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A Walk in the Snow.

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Paige and flag. Credit: Dan Hogan

We walked in the snow, squinting against the early winter sun, moving past the headstones in one of the older cemeteries in our town. Small talk wound down as we approached our destination. We stopped, and greeted the reporter who met us there for the event. Austin opened the small bag of black river stones, and each student picked one to write a message onto.

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We approached the grave. Well, it is not really a grave, you see—a nineteen year old kid’s body lies somewhere back in Hawaii, at a place called Pearl Harbor. His parents lay just to the south of this marker, passing on 14 and 18 years later. The kid’s body was never properly identified. He lies in a mass grave somewhere else, far, far away.

And here in his hometown, there is not even a flag on his marker. Why should there be? As far as I know, there is no immediate close family left here to tend to his stone, and he is not even here.

But we buy a flag, and Paige affixes it to the holder.

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Teacher and student. Credit: Dan Hogan

Paige holds the 1942 yearbook senior class dedication, and I pull out a copy of his photograph, and say a few words.

Seventy-five years after his death, after his parents’ pain and anguish at the telegram announcing he was ‘missing in action’, after his classmates’ angst that following June at graduating without him into the new world of 1942, where so many of them would go on to fight and die along with him, a bunch of kids from his high school return. The 17 and 18 year olds are on the cusp of entering a new world themselves, along with them the 55 year old man who was once also a young graduate-to-be of Hudson Falls High School.

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We come to remember, and to set down our memorial stones.

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The kids speak to the reporter, and we pose for one last picture.

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We are here for all of 15 minutes before the bus has to return to the school to make another run, due to parent-teacher conferences at the elementary level. It is quick, a surgical tactical strike in an overly crowded and rushed school day; some might say, hardly worth the effort.

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You wonder if the lesson will stay with them.

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They leave this cemetery, some certainly forever, to go out into the world, having paid their respects to the boy from Hudson Falls whose future ended on December 7th, 1941.

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GET THE BOOK HERE

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‘One of Their Own’

Local sailor who died at Pearl Harbor remembered by teacher, students

From the Remembering Pearl Harbor, 75 years later series

by BILL TOSCANO btoscano@poststar.com

HUDSON FALLS — On a windy Tuesday morning, in a snow-covered cemetery, Matt Rozell’s history class took a somber turn.

Rozell and about 25 Hudson Falls High School seniors stood in the fresh snow at a memorial stone that read, “H. Randolph Holmes,” followed by the words, “Died in action at Pearl Harbor,” “Age 19 yrs” and “U.S. Navy.”

Holmes had been a student in Hudson Falls’ Class of 1942 but left school early, joined the Navy and was killed in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

“We wanted to make sure we didn’t forget Randy,” Rozell told the group, which had taken a quick bus ride on Route 4 to the Moss Street Cemetery. “Especially you in the Class of 2017 because it’s the 75th anniversary of the year he should have graduated.”

Holmes was aboard the battleship USS Oklahoma during the attack and was one of 429 men killed when the ship was struck and capsized. Like many of the sailors on the Oklahoma, his body was not recovered for 18 months and has never been identified. Holmes was buried, with the other “unknown” Oklahoma sailors, in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, also known as the “Punchbowl.”

Several years ago, one of Rozell’s students located Holmes’ name on the memorial to those who died on the Oklahoma.

Two of Rozell’s students said Tuesday they had no idea a former Hudson Falls student had died at Pearl Harbor.

“I had no clue,” said Alex Prouty, who went on to talk about what she and her classmates had

learned about the attack. “We learned that there was a loss of a lot of lives and that a lot of people went missing. No one was prepared for it, and our military did the best they could to protect us.”

Jacob Fabian said he learned about Holmes in class as well.

“Before class, no, I didn’t know anything, but now, yes, because of Mr. Rozell’s book,” Fabian said. “We learned a lot about Pearl Harbor, what its effects were, why and how it happened and how monumental it was.”

 During the brief ceremony Tuesday morning, one of the students held up a picture of Holmes from the Class of 1942 yearbook and another held the yearbook itself as they stood by the memorial stone. Rozell had a student hand out black stones, and the students wrote on them and left them on the stone.

“This year’s yearbook is also going to have a page for Randy,” said Rozell, who has written two books on World War II and is working on several more. “It’s important for us to remember him.”

Photo by Steve Jacobs, Post Star, Moss St Cemetery, Hudson Falls, NY, 12-6-2017.

Identification ongoing

Holmes may yet come home.

