Author Archives: John R Bruning

Small Town Heroes

DSC09255June 21, 1918, Private Thomas Bennett, a Marine rifleman from tiny Dallas, Oregon, filed into the front lines with his brothers of 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines. For almost a month, the American 2nd Division had fought a brutal, close-range battle against the German Army on the north bank of the Marne River. The fresh American troops had blunted a major German offensive, kept the enemy from getting a foothold across the Marne, and played a significant role in saving Paris from coming under attack.

Now, the Americans had gone on the offensive. Inexperienced and using outdated tactics, the 2nd Division suffered catastrophic losses trying to push the Germans back from the Marne.

Thomas and the rest of 3/5 saw the horrific results of this fighting in a former hunting preserve known as Belleau Wood. The once-stunning beauty of this forest had been utterly destroyed by artillery barrages, which turned the woods into a craterscape of blasted tree trunks, shell holes and rotting corpses. Clouds of flies buzzed across the battlefield where the dead of both sides lay in the summer sun, sometimes atop each other in mute testimony to the ferocious hand-to-hand combat that raged over this small stretch of the lines.28-0823a-1

Thomas’ battalion relieved the 7th Infantry Regiment, which had gone into Belleau Wood only a week before and had already lost a quarter of its strength.  A final regimental assault on the 20th left the outfit in such dire shape that it had to be pulled out of the lines.

On the 23rd, Thomas Bennett and 3/5 were ordered over the top by a chain of command convinced that only a few Germans remained on the northern edge of Belleau Wood. Denied artillery support, 3/5 rose from its firing pits, craters and trenches seven hundred strong in four waves. As the front ranks fell, the men behind them rushed forward to take their place.379a1c58b9e111ea6b27f415a55a5cc5

They advanced over broken, rocky ground covered with the dead of previous assaults and ran straight into a layered German defensive line complete with machine gun nests that swept the Marines with a deadly crossfire.

In three hours, the battalion lost a hundred and forty men. Pinned by the machine guns, the battalion crawled forward over ground so rocky they could not dig in. As more men fell, the battalion’s surviving officers ordered the the gaps filled. To do it, the men in the succeeding waves had to crawl over their wounded and dying friends.

The attack failed.Hospital-Corpsmen-at-Belleau-Wood-June-1918

The American command, now aware the Germans were still in Belleau Wood in strength, prepared to pulverize the defenders with one of the most concentrated artillery barrages of the war. Starting at 0300 on June 25, 1918, two regiments of American and French heavy artillery pounded a two hundred meter section of the German lines. Machine gun nests were smothered by high explosive shells. Bunkers and bomb-proof dugouts were buried or blown to pieces. The bombardment continued for fourteen straight hours.

At five in the afternoon, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines charged forward in a loose skirmish line. They crossed through a surreal battlespace filled with charred and smoking tree trunks, tangles of branches, vines, shell holes–all littered with the fallen. One Marine later wrote, “I almost went mad before I got out of that wood.”

The attack moved forward with a vengeance. Instead of being dispirited by the casualties on the 23rd, the Marines were angry and wanted payback. They pushed forward behind a moving curtain of artillery fire–a tactic known as a rolling barrage–advancing a hundred meters every three minutes. Along the way, they encountered scattered pockets of Germans whose lines had been shattered by the artillery barrage. Some surrendered, but others fought to the death. One Marine got lost and stumbled alone into a German position, where he convinced several English-speaking officers that an entire regiment was advancing on them. The German officers and about eighty-five men surrendered to him on the spot.belleauwood

The main part of the battalion reached some high ground, fought their way up a shell-scarred knoll under mortar, grenade and rifle fire. As they reached the top, 3/5’s surviving Marines let out a long war cry and charged down the far slope into the German trenches at the base.  Desperate Germans, shell-shocked and dispirited by the bombardment, found themselves locked in hand-to-hand combat with Marines in full fury. They died in place, ran away or surrendered.M-Belleau-leadspread-1

The fighting raged past sunset and well into the night. The following morning, 3/5’s commander, Major Maurice Shearer, reported the Marines now held all of Belleau Wood.

As a result of the battle, the French government awarded both the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments with a Fourragere, a unique cord worn to this day by each member of these two units. Since Belleau Wood,  the Fourragere has become a sacred reminder to generations of Marines of their heritage and sacrifice in the defense of France during World War I.

In three days of fighting, 3/5 lost almost half its men killed, wounded or missing. Private Thomas Bennett was among those who went missing during that last attack.  His fate remained unknown, and it was not until October that the War Department sent word back to his sister in Oregon that Thomas was MIA.WWI-1250x650

His remains were located in January 1919 and he was declared officially dead. Instead of being laid to rest with his brother Marines in the Aisne-Marne Cemetery,  his family brought him home. He was buried in a simple Soldier’s grave in a little cemetery just outside of Dallas in Kings Valley, a fallen local son in a battle memorialized forever as one of the fiercest the Corps ever fought.

World War I hit Oregon particularly hard. At a time when the state had less than a quarter of the population of New York City, thirty-three Oregon Marines were killed, mostly during that month of fighting in the summer of 1918.  On the day Thomas was declared missing in action, over fifty other Oregonians were declared killed or seriously wounded.

Thomas’s hometown of Dallas, with a population of about two thousand seven hundred, lost more than a dozen men in France, with at least twice as many wounded in action.DSC01960.jpg

Those deaths devastated this close-knit, patriotic community. Dallas was one of the earliest settled towns in Oregon, and a pioneering spirit pervaded through its generations long after the first post office was established in 1852 and the town officially incorporated in 1874.  It was a hard-working, blue collar kind of place where the citizens donated $17,000 in the 1870s so that a rail line could be built through the town. Dallas became the county seat as a result, and a beautiful courthouse became the centerpiece of its tiny downtown.

For a century, Dallas was home to Willamette Industries.  Men of Thomas Bennett’s generation worked the company’s sawmill and provided well for their families. After the Great War ended, Dallas became home to one company of Oregon National Guardsmen. A generation later, the sons of the World War I vets would see combat in New Guinea and the Philippines with the 41st Infantry Division. They returned to work in the mills alongside their dads.

