned drones for gunnery and missile practice.
Except the command and control part sometimes didn’t quite synch. . .we pick up the story via BoB Wilson, on the staff of the Antelope Valley Press:
CDR Aboul-Enein’s finally done it. I’m going to rave about it sight unseen, based solely on his reputation.
Back in the mid-nineties, the Navy tried to build a Foreign Area Officer program. It didn’t work due to structural problems, but I was selected for the subspecialty along with a few other officers. I built a professional relationship with a few, including one guy with an unusual name who seemed to know a lot about the Middle East. As soon as I got back into port after 9/11, he was the first guy I emailed; I was worried about the potential for him to get caught up in harassment or trouble.
Turns out the opposite happened. He wound up being the guy who in the E-ring. He taught his fellow Americans about the insidious nature of islamist ideology and how normal folks in the Middle East think about warfare, a quiet, professional voice between the appeasers and the overly Jacksonian militants. This is very hard to do when so many people who oppose American values speak different things to different audiences, and lie to calm rational concerns about threat to people very willing to accept a reasonable-sounding voice. (Other officers I know have failed at this. Perhaps you remember a particularly ugly catfight between two in ’07 in the Pentagon from people who may resemble this.)
You know CDR Aboul-Enein if you took JPME II and studied the region, or were in the E-ring after 9/11, or in a variety of jobs we shall not mention here. He has written regularly in a number of publications, and has a particular skill in reviewing a book and giving you the essence of what’s going on–and he does that with books in Arabic that normally we would have no idea about. I’ve learned a lot about the region from his scholarship–and this has served me well when I got yanked from my previous warfare community into a new FAO community, language training, and work in the Middle East, where I’m deployed.
So he’s a friend of mine. I trust his instincts and read what he has to write.
And the guy snuck up on me and finally wrote a book. It’s a summary of years of work he’s done, looking at who these people we’re fighting are. How do these people think? What’s the pump that draws from the pool of normal people and spits out these jerks? What’s the scholarship trail?
Here’s the book, published by USNI. Admiral Stavridis has written the foreword. Can’t get much higher recommendation than that.
Sixty-five years ago, RAF Lancasters of Number 617 Squadron, the famous Ruhr “Dambusters”, and Number 9 Squadron, took off on a 2,300 mile mission to sink the German Battleship Tirpitz. For some weeks, Tirpitz sat by herself in the bitterly cold waters of Tromso Fjord along the Norwegian coast, seldom moving. In the latter months of her life, she would earn the nickname of Die einsame Konigin des Nordes. The Lonely Queen of the North.
When built, Tirpitz was one of the most powerful units afloat. Slightly larger than her legendary sister ship Bismarck, KMS Tirpitz displaced more than 43,000 tons. She was 824 feet long, armed with eight 38-cm (15”) guns, and had exceeded 31 knots on trials. The British had tried desperately to destroy her before she was even completed, and between the RAF and Royal Navy, many air, surface, and subsurface attacks had been only moderately successful, and had often paid a heavy cost for their efforts.
The operational history of Tirpitz is stunningly brief. In fact, there had been but three sorties for the magnificent ship. She had only fired her main battery once in anger, at targets ashore during a raid on Spitzbergen in September, 1943. Yet, she presented a threat to the Russian convoys and to British command of the seas from the time of her launching until her sinking. Tirpitz, with a varied array of Kriegsmarine capital units (battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, “pocket battleships” Scheer and Lutzow, and the superb heavy cruisers Hipper and Prinz Eugen), had been assigned the mission of commerce raiding, a role originally tasked to her more famous sister, Bismarck. She never filled that role, nor did she ever engage an enemy surface combatant during her short life. Hitler, unwilling to risk his heavy warships after the loss of Bismarck, severely restricted the conditions under which German capital units could put to see to seek battle.
The role in which Tirpitz, and most of the capital ships of the Kriegsmarine, would have the most success was that of a “fleet in being”. Despite a relatively few heavy units being assembled at any one time, and despite a lack of significant aerial umbrella (aside from some Luftwaffe coastal units) to protect them at sea, the German warships were perceived as a major threat to the convoys from the United States to Britain, and later to the Soviet Union via Murmansk and Archangel.
It has been estimated that the “fleet in being”, of which Tirpitz was the centerpiece and eventually the only significant unit, tied down ten times its own combat power in Royal Navy battleships, carriers, cruisers, and destroyers. Many of these powerful warships were desperately needed in other theaters of war, most notably in November/December of 1941 in the Pacific.