Five formerly “unknown” sailors from the USS Oklahoma were identified in January, using medical records. The identifications are the first to come from a project that began in April 2015 when the Defense Department announced plans to exhume an estimated 388 of the Oklahoma’s unknowns.

The first exhumations took place June 8, 2015, and the last four caskets were dug up Nov. 9, 2015.

Sixty-one caskets were retrieved from 45 graves. The caskets were heavily corroded and had to be forced open.

The remains were removed and cleaned and photographed. The skeletons were flown to the lab in Nebraska for further analysis, but skulls were retained in Hawaii, where the Defense Department’s forensic dentists are based.

http://poststar.com/news/local/local-sailor-who-died-at-pearl-harbor-remembered-by-teacher/article_8b7006ad-ba5f-5544-85a4-131a5a0b9430.html

Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.

UPDATE: 

As of Nov. 30, 2016 the Pentagon says it has ID’d 21 of the 388 unknowns.

You can see the news releases here. Hopefully someday they’ll ID Randy Holmes …

http://www.dpaa.mil/News-Stories/Releases/

 

 A highly recommended PBS video is below.

http://www.pbs.org/program/pearl-harbor-uss-oklahoma-final-story/

 

 

In 2003, I interviewed one of the original Tuskegee Airmen, who visited our school on numerous occasions to tell his story. Mr. Clarence Dart was a great storyteller, not only of the war but particularly about growing up in the Depression. Here is an excerpt from my latest book.

Mural of Clarence Dart in his hometown, Elmira, NY.

Clarence Dart

Tuskegee Airman

 December, 2003.

Clarence Dart, Dec. 2003. Matthew Rozell photo.

[The Great Depression] was a tough time. To think of the way people had to live. People who had good jobs and overnight lost them because of the crash in 1929 when the stock market crashed on Wall Street. Overnight, millionaires became paupers. No money, period. A lot of people, believe it or not, jumped out of those windows down there in New York [City] and committed suicide. The shock was just that great. To think that they were penniless overnight because they bought stocks on what they call “margins”. It wasn’t enough to cover or reserve when the market collapsed and so they just became penniless overnight.

It affected everybody. People were selling apples for a nickel on street corners. My father, fortunately, didn’t lose his job because he worked on the railroad, but he kept taking pay cuts all the way through the Depression until the time it started to turn around when World War II started. I think he was down under twenty-five dollars a week, take home pay. We had just bought a house and boy, did we struggle during that time! I could take the whole afternoon telling you how we lived and what my mother used to do to keep me in clothes. My mother would buy shirts from the Salvation Army store. She would turn the collars because they would get frayed. She would take the collars off, turn them and sew them back onto the shirts. It was a time when people really had to be on their own. Of course, it also brought people together. There was some welfare help, but it was tough, especially in the wintertime. We kids use to go down and stand next to the railroad tracks. The firemen on the locomotives use to shovel coal off of the engines as they went by. We would pick up the coal and take it home. Of course, we burned everything; we didn’t have central heating in homes in those days. Everybody had either a fireplace or a big central furnace with one duct on the top that supposedly was to heat the whole house. We use to go out and pick wild mustards and stuff like that for food. Everyone had a garden also. There was a lot of implementation to survive.

( Of course) our clothes for one thing, I could remember especially in the winter we had what you called garters, but they were rubber boots, no insulation in the darn things. We would go out and play until we couldn’t feel anything in our feet and hands. You could come home and first thing we would put you in tepid water, supposedly to warm you up. As soon as you hit that water, you would start screaming. I don’t know if any of you have had frostbite or anything like that, from being out skiing or ice skating until your hands get so cold you don’t feel anything anymore. It lasts practically forever. Once it happens to you, you will always feel that cold. I experienced it again, so to speak, when we were flying, switched to the P-51s, at high altitudes, around anywhere from twenty-five thousand to over thirty thousand feet. There wasn’t much heat in the airplanes. The heat in the P-51s would come in on one side and that foot would get warm, but you would have to sort of cross your feet [laughs] to defrost the other foot. I’ll get to that further on to make a continuity.

The way I got into the service when the war started, a friend and I were talking about going into the navy. But, my mother put a stop to that right quick. She said, “You’re not going into any army, navy or anything.” Well, you know how mothers are, they’re still that way today.

When the war started in 1941, I had just turned twenty-one. I was singing in our church choir at our radio station that afternoon when they came in and said that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. I had just turned twenty-one December sixth and it happened the next day.

