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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 Inexperienced and using outdated tactics, the 2nd Division suffered catastrophic losses trying to push the Germans back from the Marne.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

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 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.

10th Mountain 86th Mount Inf Reg I&R Plt Ski Troops Spigvana Italy 012145 (1 of 1)

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.

305th bg b17 formation over germany sept 43846

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.

 

 

b24ds practicing for ploesti 300 dpi c 5x7

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.

color Gillis and PT boats PBY

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

Notes from the Road

LRM_EXPORT_20170712_214441.jpgDay 1 of my cross country research road trip for my next book took me to the  Eastern Oregon desert, where I had a chance meeting with an OIFIII veteran.

Heading east on 26 today after hiking around the Painted Hills, I saw a hitchhiker with a dog that looked a little like Gwen. I wondered if he was a vet as I drove by, feeling a little guilty I did not stop. The GTO is packed to the walls for this research trip, and I had no room for him and his gear. Besides, I’ve never picked a hitchiker up. My mother told me never to do that, and I guess it stuck. 🙂

I stopped for the night in a tiny town called Prairie City, Or. There is a vintage hotel here that is simply awesome. After I ate at their grill, I wandered outside to take some photos.

The hitchiker was there climbing out of a pick up truck. A young couple wished him well and gave him some money. I watched him for a bit, then as he walked by me, I asked, “You prior service?”

He told me 3rd ID, Iraq. Got home in 06. We talked for about 20 minutes as I gave him all the water and snacks I had in the GTO. He gave his pup water before he drank any himself. The couple who gave him a lift to town came back as we talked and pressed more money into his hand. A girl, maybe 13 or 14, came up on a bike and handed him a few dollars of her own.

Chris is his name. He has been hitching all over the country since he left the service. I got the feeling it was not a good parting of ways. He’s wandered the empty neighborhoods of Dayton, Ohio, walked his way from San Francisco to San Jose. He’s crossed and recrossed the country this past decade. He fell in love in San Diego, and when the relationship ended, the heartbreak drove him back onto the road. He is heading to North Carolina now, hitching and camping outside of small towns in the woods.

Earlier in the evening, I met two guys who are bicycling across the country to raise awareness for TBI’s and Cystic Fibrosis. The hotel staff told me they’d just hosted a woman who had walked to Prairie City from South Carolina.

I thought about this as Chris and I talked on this town’s tiny main street. Somehow, in the middle of the Oregon desert, all these stories collided at once.

Chris quoted scripture. We talked about New Orleans, and Pensacola and other places we have both seen. Heartbreak.

I read and see little but hate, divisiveness, anger and rage on the news sites these days.From the way CNN and Fox tell it, we are a country loathing itself and our leaders. But as I watched that young girl ride off into the evening after she gave Chris some of her own money, her younger brother peddling furiously to keep up with her, it was a relief to realize there is much kindness and compassion in our people still. I think that is a bigger story than the divisions and the hate.

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Our Forgotten Casualties

DSC07750On April 22, 1934, a 39-year old man died of pneumonia outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. To his neighbors who watched as the family house fell into disrepair, was finally boarded up and abandoned in the depths of the Depression, the owner was an oddball sort of man who never fit into their community. He was seen drinking alone on his porch, and in his final years alcoholism wrecked both his health and most of this relationships.

Wrote historian Dennis Gordon, “…spiritually ravaged by his war experience, he had increasingly sought release through drink. He appeared dispirited, much older than his thirty-nine years….”

Lieutenant_Colonel_William_Thaw_IIThis was the tragic last act in the life of Lieutenant Colonel William Thaw, the first American to fly in air combat. He became a national hero during World War I, first while as a Soldier in the French Foreign Legion, later as a member of the all-volunteer American squadron called the Lafayette Escadrille, which fought for the French long before President Wilson asked Congress to declare war on the Central Powers. Later, as the United States Army Air Service reached the Western Front in 1918, he commanded the 102nd Aero Squadron. He served with great distinction and was awarded two Distinguished Service Crosses, the Legion of Honor and the Croix de Guerre while being credited with five German planes downed.

