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A damn good man.

I was flipping through some photos I took about this time of year and found this one. I remember it. I took it on a Sunday night in late March 2016. About twenty-four hours later, same beautiful March weather, same glorious sky, a friend died in an accident. I found out the next day, and wrote this right before his funeral. I thought of that sunset and I thought of him. Coming to my admin page here, I see the original post has been visited many times over the last week or so. It turned out to be one of my most shared posts here, rightfully so. A damn good man. C.J. Hebert, 1964-2016.

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At the high school where I have taught for nearly 30 years, we got a notification early in the week that one of our former principals had died suddenly in an accident. He was just 51, a little bit younger than me, but he was a giant both in his stature and presence, and also especially the way he conducted himself inside and outside the school. We worked together closely on a lot of stuff, so hearing the news of his passing was a jolt.

A good man.

A good man.

C.J. Hebert was our leader for eight years. In 2010 he spread his wings and expanded his horizons and took a job as superintendent in the Cooperstown, NY school district. He just grew, and was ready to grow some more. He was excited, and told me at one of our last meetings that he was thrilled that his new office would not be out of the way, but would be near where the kids were all the time.

It turned out to be a long day to get through. When I got home last night, I read some of the online comments from his colleagues and former students. C.J. was a big outdoorsman. He liked to shoot, hunt, and fish. If he went into the woods unarmed looking for a bear, you’d worry about the bear. When the kids in the National Honor Society would come to him selling our magazine subscription fundraiser, he always opened his checkbook, though he told me with a chuckle that his subscription to Field and Stream was now paid up to 2025.  And some of these kids I read about last night he even shepherded through bowhunting classes.

He could be tough, but was always respectful in his professional demeanor. And when you were sitting with him in his office, you could talk to him man-to-man. He always liked hearing what I was up to. He had an easy laugh and though it may be a cliché, there was a twinkle in his eye that told of a deep personal interest in you, genuine good will and a down-to-earth contentedness that just radiated and went unspoken miles.

My current principal made the rounds to see how some of us old dogs were doing with the news. He knew him well too and I know we were all shocked by the loss. My dear friend Mary was his secretary all the time he was here, and even though C.J. left our school 6 years ago, the loss just hits you, like the wall you used to lean on suddenly falling down on you. I can’t imagine what it must be like for his family and his community now.

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Later in the day and totally unrelated, I was gently reminded by a friend in the IT department that I should do something with my school email inbox-that it had reclaimed its place as the largest in the school district.   (Okay, I admit it, I’m bad. I’m not a hoarder, but I’m not an immediate deleter, either…) At first I felt mildly chastised at being reminded at least twice. But through my friend, the universe dropped me a notice. Maybe not so unrelated, after all.

So I set about it- going back and deleting, one by one, the emails I do not want to keep, and do not wish to archive. Today I was on Day Two of this activity-which in a way is turning out to be some kind of release, an ablution of sorts, as I wind down my career. Staring at the screen and hammering away for all of the spare time that I can afford seems at first like a mindless endeavor, but then it slowly dawns that me that I am processing a loss that I did not ever expect to deal with-and here on Day Two I find the last email from C.J. to me, from June 2010, six years ago.

I save that one.

And I remember that I saved all of the handwritten cards and formal letters that he took the time to write to me, over the years, as a supporter of my work in the classroom and in this school, expressing appreciation for the true meaning of what it is to be an educator- the connecting with other human beings, to foster their development, to watch them grow, with pride. He did not mind chewing a little ass when it needed to be chewed, but that was always a flash and the twinkle always returned.

When he was leaving our school district, a local paper asked him what he would remember from his time here at Hudson Falls High. I did not see the article, but I was told that he held a special place in his heart for the two soldiers-survivors reunions we held while he was at the helm here. We planned it and between C.J. and many, many committed others, we pulled it off, and even made it on the ABC World News. It touched me that this meant so much to him, but in hindsight, that is what he was all about- providing students with life changing opportunities and fostering their development as human beings.

So, it turns out that for me, across time and space, there is a significant loss here. There are no special words of wisdom, or special comforts that I can present to his wife, his son, his family-only that the universe presented him to so many people in so many different ways, most which you may never even know about- but that in the bigger picture, perhaps the one that we cannot see just yet, there is that glow of contentedness and confidence, that twinkle and the easy laugh, and that unassuming good will towards others that will always inspire, and that we can all aspire to. And that it won’t just go away. Though I have not talked to him in six years, there is a warmth that I can feel enveloping my insides almost physically right now, thinking of him.

