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4 November 2013 – Just by looking at the date of this weblog entry, you can see that a significant time has passed since I last worked on WW2 Gyrene. A great deal has happened in my life, and meanwhile, the passage of time has cut further into the ranks of the valiant Marines from that era.
In August of this year, I was saddened to learn that Bertram Yaffe of Fall River, Mass., had passed away at age 93. While a young man, he answered duty's call as an officer of Marines, serving in three campaigns with the 3rd Tank Bn, Third Marine Division. I first learned about Mr. Yaffe through his amazing memior, Fragments of War - A Marine's Personal Journey. At 144 pages, this isn't a long story, but it's unlike any war story I've read, and I've read a few. I'll go even further. It's the best war story you never heard of.
After the war, then-Captain Yaffe returned home and did more than his share to make our country a better place. He cared about people, especially those without the power to speak for themselves. By all accounts, he was a good man, and used his wartime experiences to help shape his views and actions for good. To me, what most defined this true warrior were his passion for peace, his concern for others, and his dedication to his principles. As a young Marine who had stood in the inferno's mouth, Bernard Yaffe hated war. He knew first-hand the awful toll it exacts from those who must endure it.
I never had the honor of knowing Mr. Yaffe, although I truly wish I had. A staunch American - a progressive Democrat - a brave Marine; this was a man who exemplified what it means to be a Marine. Rest in peace, Captain Yaffe and Bravo Zulu.
21 June 2012— Recently, the Marine Corps Times reported that fallen Pfc John A. Donovan of Northfield Township, Mich., was laid to rest on 8 June 2012. He received a warrior's funeral fitting for a Marine who had been missing in action since 1944. Pfc Donovan served as a radioman-gunner aboard PBJ-1 aircraft 35087 in Marine Bombing Squadron-423 during World War II. Seven Marines were aboard the ship on 22 April 1944 when it crashed into a mountain on Espiritu Santo Island in the South Pacific.
The aircraft's wreckage was located in 1994 and earlier this year, the military made a positive identification of the crewmembers. The following Marines were aboard the aircraft when it went down nearly seven decades ago:
1stLt Laverne A. Lallathin, 2ndLt Dwight D. Ekstam, TSgt James A. Sisney, Cpl Wayne R. Erickson, TSgt Walter B. Vincent Jr., Cpl John D. Yeager, Pfc John A. Donovan.
Over 3,000 Marines are still unaccounted for from the World War II years.That's nearly a regiment's worth of Leathernecks who gave the last full measure of devotion. Imagine how many families never even had the cold comfort of a funeral for their Marine. But every once and awhile, the roster is decreased by one, or two, or in this case, seven Americans as our fallen are identified. But in the years since the war, time has taken its toll not only on those who served in the war, but on their relatives as well. Today, many families have no living memory of that young Devil Dog who so long ago never returned from serving his nation out there in the Pacific.
Semper Fidelis, Frater Aeternae,
PS: I've been searching for information on the funerals for the other Marines in the crew and will post that information as I find it. (Photo credit: Marine Corps Times via AP)
18 June 2012— It has been a very journey, but I am once again able to work on WW2 Gyrene. A lot of water has passed under my proverbial bridge since I last updated the site in February 2011. There are still a few things I am hammering out (such as access to my WW2 Gyrene e-mail) but they should be ironed out soon and I will be back up to full speed.
I want to sincerely apologize to the folks who've attempted to contact me during the past months. Know that it was not a lack of caring or interest on my part, but a series of technical problems, web hosting issues, and personal turmoil and change that kept me off the net. Fortunately, the site itself has never gone down, so at least everyone has been able to view WW2 Gyrene while I was away. I am committed to keeping the site up not matter what. That committment will never change.
I'm looking forward to renewing the old friendships I've made through WW2 Gyrene and establishing new ones in the coming months. Please stay with me as I work through the last technical hurdles and I will advise when my e-mail is back up. Until then...
16 August 2010— Thinking about the wartime era, it is difficult to avoid clichés, sometimes nearly impossible. Here are just a few from an almost limitless selection:
The Greatest Generation,
a time of shared sacrifice,
everything for the war effort,
the entire country was in it together,
the boys came home and got on with their lives,
they made the American dream happen.
Like a wax triptych etched by an ancient philosopher, each of these phrases contains a kernel of truth. Without a shred of doubt, the war entailed a degree of sacrifice and commitment unparalleled in modern memory. And from our comfortable perspective of the 21st Century, it is hard to avoid some of the telling truths that were not so evident to the Marines, Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen who served at the tip of the spear.
For instance, American weapons, firepower, and troops hopelessly outclassed the tanks, infantry weapons, and indeed, the tactics used by the Japanese army. Even as the campaign for Guadalcanal was proceeding, Marine and Army commanders struggled to make sense of the seemingly ritualistic way that Japanese troops attacked en masse into prepared fields of fire. We know today that this form of attack was part of the Japanese idea of bushido, and the supposed innate superiority of the Japanese soldier. But it still terrified Marines and Soldiers who faced it from the dubious shelter of shallow foxholes on numberless Pacific islands.
Today, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are beamed to America through television news reports sandwiched between ads for Viagra, and the latest sports scores. Only a relative few share the sacrifice that war demands, and they share it over and over and over. For them, no cliché can match the pain of losing a close buddy, having their brains scrambled by an IED explosion, the danger of constant patrols that never seem to end.
Not many people outside of the armed forces seem to really care about "the troops" nowadays. I mean, if you don't have an iron in the fire, so to speak, what difference does it make in comparison to how much your 401k lost last month, or how much your house depreciated, or that the cost of gas is creeping up again? It's all relative, right... or is it?
In World War II, there was no matrix or risk reduction chart to minimize casualties. Leaders agonized over casualties in every stage of the war, and the good ones at all levels did all in their power to protect their men's lives. But they died in numbers that were shocking even by the standards of the times. In the sense that most young American men were serving in the armed forces, families all over the country wondered and worried each time the news reported a major action.
When the Philippines fell to Japan in 1942, over 80,000 American and Philippine went into Japanese captivity. In the air raid on Schweinfurt in October 1943, out of a force of 290 U. S. heavy bombers, 60 were lost to German defenders, killing or capturing 639 airmen, on one raid. Only a month later, the Second Marine Division suffered 3,390 casualties in 76 hours of brutal combat. In late 1944-early 1945, over 19,000 American died in combat during the Battle of the Bulge. Ultimately, more than 400,000 American service personnel died in service to our nation from December 1941 to August 1945.
In the modern era the raw number of casualties is lower, but if you are one of the people trying to figure your percentage in the law of averages, that is a cold comfort. Back home, we can watch (if we choose to) the death of our servicemen and women in the nightly news. Notification of the loss is nearly instantaneous in military terms. In World War II, the process was very different and the information flow from front lines to home front took weeks, or sometimes even longer.
Western Union was the purveyor of telegrams informing families that their men in service had died, been wounded, were missing, or captured. This solemn duty, handled today by a specially trained team of officers and NCOs, back then was in the hands of a bicycle messenger, maybe 17 years old, himself waiting for his induction letter. Families were left to grieve alone, and even the official letter that followed the dreaded telegram came in the U. S. Mail.
This shared uncertainty, in a sense, bound the nation together. Nearly every family with military-age males had at least one relative in the service. The only universal way to correspond was by letters, which frequently took weeks to pass through the distant chain to troops serving in the farflung corners of the globe. And of course, rationing of strategic materials and foodstuffs, blood and scrap drives, war loans and bonds, all helped to promote the feeling of shared ownership of the war effort.
When the news reported breaking stories of major air battles, folks may not have known exactly where the battlefield was. But they knew that the kid down the block was in the paratroops, the newspaper boy was serving in the Marine Corps, and every young man in the family was with the Army to Europe.
It is an absolute tragedy that our armed forces, so magnificent in battle, are suffering an epidemic of suicides that they cannot seem to get under control. Prescription drug use is rampant as troops with year after year of arduous combat deployments struggle to make it through one more mission, one more patrol. The psychic toll on these men and women is incomprehensible to the average American.
PTSD rates have soared among the troops who must shoulder this burden of an endless war. I have heard the sentiment voiced, "What was different about the World War II generation? They didn't have all these problems." To me, this line of thinking is so crass, so ignorant, that I really can't find the words to refute it without my blood pressure going through the roof.
The homecoming from World War II wasn't nearly as neat and picture-perfect as some believe. Veterans and their families struggled for years and decades with the aftermath of war. Yes, most of them got on with their lives, because what other choice was there? But it wasn't nearly as simple as just taking off a uniform one day, marrying the girl of your dreams, and picking up your own individual piece of the American dream.
31 May 2010— Today is Memorial Day in the United States and to me it's our most solemn holiday. Those who have lost loved ones and friends in our nation's service remember the fallen each day of our lives. It is impossible to forget the depth of sacrifice that our service members have made when you know of it first-hand.
But the wider public has little actual acquaintance with those who have given what has been so aptly termed "the last full measure of devotion." I like to hope that Memorial Day is more than just the first three-day weekend of summer. But to be honest, sometimes I wonder. On Friday evening my wife and I took our dog out for a walk in our local county park just outside town. There were already a fair number of RV campers hat had arrived early to stake out their spots.
Although it may have been unfair, I couldn't help wondering how many of those people had given any thought to the deeper meaning of Memorial Day. I don't know, but mourning and remembrance don't seem to dovetail very well with outdoor fun, camp fires, and family get-togethers. I'm probably all washed up in my view. I hope so anyway.
It rained today in Oregon's Willamette Valley where I live. It seemed fitting to me because this day always takes me onto roads less traveled and my inner feeling takes on a reflectiveness as I think about the pain and suffering that Americans have endured for us. Last night I watched an amazing and heartbreaking HBO film called Taking Chance that starred Kevin Bacon. This is the story of a Marine officer who is charged with escorting the remains of a young Marine who died in Iraq from Dover Air Force Base back home for burial.
This little film, so understated and moving, spoke straight to my heart, and it was especially fitting on the eve of Memorial Day. I found tears welling in my eyes almost from the moment I first tuned in, and almost had to turn off the TV on a couple of occasions. But I hung on to the end, and I'm glad I did.