Somewhere in his experience on the Western Front, the vibrant, brilliant young man suffered what has been called, “the soul loss moment.” He returned home, but returned home in form only. Ultimately, the war claimed him as surely as it claimed his comrades who died fighting on the Western Front.

Over the twenty-seven years I’ve been writing about and interviewing combat veterans and their families, I have heard the same refrain countless times. “He came home, but he was never the same.” Families have shared with me stories of their veteran’s return. The first months, a honeymoon, but after the luster wore off, the war reclaimed them. My knowledge is anecdotal, but the alcoholism and suicide rate among those who returned from World War II’s front lines seems to have been a vastly underreported cost of our victory.

A dear friend who served in combat during the Gulf War once retold the story of his own father’s struggles. His dad had joined the infantry at the start of World War II and was sent to fight in Italy. He stayed in after the war and rose through the enlisted ranks to be an established and highly regarded non-commissioned officer. He served in Korea, and during the Cold War. But his experiences in Italy were never far from him, or his family. Ultimately, he took his own life, years after the shooting had ended. When I asked his son, a well-respected NCO and combat veteran in his own right, if he considered his dad a combat casualty, he didn’t even hesitate, “He absolutely was.”

In 2011-12, I wrote a book with Captain Sean Parnell detailing the experiences of his infantry platoon in combat during a particularly difficult deployment to Afghanistan in 2006. Since Outlaw Platoon was published, at least four members of Captain Parnell’s company have taken their own lives.

From 2001-2014, the suicide rate among veterans jumped thirty-two percent. As of 2016, twenty veterans commit suicide every day. Not every one of those tragic ends is a result of combat experience, but some no doubt are.DSC07786

After World War II, thousands of veterans returned home with severe medical conditions. Many were survivors of Japanese prison camps and the Bataan Death March where starvation, jungle diseases and brutalizing treatment by their captors destroyed their physical health. Some survived only a few months after being rescued at war’s end, others survived longer. But all too often, their physical debilitations dramatically cut short their lives.

The Second World War was not unique in this regard. World War One saw thousands of post-Armistice deaths directly attributable to the wounds (such as those inflicted by gas) and the physical cost of serving in the trenches.

The Americans taken prisoner in Korea came back after the war in as poor condition as the captives of the Japanese. In Vietnam, it was the same story with our returning POW’s, but now chemicals such as Agent Orange inadvertently destroyed the post-deployment lives of tens of thousands of veterans. By the early 1990s, almost 40,000 veterans had filed disability claims with the VA as a result of the health impact of this defoliant. How many have died as a result of exposure is unclear, but it is not a trivial number.

During a deployment in Iraq during the early years of the invasion and occupation, Indiana and Oregon National Guard troops assigned to guard a water treatment facility were exposed to hexavalent chromium, which has caused several deaths to rare forms of cancer.

These men and women are never honored on Memorial Day. Counting them is impossible because of the nature of their deaths and how the war claimed them. They did not fall in battle, but they deserve to have their service and its consequences recognized and honored, even if one considers suicide a dishonorable end. Men like William Thaw helped secure freedom for Europe and the United States, and their devotion in battle should not be tainted by the way they chose to die. Judging them, stripping them of what they did accomplish in their lives by ignoring them, is to deny the emotional anguish and trauma they lived with every day after returning home.  For those who know its nature, it is a form of living death.

The consequences of loss, be it on the battlefield or after, has a generational impact on the families who endure these deaths. That point was driven home to me early in my career when I wrote about a fighter ace who died at the end of World War II.  His wife was destroyed by his loss and the family was forever scarred by his death. It led to dysfunction and fifty years of pain, alcoholism and mental illness. His brother, who also served, blamed himself for his brother’s death in 1945 and took his own life in 1975. I remember writing the end of that story, sobbing as I recounted how everything in his family broke after the fighter ace’s death. It was never whole again.

When I moved to my little town in Oregon in 1994, I discovered one of our neighbors had lost her husband during WWII. She raised a daughter alone, never remarried and lived a silent, desperately lonely life as a recluse. The death of her loved one caused her to disengage from almost everyone around her.

More recently, I’ve been researching another ace whose loss had a similarly catastrophic effect on his family. Once highly regarded and politically connected, his family slipped into financial insolvency, abuse and chaos as his widow married and remarried five times. Who can ever fill the void of the loss of one’s true love?

