Wednesday, September 11, 2019

SEPTEMBER REMEMBER

On this anniversary of 9-11 I'm stepping aside in favor of Cdr. R.R. "Boom" Powell, former naval aviator, former airline captain and active historic aircraft pilot.  With our unindicted co-conspirator Cdr. Jack Woodul, we wrote a WW I epic called "Duel Over Douai," but this heartfelt contribution from Boom commends its attention to all...yesterday, today and tomorrow.

A flight to New York, late September, 2001:
I saw Ground Zero last evening. Marie told me to look for the hole. I said I did not think anything would be visible. Weather was poor, flight path not close. I was wrong.
After flying mostly above the clouds from Norfolk while the sun set and a gray and turbulent descent, visibility underneath was crystal clear with urban lights glowing off the cloud base. The Verazzano Bridge was a positive fix. To the west, the Statue of Liberty was lighted with her torch and crown shining gold even at a distance. Up New York Harbor the buildings of lower Manhattan rose like dark cliffs from the water. Emanating from the ground in their midst was a bright light, volcanic in intensity. The source of the light hidden by the dark sided buildings. Unearthly. Strange. An apocalyptic radiance of catastrophe. Its brightness made starker by the dark shadows of the standing structures. Ground Zero indeed. An opening to hell… except for the light’s color.
The light was pure, clear, white. White; all colors, but no color. White; the color of heaven, the color of snow, of summer cloud, the color of hope.
I stayed with my face against the airplane window until the vision was well past. There were glimpses of the arc lamps illuminating rescue and reclamation efforts – almost blinding in the night, but then the source was shielded again and only the fountain of light flooded up and out making the clouds as white as day. The rain had restarted when we got off at La Guardia and the wind was cold, biting, from the north. The summer of 2001 is gone. And there is a lighted hole in Manhattan and our country’s soul.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

HISTORIC AUGUST

There are historic dates in every month, from January 1 (George Washington displayed the Grand Union Flag, 1776) to December 31 (Thomas Edison demonstrated his incandescent lamp, 1879).  But August (named for Augustus Caesar) has a wide variety of notable anniversaries, and besides, I’ve waited til the last minute for this month’s blog.

For starters, the eighth month originally was named Sextilis as the sixth month in ancient Rome. But following chronological realignment, it became August in 8 B.C. to honor Emperor Augustus Caesar (63 BC to 14 AD).

Three Roman cities were destroyed on August 24, 79 A.D. (the date is often debated) when Mount Vesuvius erupted in southern Italy.  The death toll at Pompei, Herculaneum and other places remains unknown but certainly ran into thousands.

(Skipping forward, in August 1883 catastrophic eruptions on the Indonesian island of Krakatoa spurred tidal waves 120 feet high, killing as many as 36,000 people. Scientists later calculated the five cubic miles of earth were blasted perhaps 50 miles into the mesosphere.)

“In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”  Remember that from grade school?  Me too. Actually, on August 3 the future Admiral of the Ocean Sea set sail from Spain with his three-ship “fleet” bound for a short cut to the Far East.  Three months later he fetched up somewhere in the Bahamas, and the rest, as they say, is politically incorrect history.

Ninety-one years later—August 5, 1583--Sir Humphrey Gilbert established the first British colony in North America.  On the Newfoundland coast he claimed St. John’s Harbor in the name of Queen Elizabeth. The noted explorer was not so fortunate on the return leg, sunk in a storm near the Azores.

For a week in Philadelphia during 1787 The Great Debate occurred in the Constitutional Convention.  The upshot was confirming a four-year term for president, ceding Congress the right to regulate foreign and interstate trade, and naming a committee to finalize a draft of the Constitution.  Some 232 years later, members of Congress who have sworn to Preserve and Protect that blessed document are trying hard to destroy it.  And there’s no penalty for Violation of Oath.

On August 21, 1863, during the American Civil War, Confederate leader William Quantrill led 450 mounted guerrillas in a predawn raid in Lawrence, Kansas.  The riders left about 150 residents dead, dozens wounded, and much of the town in ruin.  “Bloody Bill” had been denied a regular commission by the Confederate war cabinet, describing his attitude as barbaric.  He removed any doubt of that assessment. 

On August 19, 1934 German voters overwhelmingly granted additional powers to Chancellor Adolf Hitler, including the office of president.  Thus, one-man rule was codified, paving the sanguinary road to the Second World War.

