Ellis Island : Memories of a Kinder America

This summer I was very fortunate to take a photography tour of Ellis Island. Not the clean and shiny museum that hundreds of people visit daily, but the crumbling back lot of Ellis Island that’s held together with cobwebs and mold. 

It was so exciting to have access to areas not open to the public. It’s where I met John McInnes, one of a small but mighty group of people who are working passionately to keep this part of our history alive.

I learned much more from him than I had ever dreamed. Who knew that in 1998 Ellis Island was officially divided in half? One half went to New Jersey and the other half to New York. (It’s complicated.) And there were no Green Cards. A passenger who got off the ship and passed legal and medical inspection was just sent off to be a happy worker bee. No strings attached. 

Forty percent of the 12 and a half million people who came through Ellis Island lived right in New York City. Most of those people ended up working in the factories. Others went to cities like Chicago, Detroit, or Pittsburgh. They built our cities. They worked in the mines and the factories doing the hard, dirty jobs that many Americans didn’t want .

The closed area of Ellis Island, where I spent my day, was home to the Immigrant Hospital, the first public health hospital in the United States. It was one of the most extensive public health systems in the world, treating a range of diseases such as tuberculosis, trachoma and diphtheria. (Cholera patients, I learned, were quarantined at Hoffman or Swinburne islands off the Staten Island coast.)There were 22 buildings and during peak years more than 300 staff people, many of whom lived on the grounds. You’d think there’d be ghost stories, but John wouldn’t tell.  

Today, when Immigration is such a touchy subject, it was refreshing to sit down and learn its history. It’s sad to see how welcoming we once were and how forbidding some people want us to be today. No, the system was never perfect. But it seems to me that there was a time when we did the right thing. 

John expresses it beautifully on his tours:

 “These people came here, our hospitals restored their health, and then we sent them off to do the nastiest work available. And for this, they gave up everything.  Friends, family, even their language, just to come here.  They’d been told that the streets in America were paved with gold, but they learned three things, fast.  One, the streets weren’t paved with gold. Two, many streets weren't even paved at all. Three, we expected them to pave the streets. It’s important to honor these people, to go to places like Ellis Island and see what they had to go through, just to get work. They didn’t ask for anything beyond that. They weren’t that different from people who sneak across the border today, to find work. Some Americans think they’re here to get handouts and welfare benefits, and I’m not saying there aren't people who do. But many of them quietly live in the shadows and do the work that no one else wants to do.”

The question of immigration, like all things political, is not a simple black and white picture. It is murky, gray, and difficult. And I think this little man-made island that sits on the border of New York and New Jersey has some history lessons for us. I truly believe that we need to preserve this place and these stories of the past so that we can learn from them.   

Here’s more of my conversation with him.

Ellis Island Hospital

Can you give me a broad history of Ellis Island?
Before Ellis Island opened in 1892, immigration was a state responsibility. The United States government decided to make it a federal operation so they moved all immigration out of New York City, first to Castle Garden in lower Manhattan, and then to an island in New York harbor called Ellis Island. They built the immigration station in 1892 to be the primary entry point for people from Europe, Africa and South America. Although many people did enter through Boston, Baltimore, or Philadelphia, the vast majority came through Ellis Island.

From 1892 to 1954, 12 and a half million people were processed at Ellis Island. In 1924 immigration laws became stricter, mostly because of political pressure from Americans who believed too many southern and eastern Europeans were arriving. Now, you’d have to apply for a visa and have your health inspection in your home country before you came here.

So, from 1924 until it closed in 1954, the Ellis Island mission changed from immigration to deportation. It became a barbed wire enclosed camp for processing detainees and deportees.  

When it was a detention camp in WWII, who were they detaining?
Some of the detainees were German merchant mariners, seamen captured on the high seas. The majority were German- and Italian-Americans who were sympathetic to the Axis powers.  Most of these people had families, so our great hall, where all immigrants had been processed, became a kind of a day room where people could relax and have a sense of community. Ellis Island was actually a barbed wire enclosed camp from the mid 1920’s until it closed in 1954.

Ellis Island Hospital

Were there any German-American, Italian-America, or Japanese Americans who may have been suspected for espionage held there? 
Anyone who was suspected of espionage would have gone to a federal facility. Ellis Island was really for low-level individuals considered to be undesirable because of their sympathies to, say, the German Bund. Hence many of the families were deported after the end of World War II. It's kind of shocking to realize that children who had lived in the United States their entire lives were deported back to Germany, a war-torn and unfamiliar country. 

Ellis Island was the largest Immigration center at the time it was in operation. Why is that? 
It just made sense. New York was a large city that could accommodate the huge influx of Europeans and had a complex train system that could move them south and southeast. And New York needed immigrant labor to keep the city growing.

Ellis Island Hospital (Laundry)


Ellis Island was where the third-class passengers were processed. The first and second-class stayed on the boat, were processed on the boat, and then sent on their merry way. Can you talk a little bit about that process?
The Bureau of Immigration was in the Department of Commerce and Labor so everyone who came to the United States was expected to find work here. If you could afford a second or first-class ticket, the belief was you could likely find a job, that you’d been successful in Europe and would continue to be successful here. The third-class passengers, often farmers and low-skilled people, were assumed to need legal and medical screening. They had to show the physical ability to do manual laborer

Legally, passengers had to have at least 25 dollars with them, and have a good idea of where they wanted to go. Processing time could be three to five hours. You spent most of that time sitting and waiting for an inspector to hear your family's case.

Ellis Island Hospital 


What about the medical exam?
It was somewhat cursory. The doctors checked for illnesses that could be determined just by looking at the face. Typically that would be runny eyes, red eyes, runny nose, cough. They didn't try to diagnose you. They just gave you 6 seconds of assessment and then they'd move you one way or the other. They might send you to the hospital for further inspection, basically a physical. From there, they determined whether you were suffering from the effects of your journey or were truly sick.

Ellis Island Hospital (Mattress decontamination)

Then what happened?
They would try to cure you, or at least try to assess the treatment you needed and its cost. In the early years, the immigrant was expected to pay for treatment, and if you couldn’t pay you’d be deported.

Ellis Island Hospital (Art Installation)

How would a poor immigrant be able to pay for that type of thing?
Typically, the immigrant would sign a bond. Ellis Island authorities would say, "To treat your disease, like trachoma, you may be in the hospital four or five months for $2 a day." The family would then sign a bond, kind of a loan to say, "We will repay this." If the immigrant couldn't pay, Ellis Island authorities would lean on immigrant aid societies for help. If they expected the immigrant would never be able to pay the bill, he or she would be deported.

Ellis Island Hospital (Art Installation)


Are there any statistics on how many people actually paid back that money and how much money was paid back?
No. Record keeping was poor. Often, authorities would waive whatever bill was due. In other cases, they would ask Congress to eliminate the debt.  Sometimes the immigrant disappeared. Finally, in 1911, the Supreme Court ruled that the government would pay for healthcare for all immigrants.

Ellis Island Hospital

How generous of us!
We were profiting from their labor. We needed them to do the work. And there was certainly a limit to what was acceptable. If you were going to be at Ellis Island for months, the government wouldn't pay, but if they thought you'd only be hospitalized for three weeks with diphtheria,
they would.

We’ve seen an eye ward and a psych ward, and there was a general ward and autopsy room. What did they do with people who died?
No one was buried here. Often they would just wrap the body in antiseptic liniments and return it to the family or immigrant aid societies like Catholic and Jewish charities. Or the bodies might be sent to potter's fields around the New York area. There was a potter's field in Jersey City and one in Hart Island in New York, which is still New York City’s potter's field. Some bodies were sent to a cemetery in Queens. 

Ellis Island Hospital (Autopsy Room)

 Ellis Island Hospital (Room off autopsy room)

Ellis Island Hospital (Room off autopsy room)

What did they do with psychiatric cases? 
If you were determined to be feeble-minded, you would find yourself in a deportation hearing where your family had to prove they could care for you. If you were classified as a low-level feeble-minded individual, or moron, they might let you immigrate to states that needed laborers, say in the south and the southwest, but you had to show you could likely find work, and it would help if you had family there. Otherwise, a feeble-minded young man traveling alone might be deported. If you were an older individual without family, you would be deported. If you were a woman without family, you would definitely be deported.

Ellis Island Hospital (Stairway)


They used the words feeble-minded and moron?
Yes. There are actually 3 classifications of feeble-minded. Idiot, imbecile, and moron.

It was the science of the day, when you think about it. These intelligence tests were developed in Europe and brought to the United States, where Congress wanted a scientific method to determine who should be allowed in. They would test children. They would test teenagers. They would test all individuals at all ages levels if they suspected someone might be feeble-minded. Then they would classify you as idiot, imbecile, or moron and determine whether or not you could enter the United States. 

This system did lead to eugenics and certainly Adolf Hitler took advantage of these kinds of tests. So it evolved badly. But it was the science of the day.

Ellis Island Hospital

Were people tested in their own language? 
Yes. Often the translators would just answer the question for the immigrant because they knew the tests were culturally biased.  An immigrant couldn’t identify a cup or a saucer out of a bunch of pictures because most likely they've never seen a cup and saucer, or an iron, or an umbrella. 

Our most famous translator was Fiorello LaGuardia, the mayor of New York. He said he answered questions for the immigrants all the time. He thought the tests were a ridiculous assessment of a person’s merit or capacity to work.

On our tour, someone mentioned a rumor that a prominent New York family was trying to get a family member into the hospital. Do you know who that was?
No. I’ve heard that story too. A lot of people did this, because they knew the doctors here had treated just about every disease known to man. 

Ellis Island Hospital


What determined a person’s immigration point?
Some cheaper steamship tickets would take you to Baltimore, but most immigrants wanted to go where they knew they were going to find work, so they came to New York and worked their way west.  Once in New York, they tended to collect in the small ethnic communities that are still here today.

Did people send letters to their home countries, encouraging others to come here, and coaching them on how to make it through Ellis Island?
Yes. The steamship companies also worked with people to make sure that they understood how to behave during immigration processing. Immigrant aid societies also helped. Typically, though, a factory owner would turn to some of the better employees and say, "Don't you have a brother-in-law in Italy? We're looking for workers. Would you think about bringing your brother-in-law over?"

Ellis Island Hospital

So people were really working together. There was no conspiracy to keep you out?
No.  Newspapers back home would often publish stories about local people who’d come to the United States and were making it. Readers got a sense that it would just work out, and you’d feel at home. Steamship companies would plant many of those stories to encourage immigration.

Did immigrants go home again?
Many people did go home because they had either made enough money to live comfortably there, or they just didn't like the United States. But typically, the third-class berth compartments on a passenger ship would go back to Europe filled with freight.

You mean third-class passengers were good for the exporting process?
Yes, in a way. Steamships were used to ship exports to Europe. With third-class passengers to fill the bottom of the boat, steamship companies had a commodity to bring into the United States, and other commodities to ship back. They made money both ways.

