The Angel of Mayres Heights

The Angel of Mayres Heights

All God’s angels come to us disguised.  ~James Russell Lowell

December, 1862 – The 120,000 man Union Army of the Potomac moved sluggishly south into Northern Virginia, a large clumsy bear trying to swipe a mortal blow against the frustratingly nimble grey fox, Robert E Lee and his 72,500 man army of Northern Virginia – a wounded but dangerous foe still reeling from its near annihilation at Antietam in September.

The Federal plan called for speed and deception – feigning a move on nearby towns along the Rappahannock, only to cross the river and rapidly claim the town of Fredericksburg, engaging pieces of Lee’s fragmented army.  Through brute force and overwhelming odds, the Federals would carry the war to Richmond and crush the Southern rebellion.  Yet, the Union army suffered from weak and serially indecisive leadership.  The inept Maj. General Ambrose Burnside, a failed Rhode Island businessman wracked with self-doubt, led the Federals.  Months earlier, his ultra conservative brinksmanship on a stone bridge at Antietam turned a certain Federal rout of the Confederates into a desperate draw.  Despite his obvious mediocrity, the corpulent Burnside was deemed by Lincoln as the best available choice to replace an even greater incompetent General George McClellan whose patrician insubordination and penchant for avoiding battle led to his dismissal.

The Union Right, Center and Left Grand divisions led respectively by Major Generals Sumner, Hooker and Franklin were facing the cream of the Confederacy – Robert E Lee, Longstreet, Pickett, AP Hill, Anderson, Early, McLaws and J.E.B Stuart.  The Federals had wasted a month getting into position to launch their “surprise “attack, electing to wait to assemble pontoon bridges to cross the Rappahannock instead of crossing at shallower fords and more rapidly engaging a divided enemy before the entire army of Northern Virginia could reassemble.  As Burnside equivocated, Lee built formidable defenses, President Lincoln fumed and the fate of thousands of young men was decided.

The union army 2nd Corps and 4th Corps finally crossed the Rappahannock on December 12th where they proceeded to loot Fredericksburg while dodging artillery and sniper fire. Among those bivouacking on the even of battle was private William O Grady and other Irish soldiers of 63rd, 69th and 88th NY infantry, three Gaelic brigades of immigrants, many conscripted straight off ships as they arrived in America fleeing famine and hardships suffered under colonial England.  Pressed into service to defend their adopted country, the boys from counties such as Sligo, Mayo and Wexford were mustered under Capt. Thomas Francis Meagher in the 2nd brigade of the 1st Division, 2nd Army Corps.  Meagher was a charismatic leader and political fugitive, once indicted for sedition by the English government and sent to Tasmania, only to escape to NY and enlist to lead his native countryman.

The chaplain of the brigade was Jesuit priest William Corby who would later become the President of Notre Dame University.  On the frigid evening of December 12, a light snow swirled as O’Grady and his comrades from the fighting 69th gathered around makeshift fires playing Celtic Christmas carols on fife, violin and guitar.  Across a quarter mile canyon of killing ground, a young Confederate from South Carolina, 19 year old Sergeant Richard Kirkland, listened to acoustic shadows as he stood picket duty, stomping his feet to warm frigid toes.  Behind him, the men of Kershaw’s 2nd South Carolinians prepared their defense behind a sunken stone wall at the elevated crest of a ridge known simply as Maryes Heights.

The fifth son of a religious, fourth generation Southern family, Kirkland enlisted to defend South Carolina interests against Northern aggression.  In the months preceding Fredericksburg, Kirkland’s idealism was shredded by the shrapnel battles of Bull Run and Antietam where he witnessed friends killed and the terrifying reality of modern warfare.  He lay awake that evening staring at an endless ocean of union fires and dancing shadows.  He knew that the next morning would be the last dawn for many of these men.

The battle opened slowly with assaults across a field of hard morning frost and swirling ground fog.  Union soldiers moved through fields of fire that sloped up from assault positions, climbing across over 800 yards of open, frozen ground.  “ The generals cannot be foolish as to order us up that hill” reassured Chaplain Corby to his worried men.  He was dead wrong.  At 1pm and again at 3:30pm in the dying flat twilight of the day, O’Grady and 1200 men of the Irish brigade were ordered to launch a suicidal charge.  Clutching their regimental colors that were stitched with the Gaelic expression ”Faugh a ballagh” or “ Clear the way”; Union officers ordered 16 individual charges into a fusillade of Southern rifle, canister and solid shot.  Not a single Union solider reached within 30 yards of the stone bulwark six deep with butternut sharpshooters.

As dusk descended on the inferno, 6300 men laid dead and wounded in the ebony expanse of no man’s land that stretched between the Confederate and Union lines.  As frozen rain turned to snow and temperatures plummeted, soldiers were tormented by cries of agony and pleas for help from the wounded.  Kirkland covered his ears and turned away at the haunted entreaties.  As the night yielded to an apocalyptic dawn of death, Kirkland could stand it no longer.  He leapt into action, gathering up canteens, risking certain death to administer first aid to enemies that only hours before were seeking to kill him.

With permission from a very reticent General Kershaw, Kirkland made it to O’Grady and several wounded Irish soldiers, carefully cradling their heads in his hand as he gently offered them water.  A sniper’s bullet pitched up frozen earth near Kirkland’s foot.  Another shot hit an adjacent body with a thud.  Kirkland moved quickly to more men.  Soon, a Union officer ascertained what the young man was doing and ordered his men, “ cease fire.  Don’t shoot that man.  He is too brave to die.”  The dead were stacked like cordwood as Kirkland moved frozen bodies rigid with rigor mortis, attempting to find soldiers in need of attention.   By the end of day, he returned to his lines exhausted but forever immortal. Months later, Kirkland and two friends were leading a Confederate counter attack up Snodgrass Hill at Chickamauga, Tennessee.  Finding himself and his friends too far extended beyond his lines, he turned to retreat to safety and was shot in the back.  As he lay dying, he asked his friend to “ tell my pa I died right”.  He was 20 years old.