DSC07787These are all human costs of war; ones that rarely makes the history books as they are difficult to face and discuss. But we need to have a conversation about them, because it is an after-effect of every war this country has fought. Before we send our men and women into battle, our nation’s leaders must recognize the long-term effect it will have on some of the families and communities that send their loved ones off to war. It must be a factor when deciding whether or not the crisis at hand merits the use of force. Once the decision is made to send in the troops, we must have in place a better and more robust structure to support those who return home. In the last sixteen years of war, we have a spotty record at best of doing that, and the toll has been a heavy one as a result.

So this weekend, while we honor those who have fallen in battle, I will take a moment and give thought and prayer to those families who have lived the nightmare of loss and know the shattering moment when the contact team arrives on their doorstep. Their loved one gone, their lives destroyed—rebuilding and finding a new sense of normalcy among such grief is a monumentally difficult task.

This weekend, I’ll remember what I’ve learned these past twenty-seven years of the post-war deaths that wrought such pain to the families I have met. Just don’t tell me their loved ones were not combat casualties. The only difference I see is that it took longer for the war to claim their lives.  I hope you will join me in remembering these forgotten combat veterans as well.

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Categories: Uncategorized, Warrior Memories, Writing Notes | Tags: | 2 Comments

Stories from Golden Gate

Today, I wandered through Golden Gate National Cemetery. Every marker tells a story. Here’s one:

 

Master Sergeant Kenji Munn Tashiro:

Sixty-one years. Three wars. Volunteered for service in 1943 despite the fact that his wife and two children were rounded up and thrown in an internment camp.

Fought with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team in Europe as part of an anti-tank gun company. Earned the CIB.

Returned home and stayed in the reserves, served in Korea and Vietnam as a military intelligence NCO. Incidentally, while he was in Korea, his son was fighting to hold the Pusan Perimeter with his brother Soldiers.

Died of stomach cancer in 1967, An American patriot to his core.AO5Y9423

Categories: Uncategorized, War in Europe, World War I, World War II, World War II Europe, World War II in Europe, WW2, WWII | 1 Comment

The Planes of Fame Air Show Aviators

DSC07389Last weekend concluded one of the best warbirds air shows in the country. The Planes of Fame Air Museum puts on an astonishing display of military aviation heritage every May in what has become a major tradition within the warbirds community.

For most who attend, myself included, the amazing aircraft are the stars of the show. Thousands of photographers carrying insanely expensive gear turn out to capture these rare birds in flight. If you’re a member of any of the warbirds of WWII Facebook groups, no doubt you’ve been seeing their results.DSC07256

It dawned on me this year that the aviators and crews who keep these aircraft functional are the real stars. Who wakes up one day and says, “Gee, you know, I’d really like to spend my life working on Pratt & Whitney R2800 engines from the 1940s?” I mean, the market for that skill has got to be pretty limited. Ditto with the pilots like Steve Hinton, his son, Chris Fahey and Mark Foster. Some are prior service military aviators, others are legacies drawn to the family’s passion. It has to be something akin to a monastic calling.AO5Y3446

So today, I want to share a few moments I captured on the ground and in the air that highlight these remarkable folks who have taken the road less traveled to a unique and unusually special life. It is a dangerous one, as the many crashes, lost friends and aircraft can attest.  Jim Maloney. Jimmy Leeward.  Jay Gordon. Marcus Paine last year at Madras. The list is a long one. Yet, that does not dissuade them from climbing into the cockpit of aircraft built seven decades ago to carry men into battle at the cutting edge of their nation’s technological envelope. What a wild ride that must be.

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Here’s to a safe 2017 season and many more spectacular moments with these remarkable  historical artifacts.

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John Kerpa in period attire at the controls of an SBD Dauntless.

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When your P-63 King Cobra’s door won’t latch….who ya gonna call?

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Seriously, how cool would it be to put on your resume, “Pilot of the only complete airworthy A6M5 Zero on the planet?”

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John Kerpa channels Bill Ault on the weekend of the 75th Anniversary of The Battle of the Coral Sea.