Ellis Island Hospital

What else would you like us to know?
Many people don’t know that during World War II the Ellis Island hospital was actually a psychiatric hospital. These were soldiers suffering from posttraumatic stress, combat fatigue, and shell shock. When you go into some of the pavilions, there are hydrotherapy wards, electroshock therapy wards, and restraint rooms. This was the infancy of psychiatric work.

Members of the Daughters of the American Revolution came to help. They had no idea how to help these men with the psychological wounds of war, so they had the soldiers do a lot of creative things, like knitting. When you go into some of the attics, you still see piles of yarn from the isolation wards. It was very well intended work. The soldiers made handbags and pocketbooks and oven mitts and the DAR would sell them. Just imagine coming back from your war experiences, and someone's asking you to knit.

Ellis Island Hospital (Hallway)

Did it work?
There's no real documentation of the work that was done. Just looms left behind. It’s sad that we threw millions of people into battle and then realized we couldn't treat the invisible wounds they would bring home. It makes you appreciate what soldiers go through today when they come back from war. 

Why do you think Ellis Island has captured our imaginations?
America's always had a love/hate relationship with immigrants. We enjoy the story but we have problems with the reality. The myth is that back in the good old days, people all came with their little bags and they were all very humble and earnest, and the inspectors were very good judges of who should be allowed in, and everything was done neatly and properly. But it wasn’t. Immigration was just as messy and political then as it is today. 

We are one of the few immigrant nations on the face of the Earth, but we don’t always recognize that. 

Ellis Island Hospital


Why do we want to make sure that these buildings stay with is? What's the point?
I think for a country to build a hospital that's specifically for immigrants, for third-class passengers, for complete strangers who are the poorest of the poor, is something to be proud of.  The United States chose to spend political will and capital on the poorest of Europe's poor. These people were considered undesirables.  They were Catholics, Jews, Poles, Russians,
Not as popular as the West Europeans who had come here earlier.  Just to know that they built this hospital for these people speaks well for citizens of the United States at the turn of the century.

Today, we’ve moved immigration out of the Department of Commerce into the Department of Homeland Security. This says that we see these same immigrants as a threat to our way of life.  
It’s an amazing turn.

Thank you, John.



One final, compelling thought . . .
This amazing place that welcomed so many of our ancestors–the people who built the America we live in–won’t last without help.  If you are compelled to learn more or to help preserve this historic site for the next generation, please visit saveellisisland.org

Ellis Island Hospital

Vietnam War - Memories of Pleiku

On March 11, 1982 a controversial design, created by a 21 year old architect named Maya Lin, was selected to be built as a memorial for those lost in Vietnam. On November 13, 1982 the Vietnam Memorial, otherwise known as “The Wall” was dedicated with a total of 58,195 names engraved on the shining black granite.  The names included those who were killed in action or missing in action. The design is not a traditional memorial that reaches for the heavens, but one that is buried into the earth. Lin's concept was to “create an opening or a wound in the earth to symbolize the gravity of the loss of the soldiers.” Regardless how you may feel about the design, the memorial, any memorial for that matter, is a sacred place. Every memorial or monument has a unique story to tell.  Persistent markers that edify an event, often tragic, ‘lest we forget.  Permanent structures reminding us of our sins so they are not repeated. For some, memory enticing instruments for something, or someone, that once was part of us. 

 Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC 2001

Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC 2001

Memory is an odd thing. A crafty creature that lurks in our head, our heart, our soul. The memory creature will appear on demand, or not. He will be summoned by the senses; smell, sound, taste, site and touch. Or will appear at random; generally at the least opportune moment.  The strangest thing about memory, however, is that it is purely singular. No two memories are the same. I have three siblings. If you were to quiz each of us separately you would never know that we grew up in the same household, came from the same parents, or even had the same siblings. 

This is how it is, especially around memories of the Vietnam War.  As the youngest, and I refuse to cave in to the “I was the baby” line that my siblings would prefer to bestow on me, but as the youngest I was, well, very young during this period. My memories take on a rather naïve dimension. 

I have vague memories of Walter Cronkite on the nightly news. I remember telling the neighbors that my brothers number came up but I had no idea what that meant. Soon he was gone and we were baking cookies and packing them in popcorn to send overseas. Instead of letters we communicated via a tape recorder. 

Even though I was the youngest I was allowed to record my greetings in private. (I’m sure only brilliance came out of my 10 year old mouth!) Then there was the listening to the tapes coming back from the front—the only time we heard any emotion was when my brother learned his beloved dog, Mickey, had been hit by a car and did not survive the night. 

Suddenly, certainly without any warning for me, late one night I heard the other brother on the phone to someone saying, “Yes! It is true! Mom is going to pick him up now!”  What seemed like minutes later a big green man, grinning ear to ear, walked through the front door yelling, “How’s my little sister!”  I don’t know if these memories are real, or made up, or parts of stories I pieced together after the fact. What I know to be 100% true is that of all of my friends I was the only one who had a brother who went overseas to fight a war in a place called Vietnam. 

Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC 2005

Many years later there was a time that my mother had to take me to the local airport. This was back in the day when you actually went into the airport and sat with people at the gate to see them off. While we were sitting there I said, “Hmmm. This seems really familiar to me. I think we stood here to say good-bye to Jim or Mike when they were leaving for the military.” Before I even finished the sentence my mother started to cry. “If it was your brother Jim, well I couldn’t say, I don’t remember. It was the worst day of my life. I couldn’t believe I was sending my son off to war.” 

Our family has a built in honor code of “Don’t ask. Don’t tell.” So it stands with this portion of our lives. We were all affected in one way or another. My older brother Jim most of all. While he was the one who had to do the heavy lifting, a family member doesn’t go off to war without some type of domino effect. With that in mind, I recently decided to toss the family honor code out the window. Having had a successful interview with a WWII vet I had built up my courage and finally asked my big brother if he would agree to an interview for my blog post on Vietnam. 

It was not an easy ask and it was a more difficult tell. After some tissue and talking, he agreed. He would answer any questions I had and he would do it only once. We sat down, me and my big brother, some forty years after he came home to find out what it was all about. It was an amazing discussion that lasted about 2 hours. Sadly, we had a tape malfunction so there is no recording. (Perhaps better that way.) The first thing he cleared up is that it was not him that we said good bye to at the airport. Mom and Dad dropped him at the bus station. (See? That memory creature is a strange and fickle being.)

As I have written many times in these posts, when discussing anything remotely war like, it is never cut and dried. It is always a big pile of messy, smelly poo. The quagmire that is “Vietnam” is probably one of the biggest. Trying to fit in a synopsis of what led to the US involvement in one little blog is a task not easily undertaken and may be better suited to an episode of Drunk History. However, I think a look at the events leading up to and including the conflict makes it easier for me to understand why it was such a mess and what the broader mess meant for me and my family.

Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC 2005

The first thing to know is that US engagement in Vietnam was not a war. Congress never declared war on Vietnam so, technically speaking, it was a conflict and not a war. (Actually, the last time America declared war was in 1942 and that was against Japan. So the US involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq are also “conflicts” …technically speaking.)

There are key events that led up to the war, and to understand those it’s best to understand the players; the state of the whole wide world, religion, local and geo-politics, and insurmountable stubbornness of human beings.  Through the history of Vietnam, the history of the world actually, countries have conquered, captured, and colonized other countries. Usually under the guise of “Our, <insert way of life> is better than yours. Let us make you better.” So said the French, circa 1850, when they entered Indonesia, and Vietnam, to protect the Christians. (Keep in mind that the Chinese had a toehold in Vietnam in one way or another going back to 111 BC.)  The French held their place, for the most part, up to 1954.

Through time, the geographic area of Vietnam extended to the south and to the west increasing the area of the country. As that physical expansion happened, it did not necessarily translate to a cultural expansion. North and South Vietnam became almost two separate entities that never developed a trust for one another. 

Around 1941, activist Ho Chi Minh (born Nguyen That Thanh in Vietnam in 1890) returned to his country, specifically Northern Vietnam, after many years of travel during which he learned the secret handshake of communism and established the Viet Minh, a communist-dominated independence movement. During WWII, the U.S. military intelligence agency Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a precursor to the CIA, allied with Ho Chi Minh and his Viet Minh guerrillas (communists) to harass Japanese troops in the jungles and to help rescue downed American pilots. (At this point we should all foresee that this is not going to end well.) In 1945, the Japanese, fearing an American invasion, got rid of the French government and installed a puppet leader by the name of Bao Dai. Soon there was famine, unrest, and revolts. Ho Chi Minh used this to his benefit to propagate his Viet Minh movement. This essentially resulted in a standoff between North Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh) and South Vietnam (Bao Dai). 

We all know what happened to Japan at the end of WWII. Clearly they were not going to be walking out of Indochina with any prizes. The French believed they were back in control through the leadership of Dai, but Ho Chi Minh proclaimed independence by quoting text from the American Declaration of Independence, given to him by the OSS. He declared himself president and reached out to Harry Truman to work out a plan. Harry didn’t respond and US Allies did not recognize Ho Chi Minh or his government. It was in this year that the first American death happened in Vietnam. An OSS member on his way to the airport was accidently killed when a Viet Minh believed him to be French. The week before he had written in a field report that America “ought to clear out of Southeast Asia.” (I wonder if anyone read it.)

Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC 2005

Between 1945 and 1949 Vietnam was in turmoil. The Battle was between North and South, the Chinese and the French, Ho Chi Minh and Bao Dai. Everyone seemed to be jumping in. In 1950, China and the Soviet Union recognized Ho Chi Minh’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam. The United States recognized Bao Dai’s French controlled South Vietnam Government. It was a proxy conflict.

In 1950 the era of “McCarthyism” began in the US after Senator Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin claimed that the US State Department harbored communists. No elected official at that point wanted to appear soft on communism. Truman ordered troops into South Korea and he sent aid to the French in order to assist the US-recognized government of South Vietnam. From 1950 to 1954 the conflict continued with the US involvement increasing and President Eisenhower calling the shots. At one point the option of a nuclear attack was even put on the table, but quickly dismissed. (Let’s applaud the one who figured that was a bad idea.)

In 1954 the French finally called it quits. The Geneva Accords believed it was best to split Vietnam at the 17th parallel, much like the decision to split North and South Korea, in the name of peace. While the outside world thought it was a good idea, the Vietnamese stuck to the plan of fighting it out for a single country, single leader.

Ngo Dinh Diem was put in place to lead the South, Ho Chi Minh held his ground in the North, and the US stepped up their involvement to stop the communist takeover. It was chaos. Minh was able to infiltrate his Northern comrades into the landscape of the South (those infiltrators were known as the Viet Cong) while the new Southern Leader was attacking anything and everything that wasn’t a Catholic. (That’s not a good leadership decision when living in a primarily Buddhist country.) The conflict dragged on. Little by little US involvement ramped up. (It could be equated with the proverbial frog in the boiling water. Put him in the boiling pot and out he goes. Put him in early and turn up the heat, he never sees it coming.)

Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC 2005

In 1960 the United States changed administrations and the gauntlet was handed to the young John F. Kennedy. (This was now US President number three holding on to the big pile of messy poo.)  Using a lot of good sound bites, mostly about fear of communists and communism, Kennedy continued to increase support to the government of South Vietnam still under the leadership of Diem. 

Diem was very unpopular in South Vietnam. For those of us that lived through the Vietnam years, or studied it after the fact, you might remember an elderly Buddhist monk named Thich Quang Duc who sat down in a lotus position in front of a Pagoda and was set on fire by two young monks. The incident was famously photographed by AP correspondent Malcolm “Mal” Browne. The image is titled, “The Ultimate Protest.” This act was in direct protest to Diems government. (This protest resulted in Diem sending in troops to raid Pagodas. Yet again, another poor choice in leadership). 

In November of 1963 a military coup against Diem occurred resulting in the assassination of Diem and his brother. The US could be called complicit in that event as intelligence knew of the planning and did nothing to stop it. Twenty days later, John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Lyndon Baines Johnson was sworn into office, and handed the big pile of smelly, messy poo.

The assassination of Diem left a power void that resulted in a game of “heads of South Vietnamese government musical chairs”, the US ratcheting up their presence, and the Viet Cong gaining more hold over the rural population of South Vietnam. Then, in August of 1964, the infamous Gulf of Tonkin incident occurred which gave Johnson the key to the kingdom: in other words, Congress granted Johnson the authority to do whatever necessary in order to assist “any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty.” By the years end there were 23,000 US military advisors in South Vietnam facing the threats from 170,000 VietCong / NVA Fighters. 

Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC 2001

In March of 1965 the first combat troops, 3,500 marines, arrived in Vietnam. In April two more Marine battalions and up to 20,000 logistical personnel were sent. By July Johnson announced plans for an additional 44 combat battalions, which brought the US Military presence to 125,000. The American Embassy in Saigon was bombed, monthly draft calls were doubled to 35,000 and protests began on American soil. 

To say there was chaos is an understatement. By the time 1965 rolled around the entire country was fractured. There was no front line or rear line, nor any clear definition of an enemy. The US tried to halt bombings and negotiate peace but that didn’t last long. Although the polls suggested that Americans backed the war, the protests, mostly brought out by younger college students, suggested otherwise. Life in the US continued with the conflict as a distant yet growing concern. 

At home, my brother Jim was plodding along through high school. He heard the news of a classmate a few years ahead of him getting killed, but it didn’t really register. His life moved on.  Outside of his somewhat isolated world in the Mid-West, things began to change. 

Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC 2001 (or 2005)

Influential people like Dr. Martin Luther King and California Governor Ronald Reagan called for an end to the war. Public opinion polls showed 46 percent of Americans believed that the US roll in Vietnam was a mistake. Even Life Magazine renounced its earlier support of the Johnson administration. A march on the Pentagon drew 55,000 protesters. At the end of 1967 Robert McNamara resigned as Secretary of Defense privately expressing doubts in the Administration’s strategy. Top aids to the Administration followed suit. By the end of the year 463,000 troops were deployed with 16,000 combat deaths.

Next, the Tet Offensive. What many call the turning point of the war. What my brother called “My first clue about what was going on.” 84,000 Viet Cong guerrillas strategically attacked a hundred cities around South Vietnam. The attack was brought back to the US for broadcast on the nightly news. (It was also during the Tet that the famous image of the execution of a Viet Cong guerrilla by police chief General Nguyen Ngoc Loan was made by Eddie Adams. One more disturbing image to sway public opinion away from war.)

In November of 1968 Richard Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey in the presidential election. By years end troop levels reached 495,000 with 30,000 American deaths. This was the beginning of the bitter end. 1969 opened with peace talks that were seemingly worthless as the Viet Cong attacked 110 targets through the south including Saigon. There was an investigation into the Mei Lai massacre, one of the most shocking and tragic atrocities of war, and 46 men lost their lives in a 10 day battle on “Hamburger Hill.” President Nixon ordered the withdrawal of 35,000 soldiers and the first draft lottery since WWII was held in New York City. If your birthday was pulled with a low number chances are you would get a ticket to Vietnam. (Hopefully not one way.) This is where my brother’s story begins.

Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC 2009

In the 1971 draft lottery Jim’s birthday came up with a low number. At this time he was in vocational school and thinking about becoming a police officer. His chances of being drafted were pretty high. If drafted he would have to serve two years of a probable unknown fate. If he enlisted, and “chose his career” he would serve for three or four, but he would have some choice in the matter. He went to the recruiting office and asked to be in the Military Police. After much effort he was denied a position as an MP because he is colorblind. (He really isn’t. He just doesn’t see pastels very well . . . so he says . . .I’ve seen how he puts his wardrobe together.)  He tells the recruiter that if he can’t be an MP he’ll become a cook. Nope. Not going to happen if he’s colorblind. (Seriously?)

After a bit of a battle he conceded, “Just take me.” Off to basic training he went. After he completed basic the Army asked what he wanted and he told them that he wanted to be in MP. “Nope, you’re colorblind.” At this point Jim stood up for himself, proved that he could see “red, white, and blue,” and off he went with two other guys from basic training to a little place called Pleiku Vietnam. This was his first ever trip overseas with no stamp in his passport to prove it.  He was to be part of the 560th MP Company and would be stationed at the 67th Evac compound. 

Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC 2009

Before I go any further into this story, I want to make clear that I am a voyeur of history. I am not a voyeur of tragedy. My intent in interviewing Jim was never to get detailed battle stories.  My intent was to understand the mindset of a young man being shipped off to a far-a-way place to fight a war that someone else started. 

Jim was very clear that when he left the US, when he arrived in Vietnam, and all the way through the end he was pretty much kept in the dark about what was going on, politically speaking and otherwise. They kept the news away from those who were serving. He just knew he had a job to do. He took our fathers excellent advice to heart. “Keep your head down. Do what you are told.  Don’t bring home a war bride.” 

His responsibility as an MP was essentially to be the police of the army. He worked in a unit that was responsible for policing all Army personnel that lived on two different bases. For him this was Camp Holloway and the MacV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) compound. There was also a signal corps compound, engineering compound, and artillery hill. However, by the time Jim got to Pleiku the war was winding down and those three were closed. 

Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC 2009

The schedule was loaded: 7 days a week, with 12 hours on and 12 hours off. Every 30 to 45 days they would get a day off.  The job of an MP is to be the police; solve disputes, deal with car accidents, watch for crime etc. They were to address everything that your local police officer does, but with army personnel and, when appropriate, the locals. He also said they were to protect the convoys. This is the part that is unclear to me. It was repeated often, so it was clearly a large and important part of his job but no details were offered. 

One part of an MP’s job was to go downtown to make sure all military personnel were not breaking curfew. It would be especially important to check out the local bars. Jim and his fellow MP’s may, or may not, have taken advantage of that after hours quiet time. They may, or may not, have associated with the locals. (I think there may have been hookers, but he did not confirm this . . . well, he is my brother and our mother may read this someday.)

It seems there was a lot of interaction with the locals, which, I am sure, brought some normalcy to life. He recalled going to see the “Mama-san” to get pineapple and how quickly she would core and cut it like he had never seen. There was a girlfriend for a period of time that actually saved him one night from what could have been an enemy lurking around. I would prefer to keep that story vague.

Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC 2009

Aside from meeting up with the locals they would occasionally head up into the mountains where the Montgnard, indigenous peoples of the central highlands, lived. There they cavorted while imbibing in homemade rice wine. (It sounds refined but I suspect it would be more like moonshine). What’s fascinating about the Montgnard is that the US military supplied them with whatever they needed to protect themselves. They weren’t North Vietnamese, they weren’t South Vietnamese, nor were they necessarily “fighting for” anyone else. 

It was very clear through his time spent with the locals that all they cared about was surviving. “Today, tomorrow, and the next day. They just wanted to know they had a bowl of rice.”  They did what they needed to do to make that happen. As one would suspect, the black market was rampant. I asked Jim how it all worked and he went into great detail. I can’t tell you what he said. It’s not that it’s a big secret. I’m just not sure I completely follow it. It starts with Tide Soap from the PX and then I was lost. 

The army took some measures to combat the black market. One of the things was to put color dye in the gasoline so it could be traced back to the American base. On a random morning it would be announced that, “Gas is blue.” When someone spotted blue gas in town they would know it originated from the base and was therefor “illegal”. Oddly, the blue gas was spotted well before the color of the day was announced. The black market, like the military, was clearly efficient.

Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC 2009

I asked my brother about friends. It seems to be a common perception that soldiers have war buddies. That was not the case. Like Joe, my WWII interviewee, Jim said he didn’t really make friends. It was especially difficult in his position as the police. “We were their enemy!” The MP’s were responsible for the rules and keeping order. That meant busting guys for illegal behavior. That mostly meant drugs. As we all know, there were a lot of drugs over there. Marijuana and Heroin were the drugs of choice. Mostly supplied by the locals. Drugs were so prevalent that there was one person stationed with Jim who had joined the military, to be deployed to Vietnam, simply to have better access to heroin. (I don’t believe his deployment lasted long.)

This brings up one of my bigger questions to Jim. “Why were people so seemingly screwed up when they come home?” His theory? “If you were screwed up going in you were screwed up going home.” That’s a theory and sure, I’ll buy it, but I think there’s more to it. You might be able to train a young man to shoot a gun, to kill an enemy, or drop a bomb on a village, but you can’t change their level of empathy and that has to have a lasting affect.

Jim’s first job as an MP was being sent to a barracks after four guys decided to play Russian roulette with a hand grenade. If you don’t know how it’s played it goes like this: You sit in a circle with a couple of guys. One of you pulls the pin out of a grenade. The grenade is passed around. If you hold on to the grenade it won’t explode. If you let go, well, it’s all over. One of the four let go and that was the end for them, and one poor innocent guy asleep in his bunk. That is how my brother was introduced to his job. 

Womens War Memorial, Washington DC 2005

Thus went the war for him. While he did not share details, and nor did I ask, it was clear the toll it took. His daily job was essentially to pick up body parts. Traffic accidents, drug overdoses, suicides, and murder. (Yes. Murder. On one occasion it was because of a cigarette.) His job was clean up. Up close and personal to the tragedy of war. He didn’t need to engage with the enemy. The US military was enough enemy to itself. Soldiers had a practice called “fragging.” To “frag” means to “deliberately kill (an unpopular senior officer) typically with a hand grenade.” Fragging was a real thing. Grenades, at that time, did not come with any type of signature so those murders were anonymous, untraceable, and more common than one would hope. 

Even though Jim was “away from enemy lines” it didn’t mean he didn’t get close to the enemy. Remember, this war never really had a front line especially when you think about the Ho Chi Minh trail that ran from the north to the south along the western border. Mortar shells would drop into the camp on occasion. At first, it was a bit unnerving, then after some time they would just hang out and watch like it was a 4th of July evening. There was one occasion that it did get scary. Jim and some of the other MP’s barely got into a bunker during an exceptionally heavy strike. It was the only time he was really terrified. It was the longest 25 minutes of his life, I guess. 