I was awestruck at the commitment of the Marine Corps (and its sister services) to provide this last honor to those killed in action. The process of getting a fallen service member back home is shrouded in mystery for the wider public, and Taking Chance gives us a window into this process that is full of solemn ceremonial and ritual.
28 February 2010— Today, I caught C-SPAN's program of the Iwo Jima commemoration of the Battle of Iwo Jima, held at the National Museum of the Marine Corps on 19 February 2010. I was lucky to hear about this program from John Butler, whose father commanded 1st Bn, 27th Marines on Iwo. Keynote speakers included, among others, the current CMC, General James Conway, and former CMC General James Jones.
Watching the program, I was once again struck by the iconic status of Iwo Jima and its place in American history. Without a doubt, this event ranks among the greatest feats of arms in history. Every battle of World War II played a role in victory, and some were longer, bloodier, and arguably more important. But, Iwo Jima has become a symbol of sacrifice and devotion to duty that goes far beyond the battle itself.
In the American consciousness, Joe Rosenthal's immortal picture of the flag raising on Mount Suribachi symbolized the war effort. But the picture was just that; an image of a moment in time. The Marines in the picture faced away from the camera, so they could not be easily identified. In a sense, they served as surrogates for all of the men fighting on Iwo Jima. And the photograph, in turn, became an instant symbol of the Marine Corps and the war effort, even while the battle still raged.
It's terribly hard for us in this 21st Century to look back on the year 1945 with anything like the clarity of the year itself. Folks were listening to Bing Crosby, the Andrews Sisters, and Jimmy Dorsey on the radio. They were watching the great films Gaslight, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, and National Velvet at the movies. And they followed the war's progress on the radio, in the papers, and at the theaters. The boys were in uniform, and the public lived a collective experience of not knowing what their loved ones in the service were doing, where they were, and even if they were alive.
The news was grim. American forces were on the move as Iwo Jima unfolded, but the casualties were horrendous. At sea and in the air, the war raged. The Battle of the Bulge had just wrapped up with some of the heaviest losses in U. S. history. And the campaigns in the Marianas, at Peleliu, and in the Philippines, pointed to bloody, grinding fights in the future. This was confirmed for our citizenry each time they received a Western Union telegram informing them that their loved one was missing, wounded, or dead in combat.
So what about Iwo Jima gives it the place it holds in our national psyche? The level of sacrifice there was unmatched. For 36 awful days, Marines went forward day after day, absorbing casualty rates that forced a complete revision of what it meant to be "combat effective." In the opening phase of the battle, the Japanese defenders rained artillery and mortar fire of all calibers onto the beach head from the massif of Mount Suribachi, and from concealed positions on the Motoyama Plateau.
Throughout the battle, the infantry units clawed their way forward through a maze of interlocked enemy positions that never seemed to end. With little or no maneuver room, each yard of ground exacted a toll in blood. In this regard, Iwo's eight square miles became the most expensive real estate of the war. Over 3,250 Americans died or were wounded for each square mile of territory conquered. The sheer number of the dead and wound defies comprehension, but it was a cold, hard fact. Of the roughly 71,000 assault troops on Iwo Jima, more than 36 percent became casualties during the battle. Only in the defensive campaigns in the Philippines in 1942 did our forces in the war endure a higher rate of casualties.
While U. S. Marines blasted, burned, and pushed forward through the wilderness of Iwo Jima, thousands of their brother Leatherneck had already died in the war, and more would do so before final victory. But no other campaign would ever see as many Marines fighting together under their own flag officers. And Iwo served as a validation of the techniques and tactics of amphibious assault. The battle showed beyond any doubt that Marine assault troops could not be stopped from mission accomplishment. This was a powerful message that echoed across the world, and far into the future.
As Marines of another era prepared to battle Iraqi insurgents in Fallujah in 2004, one of them was asked if his unit could perform its mission. He replied simply and with conviction, "We took Iwo Jima, we can take Fallujah." Proud words indeed, and they highlight the link Marines feel for those who went before.
24 February 2010— I'm still not quite used to writing the year and it seems hard to believe that it's actually 2010. Where do the years go? Sometimes I feel that, as I grow older, the days and weeks fly by at rapid rate. This past Friday, I had the honor of attending the annual Iwo Jima luncheon in Sutherlin, Oregon. I'm not 100% sure, but I think I've attended every one since 2002. That's quite a long time. It's fun to get reacquainted with other attendees that I haven't seen since the previous year. And it goes without saying that seeing the survivors of the battle is always the highlight.
This year, I thought about David Herrick, a infantryman in the 4th Marine Division with a booming voice and plenty of great sea stories. And I also reflected on Otto Vogel, an artilleryman with the 5th Marine Division. Both were regular attendees at the luncheon, but have gone on to the far shores. I'll never forget the important lessons I learned from them, nor will I forget what they did in their youth for us.
I met my great friends Tom Williams and Craig Leman for breakfast on Friday and we had breakfast together before driving to Sutherlin. We ate steak and eggs to remember the last meal before Tom and Craig left their ships on D-Day at Iwo. I was thrilled and humbled to sit with these two veteran Marines reflecting on their sacrifices in battle so long ago, but at the same time, just yesterday.
Today is an anniversary of sorts for me personally. It was 19 years ago today that the ground assault phase of Desert Storm began. In reality, my unit had already been under fire and some of our saddest moments had occurred before crossing the LD. We didn't know that at the time, though. I was feeling out of sorts yesterday, but couldn't quite figure out why. I didn't sleep well last night and this morning, I felt tired as soon as I woke up, which is unusual. My wife even noticed it and asked me if something was wrong. It wasn't until I saw the date in the newspaper that it dawned on me that today was the 24th.
Next month marks the release of the HBO miniseries, The Pacific, produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, who brought us Band of Brothers. HBO has an outstanding track record for quality programming, and if the buzz is right, The Pacific should be an amazing achievement. I sometimes scratch my head at how little actual information people have about the campaigns of the Pacific. So, let's cross our fingers that HBO gets it right and does justice to the Marines who sacrificed so much out there 65 years ago.
PS - I redid the Legacy page yesterday, so please have a look and let me know what you think.
19 January 2010— It is hard to believe that 2010 is here already. My son is a senior in high school and just finished a project for his government class on NASA's early years, which encompasses the race for the Moon, and all the fascinating history surrounding it. When I explained to him that I was always a space buff, and remembered watching Apollo on TV and that I read everything about the space program that I could get my hands on, he said, "Oh, but I need good sources for my paper."
For my son and his generation, World War II is ancient history, and even events such as Desert Storm, less than 20 years ago, are just history in a book that they may not have even studied. But of course, for those who actually lived the history, and their families that still care, even the oldest events aren't really history, but still an actual, current event. With our 24-hour news cycle, the media regurgitates the pop headline of the day until something else comes along to replace it. But the enduring events that mean something resonate beyond the right now, sometimes long after the exact dates are forgotten.
Who has not heard of the Spartans at Thermopylae? Few people today know exactly when Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon. But many people to this day still use the phrase bearing that fateful river's name to signify going all out for a cause or endeavor. In American history, almost every pupil learns the stirring phrase by Nathan Hale, "I regret that I have but one life to give for my country." Naturally, many don't know the context of this famous saying, but that doesn't lessen its meaning, or its importance, for the matter.
World War II was full of unforgettable moments and events. The war defined America's role in the World, and even today, to speak of "the War," still refers specifically to the Second World War. Few events in history make that impact on so many people. Everyone old enough to remember where they were on 22 November 1963 can say for as long as they live what they were doing when they heard the horrifying news that President Kennedy had been assassinated. 9/11 had that same impact on our national psyche. We can never forget it, and it will always remain a defining moment for those of us who remember it.
But the War was so much bigger than any of these events, or any others that have occurred since then. As a historian, I'm always cautious, extremely so, about getting involved in debates about the importance of specific campaigns or battles. There are so many variables and subjective aspects in trying to say whether a battle or campaign was more important than another one, that it is usually not worth the effort in attempting to sort it all out.
Most importantly, especially from the historical view, those who served in the War have their own opinions, which are probably more valid than any of us who came after. An unthinking history buff might say, "The Battle for XXX was an easy victory. The Marines only suffered 35 casualties." But a Marine who was at that action and was there when some of those 35 died or suffered wounds may have a very different viewpoint on that so-called "easy" victory.
20 December 2009— I just watched the movie White Christmas on DVD. This is one of my favorite holiday movies, especially because I enjoy Bing Crosby's singing, and Danny Kaye's unique style of physical humor. It's impossible to say exactly how many times I've seen it. This film has the background of a World War II US Army division, its' commander, and the brotherhood that the men in this outfit.
Every time I watch White Christmas I can't help but reflect on the complexity and depth of relationships that develop in the service. I suppose any time that people are thrown together under close conditions, something is bound to happen. The TV reality show Survivor, for instance, is an example of all the wrong reasons and results. But White Christmas is just the opposite, with honorable characters dedicated to a fine purpose: to remember their commander.
There's a scene in the film where the big show starts, and some of the old soldiers have arrived wearing their uniforms, and the general is too, along with some former members of his staff. He stands up with his former aide at his side to review the troops. The aide leans to the general — played by the great Dean Jagger — and says quietly, "It's just routine, sir."
There's the thing. There really isn't anything routine about war, or the relationships that grow and deepen during it. And it goes without saying that there is absolutely nothing routine about going into combat. That our troops make it look matter of fact is a testament to their skill, dedication and courage, not to the events they endure. It was certainly that way in World War II, and it will always be like that.
Several days ago I caught a program on the History Channel called War Dogs of the Pacific. Now, I generally have a pretty low opinion of most programs of this type for several good reasons, which I may go into some other time. But, suffice it to say that this program was the exception. It follows the Marine War Dog Platoons used no narrator. Instead, the program is narrated by the Marines themselves, along with well chosen archival footage and personal photographs to tell an amazing story of brotherhood, not just between the Marines, but also with their K-9 partners.
I wish you a fine holiday season this year. In my family, we celebrate the Winter Solstice and Christmas, but whatever festivities you observe, I hope they are happy and peaceful. Thank you for staying with WW2 Gyrene, and I hope you'll continue to stop by in the new year.