At Christmas, we are moved by the magic of the yuletide season.  It is a time when visions of angels inspire us and goodwill and compassion can transform any man.  It is a time where we reveal our gentler natures and humanity.  We recognize that there are no burning bushes, only people who serve a higher and nobler purpose in life.  To risk one’s life to save a stranger is to express the ultimate love that was proffered by God when he sent his only son to earth to bring the word of God to man. Perhaps the Kirkland memorial at Fredericksburg best defines what it means to be an angel:  “Dedicated to Sgt Richard Kirkland CSA – At the risk of his life, this American of sublime passion brought water to his wounded foes at Fredericksburg.  The fighting men on both sides called him the Angel of Maryes Heights.

The Christmas Truce of 1914

A cross, left near Ieper in Belgium in 1999, t...
Image via Wikipedia

Any traveler touring rural England often first stumbles upon a village by spying the distinct silhouette of an ancient Norman church. Buttressed by low stone walls, spring-time dafodils and ancient graveyards, the house of worship date back to eleventh century and are a living memorial to those who lived, toiled and died within the shadows of its spire.

Upon entering the narthex of these sacred places, alcoves and recessed memorials are dedicated to those who fell in the Great War.

World War I left a deeper and more jagged scar on the British Isles than any conflict in its nation’s history.  The human losses were incomprehensible – – 60,000 dead in the first few hours of the Somme, 1,000,000 dead at Verdun. Soldiers were often recruited and organized from villages and districts. The result was close knit regiments, brigades and battalions that fought and died together in close quarters – -often holding one another’s heads above the clutching mud, searing gas and devastating artillery.

On September 15, 1915, 10,000 British soldiers were ordered to attack a German salient near the town of Loos in Northeastern France.  Over the course of a 3 ½ hour slaughter, the brigades from Manchester, Northumberland and Connaught lost 8,246 men with no German casualties.  In a single engagement, entire villages within a fifty kilometer radius lost every man between 18 to 40 years old.  In the Memoirs of Flakenhayn, the German General Lundendorff was heard to comment to another officer, “The English soldiers fight like lions” – – to which the other German officer quipped, “True .  But don’t we know that they are lions led by donkeys”.

In WWI, the last gasp of 19th century civility was suffocated by the brutal advances in the technology of killing and the arrogant and incompetent military leadership that valued bravado over brains.  In the sumer of 1914, the initial German had ground to a halt resulting in a vicious stalemate and hundreds of miles of jagged trench line that stretched like a sutured wound from Belgium into Southern France.  British officers emboldened by decades of success in Colonial wars fighting third world native forces naively the war would be over in a matter of weeks.  Completing the confederacy of incompetence were French officers who believed that honor and élan could overcome kill zones of enfilading artillery and a no man’s land of unmerciful and interlocking machine guns.  Millions were ordered “over the top” of their trench lines to certain death.

Those alive in December, 1914, say it started with a spontaneous truce afforded by each side to bury those left dead on a denuded battlefield.  Letters that would be smuggled past censors to loved ones in Germany and England attested to the miracle that began with a snowflake of compassion — Germans and Brits meeting On Christmas Eve to exchange small gifts such as cigarettes, chocolate and food.  Peace became infectious and the entire Western front soon fell into an unintended armistice as small pockets of soldiers met drank beer, sang Christmas carols and even played games of soccer with tin cans as footballs and spiked helmets as goal posts.  “Fritz” and “Tommy” joined together in the common humanity of Christmas – – creating an enduring mythology that rose like a heavenly chorus above the bullets and bombs that had savaged and broke a generation of  young men.  From Ypres to the La Basee Canal, it was truly a silent night.

In some sectors of the trench line, the Christmas truce was occurring in direct contradiction to military orders.  Officers were urged to round up enlisted men who were engaged in “ the destructive action of fraternization with the enemy”.  Sir John French, in command of British forces wrote disdainfully, “individual unarmed men run from across the German trenches to ours holding Christmas trees above their heads.  These overtures were in some places favorably received and fraternization took place throughout the day. It appeared that a little feasting went on and junior officers, NCOs and men on either side conversed together in No Man’s land. When this was reported to me, I issued immediate orders to prevent any reoccurrence of such conduct and called the local commanders to strict account….”  Before being relieved of command for incompetence, French was successful in presiding over the systematic slaughter of thousands of English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh soldiers in exchange for, in some cases, meters of ground won.

The truce became a heroic stand for common man in his struggle against the insanity and the cruel machinery of war.  It also proved that the only thing stronger than hate and war — was indeed love and the humanity that it nurtures.  The world may never again witness a war as senseless, devastatingly efficient in its slaughter or tragic in its consequences.  As your fingers trace the names of the dead, etched in marble, you can feel the souls swirling and rising –the voices of young men taken too soon, ripped from the moorings of a life whose book was sill unwritten.  Yet, in the darkness and hopeless moments, a light flickers in all men.  Each understood being so near to death the precious gift of life and in recognition, they offered Thanksgiving for the chance to rise to see another dawn. If you stand at Ypres and concentrate, you can almost see them – haunted, muddied gray and green khaki shadows moving like echoes and memories across a wooded landscape long since silent.  You can see their faces in pale candlelight, the shattered eighteen year old German from Munich shaking hands with the ancient 24 year-old NCO from Stow-on-the Wold.  They perhaps gesture, exchanging a canteen and hang a piece of ribbon on an ersatz Christmas evergreen, both men longing for a Christmas at home.  One might try to describe his tradition of cutting a hunter green fir in the deep snows of a Bavarian mountain forest while the other listened, dragging on a cigarette as he imagined the warm light of the pub, spilling across a crisp, frosted pasture on an ebony Gloustershire night.