How might Britain’s (and America’s) fortunes have been different in December of 1941 had a substantial task force (including additional aircraft carriers) been sent to Hong Kong/Singapore, instead of a single aircraft carrier, one modern battleship, and an elderly battle cruiser? The largest and most powerful navy in the world was spread too thin to do so. Instead, when Illustrious was damaged running aground, Prince of Wales and Repulse were helpless against far superior Japanese strength, and were sunk by aircraft from the 11th Air Fleet. (Had Illustrious been present, it is unlikely that she would have deterred the attacks, and most probably would have been lost along with Repulse and Prince of Wales.)
The threat the Royal Navy believed Tirpitz and her consorts posed can be illustrated by the fate of Convoy PQ-17. Putting out of the assembly point in Iceland, PQ-17 was bound for Murmansk with about fifty ships and escorts in early July, 1942. Upon a mere report that Tirpitz (along with cruiser Hipper) had put to sea from Trondheim (Operation Rosselsprung), the order was given for PQ-17 to scatter. In reality, Grand Admiral Raeder ordered Tirpitz to return to Trondheim over concerns that Home Fleet ships and aircraft would attack and sink her. The merchant vessels of PQ-17, scattered beyond the protection of the escorting warships, were hunted relentlessly by Luftwaffe aircraft and Donitz’s Wolf Packs, with U-boats and aerial attacks accounting for twenty-four merchantmen, nearly half of the convoy’s strength.
Even as late as November of 1944, Tirpitz, by then truly a lonely queen, continued to draw British attention as a lingering threat to Britain and her lifelines from America. What the British did not know is that a raid on 11 September, 1944 had badly damaged Tirpitz forward, and the decision had been made not to repair her to seaworthiness. So the raid of 12 November was launched from bases in Britain.
British Lancasters from 9 and 617 Squadrons arrived to no Luftwaffe fighter opposition, and despite heavy antiaircraft fire struck Tirpitz with at least two of the 6-ton “tallboy” bombs carried. The massive battleship suffered a magazine explosion, and rolled to port on her beam ends. She capsized in shallow water, taking more than one thousand of her crew into the icy waters of Tromso Fjord. The “Lonely Queen” was gone, and the “fleet in being” was no more. The effort since 1941 to contain and then destroy Tirpitz had been enormous, and had global implications for British and Allied naval strategy throughout the first five years of war. Her existence as a “fleet in being” had far wider impact strategically than the heroic but ultimately fatal battles fought by her sister Bismarck in 1941 and her sometimes-consort Scharnhorst in 1943.
The concept of the “fleet in being” was not a new one, even in 1939. In fact, the concept went back three centuries, when in 1690 the British had turned the trick on the French. In the First World War, the High Seas Fleet had pinned down a much greater number of British warships at Scapa Flow than its own strength ever approached. During World War II, not only were German capital units in northern waters such a “fleet in being”, but the Italian Navy in the Mediterranean served strikingly similar purposes, and necessitated the daring British raid on Taranto in 1940. Indeed, the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor was in many ways a “fleet in being” to the Japanese, posing a far more serious threat than what existed the previous year when the Pacific Fleet was based in California. The Pearl Harbor attack was, like Britain’s against Taranto, to eliminate a “fleet in being” which could challenge and disrupt control of seas vital to the Japanese.
The topic of Tirpitz and the “fleet in being” concept is not merely of academic and historical interest. In the first decade of the 21st Century, there has been much discussion by The People’s Republic of China regarding their desires for a blue-water fleet to protect global interests and establish regional hegemony in the waters of the Western Pacific. We have seen a growing amphibious and power projection capability, and the maturing of a maritime denial strategy with an eye toward the United States Navy. There is again discussion, this time more serious, of the development of naval aviation by the PLAN.
Could a burgeoning Chinese Navy become a “fleet in being”? What implications does that hold for the United States? In each historical example, a “fleet in being” that threatened vital interests was countered by one of two approaches. The first was the dedication of naval combat power in excess of that which such a “fleet in being” could bring to bear, ensuring a reasonable chance of victory. The second was an attack (pre-emptive in some notable cases) on that fleet from the air while the critical elements of that fleet were in harbor.
Is the PLAN wagering we haven’t the national will for the first approach, and that they can effectively defend against the second? We would be well-served to look at how the various “fleets in being” affected strategic and operational decisions on the part of maritime powers and wrap such considerations into future Maritime Strategies, and shipbuilding plans. To do otherwise will be to stumble blindly into a future that our adversaries have prepared carefully for. Such a course would be foolhardy and costly.
With Veterans Day here and the Marine Corps Birthday having just passed, I thought it would be appropriate to share an excerpt of an interview and conversation I had with a Marine aviator. I had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Elliot Billings a 96 year old former Marine aviator and dive-bomber pilot. His remarks certainly help give some flair to the early days of military aviation!
