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!

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.

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.

Military Classics Seminar Series

Last Tuesday, I attended a seminar session that’s part of the Military Classics Seminar series. The MCS is now in it’s 57th year and, shockingly, this is the first I’ve heard of it. They meet on the 2nd Tuesday of every month from September to June at the Fort Myer Officer’s Club for a dinner, a speech about a book (or a pair of books) and discussion. For my first meeting, the topic was David Ulbrich’s book, Preparing for Victory: Thomas Holcomb and the Making of the Modern Marine Corps, 1936–1943, published by the Naval Institute Press, and the speaker was Dr Charles Neimeyer of the Marine Corps University.

It was a fantastic event. The group contains many retired military officers and historians – so, exactly the people who are interested in what I and the readers of this blog are interested in. They are quite friendly to first timers, so don’t hesitate to attend. They do have a website, but the skinny is, send an email about a week in advance to Eric Joyce at this e-mail address militaryclassics@gmail.com and bring your $35 when you arrive on the second floor for cocktails at 5:30pm, dinner, the book talk and discussion. Expect to finish around 9:00pm and bring a few dollars for the open bar and a few for the book raffle (I won a book on Holcomb’s battalion, 2/6, in WWI).

I’ve been looking for a group of like-minded individuals interested in the broad expanse of military history for quite some time. So, I’ve found a home!

This year’s schedule:

October 21, 2014

Gian Gentile, Wrong Turn: America’s Deadly Embrace of Counterinsurgency. New York: The New Press, 2011.

Speaker: David Ucko, Associate Professor at the College of International Security Affairs, National Defense University

November 18, 2014

Dual selection: Max Hastings, Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War. New York: Knopf, 2013; and Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August (1962).

Speaker: Dr. Thomas Parker, George Washington University

January 20, 2015

Steven L. Rearden, Council of War: A History of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 1942–1991. Washington, D.C.: Joint History Office, 2012.

Speaker: Walter S. Poole, OSD Historical Office

February 17, 2015

Rick Atkinson, The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944–1945, vol. 3 of The Liberation Trilogy. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2013.

Speaker: David W. Hogan, Jr., US Army Center of Military History

March 17, 2015

Richard Kohn, Eagle and Sword: The Beginnings of the Military Establishment in America (1975) (Free Press, paper, 1985). [reviewed 1980]

Speaker: Eliot Cohen, Robert E. Osgood Professor of Strategic Studies, The Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University

April 21, 2015

Edward N. Luttwak, The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire: From the First Century A.D. to the Third. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976. [reviewed 1978]

Speaker: Arthur M. Eckstein, Professor of History and Distinguished Scholar-Teacher, University of Maryland, College Park

May 19, 2015

Luigi Albertini, The Origins of the War of 1914. London; New York, Oxford University Press, 1952-57.

Speaker: Tom Julian, Independent Historian

June 16, 2015

Tracy Barrett Kittredge, Naval Lessons of the Great War. Garden City: Doubleday, Page & Co. 1921.

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

Veterans announced for 6th Army Group

I met with Tim & Monika to review things in preparation for the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the 6th Army Group in France, which will be held 30 July to 3 August, 2014. As part of the review, I’m able to announce the 14 expected veteran attendees. Yes, FOURTEEN World War II veterans expected.

6th Army Group veterans in attendance will be:

28th Infantry Division: Sam Ieronimo and Robert Phillips
45th Infantry Division: Robert Jackson
517th PRCT: LTG David Grange
36th Infantry Division: Donald Judd and Boyd Lewis (both 142nd Infantry Regiment)
3rd Infantry Division: MG Lloyd Ramsey, Michael Halik, Charles Phallen, Charles Condron, John Keller, John Miller II

We’ll also have two other WWII veterans who’ve attended a number of our prior events: COL John Kormann and COL Frank Cohn.

Our attendance numbers are looking very good, with perhaps 80-90 people participating.