6 December 2009— Next Saturday (12 December 2009) the 110th Army-Navy game will be fought in Philadelphia. This is one of the oldest and most honorable rivalries in college sports. While there are many rivalries between colleges and universities, few match the Army-Navy game. Both teams, and all they stand for, represent the very best of our nation.
Where I live in Oregon, the big game is the so-called "civil war" between the University of Oregon and Oregon State University. This game was played in Eugene the day before yesterday and the stakes were high, with the winner heading for the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. But, at least from the Ducks perspective, the season had a rough start with a player getting benched for some violent actions after the first game. And fan behavior at Autzen Stadium has been in the headlines after every home game, with drunkenness, rowdy fan conduct, and so on, in the local newspaper.
In a wider sense, college sports, and football in particular, appears to many as a money machine with student-athletes at many schools who receive much more emphasis on the athlete part, and not so much on the student part. Donors get the tickets, the more they donate, the better the seat, the parking space, and on and on. At many schools, there's a conflict between athletics and academics. I just saw a headline in the paper yesterday comparing football coaches' salaries with the governer of our state. The coaches make multi-millions, and the governor makes just shy of $100k a year. I'm not agreeing or disagreeing, just relating the information.
What's above debating is the purity of the football programs at West Point and Annapolis. The young men who take to the field are truly representatives of their schools, with more history and tradition then any other institute of higher learning in the country. Navy has had a great season this year (8-4) and is playing in the Texas Bowl on 31 December 2009. Army (5-6) is in a rebuilding phase right now under first-year Coach Ellerson and needs to win, not only to break Navy's winning streak (2002-to date.) Army is in a two-way tie with UCLA for a spot in the EagleBank Bowl and a win this Saturday would give Army a lock for its' first bowl game since 1996. Talk about the drama and pageantry of college athletics! It doesn't get much better than this.
The great thing about the Army-Navy game is that every player has the words "United States" at the start of his school's name. These guys don't play because they hope for a draft pick into the NFL with a multi-million dollar salary. They play for schools with rigorous academic schedules where football is just a part of their experience, not the reason why they're there. It's great stuff, better sports, and an example of the best in college athletics.
In today's issue of Parade Magazine, there's an inspiring story about the Army-Navy rivalry that focuses on the camaraderie of the cadets and midshipmen, and the two schools. it is a heartwarming story that I'm not ashamed to say made me misty-eyed when I read it this morning. You can read it by following this link.
25 November 2009— Tomorrow is Thanksgiving day in the United States, which traditionally marks the start of our holiday season. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, and it has been for a long time. When I was younger, I really enjoyed Christmas more, but nowadays, I can do without all the hoopla and hype that seem to be all wrapped up with it. Thanksgiving is about the family, and it seems to have a purity that tends to get lost when we're running around buying stuff, digging out decorations from the garage, looking for fuses to make the lights work, and so on.
I was thinking yesterday about how many Thanksgiving days that I spent deployed when I was in the service. The exact number is somewhat fuzzy, but I think it totals up to eight. Now, the flip side of the coin is that in 20 years in uniform, I got to spend 12 of them with my family. But the funny thing is, I remember the ones I spent deployed much better than those I was at home.
It is awfully hard to capture the true feeling of Thanksgiving when you're so far away from home. The armed forces —all of them — make a tremendous effort to bring some of the important things of the holidays to the troops. It is just astounding the lengths that units make to get Thanksgiving dinners out to the troops, if the situation allows it. But it's never quite the same as sitting around the table with those who are closest; family and friends.
Our servicemen and servicewomen are making sacrifices every day for our nation. It would be impossible to say which of them does the most important job because there are just too many. But on days such as Thanksgiving, each of them give up so much for us. It's just hard to quantify what it means to sit in a mess hall, a fox hole, a guard shack, thousands of miles, or even hundreds, away from home. Dinner might come with all the trimmings, when it's all finished, you're left with your thoughts of those you can't be with.
There have been so many changes to the armed forces since World War II, from the way our troops look in their uniforms, to the lethality of modern weaponry. But at the core of it, at the heart, our man (or nowadays the woman, too) is flesh and blood, hopes and dreams, just like the Marines who fought and gave so much in the Second World War.
In my family, we have a little tradition that we do each year. We go around the table, each of us saying something that we're thankful for over the past year. I always get the feeling that my son thinks it's kind of corny, but he goes along with it because he understands that it's important to me. Of all the places I've spent on Thanksgiving, or any other holiday for the matter, there's no place like home.
So I wish you and yours a happy Thanksgiving, no matter where you might be in this world. And if your a service member reading this, I send out a special greeting to you and your friends. Your service is appreciated by more people than you know. May next Thanksgiving find you where you want to be!
5 November 2009— Today was my dad's birthday. If he was still alive, he would've been 85 years old today. And this year is a milestone of sorts for my family. You see, it was 30 years ago that my dad took his own life. As an infantryman in Italy during World War II, he lived through a time that most people could never even imagine. And like so many veterans, his struggle for survival never really ended. In a time before traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder were recognized as true medical and mental conditions, my dad suffered from both.
Now, it's very likely that my dad wouldn't be alive today under any circumstances. He was a two pack a day man who only smoked Camels. He defined "brand loyalty." He drank Schlitz Beer, Seagrams Seven, and coffee. I was sitting in Starbucks the other day, and a thought popped into my head: "I wonder what my dad would've thought of this place?" He drank his coffee black, and it didn't matter to him whether it was cold, boiling hot, or three days old. He would never have dreamed of having a latte, a mocha, or any of the other fancy sorts of coffee that are available nowadays.
I often wonder about my dad's experiences in the war. What happened to him in the Italian mountains that affected him so deeply? There's no way of knowing really. He served in a infantry battalion intelligence and reconnaissance platoon, and later in the same type of platoon, but at regimental level. Having been a cavalry scout myself, I can picture him in a small patrol snaking its' way up an icy mountain at night, scouting out enemy positions, marking routes for a dawn attack, and trying to make it back down without getting compromised.
But really, it's all a guess. I mean, my dad (we called him papa in our family) took his wartime life with him to the grave. It was a secret part of him that we never knew. Looking back on the time I spent with my dad, (I was 19 years old when he died) I can honestly say I never really knew him. His life was a battle with alcohol, anger, flash backs, and demons way beyond the ability of a teenager to empathize with, much less understand. It's extremely painful to think about, but there it is.
When he was dried out and sober, my dad could be warm, and funny. But those times were the exception and not the rule. World War II was never far in the background. His flash backs could come without warning, leaving my mom, sister and me scared, depressed and confused. I think these incidents must have scared my dad more than us, because he was always very quiet after one of them. But the rage was always there, no matter what.
Much later, I had a platoon sergeant during the 80s — a Vietnam combat veteran — who would suffer from flash backs when we were out in the field. One time, a buddy and I were in the CP when our platoon sergeant was having one of these episodes. My buddy didn't know what to do and wanted to go shake our sergeant back to reality. I immediately thought about my dad, and told my friend that the best thing to do was stay out of the way.
There's always been a subtle, but somehow widespread notion in our society that World War II was somehow "a good war." That is a lie. Maybe it was a just war, but there was nothing good about it. World War II veterans were no different from the men and women coming home from later wars. The experience of war was so varied, that there were, and are, no generalizations that hold true. But when they came home from World War II, America's warriors had to make the transition alone and in silence. I wonder how many of them ended up like my dad years before anyone recognized that their problems were real and wouldn't just go away? I'll bet there were many thousands.
I wish I could talk to my dad about my own experiences in war, not just from the perspective of father and son. I wish we could share the experience of two people who have seen war. But of course, that's impossible. At my VA group session, they mentioned writing him a letter, but it just doesn't feel right. But this does...
Happy birthday, papa. I love you.
From your son.
23 October 2009— Our armed forces have been at war now for about eight years, primarily in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition, military units have deployed to many other places in the fight against terrorism. Not to be forgotten are the men and women of the intelligence services, who have also played a huge role in the war.
I wonder after so much fighting, much of it every bit as deadly as that which Marines and soldiers experienced in World War II, there have been so few awards of America's highest decorations for valor. Naturally, it's tough to make comparisons in the raw number of awards between different conflicts. Nevertheless, I can't help but scratch my head when I read the citations for Silver Stars, Navy Crosses, Army Distinguished Service Crosses, and so on. So many seem to compare with Medal of Honor citations from previous wars.
Just to illustrate the point, 1,030 Marines received the Navy Cross in World War II. From 2001 to date, 17 Marines have received the Navy Cross. 77 Marines have been awarded the Silver Star, as opposed to the thousands awarded during World War II. And the biggest disparity is in awards of the Medal of Honor. 87 Marines received the nation's highest award for heroism in the war. To date in the War on Terror, only one Marine has been decorated with the Medal of Honor: Sgt Jason Dunham. The story in the US Army is the same, and it just isn't right.
To me, the most glaring example of the injustice being done to our modern warriors is illustrated by the story of Sgt Rafael Peralta. He received a posthumous Navy Cross for an action, that in any previous war, would have earned him the Medal of Honor. Granted, the Marine himself would never have worn the medal, but it meant something to his family, and the buddies he left behind. It also means something to the many Americans who recognize the tough and dangerous job our forces are engaged in.
The military brass will tell you that "Wars have changed," "The insurgency makes the sort of bravery that you saw in previous wars very difficult to achieve," and so on. I don't believe any of that for a moment, and neither should you. The dusty streets of Iraq, and the hills and deserts of Afghanistan are every bit as deadly as the shores of Tarawa, Iwo Jima, Peleliu, and Wake Island. Yes, our troops today are equipped with technology that World War II infantrymen never dreamed of. But the rifle and bayonet are still the infantry's tools of the trade. And never forget the most important thing: steadfast hearts that stand in the breach.
I would hate to think that it's a case of, "If I don't have it, he's not getting it." But at a minimum, the officers and officials who are making these decisions have set a bar that makes it impossible for our fighting troops to receive these decorations in the numbers they deserve. So what if Congress wants to know why so many awards are being granted. If the standard is set so far out of reach (especially if artificially set) that no one can reach it, why even have the award.
Our living Medal of Honor recipients are growing old and there were never many to start with. As of this date, only 94 of all services and wars are still with us and their average age is nearly 75 years old. (Thanks to Home of Heroes for this information.)