Jim was in Vietnam at the end of the war. He didn’t have TV or the news. He could only surmise what was happening. There were a few signs that the end was coming. One big clue was they started to have steak more often. (The cooks had been hoarding it to use for trades—see earlier comments about the black market—now they needed to get rid of it.)  There was also the change in beer. This went the other way. Out with the good stuff, Miller, in with the bad, Lone Star. (I’m just relaying the information I’m not making judgements). Once the Canadian Peace Keepers came in Jim and his crew knew it was the end. It was time to play cards, eat steak, and drink bad beer while they waited for their orders. When my brother left there were only two planes behind him. 

Vietnam Memorial, Washington DC 2005

I asked, a lot, during our conversation about what he knew of the “big picture” and he insisted that he just put his head down and did his job. When I pressed further he did say that when he went to the cities he would see large barracks with brand names like “Sea-Land” and “Pacific Architects and Engineers.” As Deep Throat famously said “Follow the money.”  Corporate involvement and greed in Wars goes back a long way and continues through today. (Think Halliburton.)

There was one incident, toward the end of the war, where Jim recalled being tagged to go out and watch the perimeter. This was not something that was part of his normal job. It was a bit unnerving, but he did it without incident. It was 40 years later when he just happened to be watching a documentary on PBS that he realized the night he was on patrol the NVA were marching south only a few hundred yards away. (I would have preferred to learn this information 40 years after the fact, too.)

All in all it was an interesting conversation with my big brother. My take away? He was asked by his country to do a job. Without complaint he did his job to the best of his ability. Unsolicited, he told me that if his President called him up and asked him to serve he would do it again. 

For me, the sixty thousand dollar question is this. “Why is it that you never talk about this part of your life? It’s played such a big role and it’s a huge part of history. Why so silent?” For my big brother, other than the fact that he simply does not want to wrap himself in the stars and stripes and salute all that is patriotic, it came down to this very simple thing: it’s just so sad. The whole tragic and awful series of events that was the Vietnam War was a complete and utter waste and it was just so profoundly sad.  

In 1972 a young man was sent away because it was his patriotic duty to serve his country. He was not so much a witness to history as he was a witness to human destruction. I concur. It was tragically and utterly wasteful. At its heart it was so very sad, yet that is why it is worth remembering.

Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC 2001

In 1984 I went to Washington DC for a conference. I was accompanied by some classmates as well as one of my teachers. Naturally, we went to visit the Mall and specifically the Vietnam Memorial. I walked along side my teacher who, I had learned, was a flight instructor during the war. As we walked along the path he pointed to three different names on the wall. Young men who were once his students. It shook me to my core. Those etchings were attached to real people.  

I have visited that wall many times. I have witnessed people leaving trinkets, transferring the etched name to paper, and prayers being said. One man even asked a woman to take a  photo of he and his wife as he pointed to a name saying “This is him. The guy that saved my life.” When I visit the wall I always stop, look at the names in front of me, and then take a moment to thank the Universe that my brother’s name is not among them. 

Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC 2009






Crime and Punishment: Eastern State Penitentiary

I have to admit that when I think about crime and punishment, the system of crime and punishment, I don’t consider the design of the prison to be an essential part of it. Evidently I have had it all wrong! 

Doorway

When visiting the Eastern State Penitentiary, which is now an historic site, I fully expected to be walking around the ruins, doom, and gloom that would be in anyone’s imagination of what a prison would be. I was not disappointed. It was everything I expected. What I did not expect was what I found in my research following my visit. 

Cell

Cell

The idea for this prison began in 1787 when Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of our Founding Fathers, established the “Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons.” (Yes, that is the full title.) Today the name has been shortened to “The Pennsylvania Prison Society.” The PSAMPP, which also included renowned Founding Father Benjamin Franklin, set out to establish the international standard on Prison Design. Up to that time, prisons were “simply large holding pens.” Regardless of your age, sex, or crime you were locked up in large room and had to fend for yourself. Needless to say prison life was a bit on the chaotic side. 

Looking outdoors.

Dr. Rush proposed a new idea: a prison designed to “create genuine regret and penitence in the criminal’s heart.” Enter the term “penitentiary” into our lexicon. This concept comes from Enlightenment thinking, but up to that time had not been carried out. The central idea is to move the criminal toward spiritual reflection, which would result in change. The method, inspired by the Quakers, was essentially forced isolationism with a bit of labor thrown in for good measure.

Ceiling at central rotunda.

With this in mind the society set out to find a designer to build a new prison in Philadelphia that would support and reflect this new way of thinking. The prison contract was finally awarded to a British-born architect John Haviland. The design was seven cellblocks that radiated from a central surveillance rotunda. Each prisoner had his or her private cell, which was centrally heated complete with running water, flush toilet, and skylight. Adjacent to the cell was a private outdoor exercise yard. 

Central Surveillance Rotunda

Think about this for just a moment. Prisoners had private quarters with heat, running water, and private gym. Andrew Jackson, the occupant in the White House at that time, did not have running water and the building was heated with coal burning stoves. (And who was the criminal?) 

Decorated cell of the famous Al "Scarface" Capone. One of the more famous inmates of ESP.

“In the vaulted, sky lit cell, the prisoner had only the light from heaven, the word of God (the Bible) and honest work (shoemaking, weaving and the like) to lead to penitence.” Inmates were also forced to wear a hood outside of their cells to prevent interaction with guards or to be able to gain any knowledge of the building. The thinking behind this rule was also part of enlightenment thinking; “exposed, in silence, to thoughts of their behavior and ugliness of their crimes, would become genuinely penitent.”

Cell. 

Construction began in 1822 and before the building could even be finished it was all the rage in the Philadelphia City Pass. People were coming in droves from all over the world to visit the enlightened prison.

Probably the most photographed barbers chair in history.

In color.

 In April of 1829, legislation specifying “separate or solitary confinement at labor” was passed.  This practice was soon known world wide as the Pennsylvania System. And in October of 1829 Eastern State Penitentiary opened its doors to inmate number 1: Charles Williams. Burglar. Light black skin. Five feet seven inches tall. Foot: eleven inches. Scar on nose. Scar on thigh. Broad mouth. Black eyes. Farmer by trade. Can read.

One of the kitchens.

Dining hall.

This new way of thinking, however, was not without its critics. Charles Dickens, one not to shy away from stating his opinion, wrote in his travel journal:

“. . . I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body; and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye,. . .and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment in which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.”

Hallway.

As time moved on, however, enlightenment faded away. Eastern State Penitentiary standards slowly changed until the entire system of solitary confinement ended in 1913. Additional construction through the years created cells with standard windows and no more private exercise yard. Commercial grade kitchens were added and staffed by inmates 24 hours a day. Cells housed 2 to 3 men and the inmates congregated in the same yard for exercise and fresh air. 

Hallway

Additional cellblocks were created. These without windows and plumbing. It was a new type of solitary confinement. This type was meant as punishment and not penitence. In 1956 Cellblock 15 was added. Death row.

“This modern prison block marked the final abandonment of any aspect of the Eastern’s original architectural vocabulary. The fully-electronic confinement system inside separated the inmates from the guards at virtually all times. Within the Penitentiary’s perimeter wall, built with the belief that all people are capable of redemption, prisoners awaited execution.” 

Death Row.

The facility closed in 1971, 142 years after inmate number one, Charles Williams, who could read, was welcomed into the system. 

Art installation on death row.

NOTE: I am not an historian and I do not play an historian on TV. For accurate historic data on any of these sites please go to your public library for more information.

WWII - DDay

A few weeks ago I was celebrating a friend’s birthday. It was just before Memorial Day and talk naturally drifted to Memorial Day types of things. It was during a conversation with one of the partygoers that I found out his mother’s boyfriend was part of the D-Day landings at Normandy. My friend was quite taken aback when I started jumping up and down with absolute glee asking if I could please get an introduction and talk to him. Not about the fact that he was dating at 90 years old but that he was part of the Normandy invasion. 

Eventually I was able to grab an hour with Joe Brader to get a feeling for what it was like being part of such a significant chapter in history. 

Before I get to Joe, I need to set the stage. 

D-Day is a military term referring to the day on which, “combat attack or operation is to be initiated.” The most famous of these days is the day of the Normandy landings during WWII or “Operation Overlord.” Planning for this invasion began in 1943 at the Quebec Conference in Canada. Hitler’s armies had control over most of mainland Europe and the Allies knew that if they didn’t do something big to gain some control they would lose the war in Europe. Hitler would be expecting a big hit and he was on the lookout. The obvious choice would be an invasion at Calais, the shortest distance across the English Channel. The planning team instinctively knew that Hitler would be expecting a large-scale attack in this area so they chose to attack further south at Normandy.

Sainte-Mère-Église Church made famous in the movie "The Longest Day"

Sainte-Mère-Église Church where paratrooper John Steele was caught in one of the pinnacles of the church tower on DDay. He is still celebrated in this small French town.

At the planning table were commanders from the United States, Britain, and Canada. General Dwight D. Eisenhower was appointed to be the Supreme Commander of the operation. That meant the proverbial buck stopped with him and with the planning of this mission there would be a lot of bucks! Just think about it. Not only do they need to plan the strategy of an invasion, there are hundreds if not thousands of logistics to work out. First, they have to figure out the transportation. How many people will they need? What in heavens name will they wear? Now, this may sound silly, but it’s something that needs to be thought through.  Especially since they would be wearing the same clothes for an unknown period of time without the benefits of a good old Maytag.

Memorial on Utah Beach

Not only did this team need to plan the main invasion, but they also had to have a full plan to mislead the opposition. Thus, Operation Bodyguard was put into play. Set builders from the motion picture industry built full army bases complete with fake armies, planes and jeeps and set them up in England just across the channel from Calais. French resistance and German double agents helped to steer Hitler’s sight toward the pretend mission. And, of course, Enigma played a large roll in this so the Allies could “listen in” on the German plans and know that their ruse was working. 