That changed in the 1980s when the timber industry declined throughout Oregon. Willamette Industries survived for another twenty years until it was acquired in a hostile take-over in 2002, just as a new generation of Dallas sons graduated high school and entered the post-9/11 world and workforce. Those mill jobs soon disappeared–the new corporation closed the last mill down in 2009.

Ian_GradIan Tawney was one of those young men who graduated from Dallas High into that uncertain future in 2003.  In a lot of ways, Ian was a typical small town American kid. In school, he was known as a friend to everyone, one of those students who bridged cliques and was widely admired.  He was a hunter, an outdoorsman who loved to snowboard in the Cascades during winters and developed a passion for motorcycles. He was also a cat and dog lover, having two of the former and one of the latter.

He also had a classic small town love affair. Ashley Stevenson met Ian when they were in pre-school together. They went all through the Dallas school system together as friends. Later, they ended up working at the same retirement home and a romance blossomed. They married in 2005, a few months after Ian joined the Marine Corps.DSC_0151

Ian served with 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines in Iraq, deployed four times overseas. He crossed decks to 3/5 Marines so he could go to Afghanistan with the unit in September, 2010 during the Surge despite the fact that Ashley was pregnant and they’d just bought their first house.

“If you’re part of the varsity team, why sit on the bench?” Ian used to say.

Their parting was unusually difficult. Though Ian had been away from home on four previous deployments, Afghanistan was seething with violence as surging American troops fought their way into Taliban strongholds. This fifth deployment was sure to be a tough one.

In the predawn darkness at Pendleton, the two Oregonians kissed each other goodbye. Ian joined his brothers aboard a bus and started the long journey to Helmand Province.tawneyjpg-05a9f34adc421242

That fall, the British and the U.S. Marines were locked in battle with the Taliban and their allies throughout Helmand Province.   Third Battalion, 5th Marines joined the fight to clear the Taliban from Sangin, a Dallas-sized town that lay beside the Helmand River.

The Marine units in this area faced some of the most skilled insurgents Americans have ever encountered. They created entire minefields with homemade explosives with utterly devious methods of detonation. They had seen American engineers clearing their minefields with metal detectors, so they changed their tactics and created pressure plates from two slabs of Styrofoam with just small metal contacts on either one. When buried in the sand and stepped on, the two contacts would touch, completing a circuit to a bomb emplaced some distance away.  To make it even more difficult to detect and disarm, the batteries used to power these bombs were buried deeply in separate locations.darkhorse_general_04_wide-0927039dd481749b36b084aefe3bca73248a3c38-s1600-c85

Marines of 3/7 had replaced British commandos around Sangin earlier in the summer. Daily, they’d encountered the enemy in fierce firefights, ambushes and IED attacks.  Now, 3/5 stepped in to help break the Taliban hold on Sangin. They came under fire almost immediately. Taliban sniped at them from loopholes in walls, laid bombs in canals and roads even as close to fifty meters from their base.

On October 13, 2010, 3/5 officially took control of the Sangin battlespace.  That day, four Marines from Ian’s unit were killed when a roadside bomb destroyed their vehicle.  The next day, a dismounted patrol ran into a homemade minefield, and three more Marines perished in blasts.  In its first two days of official operations, they’d lost seven men killed in action to these deadly bombs.

IMG_2643Meanwhile, to the south, at FOB Bastion/Leatherneck, the Marines based there went out on patrols and convoy duty to support the operations around the Helmand River Valley.  Leading the way for these Marine columns was a tiny company of Oregon National Guard engineers….from Dallas.  The 162 Engineers had spent the year driving Mad-Max-esque armored vehicles around Helmand looking to either detonate or destroy roadside bombs and mines. By October, when they were getting ready to return home, they were down to about eighty engineers. Those who remained were hardened, battle tested veterans. One had his vehicle blown up by IED’s five times.  Another stepped on a pressure plate home made mine, but the device malfunctioned and failed to explode.IMG_3118

Kent “Hat Trick” Hermanson perhaps had one of the toughest experiences in the 162 Engineers. Kent was a North Dakota native who moved to Indepndence, just south of Dallas, after marrying an Oregonian. In one difficult night, Kent’s MRAP (armored vehicle) took three IED strikes. The blasts affected Kent’s hand eye coordination so severely that when given a test, he scored in the bottom seven percentile. It was weeks before he regained his coordination, but Kent kept agitating to go back out on missions. He finally did, and when asked why, he nonchalantly replied, “It is what we’re here to do. Besides the platoon was short men.”IMG_2649

I arrived at FOB Leatherneck to embed with 162 Engineers in time for their final Afghan mission. The day I joined the unit–and ran across some old friends from the Dallas area (I live in Independence), 3/5 Marines lost another man. Lance Corporal James Boelk was killed by another roadside bomb.

Ian_TawneyThe next day, Ian was leading his squad on a patrol and was killed by yet another IED. For everyone back home who loved Ian, October 16, 2010 became a dividing line in their lives. Once the contact teams with their chaplains knocked on their doors, the family was changed forever by the grief.

The great lesson of my own life, after we lost Independence’s Taylor Marks in Iraq in 2009, was to learn that this sort of grief never heals. You never really recover. You just learn to grow around the pain and carry on in their memory. But nothing is ever the same.306273_2047422068476_1350649_n

A few days later, I went out on that last clearance mission with 162.  We rolled through towns and villages in massive, RV-sized armored vehicles. Mine had a metal cage bolted onto the hull as additional anti-rocket protection. Inside the enormous vehicle, I peered out through those metal bars and felt like a prisoner on wheels, watching these Afghans try and carry on with their daily lives.IMG_3013

We crossed the Helmand River, turned north and drove for hours. Eventually, the engineers dismounted and set off on foot with metal detectors, sweeping a stretch of ground near a special operations outpost that the Taliban had nearly surrounded with these homemade mines.IMG_3017

Later that night, as we drove home, a farmer rolled over one of those IED’s with his tractor, killing him instantly. The next morning, one of the 162 officers told me that a Marine unit that had gone up to the same area to sweep for mines. Two men were hit by blasts and lost their legs.

A few days later, while comparing notes with a British journalist who had been embedded with a Royal Engineer unit, I learned that in an area just declared clear, an engineer stepped on a mine and blew up right in front of him.  They were in the same section of the valley as we were, just a day or two later.IMG_3272

I remained in Afghanistan until November. I missed Ian’s return to Oregon and the ceremony as he was laid to rest in the Dallas Cemetery. His 5th Marine brothers took turns placing their own Fourragere atop Ian’s coffin as a final homage to one of their own.