PS: I've added some new pages in recent days. First is a photo section on the Spotlight on the Sixth Marine Division. Second is a section where folks can buy books and DVDs that are on my reading list from Amazon.com.
16 October 2009— Last month marked the 70th anniversary of the German invasion of Poland in 1939. This cataclysmic move by Germany began World War II, ultimately the most destructive war in recorded history. No other event in modern memory has impacted so many people for such a long period of time. The war defined the role of the armed forces, and that of the United States in world affairs.
Most — but certainly not all — of the people who served at the sharp end of the spear during the war were young men. They were the infantrymen, tankers, aircrewmen, engineers, artillerymen, and others, who closed with the enemy across the killing fields of World War II. Tragically, wars are fought by those who have the most to lose, and the war of the 1940's was no different. It has always been that way, it is so today, and it will unfortunately never change.
There is a poignancy to the death of a service member in war. People die of all sorts of other reasons; accidents, crimes, suicide, illness. The list goes on. Each of them leaves a hole that only time can fill, and then maybe never. But when a man or woman wearing our nation's uniform makes that ultimate sacrifice, they do it for us. We sent them out there. We the people. In World War II, we sent men out to do our fighting. It's different today. But back then, it was "our boys in uniform." And they paid the price.
To me, there's no question that Franklin D. Roosevelt was America's greatest president. He made decisions every day, just like all wartime leaders, that led to the death and maiming of those under his charge. To look at pictures of him at different times during the war is to see it's unrelenting progress on his face and body. Just like the boys who faced fire day after day, the war took its toll on their commander in chief. And ultimately, President Roosevelt did not survive the war, just like 400,000 other Americans who died in service between 1941 and 1945.
Supposed experts write that "wars are different today." Automation, robotics, and high technology are going to transform the battlefield. Tell that to our enemies on the battlegrounds of Afghanistan. To use a word that every World War II Marine or soldier would identify with — "horseshit!" At the end of the day, war at it's lowest, and most deadly level is the same now as it was in the Belleau Wood.
29 January 2009— World War II Marine and Medal of Honor recipient Col James Swett of San Mateo, California, has died. He passed away on January 18th, 2009. Swett joined the Marine Corps in April 1942 and was assigned to VMF-221 (The Fighting Falcons) following his qualification as a Naval Aviator. On 7 April 1943, flying out of Henderson Field on the 'canal, then-1stLt Swett accomplished a singular feat of airmanship in his F4F Wildcat fighter.
On this date, Swett scrambled as part of a defensive force to intercept a formation of Japanese bombers headed for U. S. harbor at Tulagi. With his four-ship element in a dogfight against a reported Japanese raiding force of 150 planes, Swett shot down seven enemy aircraft in the space of only a few minutes. As his Medal of Honor citation noted:
"In a daring flight to intercept a wave of 150 Japanese planes, First Lieutenant Swett unhesitatingly hurled his four-plane division into action against a formation of fifteen enemy bombers and during his dive personally exploded three hostile planes in mid-air with accurate and deadly fire. Although separated from his division while clearing the heavy concentration of anti-aircraft fire, he boldly attacked six enemy bombers, engaged the first four in turn, and unaided, shot them down in flames. Exhausting his ammunition as he closed the fifth Japanese bomber, he relentlessly drove his attack against terrific opposition which partially disabled his engine, shattered the windscreen and slashed his face. In spite of this, he brought his battered plane down with skillful precision in the water off Tulagi without further injury. The superb airmanship and tenacious fighting spirit which enabled First Lieutenant Swett to destroy seven enemy bombers in a single flight."
Swett returned to duty after a stay in the hospital and later served with VMF-221 in the campaigns for Iwo Jima and Okinawa. He was credited with a total of 15.5 confirmed aerial kills and four probables. Following the war, he remained active in the Marine Corps and later in its reserve component until retirement.
Warfare has changed a great deal since the war, especially aerial combat. It is highly unlikely that a feat such as Col Swett's first mission will ever happen again. He was a true hero and an outstanding Marine. The world is a sadder place with his passing.
Semper Fidelis, Never forget
PS - I've added the following pages in the past week or so:
6 December 2008— There's a report on the Tampa Bay News from 25 November 2008 that a search group has located the graves of 139 Marines who are missing in action from the fighting on Tarawa Atoll in November 1943. According to the report, a nonprofit group called History Flight located the remains in eight separate burial sites on Betio Island and has made a preliminary confirmation based on manner of burial and items found with in the graves that these are U. S. Marines.
If this report is substantiated by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, this will be the largest group of missing in action in many, many years. Of course, it will take years of patient and painstaking work for these remains to be identified and then returned to their families, if it turns out that the graves are confirmed to be Americans.
It is almost impossible to fathom, but there are still, nearly 70 years after hostilities ended, but there are roughly 78,000 Americans still, to this day, missing and presumed dead from the Second World War. JPAC believes that about 35,000 of these Americans are in locations where they could possibly be recovered and ultimately repatriated to their next of kin.
Wars are almost always much easier to start then they are to get out of. It's the nature of these titanic and destructive events that affect so many lives. For those whose loved ones die on America's far-flung battlefields, closure is so very hard. For those without even the cold comfort of a casket, it is even tougher. I wonder how many mothers and fathers have themselves died of old age, and never given up hope that their missing sons would someday return home to a hero's funeral?
Perhaps, some of those parents of Tarawa's fallen may someday have their hopes fulfilled.
Semper Fidelis, Never forget,
7 November 2008— Since starting World War II Gyrene some five years ago, I've gotten to know many people, none more so than the Marines of the wartime era. One of the first of these fine men to contact me was Alda Devine (at left) of Hillsville, Virginia. Alda sent me an e-mail soon after I began working on World War II Gyrene and wrote that he really appreciated what I was doing on the site. He sent some pictures of him and his buddies in the Third Marines.
Over the years, Alda and I exchanged Christmas cards, and he often shared his memories of war with me. A humble man, Alda felt that his service as a BAR man on Bougainville was not the same as the Marines who fought on battlefields such as Iwo Jima and Tarawa. I often replied that this just wasn't true, and that Alda performed combat service just as honorable as any other Marine in the war.
About a week ago I learned that Alda passed away from pneumonia on October 20th, 2008. I'll sure miss him and the world is a smaller place without Alda in it. He was a devoted husband, father and grandfatherand exemplified all the best traits of a veteran. He never forgot his buddies, and he lived in the present for his family.
What better epitaph could there be?
15 October 2008— This past weekend I had the opportunity to work with a true band of brothers; the 2nd Battalion, 162nd infantry Regiment of the Oregon Army National Guard. I traveled to Camp Rilea, Oregon, to help the battalion prepare for its upcoming combat deployment next spring. Nicknamed "The Volunteers", 2/162 has already spent a year in Iraq in OIF II. Their story was told by noted author John Bruning in his outstanding book, The Devil's Sandbox. In addition to the Soldiers that served in Iraq with the battalion, there are many in the ranks who have served in combat with other units in both Iraq and Afghanistan. There are even a few old timers from Desert Storm.
The Volunteers (coincidentally with many former Marines in the ranks) are a unit based in Oregon's Willamette Valley. With Soldiers from every walk of life, from mechanics to computer programmers, 2/162 is a microcosm of life here in Oregon. Some are unemployed and life a hardscrabble life and others are comfortably well off. Regardless of what they do in civilian life, the Volunteers are in the midst of a rugged training program to prepare for war.
What struck really me was how young most of the Soldiers looked. I suppose that's the same in every war. Many of them are getting ready for their first time in combat. In the natural attrition following the battalion's last deployment in Iraq, many Soldiers went on to do other things. But a hard and stable core of veterans remained. These are men who have seen the awful reality of war, buried their brothers, been wounded themselves. They know exactly what it means "to close with and destroy the enemy by firepower and maneuver," which is the mission of the infantry.
I was extremely impressed by the way the small unit leaders taught and coached their Soldiers. The fire team leaders, squad leaders, and platoon sergeants have an unyielding dead line looming. It's been the same in every war our young warriors have been sent off to fight. The enemy doesn't care whether a unit is active duty, reserve, or National Guard. And honestly, the old stereotype of "the weekend warrior" is long gone.
The Soldiers I worked with don't act like weekend warriors because they aren't. Wearing the Combat Infantry Badges and combat patches, the veterans are professionals in every sense of the word and their young troops are working to achieve the same level of excellence. For me, it was very rewarding to teach them and offer pointers for success. From the stand point of evaluation, these men were locked on and knew what they were doing.
The best squads were those in which the leaders recognized what needed to be fixed and then coached their men to success. But even the squads that needed work were still squared away. The standards were set high and squads and the unit did not cut any corners. (For those in the know, my stations were Army Warrior Tasks 10 and 15.)
In the workaday world of gas prices and the stock market's ups and downs, it's awfully easy to forget that our armed forces are still at war. From what I've seen working with our troops from the Volunteers, (this was my fourth time running training lanes for them) our current generation of Soldiers is up to the challenge.
28 September 2008— While poking around on the internet this morning, I found an editorial from the Military Times about Sgt Rafael Peralta and DOD's decision to award him the posthumous Navy Cross. I hope you'll take a few minutes to read it. This is from the publishers of the most respected military-oriented newspapers in the country.
Today is National Gold Star Mother's Day. No one knows the cost of war more than parents who have lost a son or daughter in service to the nation. There are still Gold Star Mothers from World War II who are still alive. As I've often written, no war ever really ends so long as people are still with us who experienced it. This is especially true for that conflict since it affected so many Americans. I can't imagine how it would be to lose my own son, so I honor the moms (and dads) who have given so much for us all.
This morning I updated my links page. It seems like I do this pretty often, but each time I find broken links that need to be fixed. Usually it's just a matter of searching Google to find a new page. But sometimes it means an unsuccessful search that leads to a link getting deleted. I don't like doing this since I try to choose web sites that are meaningful. That's the way the web works though...
I finally figured out how to make slide shows using iMovie and made my first attempt last week. This was a lot of fun to make, although it wasn't the easiest thing I've ever done. Please take a look and let me know what you think. Here it is.