And it feels damn good.

I’ll be pecking away at my email inbox again tomorrow. It will take a lot longer, as  I have another six years to go-now back to the time when C.J. Hebert was at our helm-and I will probably have to read each one from him, I suspect. And with a twinkle, or something, in my own eye.

Lessons taught; the universe beckons. Godspeed, my good man.

 

Calling hours and memorial suggestions are below.

http://www.watertowndailytimes.com/obit/clifton-j-hebert-iii-cj-20160322

 

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I was unpacking a box from my classroom last week, full of framed pictures and awards from my previous life as a classroom teacher of history and the Holocaust. Yes, I know it is February, and I ‘retired’ in June. I guess that it’s taking so long because some days I wrestle with the fact that I’m no longer in the classroom with the kids everyday. But I can tell you that students and teachers have been on my mind all week long, given the events in a Florida high school.

So I’m unpacking this box (and subliminally wondering why I am even bothering to unpack the box, now eight months down the line), dusting off the frames but noticing a few small yellow spots that don’t go away with a wipe, but can be scraped away with a fingernail. I’m curious, and then it all comes flooding back.

Oh yeah. It was from that day a few years ago when an enraged 18-year-old in my classroom (whom I had been walking on eggshells around all year long) suddenly sprang out of his seat like a coiled spring and hurled his books at me from across the room, narrowly missing me, and, rapid reload, fired his 20-ounce sticky breakfast energy drink which exploded at the horizon line above my head where the yellow painted cinderblock wall and ceiling met, spattering and raining sticky golden gunk everywhere. He turned and it seemed like he nearly tore the metal classroom door out of its frame, opening it with such a velocity that it ricocheted off the closet, and stormed out of the room and down the hall.

I instinctively walked quickly to the door, closed it, and locked it. My stunned students were quiet as I returned to my desk and called the office. And then I somehow managed to carry on with the lesson, until I could follow up the next period. Must keep things ‘normal’. But I was shaking. All I had done was ask him nicely, respectfully, and personally, three times, to stop texting during the lesson. I was gentle, quiet. I even said please. I don’t think the other kids even heard me, hence their stunned incredulity at the explosive reaction of the student. Later I insisted that he not be allowed in the vicinity of my classroom, and maybe I was lucky that my wish was granted. I’m sure I was lucky on many levels. I never saw him again.

All of this brought back what I have been thinking about all week. It was not my first brush with some level of threatening or violent behavior in the classroom.  We, kids and their teachers, administrators, deal with this enough so that the ‘what ifs’ are always present, but now they are again hurtling from the back to the forefront of our lives.

And so to my teacher friends, some of whom, hearts heavy, cried in front of their students this past week, it’s okay. You’re bombarded and pounded-again-but your kids know that you are there to listen to them. So that’s just where it is right now. You are there for them, and frankly, in this moment, they are there for you, too.

Now I circle back to that question-was there every really a time when I would not have put it on the line for my kids? Not at all.  And truth be told now, I always balanced a 3-foot-long piece of angle iron (left over from school construction) on my knees, when seated just behind the door, while the kids were huddled in the corner during the shooter drills. (Maybe it wouldn’t do any good, but it sure felt comforting to hold on to a heavy piece of metal.) And after a week of fumbling to find the right words, I read this article in the NY Times. Yes. Times like these I really miss my school family, and the beautiful human beings we nurture and cultivate. And kudos to Bruce Klasner, fellow Holocaust and Jewish Resistance Teachers’ Program alumnus. I don’t know Bruce, but he nailed it for me.

Janusz Korczak memorial, Warsaw, Poland. I took this while on myHolocaust and Jewish Resistance Teachers’ Program journey. Look him up sometime. And read below.

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School Shootings Put Teachers in New Role as Human Shields
By JULIE TURKEWITZ    FEB. 19, 2018

TAMARAC, Fla. — The shooting was all over, but the emotional reckoning had just begun, and so on Saturday the teachers of Broward County packed their union hall to discuss what it meant to have become the nation’s human shields.

“Last night I told my wife I would take a bullet for the kids,” said Robert Parish, a teacher at an elementary school just miles from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, where a former student killed 17 people, including three staff members who found themselves in the line of fire.