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After high school, there were no jobs so I went to what they called Elmira Aviation Ground School. The state figured they would start all these training schools for people to learn how to be mechanics, machinists and radio operators.  I took all the classes that I could. I figured I was set to do anything, but you go around and how things were in those days, you were rejected for one reason or another.  When the assessment team from the Air Corps came around with their tests, I passed all their tests, except my medical.  Most of my medical was all right, except I didn’t pass the depth perception test.  That was because I was so excited I didn’t get sleep the night before.  My eye sight was kind of fuzzy.  In those days, the depth perception test used two sticks.  One of the sticks had a line on it and you had to move the sticks until they were opposite each other.  This was supposed to demonstrate your depth perception so when you came into land [laughs] you knew how far the ground was below you or something like that.  But it was a rudimentary test.  Anyway they told me, “You go back and get rested.  So when we come back again will give you another test.”  That happened about 8 months after that.  So I came around and passed the test.  They said, “Go home, when your class is called, we’ll cut orders and give you the oath of office.  We will see you get to Tuskegee for training.”  Well, they were still building the field down there in Tuskegee, so I didn’t feel to bad about it.  I told my draft board that I was going into the Air Corps.

*

 

Eventually, after they got us settled down some of us were transferred to the campus of the Tuskegee Institute for our ground training, to learn navigation and communications and stuff like that.  I didn’t have any trouble because I had the experience of radio and so forth.  Eventually, while we were there, after we passed our tests in ground school they would truck us each day out to Molton Field, the field I told you is going to be a national monument.  We trained in PT-17s which were biplanes built by Steermancompany. It was the thrill of my life!

*

I finally graduated from advanced and eventually I got my commission on November 3rd, in 1943.  We transitioned into P-40s.That was an experience because in the military in those days when you transitioned into another airplane they just showed you to start the engine and gave you some of the air speeds you should fly at for approach and take off, and away you go, there is no instructor in there with you.  Nowadays in the military you have to go to school and simulators.  That’s why they require everyone to have a college education in the Air Force today because it is very complicated.  There are lots of buttons to push.  If you ever get to see the cockpit of those fighters nowadays you just wonder how the guys ever have time to do anything, but just watch all these little screens [laughs] and push all these little buttons and what not.  Doing the things they have to do is very complicated.  My class fell as we graduated.  We took our transitioning into this one beat up P-40 that they had there.

After that we were sent to Patrick Henry and were transferred over seas.  We had to the [good] fortune to be on a luxury liner that had been converted to a troop transport, so we had good meals except that we ran into one big storm and… well, it wasn’t funny, because this one time in the middle of the storm the ship started to roll. Then it got worse and the next thing you know the chairs and tables,  they weren’t bolted down, people were sliding from one side [laughs] of the ship to the other, oh what a mess! You could here the crockery and the plates falling on the floor, breaking! Well, after about a couple hours of that, we got out of the storm into calmer water and after nine days we landed in Oran, Morocco. We were sent to the edge of the desert to train for a while.

The 99th Fighter Squadron, which I was eventually transferred to, had come over earlier. They had fought with the 12th Air Force with the 79th Fighter Group and they had moved to Italy. We got a chance to do some dive bombing and strafing  there on the desert and flying under a bridge, which we were told not to do, but we all did it anyhow, just the thrill of it… [Laughs] you know? There was nobody around to tell us really what to do. There were no officials so to speak except for the people running the field there, so once we got out of sight … we used to do the same thing at Tuskegee. We used to buzz the people picking cotton in the fields [chuckles], stuff like that. There were all kinds of complaints…people just didn’t know how to report us… if they got a number off the airplane or something, you know, you’d be washed out right away.

We were put on a C-47 to catch up to the 99th, I’m just speaking about myself now, and Capodichino, outside of Naples, Italy on the day before Vesuvius exploded, I mean erupted [March 18, 1944]. Just the weight of the ashes out of that volcano destroyed nearly every airplane on the field, broke the wings off, the tails off, it was a mess. So we didn’t have any airplanes to fly and we had to wait about… oh I guess it was over a week, and they flew in replacements for us. Then they moved us to a little town outside of Naples called Cercola,  and we were based there for  I would say the first few months and that’s where I started mycombat career.

The first time you find people trying to kill you, it puts a different phase in your life. You know,  when I was a kid I used read all these romantic stories about “G-8 and his Battle Aces” about air duels in WWI, when they were flying the Fokkers and the Allies were flying Spads, Sopwith-Camels and stuff like that. Well, our job mainly was to do divebombing  and strafing, so we were never more than two or three thousand feet in the air, and you would have to come down from that anyhow to strafe, except when you were divebombing.