In the end, the truce would not last.  The Generals and the killing machines prevailed. The march of folly carried on for three more bloody years.  In May of 1915, Lieutenant Col. John McCrae wrote a poem to memorialize the death of his friend, Lt. Alexis Helmer, 22 years old, who had been killed in battle the prior day.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved, and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.

In this holiday season, it is important to remember that miracles still happen.  As in all things, miracles come in the form of people – – soldiers hunched and homesick in a cold foreign bivouac,  a person acting against injustice or the those who choose to put the interest of others above themselves.  As was the case of the Christmas Truce of 1914,  the love of God, stubborn humanity and a common instinct to survive, found a way to grind the great machinery of war and hate to a standstill. And though it lasted for a few brief moments, it’s power reminded everyone that peace, not war, remains the greatest conqueror of all time.

In the Shade of Valor

In the Shade of Valor

Valor is a gift. Those having it never know for sure whether they have it until the test comes. And those having it in one test never know for sure if they will have it when the next test comes. – Carl Sandburg

London’s Imperial War Museum is at once a memorial, a museum and a monument to the tragedies and triumphs of war. Prior to WWII, the sun never set on the British Empire and imperial England sacrificed generations of young men to protect its colonial interests around the globe.  Once the makers of history, the British are now expert as curators of the past. Yet, it is through preserving history and traditions that nations might avoid the snares and quagmires that ultimately bring them to their knees.

The museum covers several floors and features unique exhibits that offer a covert peek into the history of espionage, the terrifying experience of enduring the Blitz in a civilian bomb shelter in 1940 London and a 30 foot trench line along the Somme in the First World War – a four year apocalypse that claimed 21 million lives and ushered in a period of modern conflict that Winston Churchill called, “the woe and ruin of the terrible twentieth century. The jagged scars from centuries of warfare are everywhere as you bear witness to the arrogance of governments, the folly of generals and the uncommon valor of men, women and children who shouldered the savagery of warfare as it ripped from their lives any semblance of civility, humanity or hope.

I always return to the exhibit on those who won the Victoria Cross – –  Britain’s highest medal of valor. As you read these vignettes and solemnly gaze upon the ancient sepia photos of ordinary faces, you are struck by the extraordinary capacity that every person has within them for great strength and bravery.  The exhibit poses questions that creep like dark shadows – whispering and taunting with the self-examining question, “what would I do?”

The questions provoke deep introspection: “What made Private William McFadzean throw himself across a store of smoldering grenades in a muddy WWI Somme trench, saving seven men in his unit?”

“Why did medical doctor Noel Chavasse tragically insist on returning to the front line to rescue more men after already winning one Victoria Cross?”

“How did Private Johnson Beharry’s belief that he would never die affect him? What was it that that made him repeatedly expose himself to enemy fire in Iraq that enabled him to rescue his commanding officer and 20 other men?”

I have never forgotten these stories and upon returning to a US that was at war, I followed the extraordinary challenges and feats of our volunteer army fighting two wars in the rugged desolation of tribal Afghanistan and across the scorched sand and hostility of an unstable Iraq.  As these distant acts of valor echo like acoustic shadows, we conduct our daily lives and go about our personal business living under a tree of valor whose great shade is cast by those who sacrifice so much.

As I follow the lives and deaths of American service men and women and learn their stories of heartache, loss, courage and valor, they seem to be all bonded by a similar and extraordinary sense of community, duty and unconditional love for one another.  These uncompromising core values serve as a rather ironic backdrop amidst this chaos and fear of war – – fear that might otherwise drive an instinct for self preservation and self interest.

Valor is a soldier’s refusal to abandon a wounded comrade in the face of overwhelming odds. It is the courage of a mother caring for a critically injured son or daughter who has returned home unable to care for himself.  It is a three tour of duty vet reenlisting to return to a vortex of chaos for the sake of not wanting to leave his buddies behind.

In reading the stories of Americans who have won the Medal of Honor – our nation’s highest award for valor – there is no genetic or social marker that can predict which person will rise up to commit extraordinary acts of courage and sacrifice. Take for example the story of Army Specialist Ross A. McGinnis who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in ceremonies this week in the Pennsylvania Medal of Honor Memorial in Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Grove at the state Capitol Complex.

“McGinnis, of Knox in Clarion County, was killed Dec. 4, 2006, in Baghdad, Iraq, when he threw his body on a fragmentation grenade that insurgents threw into the Humvee he was riding in, saving the lives of four other soldiers riding in the truck. “ Ross McGinnis was 19 years old.

Just north in rural Massachusetts, Jared Monti grew up to become a citizen soldier.  He was a generous kid who once purchased a Christmas tree for a single mother who could not afford holiday decorations for her children.  Another story details, “But even that ( Monti’s generosity ) pales in comparison to what young Monti did on June 21, 2006, in the rugged northeast corner of Afghanistan near Pakistan. According to a Pentagon account and CNN interviews with soldiers who were there, Sgt. Monti was leading a small patrol that was ambushed by dozens of Taliban fighters. As rocket propelled grenades flew past his head, Monti got on the radio to call for backup. Sgt. Clifford Baird was on the other end of the line. In between his calls for help, Monti was using his own rifle to engage the enemy. Suddenly he noticed that a young private named Brian Bradbury was badly wounded, unable to move, desperately exposed to enemy fire. Another sergeant said he would run out and try to save Bradbury, but Sgt. Derek James heard Monti say no.