As the community honored him with a park and a street named for him, I thought a lot about 3/5 and the 162 Engineers and all the blood, treasure and trauma that went into defeating the Taliban around Leatherneck and Sangin that fall. It was a miracle that all our Dallas engineers came home from that deployment, the only route clearance unit not to lose a man during the Surge. IMG_3187

So many lives lost. In eight days of October, 2010, 3/5 suffered ten Marines killed in action. Fifteen more died  before the battalion came home in early 2011.  Twenty-five killed, a hundred and eighty-four wounded, thirty four of them amputees. That was the cost to the battalion in what became the bloodiest, most difficult deployment of any Marine unit in the Afghan War.

Fighting around Sangin raged for years. At one point, it looked like the Allies had turned a corner. The Afghan National Army patrolled the streets, the belts of minefields in and around the city were gone, and parts of town returned to an almost-pre-war normal daily life.

Almost. After handing the area over the Afghan government, the Taliban re-emerged and nearly took Sangin in 2015. They were stopped by a mix of ANA, British Commandos and U.S. special operations troops, well supported with aircraft.  Ultimately, though, Sangin was captured by the Taliban in March 2017, completing their return to the Helmand River Valley.IMG_2661

On July 4, 2019, the San Francisco Giants farm team here in Oregon, the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes, honored Sergeant Ian Tawney at a pre-game ceremony that included Ian’s parents, his siblings and friends from all over the country.  The moment was part of the team’s long history of honoring veterans and the veteran community, something that Jerry Howard undertakes every year for the Volcanoes. Jerry is part of the front office staff, an Air Force veteran of the 1960s who has been in baseball as a player, umpire, coach or as front office staff for nearly sixty years.DSC08845-2

To honor our small town Oregon heroes, Jerry Howard pays the expenses for this 4th of July tradition out of his own pocket. Every year for the last decade, he’s put around three thousand dollars of his own money into ensuring that our men and women we’ve lost overseas can be honored on the baseball diamond during our nation’s birthday.  Since I came home from Afghanistan, Jerry is the most noble human being I’ve encountered.DSC08820

The ceremony was a tear-jerker. I’d met Jerry and talked to Ian’s father ahead of time to get permission to photograph the event and write this article. I wasn’t prepared for the emotional effect it had on me.  I stood on the field, shooting photographs of the ceremony with my son, Ed (a budding photojournalist), and watched old friends from the National Guard pay homage to our fallen Marine.DSC09315

There were so many scars and half-healed wounds on the field that day.  The Gold Star mom of Tyrone Woods walked to home plate between ranks of saluting veterans. A twenty-year Navy veteran and SEAL, he was killed in the Bengazi attack of 2012.  Chris Sieber and his veteran’s motorcycle group came to honor Ian. Chris had been in Iraq with Taylor Marks and Earl Werner when they were killed in 2009. He carries their names on his left forearm. His way of honoring his lost brothers.DSC09320-2

Ian’s family walked from third base to home plate between the ranks of saluting veterans. His parents, John and Theda Tawney, walked hand-in-hand together. As they stood at home plate, they never let go of each other.  Not once.DSC09624

One of his brothers sang a song written for Ian’s daughter. As he waited for the music to be piped over the stadium loud speakers, I heard an elderly man in a seat behind us speaking loudly on his cell phone. “I can’t hear you. I’m at an event…..I can’t hear you!” He kept saying.DSC09744

I grimaced at the disrespect. If the family heard him, they showed no sign of it.

When the memorial was complete and the ceremony ended, Ian’s family made their way off the field. I watched his parents, side by side, walk away from this special moment and could not help but marvel at their strength. What extraordinary grace from a family so grievously hurt by this war.DSC09210

DSC09275DSC09311DSC09189DSC09419DSC09849DSC00237The Sunday after the ceremony,  I returned to the little cemetery in King’s Valley in the car we’d used to escort Taylor up to Willamette National where he was laid to rest. I got out and wandered in search of Ian’s own resting place.  As I did, I passed Private Bennett’s headstone. Worn and weathered by a hundred years of Oregon rain, it stands watch like a lonely sentinel over a long-forgotten Marine from a war long out of the public mind.  I paused to take a photograph, then realized I was being watched.DSC01935

Three deer had made their way into the cemetery and were eyeing me curiously. These beautiful creatures here at a place where so many of our local vets have chosen to be laid to rest–it was a moment for me. One that contrasted deeply with my own memories of Helmand Province. Or the experiences of Private Bennett and the rest of 3/5 in the shattered forest of Belleau Wood.DSC02127

A minute later, I continued my search for Ian’s grave. I walked up and down the gentle slopes, pausing here and there until at last, I found him, surrounded by tokens of love. Flowers and flags adorned his marker, which stood on a slope overlooking Private Thomas Bennett’s headstone. One 3/5 Marine covering another, a hundred years apart, even in final repose.

I said a prayer for peace, turned and walked back to the GTO.DSC02102

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Afghanistan, Home Front, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

Shrek’s Mom

DSC04822On June 25, 2019, David Bellavia received the Medal of Honor for actions in Fallujah in November 2004. David is the sole living recipient of the MOH from the Iraq War, the others were awarded posthumously.

David and I worked together on his memoirs back in 2006-07. We were under such a tight deadline that we never met while writing together. All our contact was over the phone, and an occasional e-mail. Nevertheless, David quickly became one of the closest friends I’ve ever had. Funny, heartfelt, he has a sharp wit and the knack for turning a phrase. He’d give the shirt off his back to help a friend.

At David’s invitation, I flew to D.C. to be there for the ceremony.  After House to House was finished, we’ve remained friends, kicking around follow-up book ideas that never quite fit. Along the way, we’d gone through a whole lot of life–the great stuff like kids being born, and hard stuff like my family going through a series of crazy medical challenges. We were always there for each other.  So yeah, meeting David was a decade overdue.

