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

Weekend Wanderings: Sweet 16 Weekend 2011

Ah, the joys of the NCAA tournament continue. My own university bowed out in the first round, but I always enjoy watching the underdogs have a shot. Richmond and VCU were both underdogs and both from nearby Richmond, Virginia, so I was hoping for them to both win and face each other for a chance at the Final Four. Fortunately, VCU won their game, so I’m watching them push Kansas right now.

Thanksgiving 1944
25 November 2010, 10:09
Filed under: 517th, Operation Dragoon, Paratroopers, Veterans | Tags: , , ,

As I sit here in my living room, on the couch, with the puppy snuggling next to my hip, the rain outside doesn’t affect us. Of course, for the men in the airborne in 1944, Thanksgiving wasn’t necessarily so comfortable. At the Operation Dragoon event this August, I met John Carter, who served in an Airborne Engineering Company and an Airborne Signals Company. John Carter was attached to the 517th Parachute Infantry Regiment and, for Thanksgiving 1944, situated along the Italian border, protecting the right flank of the 6th Army Group as it marched north.

On November 23, 1944, this Thanksgiving message from General Eisenhower was broadcast  on the home front.

In this great war theater millions of America’s fighting men and their Allies are, by their courage, endurance and suffering, making daily headway against a fanatical enemy. They are surmounting unbelievable hardships and obstacles to insure to all of us the future right to live as free people. Mud, bitter cold, bullets and minefields cannot stop them if they are plentifully supplied and supported from the homeland. They need myriads of shells and tires and blankets and guns and planes – a thousand things to enable them to keep up the incessant pressure. These they must get from the money you lend to the government.

Another thing – they are entitled to the constant assurance of your understanding, of your resolution, and of your unflagging zeal in the cause for which they are offering their lives. To keep faith with them none of us can permit our minds and hearts to stray for a single second from the great task we have before us. In the current war bond drive, you once again have special opportunity to give these men the things they require and by so doing, reassure them and the whole world that the United States is a single, determined unit in working and fighting for complete victory.

There is just one way to gain the peace we want; each of us must work with ever increasing devotion and effectiveness up to the day the enemy capitulates.

We here – all of us – count upon you to over-subscribe the war loan and then to transform the money quickly into vital fighting equipment. It is needed, now.

Eisenhower also apparently decreed that every serviceman in the European Theater of Operations have turkey for Thanksgiving dinner. John Carter had volunteered for the Army. John Carter had volunteered for the Airborne. On Thanksgiving 1944, John volunteered to cook a Thanksgiving turkey on the front lines….

John’s wife, Fran, who is quite the pistol, says that John is allowed to cook at home despite the adventure of his 1944 Thanksgiving turkey. Fran built B-29s in Birmingham, Alabama, while John fought the Germans across France. After the war, they married and became professors at Samford University in Birmingham. In 1998, on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, Fran founded the American Rosie the Riveter Association. There’s a great article about them in American Profile magazine.

On this Thanksgiving, I’d like to give thanks to John and Fran Carter, as well as the rest of the Greatest Generation, for their efforts. The spirit that they embody lives today in our service men and women, serving at home and abroad with little thanks or recognition. God bless John and Fran. God bless our troops. Happy Thanksgiving to all….

Lessons NOT Learned
15 August 2010, 13:32
Filed under: Operation Dragoon | Tags: , ,

I attended the second annual Operation Dragoon conference over the last few days. It was, again, an amazing learning experience and a great opportunity to meet some of our World War II veterans. One evening, while I sat in the hotel bar, I got to pontificating a little bit, based on articles and books I’d read recently.

In the February issue of Naval Proceedings, there was an article by Dr Jim Lacey, entitled “Old Ideas Needed for a New War“. In the article, Lacey points out that “The Department of Homeland Security and even U.S. Special Operations Command are actually consulting science-fiction writers on a regular basis.” While this kind of ‘thinking outside the box’ can be commended, Lacey notes that it seems no one is asking military historians to look at the current situation to find examples in the past that might help today. This struck me as especially pertinent to our conference on Operation Dragoon, since it is so frequently forgotten when studying World War II.

