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

So much to learn
11 January 2011, 19:20
Filed under: 509th, Edson Raff, Paratroopers | Tags: ,

I don’t know why it surprises me, but it seems every time I think I’ve learned something that no one knows about, I find a secondary source that at least mentions it. I’ve been reading Gerry Devlin’s seminal work, Paratrooper!, and it has been eye-opening. I thought it would be a good summary for someone who already knew a lot about paratroopers (thinking that I was that person), but instead, every chapter either exposes me to something new, or briefly describes an event I thought was so obscure that no one had written about it yet in a secondary source. The more I read, the more I know that I have so much to learn before I really know anything.

I thought I’d gotten a jump on Devlin in regards to the mission to blow up the El Djem bridge in Tunisia. I’d found information on it on the internet back in 2005 and have a link with some good details now (see 20 Dec 42), but was so disappointed when I read Devlin’s discussion of it. I wasn’t disappointed that he covered it briefly, but that I could have so easily learned about it by just buying Devlin’s book 6 years ago instead of scratching my head and wondering what Raff had done between Torch and Overlord.

So, I still have many books to buy and research to do, so that I don’t make myself look the fool by missing something that was obvious to someone else 50 years ago, yet unimportant to more modern scholars.

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My father bought a copy of Top Secret after he got back from the war, in an attempt to find out what had been going on, as he only saw the little you can see from a foxhole. We were cleaning up the house preparatory to building an addition recently and found that old book, so
I’ve been re reading Ralph Ingersoll’s “Top Secret” and had looked up Edson Raff online just in case there was something about him and there sure is. That’s when I ran into your comments.

I can sympathize with your frustration in trying to find out what really happened. SLA Marchall developed a technique which he called “Post Combat Interview” in which he’d gather an entire platoon and from the group, interacting, would try to peice together what had happened. Different people will recall words differently and percieve the timing differntly too, so it is no wonder that Ingersoll’s account and Marshall’s differ slightly. But Ingersoll was there, and I’d give him a bit more weight when he’s telling what he saw and heard. Marshall describes his method in his book “Island Victory” about the capture of Kwajalin in the Pacific.

My youngest son, who retired from the Army after he returned from a tour as 1st Sgt of HQ Company when the VT NG went to Ramadi, is very much into the American Revolution, and serves as 1st Captain of the recreated Colonel Seth Warner’s Regiment. (warnersregiment.org) He says it’s withdrawal therapy. He started a history of the regiment but found that it developed into a history of the entire northern campaign in the Champlain and St Lawrence valleys. While reading one account, he reasoned that an infantry action could not possibly work like that and looked up the historian’s source. It was another historian. He kept searching and after six historians he finally found the original source. The first historian, with no military knowledge, had misinterpreted it and each in turn had done the same! Cliff will no longer use secondary sources. With National Archives, Library of Congress, Washington Papers etc. coming online, he has been able to use first hand accounts. He is trying to get accounts from an enlisted man, a company grade officer, and a field grade or general officer for each event. It’s amazing how people at these different levels percieve things so differently. My favorite account is the attack on St Jeans PQ in the late summer of 1775. General Montgomery merely states that they captured the place, but a private describes landing on the shore of the Richelieu River, upstream from the town and fort, marching in the dark along the road, then hearing a body of men coming down on them from their left flank, and the entire force breaking and fleeing back to camp! A company grade officer tells how a flanking party, sent out to protect that left flank, had run into impenetrable brush and turned down to the road, and this was the group that scared their fellow rebels into fleeing! Without getting all these accounts, you’d never have any idea of what was going on.

Comment by Gerard A. Mullen

Jerry, thanks for your comment. I’m never certain how much weight to give Marshall because he has always been held in such high regard. On the other hand, as you note, his method wasn’t just unique and new, but also more than a little flawed. Also, in regards to the paratroopers, I know a few instances in which he was egregiously incorrect.

Ingersoll is harder to figure. Though, as a first-person participant, he is speaking from what he saw and heard. On the other hand, he does write with a dramatic style that makes one wonder. His level of detail on the Raff Force is so much more extensive than I’ve found anywhere else that it’s also hard to discount him.

I know that Raff himself wrote an unpublished memoir and I need to find it in the Archives. I’d guessed rather incorrectly that they’d have it in Carlisle, but that trip turned out to be excellent anyway (handling Doc Alden’s photos was a priceless experience).

Which unit was your father with during the war?

Next time I’m planning on being in Boston, I’ll reach out in case I can sneak away for a day and visit some of those battlefields.

Comment by David Navarre

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