‘I remember him saying that Bradbury was his guy, so he was going to be the one to go get him back and bring him back to us,’ says James.

But with bullets flying, Monti had to take cover. He ran out a second time, but the enemy fire got more intense, so he stopped and yelled for help. Risking his life yet again, he then ran out a third time to try to save Bradbury. ‘We knew he was going to get Bradbury — then we all kind of heard him scream,’ recalls James.

Monti was mortally wounded and knew he was dying. ‘He said the Lord’s Prayer and he said, Tell my family I love them.  Inspired, his squadron beat back the enemy, thanks in part to the backup that Monti had calmly called for earlier.”

In his proud hometown of Raynham, Mass, his name adorns streets, memorials and dedications.  His valor casts a long shadow across the woods and greenbelt that border this little New England town.

While most of us cling to our own mortality and are driven by an innate self interest, there are men and women out there – in the dry, arid valleys of the Pashtun, in naked convoys moving along perilous roads in the Anbar Province and thousands of other heroes stationed across the world who subordinate themselves and the needs of their families to keep our nation safe and to prosecute the foreign policies of our nation.  As the old poem laments, their’s is not to question why, their’s is but to do and die.”

As we hear these stories, we shake our heads in disbelief and peer into the abyss of our own souls and wonder how we would respond in the face of our mortality. The valor of those who serve us in our military should never be  forgotten. On Veterans Day, we must honor every soldier and their families – with perhaps our greatest gift being to know them, remember them, support them, and rise up to cast our own shadows – – not those of darker wooded self interest but brighter evergreen illuminations sparked by our capacity to embrace Duty, Honor, Country, Service, Sacrifice and Heroism.

The Man Who Invented Himself

Photographer Robert Capa during the Spanish ci...
Image via Wikipedia

The Man Who Invented Himself

” I would say a war correspondent gets more drinks, more girls, better pay, and greater freedom to choose his spot and being allowed to be a coward and not be executed for it, is his torture.”

Robert Capa, Slightly Out Of Focus

He was, in many ways, killed by his own personae.  As he impatiently waited for the tanks to create a defilade from the sniper fire that threatened the French patrol’s advance, he leaped across a shaded embankment separating the broken road and an adjacent field of rice paddies.  Two veteran combat journalists, Time-Life’s John Mecklin and Jim Lucas looked on with admiration and bemusement, only to rapidly duck their heads, as the sporadic Vietminh attack became a furious steel fist of mortars and machine gun fire.

The photojournalist, Andre Freidman, was a Hungarian Jew, who had immigrated to Berlin in the early 1930s and fled to Paris in 1934 after the National Socialists and Adolph Hitler seized power and began a virulent movement of national hegemony.

Friedman had grown up in the Jewish quarter of Pest, the working class district that was connected by a series of bridges to its more affluent sibling, Buda that stretched across the southern side of the Danube. His father, an alcoholic and gambler, left young Andres’ education to the unsupervised streets where he graduated with a reputation for alacrity, charm and daring.  In 1918, the Fascists had an iron grip on a Hungary still traumatized by the suffocating constraints of the Treaty of Versailles. Not unlike Germany a decade later, Budapest’s Jews, socialists and communists were being vilified for societies ills and Friedman understood that he must flee to find freedom and a release for his adrenaline fueled appetites.

In Berlin and in Paris, he lived on the streets, begging and doing odd jobs, eventually moving in with Eva Besnyo, a friend from Budapest. Desperate for money and intrigued by journalism, Andres secured a job at the promotional studio, Dephot, where he learned the art of photography.  It was here that he purchased his first Leica, an engineering marvel of a camera that allowed the photographer to shoot at rapid speeds and operate in various conditions of light.  With Leica in hand, the bohemian artist began to understand how his lens could surpass a writer’s pen in offering the viewer a poignant and personal view of a world always teetering between hope and a darker destiny.  A picture could tell a deeper story.

His irresistible charm and magnetism quickly made him friends and ultimately, led to an artistic troika with Polish photographer David Chim and the fashionable Henri Cartier Bresson.  Years later, these three photojournalists would be acknowledged for providing rich pictorial footprints of the doomed, fading daylight of France’s 3rd Republic.

In 1930’s Paris, it was a grand fete of bohemians and sybarites – with patrons routinely greeting an early dawn along the Champs D’Elysses, Boulevard San Germain, Montmartre and Montparnasse.  Andres had many affairs and was a favorite among socialites and models. However, one particular woman, an acerbic, elegant German refugee, named Gerda Pohorylles, became his infatuation, soul mate and some say, his co-inventor.

Realizing that his photos could gather more attention if he was something other than another faceless European refugee, Gerda and Andres created the personae -Robert Capa. Gerda explained to international and French magazine editors that Capa was a wealthy American who felt compelled to sell his work ” as is ” and often at rates double those of ordinary photographers.  Where ever conflict broke out, it seemed Andres and Gerda were there to film it and market his brilliant journalism to the major periodicals under the “nom d’ photographe”, Capa.

In his book, Blood and Champagne, Alex Kershaw describes the perfect arrangement, ” Capa loved Gerda, Gerda loved Andre, Andre loved Capa, and Capa loved Capa.”  He was hired and sent to Spain – a country with whom he felt deep affinity – covering the smoldering Spanish Civil War. It was here that he and Gerda would meet and carouse with international journalists – Hemmingway and John Dos Passos who were attached to brigades of foreign soldiers eager to assist the Republicans against the Nazi backed Fascist armies of Generalissimo Franco.