So, as I sat there, trying not to sound to self-important, I mentioned that our planners really ought to be at the conference, soaking up “Lessons Learned”. A couple of chairs over, a senior officer was listening and asked, “Have you ever heard of a Lesson Not Learned?”

Sometimes, my junior-high, smart-aleck nature comes out, so I said that my life was full of them. If I’d learned the lessons the first time I made the mistake, I wouldn’t have made it twice.

While I did amuse myself with that, it got me wondering if anyone does look around for “Lessons Not Learned”. I wonder if that shows in any AAR’s? Because I assume that one of the points always covered is “Lessons Learned”, both as a way of showing what was learned and showing that you’re doing good analysis work (or at least engaging in appropriate Pentagon-speak).

History repeats itself, in a good way
3 August 2010, 16:36
Filed under: Normandy, Operation Dragoon | Tags: ,

This coming weekend, we’ll again be commemorating Operation Dragoon. Needless to say, I’m excited about the opportunity to learn more, but I’m also excited to be seeing some veterans I met last year. Jim Welsh, who fought with the 551st Parachute Infantry, is planning on flying up from Louisiana and we’ve already spoken about getting together for dinner. I hope that the two 509th veterans that I met last year (Katz and Devaney) are there again as well, since I picked up LT Hugh Hogan’s copy of Bail Out Over North Africa. (Hogan was an officer in the 509th and he signed his copy and wrote in the margins as well.)

Also, we’ve got our plans all sorted for our annual trip to Normandy. We’ll be there in October for a week (plus a few days in Burgundy to start, staying in a B&B run by a winemaker we met last year.) One of the best parts of that is that Paul Woodadge has let me know that he’d like me to tag along when he has a few spare hours during our visit. Quite a treat!

Forgotten Operation? Not by these men….

This past week I had Christmas in August. When I went to Normandy in June, I imagined that I would be surrounded by veterans and that I would be able to directly interact with them nearly constantly. I also assumed that I’d be able to find a way to volunteer some of my time while we were there to help some of these men out with mundane logistical or creature comforts during our visit. Sadly, it didn’t turn out like that at all. I did see a few veterans, but got little personal time with them (what interaction I did have was fantastic and emotionally moving for me) and found that the few people we asked about providing help already had it covered.

So, when word reached me that there was going to be an Operation Dragoon event in Arlington during the first few days of August, I immediately reached out to CPT Monika Stoy (USA-Ret) to see if I could help. It was the best idea I’d had in a long time.

The event was being put on by Outpost Europe of the Society of the 3rd Infantry Division, which meant that CPT Stoy and her husband, COL Tim Stoy, threw themselves and a few volunteers vigorously into it without knowing if anyone would help. I provided only a tiny bit of assistance, but got back far more than I could have imagined possible.

When I arrived late on Tuesday afternoon to see what I could do to help, Monika welcomed me and Tim started showing me the materials they’d gathered for display. While we were looking at some photos, COL Morton Katz wandered up and pointed out Doc Alden (Battalion Surgeon, 509 PIB) in the photo, at which point Tim explained that the reason he recognized COL Katz  was because the fellow standing next to Doc Alden. I was very quietly stunned, as Doyle Yardley’s diaries (see my initial blog entry) remark frequently on Doc Alden’s amorous escapades. It got better when the gentleman standing next to COL Katz turned out to be COL Bill Yarborough’s son, Lee. My head was practically spinning as Lee took me to the front of the room to show off the poster made for his father, which showed the beret and Special Forces knife that he introduced. Then, Lee gave me a coin. It’s the unit coin for the LTG William P. Yarborough Chapter of the Special Forces Association. Quickly, I was invited to dinner and treated as a member of the group. Heady stuff for an amateur historian who never served.