We have confirmed that COL Paul Guajac, a retired French Army Colonel and historian of WWII, is coming from France to speak at the conference. His two best known works are Dragoon, August 15, 1944: The Other Invasion of France and Special Forces in the Invasion of France (Special Operations Series). I will be bringing my copies for signatures.

Russ Navarre passes
29 June 2014, 12:58
Filed under: Navarre, Veterans | Tags: , ,

As a way to get out the word about my father’s passing, I’m posted an extended version of the eulogy that I’ll be giving tomorrow. Since I could write and speak about him for hours and some of this is more about me than it is about him, the spoken version is going to be considerably shorter. I also plan on adding to this as I write more, but wanted to get the main thrust of it out. He was a marvelous man and I already miss him. If anyone would like to attend, we’ll be convening at the Harry J Wills Funeral Home at 37000 Five Mile Road in Livonia. There’s a viewing from 3-5pm today, 29 June 2014, and another starting at 10am on Monday, 30 June 2014. Unity service at 11am. I’m unsure whether my remarks are at the service or at the luncheon that follows.

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.

My father was the kind of man who deserves that kind of epic speech.

My Dad grew up an orphan, having been dropped at the St Francis Home for Boys by his single mother. It couldn’t have been an easy childhood, but he didn’t think of it that way. He talked about playing the rafters and getting in trouble with the nuns. In 2011, a fire broke out in the building, which had spent twenty years as a Detroit public school. Eventually, they had to tear it down. I suspect that there were boys playing under that wooden roof, literally following in my father’s footsteps, making mischief.

Dad had a lot of stories. I’ll never know which of them were true, which had a grain of truth and which were invented out of whole cloth. He had a vivid imagination and he knew a good story when he had one. When we’d talk on the phone after I moved to Washington, we’d slip into a little game, talking like we were important men who knew the Presidents and would be asked for advice. Sometimes, I’m the same way. Heck, even some of my stories about my Dad never happened. For example, I’ve said for years, “My father always told me, if you can’t sing well, at least sing loud.” A few years ago, I let him know I’d been saying that. He laughed and told me I could keep doing it.

Probably the best speech I gave in my life was based on him. I was working on planning a volunteer project in DC and we were at that nervous, don’t know if we can pull this off stage. I remembered his old State Fair stand. It was a crazy, hand-made construction that never went together the same way twice. It took half a dozen men to put it together over several hours. The top of the stand was something like 15-18 feet high, with a sloped roof and you had to man-handle all these heavy parts into position. There were no plans and every year we’d go out there (once I was old enough to help) and he’d get everyone together to put it up. I embellished and I had him giving a speech every year at the start, to gird his crew for the huge task. He’d say, “We’ve done this fifteen times. Every time it’s different. Every time we have different parts left over when we finish. But every time we start, we finish. We can do this.” It was a good speech, and it really caught the flavor of my old man. I’ve given the speech a few times, at the request of friends who were there, so I know it had to be a little inspiring. When I gave the speech to him, he liked it too.

When he walked the fairgrounds, everyone was his friend. You’d see him greeting people and shaking hands and waving. He wasn’t a politician, but he was a man you couldn’t help but like. In my better moments, I am my father, relentlessly unafraid of people and gregarious. In other moments, I’m the shy boy who doesn’t talk to strangers and hates to use the phone.

There’s probably never been a man who didn’t want his father to be proud of him and I sure wanted my Dad to be proud of me. He coached my brother and I in baseball when I was new to the league and not very good. He didn’t see me play a lot of sports after that, but I kept at it. One year, he came to Washington and watched me play flag football. He told me I was pretty good and that meant a lot to me.

That reminds me of a crazy thing that happened when we were on that baseball team together. One of our guys rounded third, headed for home and was beaten by five steps. You’ve all seen Pete Rose bull through a catcher and you’d think he try that. He didn’t. He channeled Bruce Lee instead and planted both of his feet in the catcher’s chest. When the other coach complained, ours piped back, “We score half our runs that way!” I can’t say for sure it was my Dad saying it, but you can sure imagine him that way.