It was in Spain that some say Andre Friedman died and Robert Capa was born.  On a small hill town outside of Cordoba, Robert Capa became synonymous with combat photography when he snapped a photo of a Loyalist soldier repulsed backward after apparently being hit in the head with a bullet. The “Falling Soldier” remains to this day, a subject of intense debate among historians who question its authenticity. One thing is certain, it cemented the public persona of Robert Capa.

Despite his newfound celebrity, the war was having a profound effect on Capa.  As he witnessed the carnage and horror of modern war and fascism crushing the idealistic and ill-equipped Loyalists, Capa urged Gerda to marry him.  It seemed as if everything might disappear in a flash of shrapnel and blood.  His mortality weighed on him. Gerda dismissed his overtures, suggesting their need to live in the moment and fight for the protection of the Republic.

Capa had returned just days before to Paris when he heard the news that Gerda had been killed. She was crushed between two tanks as they were trying to protect civilians fleeing from bullets spitting from dive-bombing German Heinkel planes.

Capa was devastated and emerged from his fortnight of alcohol fueled depression with a wild eye and self destructive resolve to use his Leica as a grand weapon against the tyrannies of imperial powers. His assignment took him back to Spain where he documented the bitter fall of the Republic and the slate gray morality of an ideological war where both sides committed horrendous atrocities.  His predisposition to socialism was shattered during this time and turned to bitter disillusionment when Stalin signed his non-aggression pact with Hitler – reinforcing a deeply cynical view that no government could be trusted.

Capa’s social exploits were the stuff of legends as he lived every second to its fullest – he drew people close, a generous supernova of consumption – gambling, womanizing, living as one person shared, ” with enough money to travel but not enough to settle down”. He was forever haunted by what he had seen as he photographed the portrait of war but never allowed his demons to reach through his veneer of devious charm. By now, he was recognized as the world’s greatest combat photographer. His celebrity and his penchant for front line assignments dropped him into high stakes company with the likes of Bogart, John Huston, George Stevens and John Steinbeck. He carried on a three-year affair with Ingrid Bergman while moving back and forth from the Italian and European fronts with beloved combat journalist Ernie Pyle (killed by a Japanese sniper) and cartoonist Bill Mauldin.

His most inspired act of courage was his decision to go forward with the first D Day wave of American soldiers on Omaha Beach.  Crowded in an LST with young soldiers from Company A, 116th of the 29th Division, many of whom would die on the Beach head, Easy Red, Capa watched and snapped four rolls of 35mm film over 90 minutes as brave soldiers drown and were scythed down like dry wheat by scores of machine gun nests, mortars, 88’s, rocket launchers, rear line artillery, fortified bunkers and pillboxes. Every inch of Omaha was a coordinated killing field.

Capa remained on the sloping beach wiggling in and out of the water, dodging machine gunners until all the film was shot.  He scrambled aboard an outbound LSI that was filled with wounded to send his photos back to London.  In the chaotic haste to meet a deadline and use the Capa combat shots, the London based dark room developer, over cooked the film and melted all but eight frames – grainy photos that were later published in Life magazine and won even greater acclaim.

Capa would rediscover his passion for Judaism as he chronicled the emigration of Europe’s surviving Jews to Palestine, the birth of Israel and the Six Day War. He started Magnum – a consortia for photographers to coalesce and market their photographs – independent of the controlling imperialism of the major periodicals. Yet, it was clear to all that while Capa was the charming raconteur, he was no businessman.

He was beginning to show signs of post-traumatic stress as he moved between terror and self-indulgent nihilism. Capa chose not to cover the Korean War believing that one could not film a war that one did not have an emotional stake in.  He instead took an assignment to Japan to film the country for Ladies Home Journal.  The trip recharged him and motivated him to get back in the game – accepting a particularly dangerous assignment covering the French Colonial Wars with Ho Chi Minh in Indochina.

On Tuesday May 25, 1954, Capa was accompanying the 2nd Amphibious Group of the Foreign Legion in the Red River Delta.  His partners, Mecklin and Lucas watched him move out of sight to film a platoon advancing toward tree line small arms fire.

An explosion suddenly sucked in the humid afternoon air and spit out an angry, searing concussion “Le Photographe est mort” shouted a young soldier.  They found him clutching his camera in his left hand, as if to shield it from the blast.  His last words were perhaps the phrase he glibly uttered most often when confronted with the possibility of death, “es una cosa muy seria” (This is a very serious business).

Perhaps a fitting epitaph to the dashing contradiction that the writer John Hershey eloquently described as  “the man who invented himself.”

Ghost Soldiers

Lt. Col. Henry Mucci
Image via Wikipedia

 

Ghost Soldiers

“Ten soldiers wisely led will beat a hundred without a head.” Euripides

As you enjoy your summer, you may come to drive along a Connecticut connector road, Route 25, between Bridgeport and Newtown.  If you look carefully, you will see a small sign, “Colonel Henry A Mucci Highway”.  It is a prosaic memorial and goes unnoticed by most of us who are too consumed with our daily lives to appreciate how we came to enjoy them.  It is a sacred testimonial and monument to our own Connecticut son, a Bridgeport child of Italian immigrants, a soldier who survived the attack at Pearl Harbor, and a leader of men who went on to apply discipline, relentless focus and passionate confidence to rescue over 500 souls from the jaws of Purgatory itself.

In his best selling book, Ghost Soldiers, author Hampton Sides captured and preserved the exploits of Lt Colonel Henry Mucci, Captain Robert Prince, the 6th Ranger Battalion and the guerilla fighters of the Philippines who fought alongside our troops.  It is an extraordinary story about ordinary men who risk everything to save their fellow soldiers.