The first night the guests arrived, the Sergeant Major of the Army held a reception at our hotel.  I walked in knowing only David and our agent, Jim Hornfischer. As I looked around the room, neither was there.  I started to feel very out of place.  DSC04158

Back in the day, I could work a room. I was an extrovert who loved meeting new people. That was before Katrina hit New Orleans, before Taylor Marks, and Chris Kilcullen were killed, and before I went to Afghanistan. All that made me a late-in-life introvert, more at ease deep in the Oregon woods with my Jordanian dog and swimming cat than around strangers with Medal of Honors around their necks or stars on their shoulder boards.

I tried to make some small talk, seeking out those in uniform who wore the 3rd Infantry Division insignia. I’d stuffed a pair of 3rd ID cufflinks in my coat pocket as a reminder of the people I got to know in Afghanistan.  They remain genuinely the greatest humans I’ve ever met, and as I introduced myself to the Rock of the Marne vets in attendance that night, I restated that fact many times. DSC04146

Jim came into the room with his family, and I tried not to be a social leech, clinging to their coattails as we were surrounded by unfamiliar faces. Jim can work a room, though, and he was soon out meeting everyone he could, shaking hands and bantering with copious charisma and charm. He really is amazing to watch in such a setting. I couldn’t keep up, so I drifted off, taking photos and generally hiding behind my camera to mask my discomfort.DSC04166

A moment later, David and his family entered the room. As he made his way around, shaking hands and bear-hugging those who came to share this incredible experience with him, I found myself pulled along behind him, watching with a keenly stupid smile on my face. He looked so happy to see everyone, and the affection for him in the room was genuinely profound. Here was a man whose heart and simple kindness withstood so many trials–both in Iraq and here at home during election seasons.  It was a testament of strength that both were not crushed by bitterness or anger.DSC04244

Eventually, he spotted me. He broke away from a couple of people congratulating him and gave me the manhug of all manhugs.  His voice broke. I started to cry. Around freaking generals and the sergeant major of the army. Finally, after all we’d been through, we’d met at last. And it was like we’d always been around each other. Top five life moment right there.

When he was waylaid a moment later by another well-wisher, I bolted for the bathroom to pull myself together. When I returned, I felt awkward and out of place again, trying to make small talk around a standing table with Jim and another MOH recipient.

Then Jim introduced me to Merrilee Carlson– “Shrek’s Mom.”  It took a moment for the Shrek thing to sink in. Then I remembered David telling me about this burly Minnesotan who’d been a favorite of the Ramrods.  His name was Michael Carlson, but everyone called him Shrek.1978576_1067891459904424_6384224834431978227_o

With a sinking heart, I realized Shrek was one of the Soldiers killed in a Bradley roll-over in January 2005.  It had happened after Fallujah, and we hadn’t written about it in House to House. We’d talked about a sequel that covered the rest of the deployment, but we’d never made it happen.

I’ve been writing for twenty-three years, and I’ve encountered every manner of response from people once they learn I’ve written a book about their friends or units. That we didn’t write about her son made me fear Shrek’s mom would chew me out, as has happened before.

Instead, a remarkable thing happened. We bonded. Instantly. As we talked, I braved a mention of our own loss here in Independence–Taylor Marks–and how devastating his death was to me personally.  “You never get over it, you just g10945661_1053955451298025_3679894944703437563_orow around the pain.”–that is a life truth grieving for Taylor drilled into me.

From that moment on, Shrek’s mom and I went everywhere and did pretty much everything together for the rest of the MOH week. She took me under her wing, showed me the ropes at the White House, got me a seat on an aisle during the ceremony so I could get a clear photograph of David and the President. She even told one of the White House ushers to (politely) buzz off when we were asked to move.  Seriously, Merrilee Carlson is a force of nature, part avenging angel, part energizer bunny, friend to everyone and clearly in charge. After her son was killed, she went on to found and run a non-profit that honors and supports Gold Star families. DSC04905

The day after the ceremony, David gave a speech at the Pentagon. Afterward, we headed back to the hotel with plenty of time left in the day. Merrilee, Michele Lawson (Ramrod Scott Lawson’s sister-in-law) and I went to Arlington to visit Shrek.  Merrilee brought him fresh flowers, a small bottle of Jack Daniels, and a cigar. Shrek loved cigars.DSC05788

As we stood beside his grave, in a section of Arlington dominated by Iraq War fallen, Merrilee told us the story of how her son died.  On January 25, 2005, he was killed along with four other members of TF-2-2 when an Iraqi roadway collapsed under the weight of their Bradley Fighting Vehicle and it tumbled into a canal.

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When Taylor was killed in Iraq in August, 2009, the news destroyed me.  I slept-walked through life, numb with pain for years. It wasn’t until 2014 that I began to make my peace with his death in Baghdad.  Merrilee had endured far worse than I had. And yet, she handled it with grace, reaching out to help others and run an organization that did a lot of good for grieving families. She turned a devastating blow into a beautiful positive, never losing her own pain, but rising above it to give back to a community and country she understands and loves. 231185_1554810130556_8171780_n

It made me realize how selfish I’d been. Instead of reaching out, I turned within and lost sight of everything but my own anguish and guilt over Taylor’s loss. I didn’t find a way to give back. I just broke.  Merrilee’s strength left me in awe. It is the kind of strength, on a macro level, that has held this country together for generations despite every loss and hardship imaginable.

As dusk approached, we went to dinner down by the White House, the three of us chatting and getting to know each other better.  From Michele, I learned that Scott had died in an accident in 2013.  He’d been with David in Fallujah, was wounded in the house David re-entered on the night of his 29th birthday. Michele was there at David’s invitation to represent the Lawson family.DSC05890

After dinner, we wandered from the 1st Infantry Division Memorial down the Mall. We stopped at the World War II Memorial, then experienced the Lincoln Memorial together. I’d last been there in 1982, and never at night.

DSC05867I’d gone to D.C. to finally meet an old friend face-to-face and see the President award him the Medal of Honor. To my astonishment, at the end of the trip I came home warmed by the knowledge that I’d just met two more friends who surely will be in my life for years to come.DSC06335-2

Back in Oregon a few days later on my daughter’s 21st birthday, we went down to the beach. It was crowded and sunny and people were playing all around us. We hiked the dunes, took photos and explored the tide pools. On our way back to the car, I caught myself stopping and chatting with strangers. My kids glanced at each other. What is up with dad? When they watched me step into a chartered bus and ask the driver, “Where we going?”  They glanced at each other again. They waited as the bus driver and I talked for a bit, then I bounced out into the street and returned to our car.DSC07112

“What’s with you?” the kids asked me.