Utah Beach

Then there were the battle logistics. Here are just a few choice ones to chew on:

  • 156,000 Allied troops
  • 5,000 ships and landing craft
  • 50,000 vehicles (and with that must come all of the necessary accessories to make them run)
  • 11,000 aircraft 
  • 13,000 paratroops (And parachutes. Mustn’t forget the parachutes.)
  • 156,000 plus backpacks for the troops. Each of these weighed about 75 – 80 pounds and contained items like: 
    • Matches
    • Vomit bags (!)
    • Anti-seasickness pills
    • 200 francs of invasion currency (printed in the U.S.)
    • French language guide (handy!)
    • Paperback novel (I don't know the title(s) but how did they choose a novel that everyone would want to read?)
    • Condoms (landing in France with high hopes?)
    • Extra candy bars (awesome)
    • An extra razor blade (I'm guessing packaged along side the condoms)

German Bunker at Pointe Du Hoc

The original invasion was planned for June 5th, but poor weather scuttled the mission and plans resumed again on June 6th. (And this was tricky because the timing was based on the moon and tide cycles and if the bad weather persisted they would need to wait it out a few more weeks.) The operation happened in 5 phases: 

12:00 AM: Phase 1 – Airborne Drop
1:00 AM – 4:00 AM: Phase 2 – Operation Bodyguard
3:00 AM – Phase 3 – Aerial Attack
5:00 AM – Phase 4 – Naval Attack 
6:00 AM – Phase 5 – The Invasion

  • 6:30 AM: Utah Beach – Led by the U.S. 4th Infantry Division. 
  • 6:30 AM: Omaha Beach – Led by the US 1st Infantry Division
  • 7:25 AM: Gold Beach – Led by the British 50th Infantry Division
  • 7:25 AM: Sword Beach – Led by British 3rd Infantry Division
  • 7:30 AM Pointe du Hoc – Led by 2nd Ranger Battalion
  • 7:55 AM: Juno Beach – Led by Canadian 3rd Infantry Division

At the end of the day there were approximately 9,000 casualties (3,000 which may have been fatal.)       

Pointe Du Hoc: The 100 foot cliffs at Pointe Du Hoc were scaled by US Army Rangers to seize German artillery pieces that could have fired on American landing troops at Omaha and Utah beaches. 

Cliffs at Pointe Du Hoc

Ranger Memorial at Pointe Du Hoc

The stage is set. It’s a HUGE project. HUGE! There are a lot of parts and pieces and it’s going to be scary out there. For any project you can plan and plan and plan and there is always something that can go a bit awry.  But I digress. On to Joe!

When I got on the phone with Joe, the first thing he asked me was if I had read the article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.  He was very disappointed to find out that I had not read the article (although I had heard about it.) The main theme of the article is about love. It talks about his upbringing. (Born and raised in St. Louis, MO.) Health scares as a child. (Joe has 9 lives.) D-Day. (I’ll get to that soon.) The bowling alley. (Where he worked, flirted, and was a bit of a lady’s man.) His wife. (Who has since passed away.) Until lastly we discover the one he rediscovered. (His current lady love whom he met at said bowling alley.) 

Memorial at Omaha Beach

To understand his experience you need understand Joe a little better. He dropped out of high school to work at the bowling alley, which was his fathers business. I suspect it had more to do with meeting girls than it had to do with having a job. On his 18th birthday, July 1943, he was called to serve his country. After some basic training at Camp Grant in Illinois, Joe was sent to become a Medic with the combat engineers building pontoon bridges. Before he knew it he was on a ship to Liverpool and then 12 days later he was on a landing craft headed for Normandy Beach, still only 18 years old. Below is his account (slightly edited): 

I was supposed to land at noon on the 6th, but it was between 2:00 and 3:00 in the afternoon when I landed on Utah beach.

We got on the boat on a Monday and I guess it was Sunday morning the Major, the doctor head of the first aid station, he took the whole crew, the 6 or 7 of us, out near the shade of a tree. He showed us snaps of the gun placements that the Germans had. He told us where we were landing and where we were going. 

We didn’t think we were going to die. 

We got on landing craft and stayed one day in dock. The next day we got in line. There was a whole line of landing crafts. Two rows as far as you could see in both directions. Mine was an LCT (Landing Craft Tank).  There were 8 trucks behind me and I was in the jeep right at the front gate. We were 5 days on the water and it was storming. There were times the waves were so high that you would turn around and see nothing but water. And then you would get to the top and see the whole line of boats. It was pretty scary then. 

As we were getting close to the beach the shelling started and we pulled up behind a destroyer. Evidently it was the marker to turn in and the pilot turned in and saw the shells hitting the water up in front of us so he stopped the boat and let the gate down and said “get off.” We were way out. The jeep sunk and we had to swim in. I had my full field pack on my back, first aid kits on both sides strapped to my legs. My life preserver didn’t work so I swam and I swam as far as I could go and I looked up to heaven and I told the lord that I was done and I knew I was gonna drown and I straightened up and my feet hit sand.

Then when I got to the edge of the water and I plopped down and I thought, “well, I gotta rest.” I was pooped! I looked about 8 feet in front of me and there was just the bottom half of a GI laying there and I thought “I gotta get out of here.” So I got up and went as fast as I could over to the road that went parallel to the beach and I knew that when I got to that road I had to turn left to catch up with the rest of the company. I got there and started down the highway and in came more shells and I saw a disabled truck on the side of the road and decided to slip under there. When I got there, there must have been fifty guys already underneath.  So I just walked down the road. I was the only one on the road and I felt that I had a shield around me. I wasn’t even scared at the time. I caught up with the company.  

The night of D-Day we moved up a half a mile or a mile. I don’t know how far it was. I could see small arms fire. I could see the bullets flying. They had tracer bullets in the machine guns. I could see them flying. We finally got to a place a field where we could set up and stay overnight. We camouflaged the trucks. I was trying to sleep underneath the trucks and a German airplane came over. We could hear him circling. It sounded like he shut his motor off. But apparently he was flying right down for us which was why we couldn’t hear his engine. And the bomb hit less than 100 yards from where I was. I guess it was 2 bombs really. I just lay there and shook and prayed. I was so scared. 

The next day we set up the first aid station. There were a few wounded people that we took care of. Then another airplane come along. We dug some foxholes. Slip trenches. You know where you lay in in case of attack. There was a wounded captain laying there in the first aid station and when the airplane come over he was in the slip trenches before we could get there. [hearty laughter] I was so surprised that he could move so good with a bullet hole in him.

Overlooking Omaha Beach from the American Cemetary

I had a wonderful conversation with Joe learning a lot about what it was like for one man in war. There were the exciting parts like the time when they moved forward of the front lines and their Captain and a jeep driver were captured by the Germans. The story ends well as three weeks later the Infantry captured them back.

There were the “mundane parts” like trying to treat a paratrooper whose legs had been rubbed raw from carrying grenades in his pocket. He stopped for help at the aid station but was in too much of a hurry to get back to work to get bandaged up. Joe did what he could to patch him up and send him on his way. There were also the boils to be lanced and the fingers to stitch up.

Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial

Moments of normalcy were rare but could be found. When food was a bit scarce some country boys found a field with cows and butchered one so they could have some fresh meat. They dug a hole and filled it with gasoline as a way to cook it. While it wasn’t very tasty it was meat. And then the time that one of the cooks was able to cobble together enough ingredients to make a birthday cake for someone. Food was not as scarce as you would think, seeing that they had planned the invasion to last 3 days and it took 30. There are the stories of discovering that a naval ship had come in fully stocked and soldiers figured out how to barter “souvenirs” for food. 

La Cambe German War Cemetery Normandy France

There are the tales you expect to hear from a soldier. Especially a young medic who relayed the time he was unexpectedly faced with a soldier and a critical wound to the neck that he did not know how to treat except to get him as quickly as possible to a doctor. He does not know the fate of that soldier but he is still troubled by it all.

Toward the end of the war his unit did come into a town with a concentration camp. The doctor in charge told his guys to go and look at what was happening. They were told not to assist as there were designated teams to do that, but they needed to see it. “It seemed like it was all Polish prisoners. You didn’t know which ones were alive and which ones were dead. They were lying there on stretchers all over the place. Just skin and bones. And that was really terrible. I can’t . . .”

La Cambe German War Cemetery Normandy France

What surprised me the most in my conversation was how routine it was. Joe stressed to me that everyone had a job to do.  My analogy is that you were trained to be one cog in a very large machine. If you were out of order the wheel didn’t turn properly. As a medic he was not allowed to carry a firearm. I asked him if that was frightening to him not being able to defend himself. “Well, you just did what you had to do. You didn’t worry about firing a gun at anybody.”

There were a lot of questions that I wanted to ask but out of respect did not. (Where did you go to the bathroom?!). Being a project manager I was really wondering about the logistics of it all. The fact that he was able to receive mail a few times a week I find to be remarkable.  

Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial

The part of our conversation that touched me the most was when Joe told me that his mother had passed away while he was overseas. On VJ day of all days. (He believed the excitement of the day is what caused the blood vessels to burst.) The Red Cross informed him of her passing but said they would not be able to get him home in time for the burial so he would stay put.  I just can’t imagine how hard that would be. It’s one thing to manage the horror that is happening around you. That is your job, your training. But there is no training in losing a parent.

Joe came home in January 1946 via a small boat that was built to carry fruit along the Florida coast that became troop transport. (Based on the description of that winter passage I am thinking that may have been the scariest part of his service!) Somewhere in his home is a framed “Thank You” letter from General Eisenhower that was given to all troops who were deployed on D-Day. Well deserved. 

Thank you, Joe, for your brave service to this country and for calling up that same bravery to talk to me.  

Memorial

NOTE: I am not an historian and I do not play an historian on TV. For accurate historic data on any of these sites please go to your public library for more information.



World War II - Thai Burma Railway

I love old movies. The music, the clothes, the romance. A few days ago I spent an afternoon with Bogie and Bacall watching the classic Casablanca. “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” It’s so romantic. I believe that many of us learn about history through the movies. While compelling films may draw us in and give us an abridged look at an historic event, they are not always …well, factual.

Let’s take that great film from 1957 with Alec Guinness and William Holden: The Bridge on the River Kwai. (If you haven’t seen it yet, run, do not walk to your Netflix queue and put it at the top.) The movie shows us a small slice of the Second World War as it played out in Thailand. The Japanese were trying to get a bridge built over The River Kwai and they were using British POWs to get the job done. The British colonel, played by the brilliant Alec Guinness, worked out a plan with the Japanese camp commandant to build the best damn bridge ever. And then the ever so fine William Holden (who, after escaping the camp, was shot and then ended up romancing a hot chick at some army hospital) was sent back to blow the bridge up. I think I’ve already revealed too much. 

Bridge over the River Kwai (2003)

While the film is based on some actual historic events, it’s really mostly fiction. Yes, there was a war. And yes, Japan was trying to build a railway and a bridge. And yes, the Japanese used British prisoners of war as labor. Um . . . and that’s about it as far as the facts are concerned. 
What the movie gets wrong or omits:

•  the name of the river. It was actually Mae Klong (not Kwai)
• Asian civilians were also used as labor, 
• while the bridge was destroyed and rebuilt a few times, it was ultimately destroyed by the Royal Air Force during some bombing raids.

The actual condition of the real camp and the real prisoners was worse than appalling.  There was little if any food, insufficient medical care, and I seriously question if prisoners of war would be looking as hot as William Holden after so much time in captivity. (Okay, that last one is more of a personal view on the situation.)