I think it was on my fifth mission we got a call to relieve some GIs that had been pinned down by the Germans. They told us to go give them some help. We had a new flight leader, and he should have known better, because he had been there about a month or two ahead of us…  so he started…he put us in trail, like in a gunnery school formation you know, everybody nose to tail, but with, you know, space. So we spotted the target- we went around the first time firing at,  I think it was, a German machine gun nest; no return fire, so we went around the second time. I said  “This isn’t right”, because the rules of combat… you make the first pass, if you don’t get any return fire, you just keep going, you come back another day. Well, we went around a third time and the ground opened up -it was [like] the best 4th of July sight you’ve ever seen! They threw everything at us, and it wasn’t long before I heard a big “bang” and the cowling started peeling off- like somebody peeling a banana. Then another “bang” and a hole opened up between my feet and the rudder pedals and another “bang” behind the cockpit, and  the next thing I knew I was “counting blades”! There was a three-bladed prop on the P-40s and the engine…they shot out my fuel lines, oil lines, coolant lines, and the engine quit. And since we were strafing, I think I was…down under five hundred feet! So I couldn’t jump out, because the kinds of ‘chutes [parachutes] we had in those days, if you weren’t at least two thousand feet, your chances of landing safely weren’t too good, because they were kind of slow opening, they didn’t pop open like the ‘chutes  do today. So I had to find a field to put the thing down- I figured I had picked a good field, I thought it was a good field, but it turned out it was a plowed field, but from the air it looked like it was kind of smooth.  So I knew I was going to have to belly land this thing. I reached down, pushed this little lever that locked my harness and glided toward the field and the next thing… just as I was about to put it down, the airplane stalled!  One wing dropped, and I think it was the right wing caught the ground, and the airplane cartwheeled, a really rough ride. When it came to a stop- I was sitting there kind of dazed in the cockpit- I saw these guys running over this wall into the field, it turned out they happened to be GIs, not from the place where we were relieving … this was another group of guys, who said the Germans had moved out of this field about an hour before. I was sitting there just in the cockpit because both wings were broken off, the engine was out of the mount, and the tail was broken off and they got me out of the cockpit.  They had a medic with them who fixed up my few scrapes and bangs, but I was on crutches, I guess … well, they got me transportation back to my base.  I was on crutches I think for about three days, because I was a little sore [before] I was back in the air.

(L-R) Tuskegee Airmen Clarence Dart, Elwood Driver, Hebert Houston, Alva Temple discuss kill of ME-109, summer, 1944, Italy

because Mark Clark  had taken Rome, liberated it, and the Germans were on the run. I got back to my base and flew a few more missions….when they brought the other three squadrons over, we got brand new P-51s like the one in that picture. [Points to picture on the table-(L-R) Tuskegee Airmen Clarence Dart, Elwood Driver, Hebert Houston, Alva Temple discuss kill of ME-109, summer, 1944, Italy] Now this was a P-51 C or B, not the D’s that everybody thinks of [Points to picture again] when they talk about P-51s. These were the Razorbacks. But they were good airplanes. In fact, I liked them better than the newer D’s- to me, they were more maneuverable, it was more like a Spitfire t-because the D’s were heavier and they didn’t feel as agile as the C’s were and I felt comfortable, because I thought you weren’t as exposed in these airplanes.  In the D’s you had that bubble canopy, you had that 360 degree view but… like I said, it was heavier… and I didn’t like it, but eventually I was given one and told I had to keep it and they gave my airplane to my wingman! But anyway….

The reason why we got our reputation was when we first got over there [to Italy], we used to take the bombers from the IP, which is the Initial Point, to the target and pick them up when they came off the target. We wouldn’t go [all the way to the target]…but then Colonel Davis said ‘from now on, you’ll go with the bombers through the whole mission”  because the Germans were sending their fighters up in their own flak- they were getting desperate. Our mission was to keep the fighters off the bombers, not to disrupt the formation, because when the bombardier took over the airplane at the Initial Point, he flew the bomber through the Norden bombsight…once he started on a target,  he couldn’t deviate because he’s figuring out the wind drift and everything, so the bombs will hit where they’re supposed to. It didn’t always work, but that was our mission-we kept the Germans off the bombers and that’s why we never lost a bomber to enemy fighters in 200 missions. At first they didn’t want us…but toward the end, they started asking for us as an escort, because we protected them to and from the missions. Of course, we couldn’t do anything about the flak, though. In fact, we lost some of our own guys getting hit by flak.

Read more about Mr. Dart and several World War II airmen in my new book.

The Last Generation.