When were you in the Marines?
In 1934. I was looking at a luncheon menu from Washington DC in 1935; a four course meal was $.85…I got to be a 1st LT in the Marine Corp–$254/month!
Did you ever hear of a BG-1? No? Well, I was on the front end of that group where they discovered dive bombing. It hadn’t been professionalized you might say. Nobody knew a hell of a lot about it. But the idea was these BG Great Lakes were built specifically for dive bombing by the Great Lakes Aviation Company, no longer in existence.
So when I reported into Quantico. None of the older, more experienced pilots, you know the people who were 35 years old, they didn’t think much of these airplanes. They were too damn hot.
They were fast and maybe cranky to fly. They didn’t understand the airplanes and there hadn’t been enough of them to go to the factory to talk with the people who told them about it. But we were all new, fresh out of Pensacola, and we didn’t care—we could fly anything. And this BG had more struts, it was the toughest airplane I ever flew in my life because this thing was going to be going 300 mph. That was speed.
I went by Quantico a couple years ago with my one of grandchildren; I just couldn’t believe it! I asked, “Do you know where Brown Field is?” The guard at the gate said, “Is that an airfield?” I said “Yes, that is where the aviation department resided.” Of course now they have an airport that covers 10 miles of the edge of the Potomac River. But that field had a dirt runway 3000 feet long. It was kind of a marginal performance to get these planes in there if you made a carrier landing, you know hard to get in and hard to get out. We didn’t know that.
So one of our guys one day when he knew the whole damn brass was out there—MAJ Geiger, Mokahe (sp?), and various others, all at the airfield all watching to see what these young folks do. So old Dick Scott a good friend, but instead of coming in for a carrier approach…he just came in like he was a fighter—he didn’t roll 200 feet! That was a good airplane but people didn’t understand in dive bombing, you can start anywhere…but if you get right over your target…the one thing that’s got to happen is you’re going to have to be on your back because the top of the wing is longer than the bottom…the first thing you know in order to keep it under control is that you’re upside down!
But those were great days.
Have you seen the Marine Corps Museum in Quantico?
Who was the first guy you saw as you went in?
Hank Elrod, we called him R-rod. He was the last one to fly an airplane out of Wake Island in World War II. And he knew he was going to get killed, but it didn’t make any difference to him. They gave him the Congressional Medal of Honor. When I walked into that museum the first time, I’ve been there twice…I saluted him when I came in because I knew him very well, flight school and so forth…Here he is surrounded by dozens of Japanese airplanes and only one airplane left and he took it out and shot down three of them before getting shot down himself. That’s a pretty good museum they have.
More to come!
Correction: Mr. Billings is 96 years old not 90 as previously stated.
Veteran’s Day. A day to celebrate the living and this is one way to help them
The last day for Valour-IT. Go Team Navy!
We’re almost there and well, look what Lex has threatened to do:
“Tomorrow is Veterans Day, which means that this year’s VALOUR-IT drive has just a little more than 24 hours to run. If you haven’t had the opportunity to drop what little (or much) you can in the till for Team Navy, I’d take it as a kindness for you to make time. Even as little as five bucks.
Or else I shoot the dog.”
Yikes! Seriously, you can make a difference! And save a dog. Click on the Navy bar above of the themometer to your right.
Happy Veterans Day to all who have served and are serving. It’s an honor to be surround by all of you.
At the 11th hour, on the 11th day of the 11th month…the guns fell silent along what was known then as the Western Front as the Allies and Germany observed the agreement to end this “War to End All Wars.” While fighting continued sporadically elsewhere, in what were fast becoming the former empires of Russia and the Ottoman-Turks, the rest of the world surveyed the cost of four years of war.
- 60 million Europeans put under arms
- 8 million dead, over 20 million wounded; a generation forever thinned and crippled across three continents;
- the world map forever altered
The industrial might and genius of a world gone mad and revealed in the mechanized mayhem of hitherto unknown locales – Marne (500,000 dead), Somme (where Britain lost over 57,000 killed in one day alone) — Ypres, site of the appearance of the cruelest form of warfare – poisonous gas; the cauldron at Verdun which claimed a quarter of a million French and German dead alone; Gallipoli (almost 43,000 Allied dead) and Chateau-Thierry/Belleau Wood which saw the single bloodiest day in Marine Corps history — until Tarawa in 1943.
Machine guns, heavy artillery, submarine warfare, aerial attack and poisonous gas against flesh and blood — 19th Century tactics couched in medieval concepts of battlefield glory against the grim reality of war in the Industrial Age.