In January, 1945, the Allies were driving deep inroads into the Pacific citadel of the Rising Sun and it was clear the war had irreversibly turned against Japan.  At the prisoner of war camp, Cabanatuan, some thirty miles behind enemy lines on the island of Luzon, hundreds of allied prisoners were slowly dying after three and one half years of brutal abuse and incarceration.  Allied commanders were becoming increasingly concerned from intelligence reports that the Japanese would execute prisoners as they continued to press a relentless defensive war of attrition.  A recent incident near Puerto Princessa, Philippines confirmed US leadership’s worst fears. 140 allied prisoners were herded into a building, soaked with gasoline and set afire.  No one survived.

Earlier in later 1943, Lt. Colonel Henry Mucci was assigned to organize a team of jungle Rangers – – a new unit whose training and focus would be lightening commando strikes, physical endurance and strategic support operations.  To date, the soldiers had spent their time organized as a field artillery unit – mule skinners immersed in mundane activity and manual labor.  Mucci would quickly reduce the size of the battalion by half, subjecting them to unconventional challenges in the inhospitable jungle that well beyond any endorsed army preparation.  Mucci’s brutally effective training crushed the coal of 1000 field personnel into 500 hardened and sharpened diamond fighters.  Over the course of late 1943 into 1944, the 6th Rangers became a dark flint desperate to cut against the hard side of a powerful Japanese force that was rumored to burning and razing its retreat across the plains of central Luzon.

While interned soldiers, turned pseudo homeopaths attempted in vain to arrest the accelerating death rate, the Japanese commander, Colonel Shigeji, treated the prisoners as sub human.  Firing squads were common for slight infractions and the egregious violation of escape would result in the execution of an entire cabin of prisoners who were purposely grouped together in units of ten to police one another’s activities.  The majority of Allied prisoners of Cabantuan were left to die – – too ill to assist the hard labor of the Japanese war machine and as these human mules were of no use, they would be effectively starved  to death.  However, the human will to survive is strong and prisoners found ingenious methods to hang on for another day in hopes of rescue.  A rare sympathetic guard might be bribed.  An odd concoction of scavenged roots and garbage was mixed into a strangely therapeutic beverage that would dull the excruciating pain of conditions brought on by rare tropical diseases and vitamin deficiencies.  Despite the primitive efforts to survive the camp, Death appeared more frequently running a broad scythe through the sides of young men who had aged thirty years in three.  Cabantuan was a purgatory of lost souls.

When the Sixth Army command sanctioned the top secret mission to go behind enemy lines and attempt the liberation of the camps at Cabantuan, Lt Colonel Mucci and Captain Prince, commander of the Ranger C Company, were advised of the great peril and low probability for success.  The effort would require an elite squad supported by local Filipino guerillas to penetrate heavily occupied areas and overtake a guarded camp.  This was the easy part.  Retreat would cover ten miles of hostile jungle where Japanese troops would be furiously searching to detect and destroy the interlopers, most of whom could not even walk and were so malnourished that they might die during the physical act of being liberated.  Although these details were known only to a few top brass, every one of the 500 Rangers enthusiastically volunteered to participate.

Armed with small arms – M1 Garand rifles, Thompson machine guns, 45 pound Browning Automatics and bazookas, the Rangers and Filipino guerillas moved like phantoms in broad daylight, forging rivers that had been recently impassable and avoiding detection by a series of daring feints and deeply embedded Mucci discipline. Even if the unit somehow made it undetected to the prison, they would need a benign but powerful distraction to advance the last 200 yards of open ground to be in position to attack at sundown.  The ruse came in the form of a daring US pilot who flew a new plane, a P61 black widow, which had never been seen by the enemy.  As the black falcon rose and dove toward the camp, inviting gunfire and fury from the guards, the Rangers crawled over the final open ground to get into position to assault the camp.  Everything hinged on surprise.  Mucci had trained his men for such a moment and had left nothing to chance.  His well coordinated plan required simultaneous attacks on the guard towers, tanks and key barracks of the soldiers.  If the Japanese were able to protect the front gates and communicate to local units in nearby towns, the retreat of the solders would be cut off and the entire mission group would be annihilated.

The attack began at 7:40 pm, when Captain Prince’s C Company rangers had moved into position at the gates of the camp.  It was a ballet of carefully choreographed slaughter.  The Rangers and guerillas moved with speed that took the enemy soldiers completely by surprise.  At the same time fighting was turning bitter and hand to hand, grotesque creatures were staggering into the fray – – prisoners in shock over and desperate to escape via the breached fences and gates.  In less than 30 minutes, scores of enemy soldiers lay dead with only one US casualty.  The trick was now to transport 500 skeletons – – in a line that stretched over one mile through ten miles of enemy territory, across open highways, rivers and through cutting elephant grass.  Mucci and his men carried those that could not walk.  The liberated were a horrifying sideshow of freak medical conditions and latter stage infections.  The Rangers were outraged and more determined than ever.  “Buddy, you are Marine again” one Ranger whispered as he lifted an emaciated POW over his shoulders.

The Rangers would miraculously complete their mission with only one casualty.  A major factor in their success was Filipino Guerilla leader, Juan Pajota, would enlist his men to form a protective wall insulating the US retreat.  As the stunned Japanese reengaged, they launched a series of savage counter attacks attempting to overtake the retreating prisoners at the edge of the Cabu River.  Pajota and his Filipinos detonated mines on the river’s bridge while emptying enfilading fire into waves of bonsai attacks launched by their pursuers.  The Filipinos were exacting revenge for years of brutal subjugation and at the same time protecting the liberators they had come to admire and respect – – among them the larger than life 5’7” Lt Colonel Mucci who had led the mission with such precision, confidence and bravery.