One of our local Boy Scouts, COL Martin Katz, John Devanie and Mrs Katz next to the Audie Murphy memorial

One of our local Boy Scouts, COL Morton Katz, John Devanie and Mrs Katz next to the Audie Murphy memorial.

The next 24 hours were terrific. I showed up a few minutes late for my morning task of helping to transport the colors for the various units over to the amphitheatre at Arlington National Cemetery, but they’d managed to sort things out without me. Curse my lack of punctuality for that. It did, however, give me a chance to hover around the lobby while I awaited the return of our organizers. So, I spoke to Lee Yarborough again, as well as a Colonel and Command Sergeant Major from the 36th Infantry Division. As the veterans gathered, I wandered over and started to chat with COL Katz and John Devanie, who served in the 509th starting with the Avellino drop. I was able to chat with the both of them on and off all day, then got them both to autograph my copy of COL Yardley’s diaries, since it is the only book that I have on the 509th right now.

As a former Scoutmaster, I was overjoyed that a number of Boy Scouts were in attendance and, since I’m used to working with Scouts, I took multiple opportunities to provide encouragement to them, so that they would interact more with the veterans. I remember walking from the 3rd Division memorial to the Audie Murphy memorial and listening to one of the veterans asking his Scout “guide” how his work on his Eagle was going. The veteran explained that there were 21 merit badges required (there still are), but that there were no Eagle Projects back then. His own sons made Eagle and he knew how hard the project was for Scouts. I’m never sure whether Scouts understand how amazing some of the opportunities that being a Scout provides, but I know that having an adult express interest in their progress always makes a difference. That probably magnifies a lot when the interested adult is a hero, and these men are heroes. I may follow up with some of the units so that these guys can get a handle on exactly who the veterans were. Certainly, visiting Audie Murphy’s gravesite had to impress any of them who’ve studied military history, but I’m guessing that none of them knew much in advance about Operation Dragoon.

Donald G. "George" Spears (F/2/517) and his wife

Don G. “George” Spears (F/2/517) and his wife

From the remove of 65 years, details often escape these men. On the other hand, some details never leave you. I asked George Spears during lunch about his unit and his recollections of his D-Day. I wondered if the drop was as screwed up like the one in Normandy, so I asked how long it was before he hooked up with other paratroopers. George said he hadn’t even gotten out of his harness and started assembling his rifle before an officer and a group of men came along the road. He said that you would recognize the officers from other units even if you didn’t know their names, so he joined up with them and spent the next four days as a runner at the Regimental Command Post. They’d lie around near the command post resting, waiting for an assignment, then, when called, head wherever they needed to go. We sat with a few soldiers from Fort Myer, including Specialist Nevarez who served in the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Italy and had one tour in Iraq. George was honest to a fault, relating when he simply couldn’t remember something. I truly enjoyed our lunch together, especially seeing how much his wife and he look after each other. As I lingered after lunch, I found George’s photo in his uniform posted along the walls, and, you know, he hasn’t changed all that much. Don Spears during WWII(Vimeo of George Spears)

I also got a chance to compliment COL Laura Richardson, who serves as the commander of the Fort Myer Military Community, having served as a Battalion Commander in Operation Iraqi Freedom. I pointed out that she wear jump wings, served in the 101st and was awarded the Bronze Star. I fumbled and said it was two Bronze Stars, though that does leave out a whole host of other awards and decorations. Of course, since Don was a paratrooper, it was probably unnecessary for me to point out the jump wings. I’d listened to the Colonel speak at the Inter-Service Club Council annual luncheon, held at the Army-Navy Country Club and had become an instant admirer.