Now the Fall is here, I have more free time and I plan to work on the site more frequently than I have been. So I hope you'll stay tuned.
22 September 2008— A few days ago the Associated press reported that Sgt Rafael Peralta will be awarded a posthumous Navy Cross for his actions while serving in Company A, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, on 15 November 2004. On that date, he was involved in the urban fighting of the Second Battle of Fallujah, codenamed Operation Phantom Fury.
Born in Mexico City, Sgt Peralta enlisted in the Marine Corps in 2000. On the date of his death, he was part of a group of Marines fighting house to house. During a close-in fight in an apartment, an insurgent threw a hand grenade into a room that Peralta had occupied with other Marines in his platoon. After being mortally wounded by small arms fire, this gallant Marine pulled the hand grenade underneath his body and shielded his buddies from what they would later describe as "certain death." Herein lies the seed of the debate concerning the last few milliseconds of his life.
Sgt Peralta's battle buddies, and his entire chain of command recommended him for the Medal of Honor. In a Marine Corps investigation of the fight, his division commander, MajGen Richard Natonski, said, "I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt" that the gravely wounded Peralta covered the grenade.
Taking almost four years to make a determination, the Department of Defense ultimately appointed a panel to look at Peralta's actions. This group of officers determined that there wasn't sufficient evidence that Peralta's actions met the high standards required for award of the Medal of Honor. Therefore, the panel made the recommendation to the Secretary of Defense that the award be downgraded to the Navy Cross.
Normally, an award of the Navy Cross would be cause to honor and celebrate the life of a fallen warrior. Thousands of Marines have received this prestigious award over the decades since its institution following World War I. But the circumstances of this case, in particular the eyewitness statements of the Marines who were with Sgt Peralta when he died, make this award seem to be a gross injustice.
In both the Marine Corps and the Army, it has been custom for many, many years to award the Medal of Honor for warriors who sacrifice their lives by shielding their buddies from grenade blasts. Sgt Peralta, based on his actions that were verified by each level in his chain of command through he Secretary of the Navy, lived and died by this high standard.
Among the most notable Marines who saved his buddies' lives by covering the blast of a hand grenade was recently deceased World War II Marine Jack Lucas. Another lesser known Medal of Honor recipient was Sgt Herbert Thomas. Like Rafael Peralta, Thomas was serving with the Third Marines when he died, but in another war and place. In November 1943, Thomas was assigned as a squad leader during the brutal fighting on Bougainville.
Like Peralta, Sgt Thomas on the day he died was involved with his Marines in a close-in, terrible fight against a determined enemy. The Marines destroyed two heavily dug-in Japanese machine gun emplacements. Advancing toward a third gun emplacement, Sgt Thomas threw a hand grenade that bounced back against thick jungle vines into his squad's position. According to his Medal of Honor citation, Thomas, "deliberately flung himself upon it to smother the explosion, valiantly sacrificing his life for his comrades. Inspired by his selfless action, his men unhesitatingly charged the enemy machine gun and, with fierce determination, killed the crew and several other nearby defenders."
Like Sgt Peralta, Herbert Thomas sacrificed his own life to save the lives of his fellow Marines. Both Marines, in the last seconds of their lives gave everything they had to get the job done. A grateful nation recognized Thomas heroism with a posthumous Medal of Honor. The Marines who were with Peralta when he died felt that his conscious actions saved their lives, and his entire chain of command felt his heroic actions warranted the Medal of Honor.
No medal or honor can bring back a fallen warrior. The Marines who served with Rafael Peralta know what he did for them. Peralta's leaders also know what kind of man he was. Which medal he receives won't change that. But many recognize the injustice that has been done here. Peralta's mother and the entire California congressional delegation have asked President Bush to review this award and make the appropriate correction.
There is a precedent to upgrade the award of the Navy Cross already awarded posthumously. In 1945, then-Commandant Gen Alexander Vandegrift, acting on the recommendation of MajGen Alan Turnage, recommended that the Department of the Navy reopen the files of Sgt Robert A. Owens, who had received a posthumous Navy Cross for his heroic actions during the campaign for Bougainville on 1 November 1943. The case received favorable action and Owens' father received his Medal of Honor in August 1945. We can only hope that President Bush will order the Department of Defense to do the right thing and take the same action in Sgt Peralta's case.
2 February 2008— Tomorrow is Super Bowl day, the most watched sports event in the world. In the USA, we eat almost as much food watching this game as we do on Thanksgiving. As a spectacle, the Super Bowl is unmatched and the same is true for the hype surrounding the game. Unfortunately, sometimes the actual play of the game itself doesn't match all the build-up to it.
My family will be watching the game tomorrow, though none of us are dedicated football fans. I come the closest, since we have the NFL Channel because I like to watch it. (I confess, maybe I'm more than a casual spectator.) My wife and son watch the game mostly because I do, and to check out all the cool new commercials that roll-out on game day.
This season, the game may reach the hype in its execution. Anybody remotely interested in sports knows how well the New England Patriots have done this season. Winning every game on the schedule is an amazing accomplishment. If the team wins tomorrow, they will have accomplished a feat that will probably never be repeated.
Now I've never been a huge New England fan. My support goes mostly to the west coast teams. I have a totally illogical system I use to decide which team I'm rooting for during any given game. It's based (sort of) on which team is from a city closest to somewhere I used to live. Of course, there's an exception. If I just like a specific player on one of the teams, then I usually will cross my fingers for that team.
Take tomorrow's game. Tom Brady, the quarterback for the Patriots, is a guy that I'd like to sit down and drink a few beers with. He seems like a genuinely nice guy. That's a plus for New England. Then, Junior Seau (former member of the San Diego Chargers, my kind-of hometown team) has always been one of my favorite players. So even though I never lived near Massachusetts, I'll be hoping they win.
The New York Giants definitely can't be discounted. This is the first time brothers have QB 'd in consecutive years on Super bowl teams. New York is America's city, especially since 9/11, and it would be cool if they won. But when I'm watching the game tomorrow, I'm going to be thinking just a bit about a former Giant you probably have never heard of. His name was Jack Lummus.
Hailing from the farm country of Ellis County, Texas, Jack was an alumnus of Baylor University, and played one season for the Giants, in 1941. He was signed by the team as an End in March 1941 and played in twelve games. That year, the Giants were the NFL Eastern Division champions with a record of eight win and three losses.
The 1941 NFL Championship Game (precursor to the Super Bowl) took place at Wrigley Field in Chicago on 21 December and the Giants were matched against the Chicago Bears. During the Depression years, the Bears were an NFL dynasty and they were arguably the best team in NFL history. The final score was 37-9 with Chicago on top.
The war intervened in Jack's football career and he joined in the Marine Corps as an infantry officer. Assigned to 2nd Battalion, 27th Marines, Fifth Marine Division, his ultimate test of courage and happened during the horrific campaign for Iwo Jima. On 8 March 1945 Jack led the third platoon of Easy Company, 2/27, during an attack against heavily fortified enemy positions.
During the assault, Jack was wounded in the shoulder and knocked down by a grenade blast. Nevertheless, he stayed in the fight and personally destroyed several pillboxes. Under intense fire, he led from the front until he was mortally wounded. Near death, he urged his Marines to keep pushing forward.
A litter team evacuated Jack to a front-line aid station, where Corpsmen worked desperately to slow the bleeding from his wounds. In a weak voice, Jack whispered to the battalion surgeon, "Well, Doc, the New York Giants lost a mighty good end today." On 8 March 1945, Jack Lummus lost the fight to live but his deeds were remembered. He was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor by a grateful Nation and the New York Giants dedicated their game on 2 December 1945 to him and a team mate who died in combat in Europe.
Jack was one of almost 1,000 NFL players and employees who served in the armed forces during World War II. Among these men were 23 that lost their lives. He was one of two former NFL players to earn the Medal of Honor. The other was Army Lieutenant Maurice Britt.
So, I hope if you're watching the men from New York tomorrow, you'll think about the bravest warrior that ever wore a Giants uniform. He was an athlete, a Marine, an American. His name was Jack Lummus.
Semper Fidelis, Never forget,
22 December 2007— I've just finished a new page called "To Be a Marine," that I've put up in the role and organization section. It's a look at the heritage and background of the World War II Gyrene. I'm happy with how it turned out and hope that you'll have a look.
I'm very excited about a project I've been working on recently in connection with the web site. Frequently, I hear from folks who tell me, "Dad would love what you've done here, but he doesn't have a computer," and so on. After giving the topic a great deal of thought, I decided to write a book based on my writings on WW2 Gyrene. I've shipped out test versions to friends and acquaintances for review and have received positive feedback.
So, starting in early January, I'm going to offer my book, It's a Big War Mac — a Look Back at the World War II Marine, for sale on the website. In the near future I'll post ordering information, along with excerpts from the book. Writing a book has been one of my goals for several years. I felt that by doing one in conjunction with WW2 Gyrene, not only could I fulfill that goal, but also provide something tangible for people who are interested in the wartime Marine Corps.
Semper Fidelis, Merry Christmas, and happy holidays to all my friends around the world,
Jefferson DeBlanc during his days with VMF-112 in World War II. USMC Photo
11 December 2007— Another World War II Marine Medal of Honor recipient has left for the far shore. On 6 December 2007 Jefferson DeBlanc, of St. Martinsville, Louisiana, died of pneumonia at age 86. As a young Marine officer, DeBlanc was assigned to VMF-112 (the Wolfpack) of the Cactus Air Force during the campaign for Guadalcanal. Flying a Wildcat fighter off of Henderson Field on 31 January 1943, he shot down five Japanese aircraft in a span of only five minutes. During the engagement, DeBlanc himself was shot down and wounded, being forced to parachute into the sea. For his courageous airmanship and heroic performance of duty, DeBlanc was awarded the Medal of Honor. In World War II, he received credit for nine aerial kills.
After the war, DeBlanc left active duty to pursue a teaching career. He taught mathematics and science for many years in St. Martinsville. He was a father, grandfather, and great-grandfather andremained in the Marine Corps reserve, retiring at the rank of Colonel in 1972. In addition to the Medal of Honor, DeBlanc held the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Purple Heart, and an array of other awards and decorations.