On August 2, 1939 German expatriate Albert Einstein wrote President Franklin Roosevelt about the prospect for nuclear weapons, noting “A single bomb of this type carried by boat (The B-29 was barely in the drafting stage) and exploded in a port might very well destroy the whole port together with some of the surrounding territory.”

The rest, as they, say is radioactive history.

Actually, it’s short-term history because six years later almost to the day a B-29 Superfortress flew from Tinian in the Marianas to Hiroshima in Japan and dropped a 9,700-pound “gadget” that destroyed the city.  Optimists hoped that the 1945 shock and awe would force Tokyo’s doom-laden war cabinet to surrender but it took another A-bomb three days later, August 9, to obliterate most of Nagasaki.  Emperor Hirohito over-rode his war ministers on the 15th, effectively ending the world’s most destructive war.

(Other WW II August events included the first U.S. offensive of the war at Guadalcanal in 1942 and the Anglo-American conquest of Sicily in 1943.)

The true nature of Communism became evident on August 13,1961, with the first phase of the Berlin Wall.  Eventually the East German regime built more than 100 miles of wall around West Berlin, occupied by the Allies and the Soviets since 1945.  In 1987 President Ronald Reagan famously called, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”  It lasted until 1990, yet today addled American liberals insist that a border fence to keep foreigners out is equivalent to a Communist barrier to keep people in.                                  

In 1964 the “Tonkin Gulf Incident” sent America spinning uncontrollably into a decade-long Crazy Asian War.  Thing is: the first incident on August 2 did occur with North Vietnamese PT boats engaging an American destroyer.  The next “incident” two nights later never occurred—a fact evident to then-Commander James B. Stockdale, an aviator and the only witness to both events.  Some military and political leaders in DC suspected that panic-stricken U.S. sailors misinterpreted radar data but it didn’t matter to the vile Lyndon B. Johnson.  Only 90 days from a tough presidential election, he used the incident as proving he was  Tough On Commanism (he was from Texas, after all), and ordered retaliatory air strikes. 

The rest, as they say, is grief-stricken history to the tune of 58,000 dead Americans, the loss of much of Indochina to Commanism, and political-cultural fault lines that remain today.

In 1969 the three-day Woodstock music and hedonistic revel began in a farm field near Bethel, New York.  Reportedly between 300,000 and 400,000 youngsters grooved to a couple of dozen rock and roll bands, representing the growing 1960s counter-culture movement.  Among the groups performing were Santana; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; Jefferson Airplane; and my favorite, Creedence Clearwater Revival.  Despite the mixture of drugs and a boisterous good-times atmosphere, apparently only two deaths ensued.  The first (predictably) was an overdose but the second (surprisingly) involved a celebrant who fell asleep or passed out under a tractor, unknown to the driver.

The iconic American of the postwar era died in a Memphis hospital on August 16, 1977. Elvis Aaron Presley succumbed to heart failure at age forty-two.  The King was dead after a twenty-one-year reign.  And no other Music Monarch has come close to matching him.  

The half-century Cold War effectively ended (see 1961) on August 29, 1991 with a failed coup to preserve the tottering Soviet Communist Party.  Thus passed the Evil Empire. Yet some Russians—and others including Americans—still bemoan the passing of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.      

Friday, July 19, 2019

THE BROWNINGS OF JULY

I’m a huge admirer of John Moses Browning (1855-1926).  Gun guys will immediately know why—he invented a huge number and variety of firearms from single-shots to machine guns, and most of the automatic weapons used by the U.S. armed forces in World War II were of JBM origin.  They included the Browning Automatic Rifle, the fabled BAR, our standard squad automatic weapon.  The belt-fed weapons included the M1919 lightweight infantry weapon adapted as a secondary aircraft weapon, and the classic M1917 water-cooled. And of course the fabled M2 .50 caliber, still being used as the iconic “Ma Deuce.”  In an NRA article a few years ago I called it “The Gun That Won the War.”  I stand by that assessment.

However, Browning’s most enduring conception remains the M1911 .45 caliber pistol.  Aside from its century-and-counting service life, it’s my sentimental and operational favorite.  A Colt Government Model was the first firearm I purchased—my “Bicentennial Gun” in 1976.  I still have it, and it still shoots just fine.

But 75 years ago this month both the M1911 pistol and M1917 watercooled MG featured in three Medal of Honor actions on a Pacific island.  From before World War I to the present, about sixty Medals have been earned by 1911 shooters.