During the Tuesday evening historical panel, a number of veterans went up to the front of the room and recounted some of their experiences very briefly. One veteran spoke about a German column they trapped outside Montelimar. The Germans were falling back, with horse-drawn carts, since they had few vehicles. He related that someone had destroyed the head of the convoy and they called in airstrikes that devastated the column. One of the veterans came up to ask about Montelimar later and said he didn’t remember any of that. Historian John McManus was on the panel and asked a few questions. McManus found out that the veteran had been in a Sergeant Connor’s squad (SGT Connor apparently had some incredible exploits on the day of the invasion, though all our veteran could remember was being guided around the minefields by a French partisan when they landed), so in all likelihood, the horror of the devastation of that convoy has blotted the incident from his memory. During our luncheon, an engineer spoke about the terrifying cleanup, which included not just German soldiers, but also many horses and French camp-followers who were retreating with the Germans.

Sometimes, when they spoke of their friends who never came home from southern France, or who didn’t survive the Battle of the Bulge, they paused. Chins would waver and their eyes would get misty. Not a day goes by that these men don’t remember Operation Dragoon, but in our focus on everything else, we sometimes forget. One gentleman recalled that when his Division was preparing to ship back to England later in the war, they were waiting alongside another unit that had fought in Normandy. One of those soldiers, seeing an unfamiliar Division patch shouted out, derisively,  “Where were you guys on D-Day?” The 3rd Division troops, which had landed in North Africa, Sicily, Salerno, Anzio and southern France (5 D-Days!) and responded, “Which one?”

Though my own research will generally focus on Normandy, I will endeavor to remember the efforts of these and other men whose efforts have not been hailed so luminously.

65th anniversaries
17 July 2009, 09:18
Filed under: Books | Tags: , ,

Last year, my lovely wife asked me if I’d be interested in returning to Normandy for the 65th anniversary of D-Day. Of course, I nearly jumped out of my chair. She fell in love with Normandy on our honeymoon and wanted to go back. We are likely to go back several times, I’m sure. We even discussed the idea of moving there, though that is a rather slim possibility for now.

Bill Galbraith and Manny Barrios, with Roger Day in the background

Bill Galbraith and Manny Barrios, with Roger Day in the background

So, we went to Normandy, stayed in a self-catering Gite, toured with Battlebus and visited many sites. The highlight of the trip for me was meeting four men: Roger Day, Ian Gardner, Manny Barrios and Bill Galbraith. Manny and Bill are veterans of I Company, 3rd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment. Roger and Ian wrote a book about the 506th, Tonight We Die As Men, and the four of them were signing it at the Dead Man’s Corner Museum. I’d heard about it from Paul Woodadge, who runs the Battlebus battlefield tour company, since he would be spending most of June 6th there. Both Ian and Roger were friendly, engaging and seemed honestly interested in my own little research project on Edson Raff.

When Bill was signing my book, I told him about Melissa’s father having served two tours in Viet Nam with the Signal Corps and I let Bill know what an honor it was to meet him. Melissa says that both Bill and I got a little misty over it. As I was talking to Roger, someone thanked Manny prodigiously and Manny said, “I don’t know why you’re thanking me. These fellas wrote the book.” To have given so much, but to expect so little is one of the things that distinguishes these heroes. There’s no pounding of their chests and proclamations that they’re “the greatest”. I’ve often heard veterans say that the heroes are the ones who didn’t come home. The humility and clarity of thought is amazing. Manny, we can’t thank them, so, please, let us thank you….

I got to talking to Roger in more depth about my research and he recommended Charlie Turnbow’s book (and another on the 509th that is out of print and currently selling for about $300). He perked up when he’d heard me talking to Ian about Edson Raff, so when I got down to that end of the line, he was percolating with information and ideas. It was such a pleasure to have someone know who I was talking about and where to look for more information. I’ve now received Charlie’s book from his wife, Beverly, and have started to read it. In a way, studying these men is a way of joining a community. There are other souls out there who are interested in the same things I am, and are eager to share their knowledge. They seem, as I know I do, overjoyed when they find another who shares their compulsion. Some of the joy of life is in sharing, be it sharing bread, sharing wine, sharing labor or sharing knowledge.

On August 4th and 5th, I’ll be attending events to honor the veterans of Operation Dragoon, to be held at the Sheraton Arlington. More opportunities to be with veterans and amongst the members of this community of historians.

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