A reminder for Veterans Day. My classroom is gone now, but Mr. P is still with us, at 95. I hope the lessons stick with you, kids.-MR

 

the last generation

My 93 year old friend Alvin Peachman came into school on Friday. He was once a teacher at this same high school, and I was once his history student. Now he is in my first book, and it was one white haired old man interviewing another, before a polite and rapt audience of tenth and twelfth graders in my classroom. My friend Liza from the New York State United Teachers, who did a nice story on us for Veterans Day, also came up.

 

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Alvin even brought in a fragment of the kamikaze plane that tried to do him in when it crashed into his ship, killing scores of his shipmates. As a radioman he would have been a target on the bridge of the ship, supporting the invasion of Okinawa, but he was not near that part of the ship when the suicide pilot struck that day.

Before the interview session began, I asked for a show of hands of the number of kids who knew of a World War II veteran, like Alvin, who was still alive. Two kids volunteered. Nearly thirty years ago, it was two hands in the air for every kid. And that is how this whole project got started.

Alvin was from a generation that knew firsthand of the Civil War veterans, and his father and his uncles were all veterans of the Western Front in World War I. He had a good day with the kids, and made them laugh on several occasions. But it got me to thinking. This is the last generation of kids to ever hear firsthand the stories of the most cataclysmic events in the history of the world, World War II and the Holocaust.

The students came up to Alvin after the lesson, some seeking his autograph, others just wanting to shake his hand and hang out a while longer with him. I think it made his day. I know it made theirs and it is not something they will soon forget- that they actually met a genuine World War II survivor and now have that tangible link to the past.

I hope it is not the last time, but they are certainly the last generation.

the last generation 4

 

Eight years ago tonight, we sat down for dinner at our farewell banquet and asked them to turn on ABC News. It was Friday evening after a three day reunion at our high school that included a dinner dance with American soldier liberators and Holocaust survivors on a steamboat on Lake George. This is what we watched together with students and family members.

In the opening sequence, Frank Towers is walking his wife Mary into the high school, and he says, ‘Here we are! We have arrived!’

65 years before, Carrol Walsh and George Gross did exactly that- arrived on the scene with their two tanks to save 2500 Jews from probable death. The next day, Frank arrived to transport those saved by the Americans out of harm’s way.

They are gone now, but thankfully got to meet and reconnect with over 275 Holocaust survivors and their families. What they did will last forever.

 

L-R- Sergeant Clarence B McGuire, Sergeant Maurice J Franzblau, Sergeant Fenton D Strohmeyer, Sergeant Guido Signoretti, Sergeant John Swarts. Source: John Swarts

I’d like to tell you a story about how this photo came into my possession.

I had never seen it before the end of this past August, just a week ago.  In fact, all of my life I thought that the man who sent it to me was dead, like everyone else in the picture. Even as I began my latest book, I had assumed everyone in my dad’s cousin’s B-17 was killed when their plane blew up 20,000 feet over Nazi Germany in the summer of 1944.

My dad’s cousin Clarence was a twenty year old waist gunner on the crew, clean cut, the one in the white T-shirt.  Many times I accompanied my dad on walks to the quiet cemetery a few blocks from our house. The memorial reads:

SGT. CLARENCE B. McGUIRE

A COURAGEOUS AND GALLANT GUNNER

WHO GAVE ALL FOR GOD AND COUNTRY

JULY 29, 1944

MAY HIS SOUL, AND ALL THE SOULS

OF THE GALLANT MEN WHO DIED, REST IN PEACE

Clarence McGuire, rear, tallest, center; John Swarts, rear, far right.

So naturally, for years I thought that all of his crew had died in 1944 when their B-17 was hit on a mission to bomb a German oil refinery. I think that is what my dad told me; I dug their crew photo—the only photograph I had ever seen of Clarence, to be honest—out from his desk after Dad passed. So imagine my surprise a few weeks back when I found the exact same photo, labeled, on the internet, at the American Air Museum in Britain. Then I noticed that someone had sponsored the page, ‘in memoriam’, and it was the same name as one of the crew. A son, perhaps?

No. I tracked the tail gunner in Florida, and mailed him a letter to what I hoped was the right address, hoping that maybe he was still alive.  Well, he called me shortly thereafter.


‘‘This is John Swarts’, said the voice with the distinctive Southern twang. ‘Me and Clarence was pretty good friends.’ A pause. ‘You got it right, address and everything. I knew him well; I went with him to his home up there in New York. Me and him used to ride horse together; I got some pictures to send you. His mother used to write me letters afterwards.’ 


John hailed from Missouri, and later settled in St. Louis.