 

 

The Gold Standard

The Gold Standard

 

In Colonial New England, the objects that would adorn one’s home said much about the person and their social standing.  When a family would entertain, they would proudly display their unique possessions – – furniture from France and England, imported tableware of Wedgwood china and crystal, and various works of art.  Paintings might depict a particular historical event or a famous ancestor whose exploits would spice the  evening with rich conversation.  When one entered an affluent home, one was certain to be surrounded with silver – – cutlery, plates, tankards, candle sticks …

 

Silver was a precious commodity.  In eighteenth century America, limited access, high demand and a distrust of a fragile monetary system maintained commodities such as silver and gold at intoxicating heights and elevated the status of those owned or traded in the precious metals. Present day silver trades for nearly $ 20 an ounce and is steadily rising in value over the last year as a result of economic uncertainty.  In 1775, silver traded for a present day equivalent of over $175 an ounce.  Aristocracy and a rising middle class coveted the fine work of master silversmiths.  Owning silver meant social and political affluence.

 

Historians and antique dealers such as UK silver trader Brian Douglas share how Britain established the silver hallmark to protect the public against fraud.  The wardens of the London Assaye office were charged with ensuring purity of silver and its value.  This oversight by the artisans and the government ensured a basis for quality.  In 1400, the English passed a law to fix the purity of silver by stamping any object with at 925 parts silver to 1000 as Sterling.   An even higher standard, “Britannia”, was established in the 1600s to distinguish purer silver, 958/1000 parts, from the Sterling that was often fashioned out of melted coins.  The markings on any silver item allowed someone to determine year of manufacturing, content, maker and town of assay. This basis of ensuring quality established British silver products as a world standard.

 

The silversmith was a respected and influential individual.  In England, smiths belonged to powerful guilds which controlled much of the manufacturing and distribution of silver products.  The art of melting silver in a graphite crucible, forging the molten liquid into tallow greased molds and then shaping the malleable material against anvils and stakes to achieve the desired shape was a process requiring great patience and skill. When a wealthy citizen would petition a silver piece to be manufactured, the silversmith would have to take possession of quantities of silver and fashion the requested artwork.  The ability to safely store large quantities of silver as well as ensure the quality of the work required that a successful smith be viewed as trustworthy beyond reproach.  In Colonial America, silversmiths often moonlighted as ombudsmen to resolve community disputes.  If neighbors were fighting over a property line, a smith might be co-opted to help resolve the issue.  John Hull was perhaps the most widely known early American silversmith in Boston in the late 1600s.  He was a pillar of society and a highly successful merchant.

 

A century later, Hull would be supplanted by another Boston silversmith who achieved similar business, social and community standing.  He was the son of a French Huguenot silversmith.  He apprenticed under his father and eventually built a thriving business in North End Boston.  He served in the military in 1754 fighting the French in upstate New York and later married, fathering eight children.  Over his lifetime, he outlived two wives, siring 16 children, eleven of which lived to adulthood.  He quickly became established with the wealthy and the genteel of Boston for his neoclassical tea pots, tankards, cups, urns and sugar bowls.    While some silversmiths created production lines where much of their output was created by apprentice workers, he insisted on creating every one of his pieces.

 

He was also a covert revolutionary.  He was a Freemason and belonged to secret patriot societies.  He was an expert rider and shuttled messages between patriot groups.  In 1770, the tension was rising between British troops and colonists resulting in mob attacking British soldiers with five colonists killed by English troops defending themselves.  In response, he produced an engraving which contributed to the groundswell of colonial propaganda igniting anger and anti-British sentiment.  He secretly participated in the Boston Tea Party dumping hundreds of pounds of tax levied tea into Boston Harbor. He never revealed that he took part in the attack as it would have violated the sacred oath that he took to not disclose his participation in revolutionary activities.  Other Tea party revolutionaries would admit their participation and be hailed as heroes.  The understated Boston silversmith eschewed this sort of notoriety insisting to the day he died that he was not there – – although many would later identify him as a participant.

 

As a messenger for the Committees of Correspondence and the Sons Of Liberty, he was teamed with a young cobbler, John Dawes, to provide vital advance information on British activities in and around Boston.  In 1774, the British blockaded Boston Harbor further heightening tensions.  The silversmith rode to Philadelphia to convey the news to other members of the Sons of Liberty that Boston was under martial law.  While many patriot leaders fled Boston, a few key business and medical professionals remained behind to spy on the British – among them, the local silversmith whose shop remained open for business and whose eyes studied every movement of the British.

 

On April 18th, the Sons of Liberty were acting on good authority that the British may be moving by land or by sea against the town of Concord, home to the Provincial Congress and a cache of local militia powder, shot and guns.  The silversmith was on alert that evening and was later signaled by two lanterns in the belfry of the Old North Church that the British had elected to move by sea in an effort to advance undercover. With Dawes and additional riders taking different routes to Concord, the Boston smith rang out a call for freedom and warned the colonial inhabitants along the great Boston Post road that war was marching toward them in the night. No one questioned his word.  He was, after all, the most trusted man in the community, Paul Revere, the silversmith. 

 

This story of Paul Revere was recounted to me by an antique dealer in New Orleans as my daughter and I held a simple sterling silver sugar urn with the inscription: “R”.  The man who fashioned this exquisite piece was witness to the ”shot heard round the world” at Lexington and Concord.  He survived the revolutionary war and started a successful copper business.  He helped fashion a new country out of the most precious metals of all: courage and thirst for freedom.  Revere’s silver work can be found at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and privately in the treasured inventory of select antique silver dealers and collectors.  His designs embody simple, elegant curves and exude understated perfection.  When asked, most dealers will cite Revere along with England’s Paul de Lamerie as the two most influential artisans of their time. Craftsman, community leader, father and Patriot, Revere was the gold standard in silver.     

