We're not lost, Sergeant, We're in … France

Iwo Veteran poses and reminisces

During the reunion for the 71st anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima, I had the chance to meet Norman L. Baker.

Veteran posing with Thompson SMG in front of map of Iwo Jima

Norman Baker of the security element for HQ Company, 62nd Naval Construction Battalion, attached to Fifth Amphibious Corps

Norm served in the Sea Bees (Naval Construction Battalions) during World War II, but Norm wasn’t a skilled laborer like most of the men in the Sea Bees. He was just a young guy and assigned as part of the security detachment for Headquarters Company, 62nd Naval Construction Battalion. The battalion was attached to the Fifth Amphibious Corps, so he landed on Iwo Jima to provide security for the engineers and tradesmen.

Unlike Marines in the line, this ended up allowing him some opportunities for ‘wandering’. He told me of his fascination with airplanes, especially fighter planes. As soon as the airfields were “secured” enough that they could risk basing planes there, they did. So, Norm had a chance to get up close and personal with the planes. He related that one time, a fighter plane taxied off the runway and the pilot hopped down when he was nearby. The pilot was a young red-headed fellow, probably right about Norm’s age and was thrilled to be able to show him everything there was to know about the plane. It’s a thrill he still remembers. When he went back a few days later to see if he could find his new friend, Norm was told he wasn’t there anymore. One hopes that the pilot was merely injured or reassigned, but I can’t help but imagine that he was among the thousands who paid with their lives for the Marines to secure Iwo Jima.

Due to the proximity of the National Museum of the Marine Corps and the high profile of the event, several docents from the museum were in attendance and brought along some artifacts. When Norm was on Iwo Jima, he carried a Thompson Submachine Gun, as he is here in the photo. It was just happenstance that I saw him drift over and ask the docents if he could hold the gun. So, we all got some nice shots of Norm posing in front of the map they’d brought from the museum.20160220_151905

Attending these reunions is always among the highlights of my year because there’s such an opportunity to meet and mingle with some wonderful veterans, their families, historians and Marines of every era. Importantly, never forget the Sea Bees!

Chasing an autograph….

In France, it is already the 24th of May 2016, and the 40th anniversary of the Judgement of Paris. Why do I care about this? Well, not only do I love wine, but I love a good story.

In 1976, wine shop owner Steven Spurrier hosted a wine tasting that pitted California wines against fine French wines. George Taber was working as a reporter for Time Magazine in Paris at the time. The press release Spurrier sent out in advance was ignored, even by Taber, who’d taken classes from Patricia Gallagher at Spurrier’s Academie du vin. Worried that no one would cover it (after all, before 1976, “the new world did not exist” in Spurrier’s words), they reached out to Taber. He figured that if it wasn’t the slow Monday that he expected, he could always leave the tasting to cover whatever cropped up.

Chardonnay from 6 California wineries were blind-tasted along with 4 white Burgundies, followed by 6 California Cabernet Sauvignon and 4 bottles of Bordeaux. All of the judges were French, including chefs, sommeliers, restauranteurs, winery owners and wine writers. In a shock to the world, California wines won in both white and red.

I’ve had a whirlwind week for a wine-geek. On Monday night, the Smithsonian held a Judgement of Paris event, with wine-tasting. On Wednesday night, there was another on Capitol Hill. Then, when we arrived in the Outer Banks of North Carolina for vacation, we attended a third wine-tasting event.

Taber wrote about the tasting in Time magazine and the day it hit newsstands, wine lovers in America stormed into wine shops, holding the article and asking “Do you have these wines?” It changed the world of wine, giving the French, as Spurrier told Le Monde this year, “un coup de le derrière”, a kick in the ass. So, not only did it announce the ‘arrival’ of California wines, it forced the French to break out of tired, old habits and stilted styles.

So, when I read George Taber’s book about the tasting, I fell in love with the story. A tower of arrogance, American ingenuity, plucky immigrants, can-do attittudes, and a lot of luck, all tied together by one of my favorite things – wine.

In May of 2007, we were in northern California for a wedding and took a few days to tour Napa Valley. So, my trusty copy of Judgement of Paris was tucked securely in the back of my pants when we walked into Chateau Montelena, where Mike Grgich had made the winning Chardonnay for Jim Barrett. As we tasted the wines, which were exemplary, I thought myself a fool for carrying in a book that Jim Barrett didn’t write with the intention of asking if he could sign it. As such, it stayed in my pants and I mentioned nothing to my fiancé or our friend, Tom. Later in the day, after another tasting and lunch, we arrived at Grgich Hills Cellars.