Jefferson DeBlanc was the best type of citizen-soldier. He was never a braggart or boaster, but was instead a quiet sort of man who went about the business of living, raising a family, and influencing the lives of others. Our nation is fortunate to have heroes such as him, and we are poorer for his loss.
Semper Fidelis, Never Forget,
8 December 2007— I've recently added some new pages to the WW2 Gyrene photo album. The first shows some infantry Marines from 2/9 in their camp on Guadalcanal sometime before the invasion of Guam. I received the picture from a family member of one of the Marines in the picture. Fortunately, the names of the Marines had been carefully inscribed on the back. Using this information, I contacted the folks at the Marine Corps Research Center in Quantico and they sent me the casualty cards for each man. It's sobering to look at this picture and realize how many of the men in it were killed or wounded in combat. But such was the reality for Marines in the war.
There's another grouping on the new page that shows a couple of photos of Fred Balester, who served in the 1st Scout Company on the 'canal and at Cape Gloucester. The scouts performed the extremely dangerous work of front line patrols at all hours of the day and night. Each time they left the lines, it was into Indian country where help was either far away, or simply non-existent. Fred's daughter, Valerie, has done a great job of preserving his memories and history. I hope you have a look and remember the story of scout/snipers, Marines who fought in the shadows with little fanfare.
I've put up another page in the photo album dedicated to MGySgt Wilfred Zeimet, a pioneer of Marine tankers who served for 26 years. Like so many World War II veterans, Willie P, as he was called, died much too young. His son, a retired Navy CPO, has never forgotten him though, and honors the memory of a fine Marine and a great American. I hope you'll check out this page and think of Willie P and his buddies who served in tanks out there in the Pacific.
Christmas is just around the corner and it's hard to believe how fast this year has flown by. It brings to mind all the Christmas seasons that I spent away from home while I was in the service. This time of the year, with its focus on the family, can be especially rugged for service members who are spending the season overseas in the combat zones. From personal experience, I know how hard it is to wake up on Christmas morning 6,000 or so miles from home. And for those young Americans stationed in the combat zones, the dangers are just as real as they were in every other war of our history.
The armed forces make an effort to remember the holiday season, but it's a shadow of the celebrations that families spend together. My own dad, a World War II combat veteran who served as an infantry Soldier in Italy, just could never listen to White Christmas , one of our best loved Christmas songs. It reminded him too much of Christmas in combat. If the song came on the radio or TV, my dad would quietly switch channels. Everyone who has served at the sharp end of the spear has a similar memory that's too painful. It's one of war's costs that are little understood by those who haven't lived through it.
So as you go about your holiday preparations, please take some time to think about the sacrifices that young and not so young Americans are making right now. In the Marine Corps, as in every one of the armed forces, operations don't stop for the holidays, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan. Christmas Day is like a thousand other days and death or injury never takes a break. Marines, Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Coast Guardsmen are giving their all to secure liberty and we owe them a debt of remembrance and gratitude.
Semper Fidelis, Never Forget,
21 November 2007— Tomorrow is Thanksgiving; one of the most special holidays in the United States. Christmas is too commercialized and the Fourth of July is all bang, but Thanksgiving is the one holiday left that has stayed true to its meaning. Corporations influence so much of what we do nowadays, but tomorrow we can sit at our tables and remember the little things that make life worthwhile.
Folks in the military know what it is to be far away from home and loved ones on days like Thanksgiving. It's awful tough to really enjoy the day when you're stuck down in the engine room of a ship, or lugging 60 pounds of gear and weapons in 120-degree heat 6,000 miles away from home. I think we as a Nation have forgotten our service members who are out there helping to defend freedom, and that's a shame.
I can't say exactly how many Thanksgiving Days that I spent overseas or on duty during my career, and it really isn't all that important. I suppose the most memorable was Thanksgiving of 1990, when I was stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas. My unit, the 1st Infantry Division, had been alerted for deployment to the Middle East for Desert Shield and we were deep in the middle of our pre-deployment train-up.
Thanksgiving of that year was the first day we'd had off in a month. But, we weren't really off in the traditional sense of the word. Instead, we were on stand-by to take our tracks to the paint shop to get painted sand color. On Wednesday afternoon, our platoon sergeant told us the good news at final formation. He warned us that, if the call came to move the tracks, we'd only have about an hour to report to the company and drive over to the shop. The paint crews there were trying to paint 2,500 vehicles of our division all in a compressed time schedule.
Sure enough, as my wife and I sat down to eat our turkey, the phone rang. It was my platoon sergeant and damned if the paint shop didn't want us right then. My wife made me a turkey sandwich and I ran out the door and went over to the barracks. Rounding up my crew, we headed over to the paint shop, which was maybe a 10-minute drive from our motor pool.
We got to the paint shop and there was already a long line of tanks waiting to get painted. They were doing two at a time and it took maybe 30 minutes per vehicle, so we knew it would be awhile before they got to us. I sent some of my guys over to scout out the closest open mess hall and pretty soon, we were rotating guys for chow. I ended up eating turkey dinner in the mess hall with some of my buddies. I can't remember too well anymore whether or not I enjoyed the meal.
To all of my friends and acquaintances, I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving and best wishes for the future!
Semper Fidelis, Mark
16 November 2007— For the past month or so I've been having some issues with my heartbeat and last week I went to the ER at our local hospital to get it checked out. They ran some tests that day and then set me up to take a treadmill stress test and some other exams. A couple of days later I went back and did them and am now in a holding pattern to find out what's up.
Since I started having this thing going on in my chest, I've been thinking about life and everything that I have to live for. Let's face it. You only get one heart and it's sort of like the engines on a spacecraft. They both have to work right every time. When I was a kid, the space program just fascinated me and my dad. We'd get up at 0-dark-hundred to watch the launchs, splashdowns, and about every little part in between.
When the Apollo commmand modules were coming back to earth, Walter Cronkite would always be on TV demonstrating with models and animation the itsy-bitsy little re-entry window. The spacecraft had to hit this window at exactly the right angle and speed, or it would bounce off into space, leaving the astronauts stranded with no chance of rescue.
Your heart's like that. It just beats away in your chest and you expect it to work. When it doesn't, you start thinking about what could happen to you. As a human being with hopes, dreams and lots to live for, it's impossible not to think about mortality when your heart isn't working quite the way it should. I'm trying not to worry, but it's like a little nagging itch that's always there. You know what I mean. It doesn't keep you from doing whatever you're involved in, but never really leaves you.
War and the chances of combat can be like that too. I remember being in the desert over in Saudi Arabia back during Desert Shield in 90-91. The thing reached this tipping point and the place was just jammed full of people and equipment. You just knew that we weren't all just going to pack up and head back home without a fight.
We had to go to these threat briefings on the Iraqi army. The S-2 guys gave us these booklets that listed all the equipment the Iraqis had and how they fought. Afterwards, we went back to the tracks and talked about chemical agents, artillery and all that. Remember, we didn't know before the war down at our level just how hollow the Iraqis were.
I sent my wedding ring back home to my in-laws just in case along with a letter for them to give my wife if I didn't come back. Death wasn't something that obsessed me, but let's face it, we were taking pyridostamine tablets, getting secret shots for whatever and got issued enough chemical protective equipment to kill a horse. Plus, our chemical agent detectors kept going off. You couldn't help but think about what if. Anyway, in my job as a scout for an armor battalion, it wasn't like I was going to be in the rear with the gear.
As I think back on it, I don't know that my crew talked a lot about dying. I honestly don't think we had to. We weren't far away from another track that got hit by a Hellfire missile right before the ground war started. The explosion and fire literally melted the hull and the turret sunk down inside what was left of the vehicle. When you watch something like that happen to a vehicle just like the one you're standing in, there isn't too much to imagine. Two guys got killed in that incident. I mean, it's all right in front of you.
In 1989 in Germany, my unit was out on the range at Grafenwoehr when an M1 tank knocked out two Bradleys from our sister squadron in a training accident, killing the driver in one vehicle and wounding eight other crewmen. I knew a guy who got crushed by a truck that he was ground guiding. During one of our rotations at the NTC, a helicopter flew into a hill killing everybody on board. When I was a corpsman, I knew a guy that got shot in the leg by a .50 caliber round by accident.
Another time, a mortar platoon in one of our sister battalions at Camp Pendleton got near-missed by a bomb that an airplane dropped too close to them. One time I was standing behind a Bradley that had a free-fall ramp talking to some other guys. The driver was sitting in his compartment and accidentally dropped the ramp, which weighed something like half a ton. That happened almost 20 years ago, and to this day, I still can't figure out how three of us weren't crushed. One of the other guys heard the click of the ramp latches as it released and yelled a warning a split second before the ramp dropped.
I could go on and on. Even in peacetime or when you're not in combat, the military can be a dangerous place. Maybe it's that when you're young, the idea of mortality just doesn't have the same impact on you as when you're older and have experienced so many good and nice things in life. I don't know, honestly. But I know that even right after the ground war ended in '91 and we topped off with ammo and fuel, I hoped we wouldn't have to do it again. I can't imagine (thankfully) what it must've been like for Marines and Soldiers who had to go into the fight again and again in World War II, or any war for that matter.
Semper Fidelis, Never Forget
PS: During the past week or so, I completely re-did the section in honor of the First Marine Division. I hope you'll take a look.
2 November 2007— Last night I attended Roundtable training with my district in Scouting and I invited mt friend Tom Williams, who served as an infantry Marine in World War II. Our committee had planned a short thank you to honor those who've served in the armed forces because Veterans Day is coming up soon. And since Tom was a Scouter in Orange County for many years, I thought he would have fun at Roundtable anyway.
Rich Schellenger, one of the committee members, invited another World War II veteran who was a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne Division in Europe. I didn't know this gentleman, but he was an awfully nice guy and he and Tom really seemed to click. They sat together in the back of the room and it was amazing to watch them as they chatted like they'd been buddies for years. In maybe 20 minutes or so, they briefed each other on the places they went to in the service, life after the war, their families, and probably more that I didn't hear.
The Marine Corps will celebrate its' 232nd birthday on 10 November 2007. What an amazing thing that Marines of all eras think of this day as their collective birthday. This is a testament to what the Corps means to those who wear the Eagle, Globe and Anchor. To honor the day, I've done some reworking to the page on the Commandant's birthday message. To all fellow Marines and Doc's, I wish you a happy Marine Corps birthday and many happy returns on the day!