I didn’t know what they meant.

“You’re talking to everybody! What the hell?” DSC07126

I thought I was just being me. But I was being the me before all the heaviness of life turned me inward. With a start, I realized they were too young to remember the old extrovert me who in high school used to sing in public and never met a stranger, only friends I’d yet to be introduced to.

“What’s happened to you?” my son asked.

“Shrek’s mom,” I replied.

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Categories: Home Front, Iraq War 2003-2010 | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

David Bellavia’s Medal of Honor Moment

DSC04824-2In the spring of 2006, literary agent, author and historian Jim Hornfischer introduced me to David Bellavia.  David had recently left the Army and was settling into civilian life–sort of.  Two months after we started talking every day on the phone, he returned to Iraq as an embedded reporter, traveling all over Anbar Province before coming home to work on a book together with me.

When we first spoke, he made it clear he wanted to write a “Themoir”–the story of his beloved platoon mates from Task Force 2-2 during their year in Iraq, which included heavy fighting against Shia militias in Diyala Province as well as during Second Fallujah. From the outset, he displayed a selflessness and determination to ensure his brother Ramrods would get the recognition they deserved for their service during an incredibly difficult deployment.

This is my kind of guy.  David and I quickly became very close. We sat talking late at night, each of us drinking whiskey, swapping stories and getting to know each other as we wrote the proposal. Eventually, House to House found its way to Free Press, and we delivered the manuscript in early 2007.

This week, David received the Medal of Honor from President Trump at a White House ceremony. Eight other MOH warriors attended the event, as did Representative Dan Crenshaw, a former Navy SEAL wounded in Afghanistan in 2012. DSC04773

David, being David, turned the spotlight away from himself. After the President gave him the Medal of Honor, David asked if his fellow Ramrods and the Gold Star families of TF-2-2 could come up on stage.

“How many people are we talking about?” President Trump whispered.

“All of them, Mr. President.”

President Trump considered this pretty radical breach in tradition and protocol before saying, “Yeah, okay!”

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The Ramrods clustered forward, filling the stage and packing in so tightly that Michael “Shrek” Carlson’s mom lost her footing and started to fall off.  Trump quickly grabbed her arm and pulled her back from the edge. A moment later, he leaned into her ear and said, “I’m sorry for your loss.”

The Ramrods of TF-2-2 smiled for the cameras and celebrated this moment in the White House exactly as they had fought in Fallujah:  together as a team of men whose bonds transcend mere blood.  David made that happen. Since coming home, enduring many hard lessons in politics and in the public eye, David Bellavia has been one of the most gracious and selfless human beings I’ve ever known.

Seeing such a man receive our highest award for valor was one of the most significant moments of my life.  It is a reminder that with patience, sometimes the right thing will happen, and the good guys get a win. DSC04808

 

 

Categories: American Warriors, Home Front, Iraq War 2003-2010, Uncategorized, Warrior Memories | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Memorial Day 2019

IMG_3590Memorial Day Notes:

Years ago, I would go to gatherings around the area on this day. Sometimes I gave speeches. Other times, I listened to local politicians give speeches. Over and over, what I heard from that ilk were the same empty words, the same vapid, banal lines that punched all the correct boxes and had none of the meaning, and none of the understanding.

So, public events are not my thing anymore.

In our nation’s gestational phase, we were held together through the darkest hours by a tiny band of idealists willing to shoulder rifles and die for a cause larger than themselves.

And die they did. You want to see idealism tested? Try watching your friends die of exposure at 1777 Valley Forge. See the amputations of frostbitten feet. Think about the thousand or so who marched on Christmas Eve through snow and freezing rain to get a chance to strike a blow against the chained attack dog mercenaries the British hired to terrorize our forefathers.

Professional mercs. Occupying New Jersey. Think of that. And the rest of the population so cowed by their might that to stop the terror fell to a tiny “army” on the verge of starvation.

That small force Washington led could be followed by the blood trails they left in the snow. Men without shoes, walking on shredded feet wrapped in ice-flecked rags went forward in that holiday storm knowing they would not even be able to shoot at their enemy because their powder was soaked. The enemy had bayonets. The Americans laregely did not.

They marched, they struck swiftly– and won at Trenton, then Princeton, then slipped away across the Delaware virtually under the nose of the greatest army of the era.

They fought and died in countless horrific ways. They were rarely paid. The government they helped create screwed so many times that it nearly triggered a mutiny. Only the presence of George Washington and a handful of other solid leaders held these idealists together.

They watched their farms get burned, their families run out of pro-British counties. In the South, a guerrilla war turned into a contest of complete savagery, with the innocents on the both sides caught in the crossfire.

Year after year, the idealists got crushed by the professionals. They died at places our schools never mention anymore: Guilford Courthouse, Camden, Savannah, Brandywine and Brooklyn Heights to name a few.

In their darkest moments, like when they ran out of ammunition at Bunker Hill, the idealists threw rocks as the British leveled bayonets and advanced upon them. Think of the desperation that took.

They died torn apart by grape shot, bones smashed by musket balls. They died in primitive field hospitals with the rolled cuffs of a blood-soaked surgeon looking down at them as their last earthly sight.

They died of disease. Malnutrition because the Continental Congress could not afford to feed them. They froze to death on sentry duty because threadbare rags were all they wore.

Many are buried in mass graves, anonymous to history and those who benefited most from their vision of the future.

Those are the guys who set the standard that every generation strives to match. And every generation of Americans has proven they have enough idealists, men and women, to carry the standard forward in every dark hour we have faced. With their blood, they liberated the slaves. They saved Europe twice. South Korea. We tried in Vietnam and the Middle East.

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When I think of Taylor today, I’ll think of how he was the one of those few in our time who shouldered the burden of a global war fought without the full might of America at their backs. I’ll think about my many friends who served in obscure places across the globe during the many wars that rocked the 20th Century.

I’ll think about Gerald Johnson, a quintessential American idealist, who could not stomach the idea of staying home with his pregnant wife when men his age were fighting and dying in the Pacific.