Before we went in, our expectations were not high. Our second tasting had been a terrible disappointment and we’d walked away from two highly rated restaurants to eat lunch at a roadside tacqueria. I was further entrenched in the idea that getting my book signed was a silly idea. We even agreed on a code word that we’d use if someone was tasting and really just wanted to leave. We needn’t have done so, as it wasn’t George Taber’s wordsmithing, but the talent and dedication to his craft that Mike Grgich had practiced over the decades that shone through.

As we stepped in the door, Melissa inhaled the aroma of the tasting room and cellar, knowing we were in the right place. I spied Mike’s trademark beret from across the room and… bolted from the room to GET THAT BOOK! After tasting many wines, we put in an order to be shipped back to Virginia and, since Mike had left for the day by the time I got around to asking for his autograph, they shipped my book back to Virginia with our wines.

On Monday, I took my book along to the Smithsonian, knowing that I could autograph-hunt to my heart’s delight. During the panel discussion, I didn’t feel my normal nervousness when it came time for questions and asked Steven Spurrier, “So, in 1976, in Paris, how available were California, Australia, or wines from outside of France?” He answered, as noted above that in 1976, “the new world did not exist”. Then, we went into the hall and began tasting – with wines from Chateau Montelena, Grgich Hills Cellars and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. I was able to get Warren Winiarski (who started Stag’s Leap and made the winning Cabernet Sauvignon) to autograph above his photo. Violet Grgich signed on the same page as her father had. When I asked George Taber to sign on the Prologue page, he asked me why, with a sly smile on his face. We both pointed him out in the photo. When I found Bo Barrett to sign on his father’s photo, that evening, I told him about having the book stuffed in my pants at Montelena and he told me, “You should have just done it! We’d have loved it!”

However, I wasn’t fast enough. Steven Spurrier had already departed before I could find him. I imagined that I’d be doing a global chase just to find him for his autograph. Knowing that his wife, Bella, had taken the only photos of the tasting, I wanted her autograph too!

Then, a friend on Capitol Hill emailed about a similar event happening on Wednesday night. I knew I had to try. Interestingly, it’s the same friend whose wedding we attended in 2007.

Since it was on the Hill, I couldn’t make the 5pm start, arriving around 6:15. I was nervous because I’d had time to think about it and needed to overcome my natural introverted tendencies (I learned last year that I’m an “outgoing introvert”). When I walked into the room, I scanned the crowd, looking for Steven. While I didn’t see him, I did see George. In a fit of courage, I walked up, tapped him on the elbow and asked, like I’d known him for 20 years, “George, do you know if Steven is still here?” Neither he nor Stephen Winiarski knew where he was, but Warren walked up behind me and suggested that he might be out in the lobby. They were all so helpful and delightful.

I walked a step into the lobby, but having just been there, I decided to dive back into the crowd. I rounded a corner and… there was Steven. “Exactly who I was looking for!” I found the right page for his autograph and asked if Odette Kahn was still angry with him for not giving her notes back. She never forgave him. Though Bella was not nearby, she was with him at the event, so I knew I’d still get a shot at her autograph as well. Sure enough, after I’d tasted a few wines, I saw Steven carrying their bags as they headed for the exit. I think she might have been a little surprised, but without her presence, there would have been no photos of the tasting.

Now I have several autographs in the book and will continue hunting for more. For example, as I chatted with Stephen Winiarski, it never occurred to me to have him sign below the photo of he and his sisters at the beginning of Chapter Nine. I have my keepsake, but I will keep improving it.

My question to Spurrier is at about 43:30

Change to Dragoon/Colmar Schedule

There’s been a big change for the Dragoon/Colmar event this week. On Friday morning, we’ll be attending the Spirit of America show at George Mason University instead of conducting the third historical seminar session. That third session will now occur from 2-6pm that day.

18 Sept: 9 AM to 1:30 PM Spirit of American show at George Mason University
2 PM to 6PM Historical seminar III

Full schedule available on the 6th Army Group website

2015-2016 Military Classics Seminar Schedule

As I’ve noted before, I stumbled upon the Military Classics Seminar about a year ago and it’s the group I’ve been looking for the last twenty years. Each month, we gather in the Officers’ Club at Fort Myer to have a few drinks, enjoy dinner and hear someone give an oral review of a military history book. Some are classics, but some are more modern. Of course, the grandest benefit of attending is meeting your peers. There are military historians from every branch, authors of all kinds, retired military officers and interested amateurs like myself. Some of the greatest benefit to the meetings is the discussion between the attendees throughout the evening. It wanders across all periods of history, including sometimes dealing with personal experiences, and across all kinds of topics.