‘Things worked out right for me. Was married twice, got a boy and a girl. Spent 33 years on the railroad, and then had my own business. I’ll be 93 on February 3rd. But it was just me and the co-pilot who survived that day. I was burned in the eye and didn’t go on the last mission.’ 


The plane went down on July 29th, 1944. This last weekend in July of 2017, the 73rd anniversary was upon us as we spoke.

‘The name of the plane was Pugnacious Ball. Flak got the plane. Blew up before it hit the ground. But I think they recovered a body bag to send home to his mother.’ 

‘I watched for the planes coming back; you always do when they are out on a mission. You count them. We waited and waited. They didn’t come back.’

‘It was the worst day of my life. Still is.’


John also sent me newspaper clippings. ‘Vet Feels Guilty Because Buddies Died’, declares one. ‘I feel so guilty. They were buried in Germany the same day they were shot down.’

And he sent me the picture I had never seen before, labeled in his hand, five friends for life smiling for the moment, smiling for eternity, though the kid in the back looks more reserved, almost as if he is already carrying the burden that will haunt him in some ways forever.

My new book starts with the kid on the far left in the photograph (Clarence), and ends with the one in the back, on the far right (John), 73 yrs later. So I went back to the cemetery where I had visited with my father many times in my boyhood, and left a simple note, and my book.

John Swarts, Washington DC, Honor Flight recipient.

I found him, Clarence, or maybe John had rediscovered you, somehow, through me. But he did not forget you, and neither will anyone who reads John’s words:

‘I get a little emotional. I’m almost 93; I hope to see them all again in heaven.’

You can read more in The Things Our Fathers Saw- VOL II, Book One: War in the Air here.

 

I wrote this post on my Facebook author page the other day; I met one of the principal characters in my new book.
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My wife and I went to visit with one of the main characters in my latest book today, down in a retirement community in Saratoga. He’s 91, and probably one of the more highly educated, brilliant men I have come across in my travels.
“Did you know that my father served in the Navy, and then the Army? In World War I and World War II? He wasn’t around much; I was an only child and my mother raised me; she was a strong woman. She signed the papers for me, and said, ‘Don’t do anything stupid.’ All my life I wanted to fly-so I volunteered soon after Pearl Harbor.”
Richard was anything but stupid. He went to Brooklyn Law School after the war on the GI Bill, passing the bar exam in New York. Only after that did he go for his undergraduate Bachelor of Arts degree! I asked him why.
“I just wanted to learn. I basically went into the army at seventeen and a half years old. I didn’t really have a major, I just took classes, all kinds of subjects I was interested in. I racked up 132 credits in college; they kicked me out because I had too much.” Later, he also became a highly regarded painter and collected art.
He asked me about my world travels; I mentioned I had been to Germany. He said, “Me, too. Actually about 20,000 feet over it, dropping bombs.”
Later I asked Richard about what he thought of the current state of affairs in our country. Having seen what he had seen, and gone through what he had experienced in World War II, he was not the type of man to suffer fools lightly; he gave me a blistering earful.
I pressed on. I thought it was important to ask him his thoughts about American neo-Nazis parading openly with torches and chanting ‘Jews will not replace us’, right here at home in America—after all our veterans had fought and died for in World War II. I suppose I expected him to register bewilderment, or perhaps profound disappointment. He didn’t bother with those sentiments.
“It’s simple. I hated the Army, but they trained me to kill Nazis. I was an excellent shot. If I had my .50 cal., those sons-of-bitches wouldn’t have gotten very far.”
***
Immediately after the post above, I got comments about the shortsightedness of the removal of Confederate monuments, of how I am not looking at the whole picture, perhaps relying too heavily on CNN and MSNBC for my news consumption.
I definitely have some opinions to add to this ‘great monument debate’, but the point I was trying to make was that this was not about monuments or politics.  ‘Jews will not replace us’. Hitler salutes? Torchlight parades? ‘Blood and soil’?
It does not simply boil down to Democrats and Republicans, monuments or no monuments. And if we want to start drawing battlelines, or can’t agree that terrorizing young Jewish children, elderly survivors, our friends and neighbors with what we are now witnessing here in America, HERE and NOW, then we have an issue.
Because there is no argument here, but it seems logic and reason no longer has a place. Is there any wonder Holocaust denial is on the rise? How does one combat this, when the questioning of the imposition of false narratives is like challenging an article of dogmatic religious faith?
***
I went to visit with a  family member who lives a couple hours away yesterday. We don’t talk much about politics, but the conversation came around to current events, and onto the HBO video that I had watched—twice—as the march in Charlottesville was winding down. This young reporter had embedded herself in with the neo-Nazi demonstrators. The main subject is chilling to watch, especially as he celebrates the loss of life at the hands of a fellow white supremacist. My kin remarked that slowly the realization dawned on her, up here in the northeast, that the guy living right down the street was that neo-Nazi ‘star’ down in Charlottesville. It’s not isolated, or far removed; it’s right in the backyard.
If you have not seen this video, you should take the time. It’s 22 riveting minutes, and it’s not about monuments. It’s about the ever-illusory veneer of civilization wearing away as incendiary demagogues have their way. I write books, history books, but sometimes I wonder if any of it matters. Because as Richard alluded in his no-nonsense fashion, we’ve seen this movie before.