I’ll think about the medevac birds I watched land at FOB Ghazni while we were refueling. The bodies of broken men half my age pulled off the Blackhawks by Polish medics, then rushed to waiting ambulances. Allies in a cause that seemed noble once, probably unobtainable now.

I will never forget the moment one of those wounded Soldiers, an Afghan who’d been fighting alongside our idealists, turned his eyes to me. His face was burnt and blackened. His leg severed above the knee, white bone exposed. His boot with the rest of his leg was sitting beside him on the stretcher. His eyes were the bleakest sight I’ve ever seen.

How many of our idealists spent their final minutes with eyes so defined?

So when I hear some elected official who knows nothing of our history and even less about the military stand at a podium and punch their Memorial Day box…well. That’s not for me anymore. This is a day that is intensely private, and I will mourn those I’ve lost alone. And I will pray that for the sake of our nation, we somehow keep finding those few, genuine idealists willing to carry the standard in our darkest hours and stake their lives on a vision of a future full of hope.DSC07786

Categories: Uncategorized | 2 Comments

The Cold War Chemical Weapons Depot Today

AO5Y8539Out in the Eastern Oregon desert, the U.S. Army built a massive facility in 1941 as part of its pre-war expansion program. Called the Umatilla Army Depot, this bleak spot in the middle of the desert, not far from the Columbia River served as a storage facility for ammunition and basic supplies for units in the Pacific.  During the war, Umatilla housed a 30 days supply of ammunition for all the U.S. Army divisions deployed against the Japanese.

To safely keep ordnance stored, the Army built hundreds of concrete igloos that still exist today. They’re like gigantic vaults with massive metal doors. Some are surrounded by berms or revetments for additional protection in case of an accidental explosion.

AO5Y8552During the Cold War, the Army chose Umatilla as a storage site for about twelve percent of the United States’ stockpile of chemical weapons. Everything from blister agents to VX gas was stored in L Block, which was sort of a base within the base complete with its own security fence and check points.  Those weapons were destroyed at a purpose-built incinerator built next to L Block in the 1990s. The work lasted for years, finally finishing up in 2011.

The base was subsequently handed over to the Oregon National Guard, which transformed it into the home of the Regional Training Institute. Today,  the ammunition igloos are used as high ground in field exericses by the RTI’s MOST classes and NCO courses. A rifle range has been added as well.  It is an amazing way to re-purpose a World War II era base, and ongoing work has upgraded the base’s new capabilities with such things as a small MOUT site.

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My OPFOR group of volunteers, the 973rd Civilians on the Battlefield, provides training support to the RTI’s NCO classes. We’re their bad guys, defending the MOUT site, executing simulated ambushes, moving to contact, etc. Being out there among the many abandoned WWII-era buildings is one of the most unusual experiences we’ve had. We’ve supported the RTI since 2008 when the courses were conducted at Camp Rilea on the Oregon coast.

This last week, we were on the ground at Umatilla again, working with the awesome NCO’s and officers of the Regional Training Institute to help make the class experience in the field as realistic as possible. The photos here were taken during the final phases of an NCO training course. We’re looking forward to many more days with the RTI on the ground at Umatilla, rolling as their OPFOR! After ten years, the experiences on the range with these incredible and dedicated citizen-Soldiers remains among the most meaningful of my life.

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Categories: American Warriors, Home Front, National Guard | Tags: | Leave a comment

Summer Warbird Moments

AO5Y6582This summer has been an odd one for me.  My son fell gravely ill earlier in the year and missed five months of school. He’s 100% healthy now and doing great, but for awhile, he was unable to walk or even sit up.  As the family rallied around him, my writing deadlines became a casualty of the emergency.  From April on, when Ed was finally back on his feet and at school (he finished the year with a 4.0 btw!), I went back to work on the next book. And then, I was asked to help out on another project related to U.S. naval aviation during the Vietnam Era. I was given sixty days to work through that.  All this meant pretty much no summer for me. However, I did sneak off to Madras with Ed at the end of August to capture some of the warbirds at the Airshow of the Cascades. It is a gem of an airshow, with beautifully restored WWII aircraft from the Erickson Collection as the show’s centerpiece. It was a great father-son trip that gave us a both a boost in the final days before he started his senior year in high school, and I return to my next WWII project.

Here are some scenes from Madras and the spectacular birds that live there in the Oregon high desert.

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When my dad was about nine years old, a Marine F4U Corsair suffered engine failure and its pilot crash-landed right in front of my dad’s house on the beach in Southern California. The pilot stepped out of the cockpit and asked my dad if he could use the phone to call El Toro.  My dad thought a god had landed in his front yard. 🙂  Later, he asked if he could take a souvenir from the crash, and tried to drag off a propeller blade. So here’s a photo of Ed paying homage to my dad’s experience. My old man got a kick out of it. Oh, and no, Ed did not really touch the aircraft.

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The show spans two days, starting with an epic sunset show on Friday night.  This year, the collection’s USN aircraft flew in the Golden Hour.

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The gem of the USN collection is a gorgeous F6F Hellcat.

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The following day is the main show, which culminates in the warbirds flying.  This year, a pair of P-51s and the collection’s Spanish-built Messerschmitt bf-109 took to the air. The 109 is a remarkable restoration job. It is actually powered by an Allison engine, which had to be inverted to keep the nose looking historically correct. It totally stole the show this year.

If you find yourself in the Pacific Northwest in August next year, take a quick trip over to Madras to see this unique museum. Tucked away on an old AAF training field is a diversity of warbirds that include an AM-1 Mauler, a PBY, a Ki-43 Hayabusa, a P-38 Lightning and a Focke Wulf Fw-190 under reconstruction.

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Too quickly, Ed and I had to return to reality. School’s started for him, and I’m back immersed in 1944 New Guinea, writing about some of the great 5th Air Force aviators who helped destroy the Japanese Army Air Force and helped pave the way for MacArthur’s return to the Philippines.

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The Kids from West Eugene

Gerald Johnson

Gerald R. Johnson, Oregon’s top ace who left the University of Oregon to join the Air Corps during his junior year in 1941.

 

A Tuesday morning tale.

In 1991, I sat in a house in Eugene, Oregon and peered into a USAAF locker box filled with letters, diaries, photo albums, home movies and personal effects of a fighter pilot long forgotten by the state he loved. In all those letters, and through his writing, I met an entire cast of kids from Eugene’s west side who grew up in the Depression, started school at the University of Oregon and ultimately ended up scattered all over the globe as a result of WWII.