The dinners cost $35 and there’s a book raffle (I always put in an extra $5 and come away with a book a few times a year). We gather at 5:30pm for a social hour, followed by dinner at 6:30pm and the presentation at 7:30pm. To get onto Fort Myer, you need to use the Hatfield Gate unless you have a military ID. They will do an ID check and a routine inspection of your vehicle.

Make your reservation no later than the Wednesday prior to the meeting by replying Eric Joyce at this e-mail address militaryclassics@gmail.com or to Bob Goldich by phone at (703) 359-1074. Pay for the meal with check or cash ($35) at the entrance to the meeting room at Ft. Myer. Those who make a reservation and do not show are still obligated for the cost of the dinner.

2015-2016 Schedule

September 15, 2015

Overy, Richard. The Bombing War: Europe, 1939-1945. 2013.

Speaker: Walton Moody, Retired Historian

October 20, 2015

Saburō Ienaga, The Pacific War, 1931-1945: A Critical Perspective on Japan’s Role in World War II. 1978.

Speaker: Stan Falk, Independent Historian

November 17, 2015

Conger, Arthur. The Rise of U.S. Grant. 1931.

Speaker: Perry Jamieson, Independent Historian

January 19, 2016

Carl von Clausewitz, On Waterloo: Clausewitz, Wellington, and the Campaign of 1815. Transl. & ed. by Christopher Bassford, Daniel Moran, and Gregory W. Pedlow. 2010.

Speaker: Jon Sumida, Professor of History, University of Maryland, College Park

February 16, 2016

Daddis, Gregory A. Westmoreland’s War: Reassessing American Strategy in Vietnam. 2014.

Speaker: Erik Villard, Historian, U.S. Army Center of Military History

March 15, 2016

Hodges, Andrew. Alan Turing: The Enigma. 2014.

Speaker: Michael Bigelow, Command Historian, U.S. Army INSCOM

April 19, 2016

Dual selection: Alistair Horne, The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916. 1961, rev. ed. 1994, and Paul Jankowski, Verdun. 2014.

Speaker: Robert Goldich, Independent Historian

May 17, 2016

Katherine C. Epstein, Torpedo: Inventing the Military-Industrial Complex in the United States and Great Britain. 2014.

Speaker: Mark Mandeles, President, The J. de Bloch Group

June 21, 2016

Lawrence Freedman, Strategy: A History. 2013.

Speaker: Ron Spector, Prof. of History and International Relations; George Washington University

Veterans Panel: Iwo Jima 70th Anniversary

Touring the National Museum of the Marine Corps with veterans of the Battle of Iwo Jima is an amazing privilege. While one can often find Iwo Jima veteran Frank Matthews in the museum working as a docent (feel free to stop for a moment and Google Frank Matthews Iwo Jim Marine Museum), there have never been and will never be so many veterans of the battle in the museum as there were on Friday. As part of the Iwo Jima 70th Reunion and Symposium, there were more than 20 such veterans at the museum. You couldn’t swing a camera without finding another to interview.

Many of the veterans stopped in front of the map of Iwo out in the main hall and, prompted by the docents (generally retired Marines themselves), pointed out where they’d landed and some of what they saw.

PFC Albert Pagoag, with whom I share a Basque ancestry, pointed where he landed with E/2/27 in the first wave. By the time he was wounded 20 days later, there was only one other Marine left in his company. After time in hospitals on Guam and back at Mare Island, he was discharged in February of 1946. He was promoted on his discharge to E-3, Corporal at the time, but in modern terms, a terminal Lance Corporal. Efforts of a Viet Nam era Marine secured funding for Albert from the Boise community and he not only attended this reunion but will attend the Reunion of Honor on Iwo Jima itself in late March.

Looking down from the stairs, I spied Josef Reece speaking to docent Mac Kolar about his time on Iwo. Josef served as an amphibious tractor (Amtrac) driver, making two trips to deliver fellow 5th Division Marines ashore on Blue 1. His LST had enough supplies that he stayed busy with that ship unloading for 4 days, then began unloading other ships while the battle raged.
Many of them spoke of that terrible black sand of Iwo Jima. The short beach lead directly to a tall wall of sand. The black sand was ‘like coffee grounds’ and Marines tell of feeling as though all the were doing when trying to climb up it was slide further down it.