Exhibit at The Thailand-Burma Railway Centre (2003)

In the early 20th century the British, having colonized Burma earlier in the 19th century, were interested in building a railway between Thailand and Burma. After completing a survey of land through hilly jungle that was divided by many rivers they scrubbed the idea as it proved to be too difficult to complete. In 1942 the Japanese seized control of Burma from the British, but were now vulnerable to Allied forces from the Andaman Sea. They needed to devise ways of getting supplies through Thailand and into Burma that would not be subject to Allied attack by submarine so they, too, started scoping out the idea for a railway. The plan was to build rail that would connect Ban Pong Thailand (just northwest of Bangkok) to Thanbyuzayat in Burma. Previously this vision had not been realized because of cost and complexity. But now Japan was able to seize on the opportunity. Due to its military successes in Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore, Burma and the Philippines Japan suddenly had thousands of prisoners of war at its disposal to be used as forced labor. Initial plans allowed the project five years to be completed. But Japanese command, ever the overachievers, ordered it to be completed in 18 months.  And even then, after construction began, command became anxious and ordered the railway to be completed more quickly. This is known as the “Speedo! Speedo!” period. 

Section of original bridge (2003)

The first wooden bridge that spanned the river Mae Klong (a.k.a. The Bridge on the River Kwai,) was completed in February of 1943. A second, more substantial bridge, made of steel and concrete brought in from Java, was added in June of that same year. Both bridges were bombed two years later in February of 1945, only to be repaired and bombed again. The second bombing was a success that would put the bridge out of commission for the rest of the war.

Exhibit at The Thailand-Burma Railway Centre (2003)

Approximately 80km (50 miles) northwest of the bridge, there was a particularly troublesome spot: the railway section known as Hellfire Pass.  The name stems from those viewing the emaciated prisoners working at night under oil-fired bamboo lights and it brought to mind a vision from hell. Using unsophisticated tools like small hammers, steel tap drills, some explosives and shovels, the prisoner’s worked nearly around the clock to cut and dig out the rock. 

Hellfire Pass (2003)

And if the difficult work or disturbed guards didn’t kill you first, there was always dysentery, malaria, beriberi or cholera. The stories and photos from survivors of these places are gut-wrenching. Today we take for granted that a small cut will heal within a day or two. For a prisoner back then, though, a small cut could turn into a massive ulcer that could mean an amputation. Sure, there was a “hospital,” but the hospital was nothing more than a waiting room for the graveyard. The Japanese guards expected everyone to work regardless of nationality, rank, or general health.  

The final score of the Thai Burma Railroad: 

  • Forced Asian Labor: 200,000.  80,000 dead.
  • British POWs: 30,000.  6,540 dead.
  • Dutch POWs: 18,000.  2,830 dead.
  • Australian POWs: 13,000.  2,710 dead.
  • American POWs: 700.  356 dead.
  • Forced Korean & Japanese Soldier Labor: 15,000. 1,000 dead. 

Hellfire Pass Memorials (2003)

Stories of the brutality that took place are not worth thinking about or repeating. They are disturbing at worst and heart-wrenching at best. And I am curious about those guards. All were probably nice boys once who were sent off to war, only to become "monsters". What happens to us that we allow ourselves to lose our humanity?

When I read about these events I am baffled that we as a human race keep repeating these stories of war. The legends from Hellfire Pass are not new. They are as old as time. Somehow, we seem to have become complacent and simply accept that war is a part of our existence. It’s almost as if we have developed a romantic notion about war. Perhaps we learn too much history from the movies.

Hellfire Pass (2003)


NOTE: I am not an historian and I do not play an historian on TV. For accurate historic data on any of these sites please go to your public library for more information.

Civil War - Appomattox Courthouse

Years ago, circa 1986, I was working at a theater in Roanoke, Virginia. A friend had come to visit for a long weekend. It was Fall. Just around peak leaf-peeping time. My friend asked if we could take a day trip to some place called Appomattox Courthouse. “Sure!” I replied and quickly followed with, “What is an Appomattox Courthouse?” Thus began my education and fascination with the American Civil War. 

At that time I was under the impression that this was where the Civil War ended. As I discovered through more recent research, it’s actually the beginning of the end of a war that began April 12, 1861 at Fort Sumter South Carolina.  By the time the battle reached Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia, it was April 9, 1865. 

Appomattox Courthouse Grounds (2001)

Four years; those were four very long and very bloody years. The battle at Appomattox was 56 days before the official end of the war, which took place on May 26, 1865 when General Simon Bolivar Buckner surrendered the Army of the Trans-Mississippi (an act that was finally agreed to on June 2, 1865).  While I don’t have statistics readily available up to the date of the Appomattox campaign, I think it’s very important to have a feel for the carnage that occurred throughout the war. (NOTE: The numbers for this war are not agreed upon by all outlets posting statistics. Most of the discrepancy, I am sure, is due to incomplete and destroyed records, especially on the Confederate side, and the simple fact that things get lost.)

  • Length of war: Four years 
  •  Estimated Number of Enlisted: Union – 2,672,341 / Confederate – 880,000 
  • Estimated Number of Casualties: Union – 642,427 / Confederate – 483,026 
  • Estimated number of war dead who were never identified: 40%+
  • Percentage of the American population that perished in the war: 2.5% (If 2.5% of Americans died today it would be about 7 million people . . . 7 MILLION...)
  • Estimated Number of horses killed at the Battle of Gettysburg: 3,000

Appomattox Courthouse Cemetery (2001)

Knowing these statistics helps me understand the weight on the minds of the Generals heading to Appomattox that first week of April in 1865.  On April 1st, the Confederates were defeated at Five Forks and that prompted Lee to abandon the Petersburg Richmond siege lines. Lee then decided to move his army west in hopes of joining General Johnston in North Carolina. On April 6th Lee’s army received another blow when they were cornered along the banks of Sailor’s Creek, and many of his troops were annihilated.

The major confederate losses prompted General U.S. Grant, on April 7th, to get a note through the lines to General Lee essentially telling him that the jig was up and it was time to bring out the white flag. Lee wouldn’t give. There was a bit more fight in him and he upped and moved his army to Appomattox. On April 8th there was another noted exchange between the generals. In this exchange Lee stated that he would not surrender his Army to an unknown fate, but he would be interested in hearing the terms that Grant would offer.

Appomattox Courthouse Canon (2001)

On April 9th, Confederates under the command of John Gordon were able to drive back the Union by blocking the road near the village, but it did not change the fact that 125,000 Union solders were surrounding Lee’s Army which had now dwindled to 25,000 troops (give or take). Lee was cornered.

In addition to this strategic malady he must have been exhausted. It was time to end this thing. It was time to be done. It was just time. Grant sent another note on the morning of the 9th giving Lee the opening he needed. The two of them met at the home of Wilmer McLean in Appomattox Courthouse. (Oddly, McClean had moved to Appomattox Courthouse after the war played out on his doorstep in Manassas and he decided a change of scenery was in order.)

McLean House (2001)

The Generals met in a front sitting room. Lee donned his finest, including his shiny sword and polished boots. Grant came in off of the battlefield looking rather disheveled. Grant opened with “You may not remember me, but I remember you from the little war in Mexico.” I don’t think Lee really cared for the small talk. He was there as the loser. He was the one giving up and I’m going to guess he wanted it to be quick and merciful.

Sitting Room (2001)

After some more small talk they got to the nitty-gritty of the terms. What Lee may not have known is that Grant had had a little chat with President Lincoln at some point prior. It was pretty clear that the Confederates were done and they discussed how it might play out. Old Abe, in the gracefulness that was his character said, and I paraphrase, “When it comes time just let them get back to their farms and their shops.” What he was saying was no prisoners, no restraints, let them go home. That was what Grant offered under the terms of surrender. The terms weren’t very long. There wasn’t much to it. If you were an enlisted guy you had to lay down your arms. If you were an officer you could keep your side arm and your horse if you owned them prior to the war. You were not allowed to take up arms against the government, but you were allowed to go home.

Printing press used for printing out furloughs for confederate troops (2001)

Upon the signing of the document and the formal good byes Grant made another kind gesture to his former enemy. He sent rations to the Confederate troops who had been without food for many days. There are accounts of boys in blue and gray “exchanging compliments, pipes, tobacco, knives and souvenirs.” (Knives?)

When I first went to Appomattox, it was a quiet Fall day. The chill in the air laid a cape over the quiet historic site. Walking around the grounds it felt like the soldiers were there, quietly watching over their comrades who had fallen. There was a point, in front of a fence and at the end of a road, where you could listen to a recording describing the events of those days. It was stunning and unforgettable. 

I believe the account was from Joshua Chamberlain who was responsible for the final parade and the formal surrender. To paraphrase his account, and to try to give a picture, it was essentially this:

View toward the valley (2001)

In front of him, and down into the valley, were approximately 25,000 confederate troops. To his left, leading down the road, were Union Soldiers who were instructed to salute. "It was not a 'present arms,' however, not a 'present,' which then as now was the highest possible honor to be paid even to a president. It was the 'carry arms,' as it was then known, with musket held by the right hand and perpendicular to the shoulder. I may best describe it as a marching salute in review.”

Lane to his left (2001)

As the first of the confederates approached, a bugle was blown and the entire Union line came to attention. The Confederate General Gordon, at the head of his line, had been approaching with head bowed low. At the sound of “that machine like snap of arms” General Gordon “assumed the finest attitude of a soldier.” The two men, Gordon & Chamberlain, saluted as was fitting to do. 

The Union line, understanding the occasion, stood quietly still. The only detectable movements were a few faces twitching with emotion. While to the Unions right, one by one, the Confederate Army that remained approached the union line, laid down their arms, and turned around for the long walk home. 

Appomattox Courthouse Cemetery (2001)

When I think about that day, and read the accounts, it makes me cry. Four years of bloody battle and they end it with a quiet salute. If there was respect at the end why couldn't it have been there at the beginning? Is it something that war does to a person? Is it the way of the times? While I look back at history and think that, yes, the union had to stay together and slavery absolutely needed to end. I also ask myself if war was the only road to peace. 

NOTE: I am not an historian and I do not play an historian on TV. For accurate historic data on any of these sites please go to your public library for more information.

 

American Civil War - Gettysburg Monuments

Many years ago I lived in Richmond, Virginia. I lived in The Fan District (aka “The Fan”) which was close to a very beautiful street called Monument Avenue. As you can probably surmise, Monument Avenue is a street that is host to numerous monuments, most of which memorialize various elements and heroes of the Confederacy. We Northerners used to call it “The Second Place Trophy Case.” (But we kept the joke to ourselves.) There was more than a smattering of controversy when a new addition joined the boulevard in July of 1996. It was a monument memorializing tennis great Arthur Ashe. Clearly not one with the Confederacy.

But the point is that we love our monuments and we love to memorialize. I especially love them. I covet them for a number of reasons. First off, I think many of them are magnificent pieces of art. And secondly, when I see a monument or a memorial plaque it makes me want to learn more. I want to know the back-story. Who built it? Who paid for it? What sort of event was so momentous that somebody, or some group of people, felt compelled to spend the time, the energy and the money to create a significant piece of art in order to make sure that that particular story would never be forgotten?
 