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Mark Foster makes a low level, high speed pass in Wee Willy, a P-51 painted in the markings of the 357th Fighter Group’s Captain Calvert Williams. Willaims scored the legendary 8th Air Force group’s first kill during Big Week in February, 1944.

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In the CAF’s homage to top Navy ace David McCampbell is Chris Liguori, who has been flying since he was 14 years old. Got his pilot’s license before his driver’s license.

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Lt. Col. (ret) Robert “Lips” Hertberg in the cockpit of this AT-6 Texan. Col. Hertberg flew F-16’s, initially with the 496th Tactical Fighter Squadron, and later became an F-16 instructor.

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John Hinton, Steve Hinton’s brother, in the cockpit of a Desert Air Force P-40.

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Another shot of Lt. Col. Hertberg in the T-6.

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Jason Somes Taxis this beautiful late model Spitfire. Jason earned his pilot’s license at age 19 and has been racing at Reno since 2003.

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Steve Hinton watches his brother depart in the P-40.

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Jason returns from a flight to a very eager ground crew.

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Chris Fahey in the only flying P-38J left in the world.

Categories: Uncategorized, World War II Europe, World War II in Europe, World War II in the Pacific | Tags: | 1 Comment

Chino’s Legendary Planes of Fame Airshow

AO5Y3975For one weekend every year since 1957, the skies over Chino, California fill with the sights and sounds of World War II aircraft. Nestled on an old Army Air Force base where the likes of 24 kill ace Gerald R. Johnson once trained, hosts this incredible event as one of its main fund raisers. These days, lucky visitors to Chino can see upwards of forty warbirds thunder overhead.

It is an awe-inspiring sight.

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My dad found the museum one day in the mid-1950s. He was out driving around with his best friend from high school and looked over to see a Messerschmitt Me-262 jet fighter just sitting in a field. Both boys had grown up on the Southern California coast during the war and had fallen in love with aircraft as they watched F4U Corsairs and P-38 Lightnings zooming over their homes. A Corsair even crash landed in front of my dad’s place on the Balboa Peninsula in 1945.AO5Y6509

So of course, they stopped. The museum back then was basically a field full of WWII aircraft discarded by the military and somehow acquired by the founder of Planes of Fame, Ed Maloney. One plane, a Japanese J2M Raiden fighter, had been a plaything for local kids at Griffith Park in Los Angeles before Ed acquired it. Rumor has it that some thief had pulled the seat out of it and pawned it, and Ed had to go to the shop and pay $50.00 to get it out of hock and re-install it in this incredibly rare warbird.

Back then, you paid a quarter at a tent that denoted the museum’s entrance, then walked through part of a bomber’s fuselage to enter the field of warbirds.

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As a kid living in the Silicon Valley, my dad would sometimes take me down to the Chino air shows. I still have snapshots I took in the 1970s with a 126 instamatic camera of the museum’s A6M5 Zero that had been captured on Saipan’s Aslito Field in 1944. Years later, while in graduate school at the University of Oregon, I discovered my landlady had been in charge of checking in and documenting captured Japanese aircraft as they arrived in Southern California. Quite possibly the initial paperwork the U.S. Navy generated on the Planes of Fame Zero had been filled out by Marge Goodman.AO5Y5847

Anyway, the trips down to Chino became a father-son thing for us Brunings. In 1986, we stopped going. I left for college that fall, and as graduate school and a career up in Oregon dominated my time, the chance to get to Planes of Fame became a pipe dream. Then came marriage, two kids and a new career as a military historian and writer.

Finally, after I came home from Afghanistan, we revived the tradition. Five of the last seven years, we’ve road tripped down to Chino for the air show. In 2013, we brought my son and made it a tri-generational road trip. AO5Y7833

This year, my dad and I returned and spent the weekend out at the Chino Airport, amazed and inspired by the thousands who turned out to see the old birds fly.

AO5Y5938World War II is slipping from modern memory as the few remaining veterans of it pass. It won’t be long before we won’t have anyone alive who experienced the war at all. But thanks to Planes of Fame, the visceral sensation, the raw power and speed of the planes our grandparents flew in defense of our nation will endure and live in the memories of succeeding generations. Ed Maloney was a visionary, and thanks to his aircraft rescue efforts long before anyone saw value in those aluminum bodies, the sounds and sights of these amazing machines will continue to fill the skies over Southern California for years to come.AO5Y2187

It is a truly special place. If you love aircraft, make a point of coming here someday. You won’t be disappointed. You’ll be in the heart of the warbirds community.