Semper Fidelis, Frater Aeternae,
26 October 2007— I've decided to start updating some of the older pages on WW2 Gyrene and started that endeavor this morning. The first page I finished is the Pacific battleground section. Over the next couple of months, I intend to go through all the older sections on the site and make sure they're good to go. Another thing I've been doing recently is re-checking links to external sites. The web is always changing and what's here today is likely going to be gone or modified at some point. It's hard to believe, but there are over 500 links here on WW2 Gyrene.
One day last week I drove up to Junction City with my buddy, World War II Marine Tom Williams. We met Craig Leman for lunch and I listened as they chatted about their days in H 3/26. I can sit with those guys for hours while they reminisce about their time in the Corps. My mom always told me I used to day dream too much as a kid. Maybe keeping my head stuck in World War II is an extension of that. I don't know, but I sure enjoy sitting with those old Devil Dogs. Plus, Tom picked up the tab for chow, which was a pretty good deal for Craig and me!
The weather is changing here in Oregon. It's beginning to get chilly in the mornings and you can feel the snap in the air. I love this time of year.
Last Friday I took my dog Panzer down to Fall Creek and we wandered for a long way along the stream bank. When we head out to the woods, I generally carry an old German rucksack I've had for 20-some years. I throw in my lunch, a rain jacket, etc. (I was a Boy Scout, after all — Be Prepared...)
Anyway, the weather was just beautiful and dry and the path was pretty easy. Above is a picture I snapped with my cell phone while we were underway. The terrain was so beautiful down there and I didn't pass another soul the entire time we were out walking. It gave me a lot of time to think and my mind got to wandering. I thought for a long while about all the places I've walked in my life.
When I was at lunch with Tom and Craig, we talked about the hikes in the Fleet Marine Force. Of course, I served a long time after they left the Corps, but we likely breathed the dust on the same trails at Camps Pendleton and Lejeune. During my walk, I was thinking about how different it is for me now to walk in the country with my dog under a clear sky, just the two of us. I don't set any land speed records, to be sure. My load is light and I can stop whenever I want to smell the flowers or marvel at Oregon's beauty.
It couldn't have been more different in the FMF. There was a sense of urgency to Marine Corps training, even in peace time. We didn't even call it hiking. Sure, that word was listed on the training schedule, but we never used it when we talked about it. To us it was a hump, used both as a noun and a verb. There was no fun in humping. It was flat out hard work that pushed us to the limit, especially in the summer when there wasn't a lick of shade in the hot afternoons.
On our company humps we'd go across country. The skipper walked at the head of our column and he set a stiff pace. Our battalion humps were always on Friday and depending on how far we were going, muster would be hours before dawn. I remember standing in the chow line and smelling SOS, mess hall coffee and the eucalyptus trees.
After chow, we Corpsmen would head over to the Battalion Aid Station to run sick call. Inevitably, there'd be a line of Marines outside sickbay waiting for us. These were the guys, for whatever reason, who were trying to get out of walking. We never had much sympathy for them seeing as how we Corpsmen had to walk every mile just like all the rest. We'd quickly work through the line of the sick, lame and lazy and then grab a last hurried cup of BAS coffee. Then we'd strap on our packs and head out to the parade deck.
I remember standing out there in the pre-dawn darkness when the rest of the world was still in bed asleep. We tried not to think of how far we had to go, especially if we were still nursing blisters to begin with. There was nothing worse than starting a hump with sore feet. It made the miles go down miserably. I'd shift my pack to try and find a halfway comfortable spot for it to ride over my flak jacket. I went on a lot of humps, but I never did get the adjustments quite right.
Nowadays of course, my training schedule is totally different, although the mechanics of walking are the same. There's no helmet, no pistol on my hip, and definitely no flak jacket. Just a light rucksack and my faithful dog. The only thing in my hand is my hiking staff. I'm proud of my service to the Marine Corps, but I'm glad I don't have to do it anymore. Military life, particularly the infantry, is a young man's business.
15 October 2007— This weekend I finished a page in the photo album dedicated to Walter Brown of Philadelphia, Penna. Walter died as a young Marine during the campaign for Tinian in the summer of 1944. He was one of many Americans who sacrificed their lives in that war so long ago. To me, the idea of a "Greatest Generation" is too simplistic for describing the American people of that era. The war was a national effort that people of all ages, sizes, shapes and colors participated in.
There's no disputing the ages of most of America's war dead. They were young men, many still in their teens and twenties. That's the way it always is in war. When we talk about those young guys whose lives were cut short, we often say things such as, "I wonder what he would've done if he hadn't died." But we don't often ask what the unborn children of those young men would've accomplished in life. Think about that for a minute.
I was shocked to learn a few days ago that there are still 74,384 Americans missing and unaccounted from the Second World War. Included in this group are 3,119 Marines. That's an entire infantry regiment's worth of men. Imagine if an entire regiment went into combat and just disappeared. You better believe someone would do something about that. But it didn't happen that way. These men went out on patrols in the night and died in the confusion of firefights. They stayed in their gun turrets on doomed ships, or disappeared without a trace in the cauldron of war. Every one was a man whose family never even had the cold comfort of a casket to bury. That's a damned shame. How many of the MIA families from the war still hold out hope that their loved ones' remains will yet be recovered? It's just another example that World War II really isn't over, and it probably won't be for a long, long time.
The armed forces are awfully good at commemorating things. Go to any military installation and drive around for awhile. You'll see what I mean. There are streets, buildings, ball fields, and so on, all named after Medal of Honor recipients, famous battles, units, etc. But where's the monument to the missing? It's not as if the government doesn't know their names. Reading through the lists of missing Marines from World War II, I found alphabetical rosters with full names, service numbers, ranks, and dates of loss. It isn't specified in these lists, but I know beyond that they even know the units and places where these men went missing.
Maybe there's no memorial to them because there isn't any political expediency involved? Let's face it. The parents of the missing of World War II have themselves been dead for decades in most cases. For some families, the men who died so long ago became faded images in moldy scrapbooks. You can find the pictures for sale on E-Bay sometimes. That too is a damned shame.
Semper Fidelis, Never forget,
10 October 2007— This past weekend my son and I went to our Boy Scout council fall rendezvous, which happens each year. On Saturday morning I had to run back to our church to pick up some equipment the boys forgot when we left on Friday night. When I pulled back into the lot at the rendezvous site, a young man and his Cub Scout son watched me park.
As I got out of the truck, the young man came up and stuck his hand out. He said he was a Marine recruiter and saw my First Marine Division license plates and wanted to thank me for my service. We exchanged "Semper Fi's" while shaking hands. We chatted for a few minutes and went on our ways.
As the day went on, I thought back to that few minutes in the parking lot. It was such a short meeting, but really exemplified to me what the Marine Corps means. I pondered some of the lessons I learned from great Marines that helped me in my career and the things I still carry inside to this day. Things like duty, honor, country.
I confess that I'm too sentimental, but I still get a chill when I hear the Marines Hymn. Hearing the last fading notes of Taps always brings a tear to my eye and I stand a little more straight when I see a Marine color guard. Each time I'm outside and the National Anthem is played, I pop a sharp salute and think of what sacrifices were made for our nation.
As a former FMF Corpsman, I don't often wear clothes or caps with the Marine Corps Emblem on them. People see the insignia and often ask things like, "Were you a Marine?" It's too hard to explain the nuances of being in the Navy serving with the Marine Corps. Of course, Marines know right away what it means to be a "doc." But I wear the Emblem where it counts the most — inside.
Semper Fidelis, Frater Aeternae,
3 October 2007 — War and memory are so closely intertwined, the two are nearly impossible to separate. Combat veterans often want nothing more than to suppress their experiences and forget them. War leaves psychic scars that are so deep, survivors spend years trying to forget. Every veteran of combat is touched in some way by his past. The sights, sounds, and smells of the battlefield linger for a lifetime, try as veterans may to forget.
Children of these men on the other hand struggle to learn about what their dads did in the war. This is a constant theme in e-mails and guest book entries here at WW2 Gyrene. As the World War II generation is passing, their children of the baby boomer era are reaching a place in their own lives where they have more time to think about questions like, "Where did I come from?" All of us whose dads served in the war have been touched by it in ways large and small.
It's a helluva thing to be the son or daughter of a man who literally looked into the face of hell when he was a young man. We want to know so much about our dads and are looking for ways to try and connect with them and find out things to deepen and enrich our family histories. Meanwhile, they are trying, even sixty years on, to just forget. Let's face it, not many people are eager to dredge up old memories, especially the kind that come with surviving combat.
The funny thing is, that most people who've experienced war can't forget it. Even over fifteen years after Desert Storm, smelling diesel fumes as I drive past construction sites always takes me right back to the desert. Sometimes when I'm fiddling with the stereo there's a sort of heated up smell of electronics, I guess. That odor, no matter how faint, takes me right back into my turret. Hardly a day in my life passes without a memory of that time popping into my head. It's just that I don't much feel much like sharing it with anybody.
The other night my gal and I watched the last episode of Ken Burns' program The Waron PBS. She was sitting on my lap in our big easy chair and my son had already gone to bed. Anyway, this episode was about the end of the war and all the veterans returning home. I got to thinking about my dad and his life as he tried to cope with getting back to normal. Thinking about what a tough hand he'd been dealt in life and how the war never really stopped for him, I felt my eyes welling up with tears..
My gal, who's a whole lot smarter and more intuitive than me, said something that really hit me between the eyes. Through her own tears, she whispered, "Think of all that pain." I knew exactly what she meant — the unthinkable amount of anguish of an entire generation as they tried to get on with their lives. Men struggling to adapt to life after war. Women trying to move on after losing their husbands and sweethearts. Parents dealing with the deaths of their sons.
So much pain.
And mostly alone and in silence.
Of course, nowadays, even average folks understand that the war wasn't some neatly wrapped crusade for freedom. Millions of Americans have seen Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, and so forth. People are fairly sophisticated about the world today, We watched the horrors of Rwanda, civil war in what used to be Yugoslavia and that horrible day in 2001. It was all right there on our TV screens. We saw the dead bodies of American Soldiers being drug through the streets of Mogadishu in 1993. About 10 years later, we saw, still on TV, torched American corpses in the dusty streets of Fallujah.