“VICE News Tonight” correspondent Elle Reeve went behind the scenes with white nationalist leaders. From the neo-Nazi protests at Emancipation Park to Cantwell’s hideaway outside of Virginia, “VICE News Tonight” provides viewers with exclusive, up close and personal access inside the unrest.

This episode of VICE News Tonight aired August 14, 2017 on HBO.

 

My third book is now available as an ebook. The paperback should be out by first week of September.

It is the story of eight airmen as they grew up during the Great Depression and then joined the US Army Air Forces and took to the skies over Europe. Each man held a different crew position on the ‘heavies’, the B-24 Liberator or the B-17 Flying Fortress. Most had a connection to ‘Hometown USA’, a name coined during WWII for Glens Falls, NY and the surrounding environs and small communities that lined the Hudson River 200 miles north of New York City.

Here is a story from Chapter Five.

The Navigator

Kenneth R. Carlson was born in 1921 in New York City. As a boy in the Great Depression, he spent his summers at Glenburnie at the Lake George Camp, the northern fringe of the communities surrounding ‘Hometown USA’. He called me at home one evening, shortly after I had returned from swimming near there.

‘Tell me about yourself, your family. I myself was from a middle-class family, but we were lucky in that I was able to attend what was probably the best private school in New York City. Incidentally, my tuition in grade school in the ‘20s was $250 a year; today a kindergarten slot is $45,000. I had a terrific education, even though I had to fight my way through the Irish gangs on 69th Street when I came back home from school.’

He tells me that the man who cuts his hair was an 8-year old boy in occupied France. He would look up, see the twin tails of the B-24 Liberators  coming or going to attack Germany, and wish them a silent prayer, hopeful that one day he would indeed be free.

‘I think what you are doing is very important. I still go to speak to the students here a few times a year; when we got out of the service, I joined the 8th Air Force Historical Society here in New York and vowed to speak to kids. At 96, I’m still keeping that commitment. Years ago the Smithsonian put out a book, High Honor, of inspirational stories with World War II veterans, myself and twenty-nine other fellows. Get the book, but I wouldn’t try to contact any of the other fellows. I’m the last one left.’

*

I won’t bore you with other missions, but we were on the first three raids on Berlin. March 6, 1944, was referred to as ‘Bloody Monday’ because we sent 600 airplanes up and 69 did not come back. That was not the worst experience I had because our group was not damaged. A lot of groups were, so we were very fortunate. But on our eighth mission we were sent to Freiburg in southern Germany, near the Swiss border. And it was there, just as we were going over the target…

Flak

Let me tell you a little about flak. I have carried this with me ever since, because this is what flak looks like [digs into jacket pocket, pulls out a jagged flak fragment about the size of two fingers].

carlson flak

This is a piece of flak from a German 88mm artillery shell, which is fired from the ground and explodes at 25,000 feet, which is where we were flying. It is designed to destroy the plane or the engines or blow up the gas tank. And on my eighth mission, just as we were flying over the target, through these black clouds of exploding shells that you had to fly though, and just as the bombardier released our bombs I hit the salvo handle, a handle right next to the instrument on the navigation table. That would release the bombs in the event that the bombsight did not release the bombs. The second the bombardier says, ‘Bombs are away’, the navigator hits the salvo handle so if any bombs did get hung up, they would automatically go when you hit the salvo handle. So as I hit that handle this piece of flak nearly took my right arm off. And all I felt was no pain, just the feeling that someone had hit me with a sledgehammer. I felt total peace. It was the most unbelievable experience I’d ever had in my life. I didn’t talk to God or see God, but I had absolutely no fear.