 

Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.

 

       Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere

 

 

 

Never Have So Many

Never Have So Many

True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic.  It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.  Arthur Ashe

It is September, 1939.  The Germans have run the British and French into the sea and only a miracle on the beaches of Dunkirk prevent an entire army from being annihilated.  England stands alone against a Nazi controlled Europe whose light has been all but extinguished by its occupiers.  The US has not yet entered the war and will not join for another two years. England is alone. Hitler knows that a land invasion of the UK will only succeed if he can obliterate the Royal Air Force ( RAF ) and eliminate any possible impediment to a channel crossing from Calais.  While Hitler and his Generals plot the Operation Sealion, Goring unleashes his Luftwaffe.  The Battle of Britain begins.

The initial days of the battle for air supremacy over the Channel do not go well for the British.  They are shooting down Luftwaffe planes at a very high rate but they are also sustaining heavy casualties and cannot provide seasoned pilots fast enough to replace the more experienced killed and wounded airmen.  In this war of attrition, the Germans have the advantage. For weeks on end, the battle rages fought by under trained pilots on little or no sleep. The Germans only increase their attacks on air bases and begin targeting cities.

There is a story of Churchill visiting Biggin Hill, an RAF airbase in Kent, south of London.  As he walked in unannounced, he found an exhausted and distraught group of young pilots, many in their teens, shattered by the experiences of the previous weeks – –  already having experienced the trauma of watching friends killed in aerial battles.  Often one British Spitfire or Hurricane would fight against multiple Stukas and Messerschmitts.

Churchill looked at the young men and paused in thoughtful reflection.  They were too exhausted to even rise from their chairs or cots to honor their Prime Minister.  Winston looked at them and asked two simple rhetorical questions: “If not you, than who?  If not now, then when?“ The Prime Minster went back to London and the pilots went on to win an improbable victory and arrest the sinister march of tyranny.  The famous phrase, “Never have so many owed so much to so few” was Churchill’s eternal tribute to the RAF.  The story of this epic battle and triumph of the human spirit is detailed in a remarkable BBC series and book called ” Finest Hour” by Phil Craig and Tim Clayton.

As a child, I would spend hours, painting soldiers and recreating battle fields constructed of chicken wire and paper mache.  Thirty years later, my den is still jammed with detritus of war – – history books, maps and soldiers, a living museum to a lifetime fascination with the dark gods of men, arms and conflict.  As I grew older, I realized that war was not something to be glorified and that too often old men would make wars and young men were left to fight them.  The carnage and chaos of countless millenniums of battle have left a jagged scar across much of our world yet we seem so determined to never truly learn from our past.

I was reading an article recently in Military History magazine that attempted to graph the time line of civilization and armed conflict.  The author, with the obvious benefit of hindsight, evaluated the social, psychological, economic and societal consequences of  war on those who were “ victorious” and those who were “ vanquished”.  The article contends that war as a tool of foreign policy should always be a last resort.  Wars have never proven to be viable, long term solutions for any country.   Warfare drains national treasuries, deflects attention from critical domestic issues and devastates a generation of young men and women.  War has proven in some instances a necessary evil to rid the world of tyranny.  However, too often, warring nations’ national, economic and geopolitical agendas are obfuscated, self serving and myopic.  History, as author Barbara Tuchman described it, is “a distant mirror“ which allows us the opportunity for reflection.  But like many mechanisms of self deception, we often avoid hard examination ‘lest we see something we do not like.  Tuchman depicted the hapless repetition of war in her book “A March of Folly”.  Her subliminal question ? Is mankind destined to keep repeating the same mistakes ad infinitum until it finally succeeds in its own extinction?

The USA is at war.  Violence, indescribable tragedy and casualties continue to escalate in Afghanistan and continue in Iraq, a land once considered the cradle of civilization and now the snare that grips the heel of the Western World.  As I walk our streets and travel domestically, I am rarely reminded that we are at war.  Few live in communities who routinely give up their young to the armed forces for the opportunity to avoid a future that seems so stacked against them.

For most of us, there is no rationing or personal sacrifice beyond those whose families serve in the military.  We have an impatient need to resolve the bloody confusion and heal sectarian fault lines that trace back thousands of years.  Irrespective of how we got there, we are in Iraq and Afghanistan.  We have dispatched brave men and women to assist a process that is not too dissimilar to Reconstruction after the Civil War.  How long did it take for true societal change to occur following Appomattox Courthouse in April of 1865?  I think it was about 100 years after the Jim Crow that we began to actually see civil rights transformation in our country.  As we consider the political, social and theological conflicts in which we are now enjoined, it challenges us to remember history – – are we Rome on the cusp of its great decline? Or are we bridging theological divides to create an important secular oasis in a sea of Middle Eastern petro-authoritarianism?  What happens if we stay?  What happens if we leave?  I don’t really know the answers but I love living in a country that affords me the freedom to openly debate the gray edges of issues and challenges where there is no clear moral imperative.

On a recent trip to Washington DC, I visited Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, and was reminded of the high price we pay for our freedom.  Arlington reminds us that our democracy is not secured by private equity, political parties or petroleum but on a bedrock of sacrifice, informed political activism and selfless service.  Those of us who benefit by the freedoms afforded by those who fight for us would be well served to remember on Memorial Day that somewhere out there is a real soldier, crouching behind a real wall, pinned down by real gunfire.  Let’s hope in their darkest moment that they are reassured by a belief that back home, everyone in this nation is doing their duty to be relentlessly debating the best course of action necessary to preserve our nation’s security, improve our standing in the world community, and to honor and protect those who protect us.  If not us than who?  If not now, then when ?