I wrote a grad school paper on the kids in this neighborhood, and how the war affected this little community around West Broadway. The war was brutal to this neighborhood and the friends who bonded playing together as kids. It destroyed the pre-war social fabric. In its place, a new one gradually was cobbled together as some of them came home. Others were killed in action. Others found careers elsewhere. One ended up as a 3rd world dictator’s personal pilot. Some stayed in the military, returning to Eugene only after they did their 20 years.

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John Skillern, who lived behind Gerald Johnson in Eugene, served in the 10th Mountain Division as a ski and climbing instructor. When the division deployed to Italy, he served in the front lines in combat as an infantryman through the final, climactic battles of the war.

All that became the basis for my M/A thesis, then eventually my second book, Jungle Ace. For the book, I had to strip out most of the stories from the neighborhood to concentrate just on one of its sons, Gerald R. Johnson.

Today, I head back down to Eugene to give a speech about these kids. Some of them I never met, some of them became dear friends in the 1990s. One was in my wedding party. Preparing for this speech as been like returning to a part of me I’d left behind sometime after I wrote the Sandbox in 2005.

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Major Tom Taylor’s bomb group, the 305th was one of the first to see combat from England at the start of the strategic bombing campaign against Germany.

So. today I’ll be talking about men like Major Tom Taylor, commander of the 364th Bomb Squadron, 305th Bomb Group, killed in action in early 1943 over German-held Europe. Aaron Cuddeback, killed in action during a raid on Germany in March 1943, Jim Bennett, killed by a kamikaze in the Pacific while serving aboard a PT-Boat. Joe Jackson and Brian Flavelle, killed a year apart during raids on the Ploesti oil fields, and Gerald Johnson, Oregon’s ace of aces who vanished in a typhoon in October 1945.

 

 

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Brian Flavelle’s bomb group training for Operation Tidal wave, the low altitude raid on Germany’s vital oil facilities in Ploesti, Romania. Brian’s aircraft crashed en route to target with a loss of everyone on board.

 

The U of O is a very different place than it was in 1941. There were over 220 alumni killed in WWII. If there was a battle, a U of O Duck was almost certainly somewhere in the mix. From the first days of the war in the Philippines, to the final shots in the Pacific, kids who once were chatted up by recruiters in Eslinger Hall bore witness to history, and often helped make it.

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Jim Bennett initially couldn’t get into the military, as he was working at Boeing in Seattle in a job considered vital to the war effort. In 1942, during a short family vacation to Utah, people on the street spit on him for not being in uniform. The humiliation drove him to do everything he could to get out of his work at Boeing. He ended up in the Navy, serving aboard PT-Boats. He was killed in the summer of 1945 in a Kamikaze attack.

 

 

 

 

 

Telling these stories, keeping their memories alive? That’s why I’m here.

Categories: Uncategorized, World War II, World War II Europe, World War II in Europe, World War II in the Pacific, Writing Notes | Tags: , | 3 Comments

The Message On Lookout Mountain

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The GTO & Dunker Church on the Antietam Battlefield. 

 

As some of you know, I’ve spent much of this summer crossing the country in my little black ’06 Pontiac GTO, stopping at various places & archives to do research for my forthcoming book. I’m over 6,000 miles on this trip so far, and when I’m moving between points important to the next book, I often either get lost or sidetracked. Some of the best moments from this trip have come that way.

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Stopped at Burnside’s Bridge on the Antietam battlefield en route to the National Archives.

Earlier this week, I drove through the Shenandoah Valley, spent the night in Bull’s Gap, Tennessee, and reached Chattanooga in time for lunch. It had rained all day, but the weather began to clear so I drove up Lookout Mountain to see what remained of the battlefield.

AO5Y1556In the fall of 1863, Confederate troops laid siege to Chattanooga. The Union Army was surrounded and running out of food. The Southerners held the high ground–Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge–so the Union troops were pretty much always under observation or under the guns of Confederate artillery batteries.

In November 1863, the Union Army broke the siege after the arrival of reinforcements. Union troops inside Chattanooga launched a surprise assault up Lookout Mountain on a foggy morning that obscured much of the peak from view. The fighting literally took place inside that cloud bank until the Union troops pushed forward and up Lookout Mountain. There, they broke out into clear skies and fought on with the fog bank below them in an almost surreal visual that later prompted the engagement to be nicknamed, “The Battle Above the Clouds.”AO5Y1530

When I arrived, the clouds were indeed still below the peak after the rainstorm, providing a glimpse of that surreal situation back in 1863.AO5Y1505

I walked a bit of the battlefield, astonished at the ruggedness of the terrain. In this day and age, mountain warfare troops would have been employed to take this mountain. The fighting was point-blank–under a hundred yards–with the fog bank obscuring visibility and making it difficult to tell friend from foe.  Hand-to-hand combat raged on the slopes near a farm called the Craven House, and hundreds of men were cut down in the vicious fighting. Ultimately, the Union attack slowed and stalled as losses mounted, ammunition ran short and exhaustion took hold.

The fighting ended largely at dark. Under a full moon, the Confederate leaders discussed their options. Eventually, their commander, Braxton Bragg, decided to withdraw down the backside of Lookout Mountain, a maneuver made possible by a total lunar eclipse later that night. Talk about a lucky break.

AO5Y1515This battle exemplified the open wound our nation had become. Civil Wars are always brutal and deeply painful experiences. This moment in the pro-Union area of Tennessee put all of that brutality on display in appalling terrain, under the eyes of thousands of civilians trapped in the siege with the Union Army.

Over the next few days, as General Sherman and General Thomas struck the Confederate troops on Missionary Ridge across the siege line from Lookout Mountain, thousands of American men and boys died in the most horrific ways imaginable. Shattered wounded lay on the field at the mercy of the over-taxed medical corps and the local civilians. AO5Y1541

They fought with exceptional fury here, both sides resolved that they were in the right; the cause was just and worth the risk of their life and limbs.

Yet what I found here wasn’t the tale of brigades moving here and there, the attacks and desperate defense among the rocks. It wasn’t the civilians who suffered or fled or saw their fields filled with the dead or dying.