On Saturday, there was a veteran’s panel with 6 veterans of the battle. The participants were General Lawrence Snowden, Don Mates, Charles Frazier, Wilson Horde (Navy), Walter O’Malley and Ron “Rondo” Scharfe (Navy). They offered recollections on the service, poignant reminiscences of battle buddies, and insight into the plight of the average Marine or sailor. It’s 75 minutes you won’t regret.

If you’re curious about Jimmy Trimble, who was Don Mates’ tent mate and a Washington Senators pitcher, you can see Gary Bedingfield’s biography of Trimble on his Baseball’s Greatest Sacrifice website or ESPN’s Page 2 article on The Legacy of Jimmy Trimble by James Roberts.

Hopefully, I’ll be able to add the videos from the Museum later. Thanks to the folks over at Load the HEAT for prodding me to publish.

Tora, Tora, Tora in Carlisle!

February shapes up to be an interesting month for those interested in WWII history.

The U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center (USAHEC) continues the Strategic Art Film Program with a viewing, dinner and discussion of the award-winning film, Tora! Tora! Tora!, depicting the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Tuesday, February 3, 2015 at 6:00pm,  in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

The evening will feature U.S. Army War College Professor Al Lord as film moderator.  He will review the film while guests enjoy a Japanese themed dinner with a complimentary glass of sake. In addition, the event will feature local Pacific theater militaria collections, as well as miniature and model displays highlighting Japanese WWII aircraft. Finally, guests will also have the opportunity to participate in assembling paper models of the famed Japanese Zero fighter plane, which gained its notoriety because of its widespread use during World War II.

Those who wish to participate in the dinner must purchase tickets from Carlisle Barracks MWR and can do so by calling 717-245-3099 or 717-245-4329. Preferred seating is provided for dinner guests, but those who do not wish to purchase dinner are welcome to enjoy the movie for free. Parking is also free, and the USAHEC facility is handicapped accessible. For more information about this and all other events, please visit the website: www.USAHEC.org or call: 717-245-3972.

I was up in Carlisle for the showing of Sergeant York, starring Gary Cooper, which included a revealing talk by Doug Mastriano, whose work Alvin York: A New Biography of the Hero of the Argonne places York’s action very specifically, down to having dug up the actual shell casings from the fight (no other action in that area during the war). The dinner was very good, though since the main course arrived while the light were out, I was guessing what I was eating. The staff there is very helpful with the reservation process, as I’d already experienced with the library staff. We drove up for the night and stayed at the nearby Marriott Residence Inn.

Iwo Jima Association Reunion 2015

The Iwo Jima Association of America is holding it’s 70th Reunion and Symposium on 18-22 February 2015 at the Sheraton Pentagon City Hotel. It’s always a magnificent event, with the opportunity to mix with Iwo Jima veterans, active duty and retired Marines, descendants and historians.

The base schedule is:

18 February – Registration (2-6pm) and welcome reception (6-8pm)

19 February – Ceremonies in DC/Arlington (8am-3:30pm) and a hospitality evening (6-8pm)

20 February – National Museum of the Marine Corps tour (8am-3:30pm) and Show & Tell (6-8pm)

21 February – Symposium and Panel Discussion (8:30am-3:30pm), Luncheon (noon-1pm, with a briefing by a senior Marine representative), reception (5-6pm, cash bar) and Banquet (6-11pm)

22 February – Farewells and departures

I can’t say enough about how well-run and well-attended this event is. As the touchstone event in the history of the Marine Corps, senior Marine leadership is actively in attendance and support. The Commandant will be the guest of honor at the Banquet and one of the top-level officers will speak at the luncheon. I have to admit that meeting and getting my photo with General Mattis two years ago was a true highlight. There are always several authors in attendance, selling and signing their books. They also usually have both a raffle and a silent auction to help support the organization. The band for the Banquet is our favorite big band, Radio King Orchestra, who do swing better than anyone else (and donate their time for this performance).

You MUST register by the 21st of January to ensure your space. After that, it is ‘space available’. Registration can be done online or by mail. In either case, best to download the event brochure, which details the schedule and provides the mail-in registration form.

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