He had a great outlook on life, always seeing the bright side and always seeing the best in people. We used to help out sometimes at the fairs, and I met some of the most interesting people working for him. I’m not sure that all of the people who worked for him could hold a job any place else, but when Russ came into town for the State Fair or their county fair, these people came out of the woodwork for him. They busted their butts for him and earned every dollar they got. He had a soft heart and so he was helping them, but he made sure they helped him right back. I lucked out. I got the sunny disposition and the ability to always see the good in people. He taught me that when you expect good things of people and they know it, good things happen.

I loved working the State Fair stand. My brother Rob and I worked the Detroit Grand Prix one year with him, and he just couldn’t believe us. We busted our butts, but we were loud, outgoing and boisterous. Kind of a caricature of him and we loved it. I helped out at the Tulip Festival one year, and he had Darlene working her fingers to the bone there too. I think Russ was the first one who actually got paid to work for him. He’d thought he’d have free labor with three boys and a hard-working girl, but he did pay us.

I met my wife Melissa back in 2002 and the old man had told me he wasn’t going to keep working the State Fair any more. So, I came to town and brought Melissa with me. She’d told me she wanted to work the stand for a day, too. He wasn’t so sure, because it really is hard work. She was persistent and he let her work. He had a way about him, when he wanted to think. He’d stand there with his arms crossed and his chin in his hand. Late in the day, when Melissa had worked hard the whole time, loving every minute, he stood there like that. He nodded, surprised she’d done it and impressed with her. He let me know I’d gotten the right gal and he was proud of me.

My Dad was a fitness nut before there were fitness nuts. He used to run, sometimes at night and make my Mom follow him the car. In his 70s, he could still lift 180 pounds over his head. He’d earned his black belt in Judo and he used to do this thing with his hands, like Bruce Lee almost, getting himself into position, letting out a little “Hyaaah!” He’d do it to be funny and I always laughed with him. Now, he wasn’t Jack Lalane, but he kept fit. He grew out of the nutty part of it, of course, but he never stopped staying in shape.

This isn’t the first time an obituary ran in the paper. A number of years back, we were at one of the St Francis reunions, and someone shook his hand and said how glad they were that he was still alive. Another Russ Navarre had his obituary in the Detroit News and this old friend had called the orphanage to let them know. The way he told it, when the orphanage called the house to express their condolences, he answered the phone and, channeling Mark Twain, replied that “rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated.”

One year, a few weeks before Christmas, I was struggling to figure out what to get him. It came to me in flash. Here was a guy with a bunch of great stories and here I was, a guy who loved to write. So, for Christmas, my gift to him was that we’d sit down together and I’d write his life story. Well, we’d talk about his stories some times and I’d ask probing questions because I knew we’d do this some day. Well, we never had the long sessions we needed to get it done, but this weekend, I started writing this.

But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love him once,—not without cause:
What cause withholds you, then, to mourn for him?—

—Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.

The funeral home obituary, which I think my sister Darlene wrote, has plenty of good photos.

Video of my eulogy:

When I read obituaries in the paper, my favorites are the ones after which I say to myself, “Gosh, I wish I’d known him.” One of my former co-workers, Eric, wrote “Now I miss him too.” I’m so happy to have been able to share the written and spoken versions of the eulogy and to have received compliments on them. I’m grateful that I got to speak to him on Father’s Day and tell him that I loved him, but sad that he had to tell me that he wished I’d call more often.

Dragoon-Colmar Commemoration 2014

In a big step, we’ve combined the Operation Dragoon and Colmar Pocket Commemorations for 2014 into one event, to be held at the Sheraton Pentagon City, 30 July to 3 August, 2014.

In another big step, it has it’s own website – 6thArmyGroup.com

All scheduling information, contact info and updates will be posted there, with supportive posts here.