I looked down and there wasn’t much left of my right arm; I saw it hanging there. I called the pilot and asked him to send somebody down to put a tourniquet on. Meanwhile I was checking instruments, because now we were on our way back and navigating was part of what I had to do, and I was still capable of doing it; I had no problem with it. The radio operator came down, took one look at it, and fainted. So I called again and the engineer came down. He revived the radio operator and sent him back with his portable oxygen mask. He then put the tourniquet on and stayed with me for the three or four hours it took to get back to base. An engine was on fire. Joe put the fire out and we lost a second engine. He brought it back, we landed, and I was brought to the hospital. They repaired my arm. I was on the operating table for eight hours. I didn’t wake up for 72 hours due to an overdose of pentothal, which was the drug they used in those days.

While I was in the hospital, our plane had 150 holes in it [to be patched up], and the crew was given a leave to go to London and relax. Joe came in and brought this piece of flak to me. [It had been lodged] in the instrument panel and it had a piece of my wire suit and my blood on it. So it took part of my arm and then went on to demolish part of the instrument panel. Joe said to me, ‘Sorry you are so unlucky, Navigator. We’re going to miss you’, because there was no way I was going to fly again.

They came back from leave to fly the repaired airplane on the next mission, and they flew and they never came back. The crew next to them saw them explode, just like the Space Shuttle did on my 65th birthday. They were officially declared missing; [only] one parachute was seen coming out. For years I assumed they were missing rather than the fact that they were killed. About two years later, the government declared them killed in action. But up until about four or five years ago, [it was assumed that] there were no bodies ever recovered, because there was no indication otherwise. Then, through a German internet source, I discovered that they had been found by the Germans and were buried in a small German-occupied cemetery just north of Paris, but there were only body parts and one piece of wing that had a star on it. That was their identification. So they [turned out to be] in a cemetery in a little town northwest of Paris.

That was the end of my combat career. My arm was repaired by a doctor who, by fate, I met thirty years later. When my hand began to contract again I was sent to an orthopedic man. As I was sitting across from him he was questioning me about where this had happened, and he was the doctor who originally had put my hand back together again. He was the only doctor in that hospital which had just opened the week before I was shot.

*

[After the war, I did not go to reunions.] I had lost my crew and it was something I didn’t talk about for many years. I had no desire to go back and share memories with crews that had survived. It wasn’t until much later that I decided to do this book for reasons that it would be helpful to young people in understanding what World War II was like. Not so much understanding it in its entirety, but how it affected individual people’s lives. It wasn’t until then that I had any real reason to try and recapture people who had been there. Then I joined what is called the 8th Air Force Historical Society. And through that I have maintained contacts at both the national level and at the local level in New York City. I found that very rewarding.

[I think my time in the military affected me] in a very dominant way. People talk about religion and believing in something; the moment of truth comes to you. I was raised and schooled in the Christian church. I don’t go to church anymore, but I do have the faith that came to me when this piece of flak hit me. There was just no question in my mind that I was coming home, and that I was going to be safe and go to work and just do the job that I had to do. It is a feeling that has stayed with me all my life. So, from that standpoint, there is no fear. So many people today seem to be afraid of so many things. The fear of doing things or fear of failing has never been with me since I left the service. I have continued to look at my own life as one of missions, a series of missions and not just adventures, and it has worked for me.

*

Myrtle

Ken Carlson, first row second from right, and the crew of ‘Myrtle the Flying Turtle’. Credit: Ken Carlson.

There is a photo of me and my crew taken in 1943. [Pointing out crew]—Frank Caldwell was the bombardier, from Anderson, IN; ‘Johnny’ Johnson, the co-pilot, from Houston, TX; Joe Roznos, the pilot, my greatest friend, from Hollywood, CA; ‘Wally’ Waldmann, waist gunner, from Houston, TX; Hal McNew, waist gunner, from Montana; Ed Miller, tail gunner, from Wyoming; Frank Dinkins, the engineer; John Rose, ‘Rosie’, our ball turret gunner—he could shoot a squirrel, or a German fighter pilot, from his shoulder or his waist, it didn’t make any difference; and Cleo Pursifull, our radioman. He is the one that came to help me and fainted. And he failed to go on that last mission. He had just had enough.

The thing that haunts me is that I can’t put a face to the guy who replaced him. He was an 18-year old Jewish kid named Henry Vogelstein from Brooklyn. It was his first and last mission. And when you think about it, an 18-year old boy was put as a replacement in a crew that he did not know; we were an all Christian crew. We all had our little New Testament that the Air Force gave us and he would have been given an Old Testament. He made his only mission with a crew of strangers. Now that’s bravery!

We all want to be free, but very few of us want to be brave. For all of us to be free, a few of us must be brave, and that is the history of America.