Pennsylvania State Monument on Cemetery Ridge
Artists:  Lee Oskar Lawrie, Cyrus Edwin Dallin, Samuel Murray, W Clark Noble, J Otto Schweizer

Nowhere is the monument phenomenon more apparent than on the battlefield at Gettysburg. Outside of the fact that it isn’t just a huge football field, I am absolutely dumbfounded by the multitudes of monuments, memorials and plaques throughout the battlefield and have come to find out there are over 1,300 of those bad boys! 

72nd Pennsylvania Infantry - Placement of this monument was controversial and went all the way to Pennsylvania Supreme Court
Artist: Stephans

In 1867 The National Cemetery had the distinction of being the first site where a memorial was dedicated to the soldiers who fought at the Battle of Gettysburg. It is fitting that the monument honors the 1st Minnesota Infantry, who happened to have been the first regiment to answer Lincoln’s call for soldiers in April 1861. In 1878 a plaque was placed at Little Round Top to memorialize Brigadier General Strong Vincent who was mortally wounded there. Then in 1879 a tablet was placed at the edge of Spangler’s Meadow honoring the men of the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry. 
 

1st Minnesota Infantry
Artist: Jacob Fjelde

The idea of memorializing by way of monuments eventually caught on and then spread like wildfire. By the time the Battle’s 25th Anniversary rolled around, Northern States were ponying up sums ranging anywhere from $3,000 to $40,000 a pop. Everyone was jumping on the bandwagon. 

 
Brigadier General Gouverneur Kemble Warren – Army of the Potomac
Artist: Karl Gerhardt

And yet the Southern States did not join the party until the battle was behind them by 50 years. And even then it was difficult because there just wasn’t much money to spend. So the South decided, rather than just inundating the area with monuments, they would erect one for each of the Southern States. In my opinion, it was the best thing they could have done. The monuments that were created for the South are beautiful pieces of art and because there are so few, the areas where they stand are not cluttered. 

 73rd New York Infantry
Artist: Giuseppe Moretti

There are a few monuments that really stand out for me. One that I stumbled on and then photographed is a memorial with an image of a fireman standing alongside a soldier as if they are “brothers in arms.” The plaque acknowledges a New York Volunteer Fire Department. I was taken aback. It never dawned on me that a fire department would be part of a battle, much less memorialized for it. Sadly, two weeks later I would understand the horrifying truth of how much we depend on our firefighters in battle. I took this photo on August 30, 2001.

Louisiana State Monument
Artist: Donald DeLue

Louisiana State Monument
Artist: Donald DeLue

One of my favorite monuments, because it is truly a piece of art, is Louisiana’s State Monument.  I can’t really articulate why. I am not religious, so angels and trumpets aren’t really going to do it for me. It could be the high drama of it. I’m not sure. Either way I find the sculpture made by Donald De Lue to be quite compelling. 

Louisiana State Monument
Artist: Donald DeLue

In 2010 I went back to Gettysburg accompanied by two Australians and a French Canadian. (And that is a story for a completely different type of blog post.) This time I hired a personal tour guide (and all-around smarty-pants) by the name of Bosch, who introduced me to the monument for the State of North Carolina. That happens to be his favorite. Turns out that it was sculpted by Gutzon Borglum. That name should ring a bell. He’s the guy who immortalized Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson & Roosevelt by carving them into the side of a little mountain we now call Mount Rushmore.

North Carolina State Monument
Artist: Gutzon Borglum

North Carolina State Monument
Artist: Gutzon Borglum

 Knowing that bit of information now really makes me take more notice when walking around historic sites. You never know what you may learn or what little tidbit of knowledge will lead to further inquiry which will then bring you to a whole new discovery.  And that, in a shell of nuts, is what my little adventure is all about. 

NOTE: I am not an historian and I do not play an historian on TV. For accurate historic data on any of these sites please go to your public library for more information.

American Civil War - Gettysburg

If you just happen to be browsing the internet and you find yourself on the Powell’s Books website and just happen to decide to do a search for...say, “Gettysburg,” you will get  826 results. 826 books about Gettysburg. That’s a bit daunting. If you were to narrow that search to “The Battle of Gettysburg” the load becomes a little bit lighter with only 184 books listed. Needless to say, I have not read them all. I just want to point out that the Battle of Gettysburg is without question a big deal. And while some of those book titles are about the Gettysburg Address, I think the Battle of Gettysburg would still be a pretty big deal, famous Gettysburg Address notwithstanding.

It was, statistically, the bloodiest of all the battles.  After three days of fighting there were over 50,000 casualties, including the dead, the wounded and the missing.

When I first visited Gettysburg I was somewhat naïve as to what a battlefield actually looked like. I guess I was expecting something comparable to a big football field of sorts, with a scrimmage line drawn down the middle and maybe a wienie stand on the sideline. For some reason I thought a war was fought like a football game. Us on one side. Them on the other. And then everyone just aims their guns and starts shooting. Well, now, wasn’t that a silly notion!  I realized just how wrong I was when I drove through the park on my self-guided tour and stumbled upon a jovial guide talking to a rather engrossed family. So I pulled out my trusty Canon and feigned a little photo taking as best I could, while getting as close as possible so that I could eavesdrop on that rather smart tour guide.
 

In 2010 I hired my own smarty pants tour guide!

Well, strike me dumb. He was talking about strategy. Really? There’s actually strategy to this thing called war? It was “right flank” this, and “left flank” that, with an “intelligence briefing” here and a “boy, did he call that one wrong” there. Seriously, I still don’t completely understand the strategy of this particular battle, but knowing there was a strategy. . . well, it shed a whole new light for me as I continued on my journey. 

Gettysburg Battlefield (2001)

The battle of Gettysburg began on July 1, 1863. The Confederate forces, led by General Robert E. Lee, were marching north. A Confederate brigade was sent on up ahead of them to get more supplies and while on its mission stumbled upon  a column of General George Meade’s Union Cavalry at McPherson Ridge, just west of the town of Gettysburg. 

The first shots were fired at about 6 A.M. The Union Cavalry made the first move. While the Confederates were slow to advance there was already a skirmish underway. Because this was 1863 and there was no Twitter, communications were rather pokey. So, our dear Union General, John F. Reynolds, didn't know what was going on and did not arrive on the scene until 10:30 that morning. Seeing that his Union men were a bit outnumbered, he sent word to General Meade that he was in desperate need of reinforcements. After the note was delivered Reynolds was shot and killed on that same battlefield.

By noon, Team Confederate pushed the right side of the Union line off of Seminary Ridge and on through Gettysburg. By 4:30 Team Confederate was in the lead as they continued to push Team Union up to the fittingly named Cemetery Hill. 

North Carolina Monument on Seminary Ridge (2001)

Then General Lee, thinking like a coach whose team is first and goal, called a timeout. He hung back to assess the situation. This was his first mistake. He should never have let them rest.

At about 5:00 A.M. on July 2, maneuvers began again. The day started with Team Union (46,000 strong) and Team Confederate (43,000 not so strong). Both sides lined up and positioned themselves for the long day ahead. Unfortunately there was some miscommunication. A Union commander by the name of Major Daniel E. Sickles, who was supposed to stay put at Little Round Top until receiving further orders, instead inexplicably moved his guys down the hill and into The Peach Orchard. Bad move for the Union. Sickles probably didn’t realize that Confederate General James Longstreet’s Corp was just arriving at the southern tip of Seminary Ridge.  The confederate cannoneers took this opportunity and opened fire from Devi’ls Den to The Peach Orchard. It was a slaughterhouse. 

The Wheatfield (2001)

That day’s battles were arduous and bloody.  Men fell from both sides in The Peach Orchard, as well as The Wheatfield, Devil’s Den and later, Culp’s Hill. By the end of Day Two it looked like the Union was holding its own. But the battle had not yet been called. 

On the morning of July 3, around 6 A.M. Culp’s Hill was decided for Team Union. The Confederates retreated.  Just after 1:00 the Confederates’ artillery barrage began. But, like that gang that couldn't shoot straight, ammunition went high and long, missing much of the front lines and landing toward the rear. The front lines were able to respond for a period of time that which for a rousing little battle. But after a time, the Union, wanting to conserve ammunition and catch its collective breath, called another timeout but neglected to tell the other team of its plans. Meanwhile, the Confederates, realizing that it had suddenly gone quiet on the Union front, thought they had made a substantial hit.
   

View of Seminary Ridge from Little Round Top (2010)

At 3:00 that afternoon General George E. Pickett and his band of Confederates, confident that they had just destroyed the guns of the Union, began their march up to Cemetery Hill. Picketts’ men maneuvered through a field completely exposed to Union soldiers occupying Cemetery Hill. The Confederates’ march suddenly became a suicide march and is hereafter known as “Pickett’s Charge.” At  4:00 on July, 1863 the battle was decided. 

 

View of Seminary Ridge from Little Round Top (2010)

epending on what you read and who actually wrote it, The Battle of Gettysburg is either a major turning point in the war or just another big battle. There is some controversy in the aftermath of this bloody campaign. While the Union claims complete victory, the Confederates claim that it is more of a stalemate. In hindsight it appears that this is a turning point of the war, mainly because General Lee stopped thinking offensively and instead played defense for the rest of the war. (I think he felt really bad about that Pickett debacle and just got cold feet. But clearly I’m no war general!) 

I also think it was quite simply a psychological boost to the Union. When your supporters are getting weary of the battle, the players are fatigued as well. This was a win that gave everyone in the Union a bit of hope that they could prevail.

The one thing that people don’t really talk about is the aftermath of a battle. We get all hopped up on goofballs talking about the “strategery” and the winnings and the losings but once it’s played out where are the stories about the effects of this? 

Once both teams picked up their toys and started moving to the next big game it was up to the townspeople to clean up their mess.  Just think about these rough statistics:

•    5,500 soldiers dead
•    22,000 soldiers wounded
•    5,000 horses dead

In an area measuring about 25 square miles and in a town with a population of 2,400, what does one do with all of those dead and wounded? Area citizens pitched in and offered up rooms to the wounded. They opened up their churches, schools and homes. But what was of an even more urgent nature was how to deal with the dead (including the horses). There are many descriptions about what that was like, but for me it doesn’t bear thinking or repeating. 

Within six weeks of the battle, land had been purchased by the Pennsylvania legislature and parceled out to each Union state so that they could bury their dead. 3,500 soldiers were removed from the field of battle and reinterred in this cemetery. It was not until seven years later that the Confederate dead were removed from their original burial spots in the fields and returned to the south. Thanks to the Ladies Memorial Associations of Richmond, Raleigh, Savannah, and Charleston, 3,320 soldiers were disinterred and sent south for reburial. 

The Gettysburg Cemetery, the final resting place of the Union dead, was dedicated on November 19, 1863. The program that day included a procession of fancy pants officials, the Marine Band, and an oration by “the outstanding orator of his day,” the Honorable Edward Everett of Massachusetts. Almost as an afterthought, an invitation was sent to President Lincoln. The committee was completely bowled over when Lincoln accepted the invitation. So as not to slight the President, a formal request was then sent to him, asking him to take part in the program.