10 percent off D-Day Issue
5 February 2014, 18:07
Filed under: Band of Brothers, Magazines, Normandy, Veterans, WWII | Tags: ,

One of my favorite magazines, America in WWII, has offered 10% off their special D-Day issue if you order before February 10th. It’s a hundred pages of articles, photos, maps and other goodies to pique your interest. I’m thinking of buying several so I can give them as presents. You can go straight to the shopping cart, or read the blurb first, then put it in your cart. It will ship around March 6th, so you’ll have it in plenty of time for the 70th anniversary. If anyone is going to the sold out Band of Brothers Actors Reunion (which will also include WWII veterans) in Normandy and is willing to take one copy to get autographed for me personally (no, not for me to sell on Ebay), let me know and I’ll buy you your own as well as the one for autographs.

Closure for grandpa, 70 years later
24 January 2014, 17:32
Filed under: POWs, Veterans, WWII | Tags: , , , ,

Since my wife and I have an abiding love for France, I read a number of blogs about France. Sometimes, it’s just an entry or two in a blog about something else entirely, but mostly, it’s blogs by Americans or Brits who’ve transplanted themselves to France.

Among the blogs I follow is pépère the cat. It’s written by a young English woman with French boyfriend who spent some time living in Paris and also visited Normandy (ding, ding, that’s what brought me to her blog!) It’s mostly slice-of-life things, with some nice photos while she was in France. However, she posted the most interesting thing the other day, about her grandfather, who fought in WWII in the RAF.

On 21 January 1944, during a bombing raid on Berlin, his plane was hit and he was forced to bail out. Not all of the crew did so, and after spending a year in a German prisoner of war camp, not knowing what happened to his friends haunted him. I’d heartily recommend you go read her piece as it is well-written and contains details which we have only sampled here.

You might also check the story of the funeral, with video, on the RAF website or the one from The Daily Mail, which has some outstanding photos. Neither is as well written as his granddaughter’s, but they do help round out the story.

Top-ranking posts

Being the end of the year, I thought I’d look at some statistics and share them.

My top-ranking posts since I started this blog is dominated by one post, but the top 5 are all good posts:

Thanksgiving 1944         1,413

This got a huge number of hits due to being linked at Ace of Spades, thanks to our friends at Bring the Heat. On Thanksgiving of 1944, Eisenhower ordered that all soldiers have a turkey dinner. For airborne engineer John Carter, that provided a very humorous story that I was able to post the video of. I have some further videos of an interview with Carter and a couple of other stories. He’s quite a comedian.

Young Marine Passes         297

While the Marine Corps is made up of strong men, they also have strong hearts. A couple of times recently, they’ve made young men with terminal illnesses honorary Marines. The story of Cody Green and his honor guard, SGT Mark Dolfini, can’t help but move one to tears.

Denzel Washington at the Fisher House         236

Denzel Washington is among my favorite actors. He has great range and conveys the emotions of his characters very well. Some of his roles have been as military men and he’s gotten attached to the Fisher House. Fisher House Foundation is best known for a network of comfort homes where military and veterans’ families can stay at no cost while a loved one is receiving treatment. When Washington visited the Fisher House at Brooke Army Medical Center in 2004, his generosity launched an urban legend.

The Beast of Omaha         148

Heinrich Severloh was a German machine gunner at Omaha Beach and the horrors he helped inflict that day stayed in his dreams until his death in 2006.

The end of an era         136

For about a decade, Paul Woodadge built up a battlefield tour business in Normandy, expanding from a one-man operation, hiring several others to lead tours. Battlebus was the best tour company in Normandy and even had tours in Bastogne. Unfortunately, running a complex business and dealing with French tax and employment laws meant that Paul stopped being able to lead tours himself. While I lamented the end of an era, it meant that Paul could go back to doing what he loved. He also had time to publish Angels of Mercy: Two Screaming Eagle Medics in Angoville-au-Plain on D-Day (Normandy Combat Chronicles) (Volume 1)

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