The world is a lot smaller than it used to be and everyone's looking for answers. Naturally the past is a good place to start. But as children of wartime veterans, we need to accept that some stories will just never get told. Like my own dad who took his memories with him to the grave, some combat veterans just cannot say what is in their minds and souls. We can be thankful for those who have the ability to share what they lived through.
Semper Fidelis, Never forget,
PS – I just put up a new section on the 6th MarDiv in the spotlight on heroes section.
23 September 2007 — Yesterday my wife and I took a drive up the McKenzie Highway in Oregon into the central Cascades. This part of Oregon is one of the most majestic spots anywhere on earth and I never get tired of the fresh air and the grandeur of our mountains. On our way back home we detoured to Clear Lake and ate lunch at the snack bar there. The food was old-fashioned and simple; hamburgers and french fries in a plastic basket, probably like they've been making it for decades.
As we meandered back home I was in a sort of reflective mood. Maybe it was because tomorrow is my birthday — I'll be 48 years old — or the fact that winter feels just a little closer up in the mountains with the bracing wind and all. I'm not sure why I was feeling that way, to tell the truth. Anyway, we stopped in a gas station on Highway 126 to fuel up and get some coffee and today's issue of USA Today caught my eye on the news stand. There was a front page story about Ken Burns new series, The War, which previews tomorrow on PBS.
I skimmed over the headline and the few lines on the front page. What caught my attention mostly was the photo accompanying the story. It showed the haunted face of a young Marine in combat in the Pacific. There's a good chance you may have seen this photo somewhere as it's been reproduced before. But this sort of image never loses its impact for me, no matter how often I see it.
The story mentioned the idea of World War II being "the last good war" or something to that effect. I think the implication was that the war was more clearly focused and finite than our wars that came after it. Studs Terkel, a pioneer in interview-based history, coined the phrase "The Good War", in his his book of the same name. I read the book a long time ago, although I don't recall exactly when. The tern has stuck around long after the book left the bestseller lists.
When I was a kid, maybe 11 or 12 years old, we studied World War I in school. This was the first time I ever heard that war referred to as "The Great War". That night when I was doing my homework, I asked my dad about why the war had that name. Never one for long drawn-out answers, my dad said gruffly, "There's nothing great about war." The look he gave me left no doubt that our conversation was finished. Looking back on it, I know my dad, not an educated man, had answered through his own lens as a combat infantryman in World War II. This conversation so long ago popped into my mind as my wife and I were on the way home after seeing the headline about The War.
Is the phrase "Good War" an apt way to describe World War II? I'm not sure. I know beyond doubt that the war was a just one and the Allied cause was moral and clearly the side of good. But what was good about the war? Victory was good, but what else was? Definitely not the souls lost in the battles around the world. America lost so many, their couldn't even be individually named on the World War II Memorial in Washington, D. C. The seeming best that they could figure out was 400 gold stars to represent the approximately 400,000 Americans who died in the war.
Think about that for a minute — 400,000 Americans — the vast majority young men in their teens and twenties when they lost their lives. What was so good about all those young? Remember, I completely agree that World War II was a just cause. But imagine 400,000 Western Union telegrams, and many 10 times that many letters from buddies and leaders commemorating the lost. Can you hear the echo across time?
Semper Fidelis, Never forget,
16 September 2007— As the events of World War II recede into the depths of history, it's easy to lose the sense of immediacy that participants felt. With so many years between us and the war, many people have simply forgotten (or just have never known) that the war was as life and death as it gets. Such is the case with historic events large and small.
Those of us who lived through that terrible day in September 2001 remember with vivid clarity where we were and what we were doing when we first learned that our Nation was under attack. Like Pearl Harbor and the death of President Kennedy, 9/11 left us all with a horrible knowledge that things would never be the same again. So it was when Nazi Germany invaded Poland and Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.
Like the drops of sand through an hourglass, these events propelled the United States and its inhabitants along a course that wasn't clear at the time. Americans young and old, but especially the young, were drawn into the war. Unlike the narratives in history books, the war was not a straightforward chain of great deeds and sweeping battles for the men who went out to fight. Their war was complex, terrifying, endless and exhausting in ways none of us will understand who didn't live through those years.
So it is in every war. Historians help us to see the events of wartime through their lens and we can learn a great deal by reading and study. Thank God though, that we do not have to experience the battles ourselves— falling in a dying bomber, pinned to the fuselage by centrifugal force for endless agonizing seconds as the doomed plane plummets to earth at terminal velocity. Or struggling forward across the reef under the weight of weapons and equipment while torrents of machine gun fire sleet past, tearing friends to pieces all around. Or lying in a shallow grave as earth is shoveled in.
Only to the unknowing does victory appear simple and clean. In real war it is never so. War leaves so many questions and loose threads in its wake. They echo across time, fading but never silent. It has been that way since the beginning and sadly, will always be so. War strips the trappings of humanity and leaves its participants standing alone before its fury. That young men stand and endure is a testament to the human spirit. People are eternally optimistic and hope for the best even in the darkest of times.
The echo of World War II today consists of grainy black and white combat camera film, captured by photographers who themselves were deathly scared but had a job to do. The subjects are mostly nameless, caught on film for seconds as they went about the business of war. In a moment in time, they moved past the camera lens and are preserved forever. But we should never forget that every one of them had a name and a family and a future that he wanted to live to see.
Maybe the greatest cruelty of victory — and the greatest irony — is that those who pay the ultimate price never see the results of their sacrifice. The next time you watch a program on the History Channel about the war, take a minute to reflect on the identities of those young men on your screen. Think about where they came from and what they were doing before the war started. Most of all, ask yourself, "I wonder what his name was."
Semper fidelis, Never forget,
31 August 2007— A few days ago I learned that Colonel James A. Donovan, USMC (ret), passed away in Sandy Springs, Georgia, on May 27th of this year. As a young Marine officer, Col Donovan served with the Sixth Marines in World War II and went on to serve over 23 years in the Corps. During his career he taught at the Basic School, was the editor of Leatherneck Magazine and served in a variety of other duty assignments.
Col Donovan wrote many articles for Leatherneck over the years and added immeasurably to our knowledge of World War II. He had a knack for writing detailed and vivid battle accounts that not only gave his reader the "big picture," but all the view from down in the weeds. As a soldier-scholar, Col Donovan ranked among the best and he left an awful big pair of boondockers to fill.
Semper Fidelis to a gallant Marine,
27 August 2007— I don't usually watch military programs on TV (I know that might come as a surprise, but it's true) but last night I watched an interesting show called "Shootout." This is a program that uses live action reenactments, computer imagery and original combat footage along with veteran interviews to tell the story of a particular engagement. The one last night was about the U. S. Army 1st Infantry Division in World War II. Several engagements were portrayed for which Soldiers later received the Medal of Honor. Most powerful to me was the story of Walter Ehlers, one of my personal heroes.
A whole heckuva lot has changed in the decades since Marines and Soldiers stormed ashore on enemy-held beaches in World War II. But, as I read about the courage and sacrifice of our modern day warriors, I can't help but be struck by what they have in common with the young men who answered the call of duty in the 1940's.
In over four years on the internet, I've never used my web log as a political forum either for or against our current war. But, I've often written about the high caliber of our Marines and Soldiers and the tough work they are doing overseas. War is a terrible business and it never is as easy as books make it seem. Young men, and increasingly young women, have to make a thousand split second decisions under incredibly stressful conditions.
A few days ago I was reading somewhere that guys who've never served in combat really look forward to proving themselves in combat. I thought back to my own history and what I thought about this before Desert Storm, and I suppose it's true. You train, train, train some more and the peacetime cycle never really ends. Deployments, gunnery, field exercises, hikes, rifle range and a thousand other things are all designed to keep men and units in tip-top shape "for the big game."
Some people thrive on war and have the ability to make immediate sense out of the mess. My platoon sergeant in Desert Storm was like that. I was always amazed while we were in combat how he stayed so calm. Nothing ever seemed to faze him. Maybe it was an act. I don't know, but if it was, he should've gotten the Academy Award.
21 August 2007— It's been a long time since I last updated WW2 Gyrene and I thought I would drop a few lines to everyone who has been wondering what's going on here in paradise. Nothing terrible has happened to me. Life has been going 110 mph in the Flowers family and I've been busier than a private on field day.
A few days ago I bumped into one of my old Soldiers who I served with in the National Guard. We deployed to Kuwait way back in 2000 and he served in combat during OIF II in 2003-2004. Of course, by that time I'd already retired, so I watched the battalion from the sidelines. I often run into Soldiers I served with as I go about my business here in Eugene. During the years I was in the National Guard, I worked with hundreds of men and knew more by reputation.
My wife and I were out in the local Barnes and Noble when I encountered my Soldier. (I still think of them all that way.) My wife, who's extremely perceptive, spotted right away that this young man was troubled and needed to talk to somebody who understood. She told me she was going to look at books and took off at high port and my Soldier and I went over to the coffee shop.
After getting some coffee, we found a table and sat down. My friend told me a story that would ring true to anyone who has served in combat. He talked about the taste that clung to the back of his throat and odors that stayed with him long after he'd come home. He explained how the guys were initially excited about the prospect of combat, but then realized it wasn't a game. He related to me how hard it was to go on patrol day after day, and about being pinned down under mortar fire for hours.
With a haunted look in his eyes, this strapping young man with tattoo-covered arms finally told me about his team member who died in combat. My Soldier felt like he was responsible for the death and kept trying to figure out why it happened. As I listened to him with concern, I was struck by how different we were from the other customers in that coffee shop. In different wars we'd lived through experiences they thankfully would never understand, much less comprehend.
People try to find commonality to events and our brains are always looking for patterns. We want things to make sense, but sometimes they're just random occurrences that have nothing to do with each other. I told this to my friend but I'm not sure he was convinced. Then I explained that combat is so random that it's impossible to piece it together and sometimes the only thing to do is accept that. Healing comes when you find the place where you can stop asking why. My friend hadn't reached that place yet in his life.
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