The ceremonies began at high noon, an hour late because all were kept waiting for the infamous Mr. Everett. So the bands played, a prayer was given, another band played and then the famous Mr. Everett spoke. For two hours. About funeral customs, the purpose of war, and a play-by-play of the Battle of Gettysburg. 

And then Old Abe stood and famously delivered the 257-word* speech that would go down in history as one of the most historically significant pieces of orations in American History. 
 

Gettysburg Address (2001)

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom— and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Amen to that. 

*The number of words in the speech is disputed as there are approximately 5 unique manuscripts of the speech and there are slight variations in wording.

NOTE: I am not an historian and I do not play a historian on TV. For accurate historic data on any of these sites please go to your public library for more information.

American Civil War - Bleeding Kansas

Summer 2005: I am starting my final year of study, after which I will obtain my Certificate in Photography at the Photographic Center Northwest. I am preparing and gathering material for my thesis project, which will involve photographing historic sites throughout the United States. Problem: I don’t have enough material for a good edit. Solution? Panic! 

As it happens, I am talking to my far-away friend Michele who has been trying to convince me to come out for a visit, when I say “Okay, I’ll come and visit if you have something wonderfully historic for me to see in Lawrence, Kansas.” I laugh heartily because clearly nothing of significance could have ever happened in Lawrence, Kansas. WRONG!  And this is what I mean when I talk about this process leading to new and amazing discoveries.

Reenactors Lawrence KS 2005

For one to understand the state of Kansas and its significance within the vast scope of the Civil War, we need to go back to the 1850s.  Americans are beginning to see the potential wealth that is west of the Mississippi, with its fertile land ready for farming and ranching. It has become a popular place to settle. And as more and more settlers move into this new territory, the proverbial elephant in the room grows larger and larger. The subject: slavery. The question: will Kansas become a slave state or a free state? 

Reenactors Lawrence KS 2005

In 1854 Congress passes the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This act is the brainchild of Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas.  It is written for purely political gain, to open up lands to the west and to undo the Missouri Compromise (the act created in 1820 which stated that lands north of a certain latitude were to be free of slavery except within the state of Missouri itself). The act also contains the stipulation that settlers in those territories will themselves decide if slavery will be allowed within their borders. So the Kansas-Nebraska Act is debated and amended and finally passes with the thinking that Nebraska will become a free state (as it is mostly being settled by Midwesterners who hail from other free states), whereas Kansas will be designated a slave state (since it is mostly being settled by Southerners). Unfortunately, someone forgets to inform the people of Kansas. Enter the Jayhawkers, the anti-slavery champions, and the Bushwhackers (aka the Border Ruffians), the pro-slavery advocates. 

Reenactors Lawrence KS 2005

The Jayhawkers, who are mostly from northern states like Massachusetts and Vermont, seize on this new opportunity and immigrate to Lawrence, Kansas, a town founded by Northerners and named after Amos A. Lawrence, a promoter of the Emigrant Aid Society.  Lawrence will be the center for the anti-slavery movement in Kansas. But this little bastion for liberal minded anti-slavery folks also becomes the focus for the angry Bushwhackers.

Reenactors Lawrence KS 2005

On November 21, 1855 a Free-Stater is shot by a pro-slavery settler, which leads to the kerfuffle known as the Wakarusa War. Violent reprisals from both sides essentially come to a head when 1,500 armed men surrounded the town of Lawrence and an attack seemed imminent, but a peace treaty comes first and no attack is made. And then a year later, in 1856, a motley crew of 700 armed Bushwhackers successfully raid Lawrence and burn down the Free State Hotel (rebuilt by Colonel Eldridge the following year) and smash the presses of the anti-slavery newspapers. The fact that Lawrence is an important stop on the Underground Railroad also makes it a prime target for the pro-slavery activists. And it is here that the term “Bleeding Kansas” comes into popular use, due to the violent and hostile environment created by the pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces.

Reenactors Lawrence KS 2005

It is a nail biter: Which way will the voters in Kansas lean? It takes four years and four attempts at writing a constitution before a bill is able to pass. Finally, President James Buchanan signs the bill into law and in 1861 Kansas joins the Union as the 34th state and as a free state. This is yet another factor which adds fuel to the impending War Between the States. And Kansas, now being a free state, sends 19 regiments and four batteries to defend the Union. But as in most battles, the fighting doesn’t stop when the battle ends. Many in the pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces just won’t let it rest.  Notably, one William Clarke Quantrill. 

One would be hard-pressed to examine any man’s early years and then predict with any certainty the path that the man eventually takes. Quantrill is no exception.  Born and raised in the free state of Ohio, William Clarke Quantrill is against slavery and decides to become a schoolteacher. But like many things in life, it doesn’t work out the way he had planned. He could not make the money he thought he would make as a schoolteacher. He then becomes a teamster and meets a number of pro-slavery Southerners who must have had some rather compelling arguments, because he not only turns into a staunch Southern supporter, but he also discovers that being a thief pays much better than any legitimate career.  

At the start of the war, Quantrill manages to gather a merry band of thieves who perpetrate violent raids on the Union forces. Being labeled an outlaw by the Union seems to be a good thing because he is soon promoted to the position of Captain in the Confederate Army. 

In the early morning of August 21, 1863, William Quantrill and his men execute a planned and precise attack on the pro-Union stronghold of Lawrence, Kansas. Some 400 men enter the town of Lawrence around 5:00 a.m. and in four short hours leave the town looking like a funeral pyre. All but five residential homes are burned to the ground. Businesses are ransacked and destroyed; men and boys are murdered, leaving behind countless widows and children. In all, this town of 3,000 loses approximately 150 souls.

Cemetery Lawrence KS 2005

I was shocked to find a website actually called “The William Clarke Quantrill Society.” It’s an “appreciation” society replete with memberships, reunions and newsletters.  Seriously? A man leads a merry band of thieves, destroys a town, slaughters 150 men and is considered a hero?  

Cemetery Lawrence KS 2005

As the website states: “One must always remember that history is written by the winners.”  I guess they are suggesting that there are two sides to this story and my guess is that the anti-slavery advocates of the time did not exactly walk away from this battle without blood on their hands. But at the end of the day I truly believe there is only one right side of this fight and I am forever thankful to those who are writing this part of history. 



NOTE: I am not an historian and I do not play an historian on TV. For accurate historic data on any of these sites please go to your public library for more information.

American Revolution - Independence Hall Philadelphia

Some people go to a church. Some people go to Yosemite. I go to Independence Hall. This is my church. This is where I find comfort and solace from the crazy world around me.   While I certainly have no illusions that our country is godlike or even close to perfect, and while I completely embrace the faults and flaws of our founders and their process, I still believe that what we have is uniquely wonderful.

Independence Hall Philadelphia, PA - 2001

It’s easy to imagine that one day long ago 13 little colonies just decided to write a document, call it “A Declaration of Independence,” tell the King to piss off and start their own nation. It didn’t happen that way at all. It was many years in the making.  

In order to grasp what this whole thing was about we need to go back to The French & Indian War (aka: The Seven Years War) from 1754 – 1763. This was a war fought on many fronts and it involved Austria, England, France, Great Britain, Prussia and Sweden. It played out in Europe, India and North America. 

The French and the British were fighting for control of many pieces of the pie, North America being a significant part of it. While the British came out of the war being able to claim North America, this claim came at a staggering cost. The debt incurred during this conflict sent nearly all of Britain to the poorhouse.  In order to replenish its purse, the British Parliament started scheming for ways to raise money. This came primarily in the form of taxes and duties. While these new laws affected the entire British Empire, it was especially troublesome for the colonies. 

Courtroom, Independence Hall, 2001

Between 1764 and 1776, Britain passed a series of laws that inflicted various fiscal changes. I am not an economist, nor a tax specialist, but I believe that the whole thing can be summed up this way: The King needed money and he plotted to find different ways of getting it. The colonists were not particularly pleased by these methods, as they had no voice in Parliament.  This is what is commonly known as “Taxation without representation.” The English Bill of Rights forbade this and the colonists believed that they were on firm ground by disputing these additional taxes and duties. The King thought otherwise. Thus, our colonies and the King of England were at an impasse. 

Carpenters Hall, Philadelphia, 2001

In September of 1774, the first Continental Congress met at Carpenters’ Hall in Philadelphia. Twelve of the 13 colonies sent delegates (Georgia being the holdout.) These delegates were elected by the people, legislature, or committees from each of the colonies. Keep in mind that up to this time each of the colonies acted independently. For them to send delegates to one place (a place where these delegates would act as a single body) was not easy. Much like our Congress today, not everyone agreed on the best course of action. While they all did agree there was a problem, they did not agree on the solution. (Somehow it’s refreshing to know that it wasn’t any easier back at the beginning.) While some of the men wanted to find a solution to maintain ties with England, others were already whispering (okay, screaming) about independence.  At the end of the day, they found some ways to compromise, send their grievances off to the King, and keep their lines of communication open. They agreed to meet again the following year.

Carpenters Hall Reenactors, 2001

Within that same year, Patrick Henry decried “Give me liberty or give me death”, Paul Revere had his midnight ride, and all experienced “the shot heard ‘round the world.” The war had begun. In May of 1775, the Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia. As time moved forward, it became more and more clear that they were no longer a group of men appointed to monitor grievances, but they were becoming a governing body. By this time they had appointed George Washington to become Supreme Commander over the Continental Army and they were starting to print their own currency. Still, not everyone was seeking independence from Britain. But the more Congress appealed to the King, the more intolerant he became. He wanted all of their heads on a platter. The count: treason.

Assembly Room, Independence Hall, 2001

This brings us to the summer of 1776. Even though some of the colonies were still not 100% committed to the idea of independence, a committee was formed to start writing the document (probably in the hope that a few happy hours might help to change some minds). On July 1st, the document was brought into the chamber and tabled. Literally. Congress ordered the document to be put on the table. Between July 1st and 4th, 1776, the elected members of Congress sat in a very hot room, windows closed to any looky-loos, and there they began the debates. The speeches were long, arduous, tempestuous and probably more exciting than an HBO boxing match!  And in the end the delegates voted for independence. Twelve yeas and one abstention.  That was on July 2nd. Then for two more days they had further debates on the language of the document. On July the 4th, 1776 the Declaration of Independence was unanimously approved and sent off to the printer. 

Assembly Room, Independence Hall, 2001

Legend has it that while he was signing the document Benjamin Franklin stated, “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall hang separately.” These were people who could have been hanged for doing what they simply thought was right and just. They weren’t just a bunch of hotheads wanting to stir the pot. There were legitimate reasons for their distrust of the King. While the events leading up to this point had much to do with taxation without representation, the grievances placed before the King expanded far beyond that. You can read them all in the document. And while they tried in vain to find a solution that was mutually beneficial, they instead found the courage of their convictions to find a solution that, at the end of the day, was even better. 

*The actual signing of the document did not happen until August of that year.