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Below are some more photos I took this weekend at the 60th Planes of Fame air show.

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The Planes of Fame P-38J Lightning in 475th Fighter Group ace Parry Dahl’s markings.

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Warming up the CAF Mitsubishi A6M Zero on Saturday May 6, 2017

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Pilot Chris Fahey at the controls of the POF P-38. The sound of this plane’s twin Allison engines is like crack to your friendly writer.  After spending nine years researching and writing a biography on P-38 ace Col. Gerald R. Johnson, this aircraft became very dear to my heart. In the 90’s, I interviewed a lot of men who flew them in New Guinea and the Philippines during the war, and they swore by its firepower, range, speed and one-engined flight abilities.

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Mark Foster at the controls of this beautiful P-51 Mustang. It wears the markings of the 357th Fighter Group, a crack 8th Air Force unit that included Chuck Yeager and ace Bud Anderson.

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The Planes of Fame B-25 Mitchell making a pass over the Chino airport. This bird’s been used as a photographic aircraft for various aerial scenes in movies for several decades. After writing Pappy Gunn’s story in Indestructible, the side pack .50 caliber machine guns endear this bird to me. Every time I see it fly, I think the spirit of Pappy Gunn flies with it.

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A Red Air Force Yak prepares for a flight with the Korean War demonstration part of the air show.

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This year’s show included this stunning bird, a Consolidated PB4Y2 Privateer U.S. Navy patrol bomber. 

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I’d never seen a PB4Y in flight before. The first pass it made during the airshow left me absolutely speechless. Loud, slow and huge, the plane is a dominating presence. I checked my Fitbit after it thundered by and saw my heart rate was at 150. I got credit for cardio, so props to the pilots for bringing on the work-out inducing excitement in their low-altitude passes.

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When I was in 3rd grade, my Uncle Dean gave me a book for my birthday entitled, “Greatest Fighter Missions of the Top Navy and Marine Aces.” I read it in a recliner next to the T.V. for hours every night after school. I still have it, though it is beat up and missing its dust jacket. One of the chapters is called, “Trapped By Zekes at Rabaul” and details one of ace Ike Kepford’s most harrowing missions in the South Pacific. This weekend, a Corsair in Kepford’s markings went blasting past me, and I was taken instantly back to those nights curled up in that 70’s-era chair, engrossed by Edward Sims’ recounting of Ike’s miraculous escape from pursuing Japanese fighters.

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Morning on the flight line, Saturday’s sunrise shoot.

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Steve Hinton piloting an F4U in Korean War markings from VMF-214’s 1950-51 deployment. 

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A bit of movie history. This was a modified BT-13 trainer altered to look like a Japanese Aichi D3A Val dive bomber, then used in the film, “Tora Tora Tora.”

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The only place I know of where you can see two Japanese A6M Zero fighters fly. The bottom one is Planes of Fame’s Saipan Zeke.

Categories: Uncategorized, World War I, World War II, World War II in Europe, World War II in the Pacific, WW2, WWII | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

12-7-41

arizona-explodes-at-pearl-harbor-color-4x6Not forgotten. 12-7-41.

In December 2000, I was in Tuscon interviewing survivors of the USS Arizona’s catastrophic destruction. Listening to the stories of the men who were aboard, or later returned to the wreckage of their ship to recover the remains of their brother sailors was a life changing moment.

It is imperative we stand vigilant and strong so that such a catastrophe never happens again.pearl-harbor-1-ewa-field

Thousands of Americans died today 75 years ago. Tens of thousands more would die fighting across the Pacific over the ensuing four years. Remembering them is vital. But today, I will also be remembering those in the Philippines who lost their lives on this same day as the Japanese Empire launched a massive onslaught on Southeast Asia. Ultimately, 900,000 Filipinos died as a result of the storm the Japanese unleashed on December 7th 1941.js-9d-battleship-row-pearl-harbor-aflame

Categories: Uncategorized, World War II in the Pacific | Tags: | Leave a comment

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