It was a slaughterhouse whose effluent would poison the world for ages afterwards. My grandfather (that’s his picture at the top left), a first generation American of German extraction was sent “Over There” to fight cousins and kinsmen. I have a cherished set of sketches from his time in France – they are a study of French soldiers over time from 1914 through 1917, from exuberant youth to prematurely aged and bitterly tired maturity. He purchased them on his way back to his Illinois home from the war after November 11th. My wife’s maternal grandfather was not so lucky. He fell victim to a phosgene attack, leaving him permanently crippled and requiring daily assistance for the rest of his life. He lived to be 90 and was haunted every day by the horror of that attack.
These are those whom I remember every November 11th. The first wave in what became a series of world wars – the second wave one generation removed from the first, enfolding in its embrace my maternal grandfather who led Rangers in the assault on the cliffs at Normandy and my future father in the Pacific theater. And my wife’s father who answered the call in a frozen peninsula in northeast Asia. And don’t forget my godfather – who flew Skyhawks from Oriskany and Hancock during the toughest of times off another Asian country barely a decade later and who would serve as an inspiration for a young Midwestern lad. Yes, these and so many more who have and continue to serve – these I remember,
On November 12, 1919, President Wilson signed a declaration proclaiming that day as Armistice Day to recognize the veterans of this war – Congress amended it seven years later to change the day to the 11th of November and after WW II, and following advocacy that began with a shoe store owner in Emporia, Kansas, President Eisenhower signed the bill proclaiming hence forth that Veteran’s Day would honor veterans of all our nation’s conflicts on the 11th day of the 11th month henceforth.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields. – Lt.-Col. John McCrae
So at 1100 today – and subsequent November 11ths, let us pause to remember that all gave some and some gave all – and others are still giving, and let us give thanks, in solemn prayer for those and in gratitude to those still with us…
(cross-posted at steeljawscribe.com)
h/t to Angie Williams, wife of former Vietnam POW and Founder of National Donut Day, LTC Orson Swindle, USMC-Ret.
Today is also the Marine Corps’ Birthday….. and National Donut Day
As most of you know, my husband, Orson, was a Prisoner of War in Hanoi for 6 years and 4 months. Ironically his shoot down date is Veteran’s Day, November 11, 1966. So this is a big week for him.
As we all know, being a prisoner is a tough experience, but the POW’s also have some funny stories to share, and the following is one of them….
In September 1969, after Orson had been a prisoner three very hard years (the early years were by far the worst) Ho Chi Minh died. Orson was at Son Tay with about 55 other men. One day in October he was called in for an interrogation… which he said was more of an “English lesson” for the interrogator as opposed to one of the beatings they received when Ho Chi Minh was calling the shots. The interrogator began by bragging about his country and its 4,000 year history and belittling the USA… saying, “Your country is very young, it doesn’t even have very many heroes or holidays.” Knowing that the Marine Corps birthday was coming up on November the 10, Orson began to spin a story…….
He pretended to take umbrage, saying… “No, no, no…. you are quite wrong… we have many holidays in our country, as a matter of fact, one is coming up very soon. There will be festivals and children will dress up in costumes and it’s very important to us.” The interrogator became interested so Orson proceeded that it was called, “National Donut Day”….
Before you can really appreciate this you need a bit of background. Before Ho Chi Minh’s death, the prisoners were practically starved to death. They were eating nothing but rice and swamp grass soup (as they call it) and sometimes pumpkin soup. Orson says they estimated that he went down to a little as 120 pounds… At shoot down he was something like 175 and 6’2″. So this is unbelievably thin. The men were hungry all the time. Very hungry. About twice a year they would get what they considered an incredible treat… it was noting more than old French bread.. that had become hard and moldy, but the cooks would deep fry it and roll it in sugar and the prisoners called the result “sticky buns” and to them it was mana from heaven….
So when explaining National Donut Day, Orson told his interrogator that “Donuts are a lot like your sticky buns… they are sweet bread, and on National Donut Day everyone has one…. or more of them.” Not sure what the outcome might be, Orson was sent back to his cell, where he immediately started tapping through the wall to all the other POWs saying…”Hey guys, you gotta back me up. I just invented a new holiday and if they find out I was pulling their leg, there will be hell to pay — tell all the guards that National Donut Day is on November 10 — don’t let me down! Pass it on!” A few weeks went by, and to everyone’s great surprise, on November 10 the prisoners at Son Tay prison — known for being one of the worst —and also for the failed rescue attempt — were served sticky buns and — Orson was the hero of the day!
Orson had forgotten all about this story, and I had never heard it, but in March 03 a fellow POW, Bob Stirm, an Air Force Col was interviewed in a San Francisco paper and in it he described the origin of National Donut Day.
Thanks for sharing Angie!
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