AO5Y1493The story I found on Lookout Mountain was one of forgiveness and reconciliation. In 1907, the New York veterans of the battle returned to Tennessee and commissioned the construction of a monument that now dominates the battlefield park. Eighty-Five Feet above the mountain’s summit, two soldiers stand. One Union, one Confederate, they are cast in bronze shaking hands under an American flag.

AO5Y1499The base of the monument is made with a mix of Massachusetts granite and Tennessee marble, blended together as a symbol of the reunion and rebirth of our nation after so much suffering.

Here, a generation made a statement for all future Americans. The victory won  in East Tennessee and earned in the blood of their comrades was not the point of remembering this battle. The point was the future, and for that to be a prosperous one, these men put aside the pain, the hostility, distrust and political divisions that tore this country apart and set it on a path of terrible slaughter. They forgave. Former foes became fellow Americans once again.

This is the New York Peace Monument, and as I stood within it, reading the bronze plaques that can be found inside its columns, it struck me that the courage required to reach out and forgive probably took as much emotional courage as assaulting up Lookout Mountain required in their youth.

Today, we are at a crossroads where hate and political animosity dominate our news cycle. Every day, I read about college professors calling for the President’s murder, or of calls by radio personalities like Michael Savage for civil war should the President be removed from office. The talk from both sides is shrill, violent. Destructive.

At Lookout Mountain, the generation that experienced civil war gave us a legacy of peace and reunity. I hope we have the courage, grace of forgiveness, and acceptance of our differences to preserve that legacy. If we don’t, I fear we will lose everything about our nation that has made us great.AO5Y1552

Categories: American Civil War, Writing Notes | Tags: | 1 Comment

Oshkosh Eye Candy

DSC01554Last week, I was supposed to only be at Oshkosh for Monday and Tuesday.  I ended up staying until Sunday morning, shooting photos on the flight line for up to fifteen hours each day.  I was simply amazed at the diversity of aircraft coming and going in the morning, long before the official air show began. Seriously, if you love aviation, get to Oshkosh sometime in your life if you’ve never been. It is the holy grail of warbird events.

Here are some of my favorite moments from the week:

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Panchito, a B-25 belonging to the Delaware Aviation Museum, makes a pass over the field.

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A MiG-17 going for altitude

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Seriously, one look at a B-2 and I start to believe all the Roswell myths.

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The hunters warming up. Two beautiful F-86 Sabres ready to launch.

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An F4U Corsair with a Bearcat on its wing, return to Oshkosh in the rain.

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The venerable C-47 Skytrain.

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A B-52 makes a low altitude run over Oshkosh.

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At the break: A P-51 and an F-35 Lightning II during the final pass of the Heritage Flight.

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The show-stopper for me was this Douglas A-20 Havoc, the world’s only flyable one. I never got to see it fly, but it stole my heart because it represents the 5th Air Force’s 312th Bomb Group and because Pappy Gunn modified the 3rd Attack Group’s A-20s before he tore into the B-25 in the spring and summer of 1942. Hence…this next image:

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Categories: World War II in Europe, World War II in the Pacific, Writing Notes | Tags: | 2 Comments

The Mitchells of Oshkosh

DSC01362Last week was a very special one for me. After finishing up doing research at the Richard Ira Bong Veterans Historical Center in Superior, I drove south to Oshkosh, pitched a tent and spent five days photographing the aircraft.

This was a bucket list event for me, and I’ve wanted to see this amazing event for most of my life. Being a West Coast native, getting to Oshkosh in the middle of busy summers just wasn’t in the cards. This year, it coincided with my transcontinental research trip, so I camped out, got filthy, grew an almost-beard, and shot photos fifteen hours a day.

Talk about bliss.

The highlight for me this year was the B-25 squadron that showed up. Seriously, I’ve never seen so many B-25’s. They had so many that two seemingly went into overflow parking in Warbirds Alley!

In the rain at dusk one night last week, the B-25’s lined up exactly like Doolittle’s planes had been arrayed on the U.S.S. Hornet before the April 18, 1942 raid on Tokyo. I was down right on the flight line to see this amazing tribute as, one after another, the Mitchells roared down the runway and into the air.

Breathtaking.  Here are some of the photos I took of that spectacular display, an homage to an era where our nation  produced some of the greatest aircraft and aviators in history.

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The first two Mitchells warm up before launch.

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This CAF B-25 was restored to memorialize a USMC B-25 from VMB-612 that was lost on its 23rd mission in the Pacific.

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This rare bird is the oldest surviving B-25 Mitchell. It was fourth off the North American production line, served as General Hap Arnold’s personal transport, was used later by Howard Hughes and ended up in Mexico and Indonesia before returning home to be a featured aircraft of the Long Island, NY American Airpower Museum.

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Barbie III, a 1st Air Commando B-25H Mitchell, rolled off the assembly line in 1943. Owned now by the Cavanaugh Flight Museum, it was the second H model produced during the war. Barbie III is also the only B-25H flying with an actual 75mm cannon in the nose.

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Put it in black and white, and that could be Dobodura, New Guinea, in the summer of ’43.

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This is the Yellow Rose, a B-25J also built in 1943. It served with the 334th Bomb Group stateside and was used in aircrew training as late as the mid-1950s. It belongs to the Central Texas Wing of the CAF.

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Mitchell in the Golden Hour.

 

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Oshkosh is just about the coolest place I’ve ever been. How many times do you get to look up at sunset and see this?

 

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Champaign Gal touches back down in the rain after the demonstration flight. It is part of the Champaign Aviation Museum in Urbana, Ohio.

 

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Briefing Time, owned by the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum, is painted in the markings of a B-25 that flew with the 340th Bomb Group during the Italian campaign.

 

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The  Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum owns this beautiful eight-gunned B-25, “Hot Gen” and carries the markings of 98 Squadron, RAF in honor of the Canadian crews who flew the Mitchell in that unit.

 

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When the last B-25 touched down, it felt like I’d just seen a once-in-a-lifetime event. What an homage to an aircraft and its crews who played such a key role in winning the air war over the SWPA and in the MTO.

For those of you out there who want to learn more about the B-25 and some of the characters who modified and flew them in the Pacific:

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Categories: World War II Europe, World War II in Europe, World War II in the Pacific, Writing Notes | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

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