The Marianas campaign of mid-1944 was strategically important because with those islands in U.S. hands, Tokyo and most of the Japanese homeland fell within range of Boeing B-29 Superfortresses.  But first the main Marianas had to be occupied by U.S. Army and Marine Corps troops, beginning with Saipan.  (Object of the U.S. Fifth Fleet in “The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot” of June 19-20.)

In the 27th Infantry Division was 29-year-old Captain Benjamin L. Solomon, medical officer of the 2nd Battalion, 105th Infantry Regiment.  He was a rare talent: a USC dental school graduate who began his practice before being drafted in 1940.  A standout “rookie” soldier, he was described by other soldiers as “the best infantryman I ever saw.”  Others described him as “A nice Jewish dentist.”  Eventually he wore sergeant’s stripes leading a section of Browning heavy machine guns—knowledge that would serve him extremely well.

Apparently Salomon would have been happy to remain a plain GI, but his dental diploma commended him to the army medical hierarchy.  He was commissioned an officer and went ashore with the 105th Infantry on Saipan in early July.

On the morning of July 7 at least 3,000 Japanese swarmed though a 300-yard gap in the regiment’s perimeter.  Salomon had established an aid station only 50 yards behind the firing line, which quickly accumulated casualties.  Squatting over one patient, Salomon saw a Japanese emerge from the brush to begin bayoneting injured GIs.  Seizing a rifle, the medico shot the killer.  When six more enemy broke into the tent, Salomon shot one, bayonetted another, knifed one and grappled with the others until his friends slew them.

Recognizing the huge disparity of numbers, Salomon advised the wounded to withdraw to the regimental aid station father back.  Then he grabbed another rifle and exited the tent where he found a familiar weapon: an M1917 Browning with a dead crew.  The bespectacled doctor sat behind the gun, shouting for his friends to evacuate wounded while he covered their withdrawal.  He continued firing until he was killed.

A day or so later, members of the 105th cleared the battlefield.  Another medic noted dried blood trails and concluded that Salomon had moved the 100-pound Browning, tripod and ammunition three times despite fatal wounds.  Part of the reason: there were 98 Japanese corpses in the area, and apparently Salomon had killed most of them.  He moved each time to regain a field of fire around the heaped bodies.

Salomon was recommended for the Medal of Honor but the 27th Division commander, while sympathetic, was limited by regulations prohibiting medical personnel from bearing arms.  

Nonetheless, Ben Salomon’s fellow soldiers and admirers persisted for more than half a century.  They were denied by reviews in 1958 and 1972 until finally justice was done.  In 2002 President George W. Bush presented Salomon’s medal to the doctor’s alma mater: the University of California in Southern California School of Dentistry.  

On the same day as Salomon’s action, July 7, another soldier in the 105th Infantry also faced vastly greater numbers with a Browning design.  Private Thomas A. Baker, a 28-year-old New Yorker, already had distinguished himself on Saipan using a bazooka and small arms.  

On the 7th Baker was critically wounded in a close-range firefight but refused evacuation. He continued firing at the swarming Japanese until he ran out of ammunition, then was carried by a friend about 50 yards toward the rear until the good Samaritan was shot.  Recognizing the reality, Baker asked for a pistol to help cover his friends’ retreat.  He hefted a fully loaded M1911, resolving to make optimum use of the eight rounds.

As other soldiers withdrew, their last view of Baker was resting against a phone pole, facing the direction of the inevitable assault.  When the ground was reclaimed, his body was found with the pistol’s slide locked back—surrounded by eight enemy corpses.  Tom Baker had shot “a possible.”

The third Medal of Honor to a 105th man involved two iconic Browning designs, also on July 7. Another New Yorker, 44-year-old Lieutenant Colonel William J. O’Brien, led the First Battalion in resisting probably the largest Banzai attack of the Pacific War.  He organized his companies in a hard-pressed defense of their line but enemy numbers were too great.  With fighting down to arm-wrestling distance, O’Brien seized two M1911s and stalked up and down the line, shooting one with each hand.  He ignored repeated wounds and, with his pistols empty, he climbed into a jeep with an M2 .50 caliber machine gun.  As GIs withdrew, their last view of the colonel was standing behind the gun, shooting down Japanese pouring around him.  

Three men from the same unit using the same classic weapons against fearsomely lethal odds. All honor to them, their fellow soldiers—and to John M. Browning.