Since the attack last week, said Mr. Parish, “I think about it all the time.”

Across the country, teachers are grappling with how their roles have expanded, from educator and counselor to bodyguard and protector. They wonder if their classrooms are properly equipped, if they would recognize the signs of a dangerous student, and most of all, if they are prepared to jump in front of a bullet.

In the last few days, teachers wrote to Congress, urging bans on assault weapons, and to state lawmakers, seeking permission to carry firearms to school. They attended local protests and reviewed safety plans with students. And in the evenings, they spoke with friends and family about an excruciating reality — that teachers, who once seemed mostly removed from the life-or-death risks faced by the ranks of police officers and firefighters, might now be vulnerable.

“I visualized what it would look like, and it made me sick,” said Catherine Collett, 28, a sixth-grade teacher in Northern Virginia who has spent recent days running through a thousand violent scenarios. “Could I empty out the cabinet and throw out the shelves and put kids in the cabinets? Is my better chance just barricading the doors? Can I move furniture that fast? Do I ask my kids to help me?”

Many teachers said even contemplating such worries felt far from what they had once imagined their challenges would be. As if the mounting pressures of test scores and email messages to parents and bus duty and hall duty and new certifications and all those meetings wasn’t enough. But the death toll has piled up — staff killed in shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012 and now at Stoneman Douglas in Florida — and is forcing a shift in how teachers view their responsibilities.

“When I started teaching, I thought I was just coming in to teach,” said José Luis Vilson, 36, a middle school math teacher in New York City. Now he has come to view himself as a first responder, too, and added that instruction on topics such as conflict resolution and first aid would be useful.

Bo Greene, 56, a calculus and statistics teacher in Bar Harbor, Me., said the planning for dangerous situations had increased and grown more specific in the last year, even in her quiet school district. All of it feels jarring after decades in education, she added.

“I never had any of this,” Ms. Greene said. “We had the basic fire drills.”

Nowhere was the conversation among teachers more intense than in Broward County, where Stoneman Douglas is one of more than 300 schools, and Nikolas Cruz, charged in the shooting, had been among the district’s 270,000 students.

Laurel Holland, who was Mr. Cruz’s 11th-grade English teacher, said teachers in big public schools cannot possibly be expected to look into every student’s background to know if they have long been troubled. The year that she taught Mr. Cruz, she had more than 150 students, she said.

“There’s not enough time,” she said.

In the case of Mr. Cruz, she said, it was clear something was wrong. “He didn’t work and play well with others,” she said. “I was frightened.”

Ms. Holland eventually reported him to the administration, and he was removed from her class after one semester.

Inside the crowded union building on Saturday, educators held hands and shouted “Union strong!” before getting down to business.

How, they asked, were they going to stop the next one?

For hours they spoke of the golf clubs and baseball bats they would like to keep in their classrooms, of the bulletproof vests they wish they had, of the challenges of removing mass killers from their midst.

“I’m curious to know, out of the people here, how many Nikolases they have at their school?” said Elizabeth Sundin, 48, a teacher’s assistant. “Because I have one at our school.”

Outside, in the balmy Florida night, Mr. Parish, 51, of Broadview Elementary, was wrestling with the question of the class door. When an armed attacker begins to prowl, and a student is left in the hall, “Do I let the kid in, and maybe the gunman behind her?” he said. “Or do I not let them in and save the whole class? That’s a decision I can’t make.”

Inside, under the glare of fluorescent lights, Bruce Klasner, 61, of Everglades High was wondering why the district had not created a text message system that could send instructions in the event of an attack.

“I teach the Holocaust,” he shouted at the rows of exhausted teachers. “I taught them,” he said of his students, “about a man by the name of Janusz Korczak who walked into the gas chambers with his children because he refused to leave them. And after this happened my kids are sitting outside saying, ‘Mr. K, would you give your life for me?’”

Mr. Klasner said he would — of course. “I said, ‘Did you even have to ask?’”

In a corner, Andrea Suarez, 35, of Westpine Middle School was worried about her own students, who have special needs and often make loud noises, meaning it is almost impossible to hide them.

These days, she said her plan for responding to a shooting involves corralling the children into a closet, occupying them with snacks, and positioning herself in front of the closet door with a pair of sharp scissors.

“I’ve been having a lot of difficulty sleeping,” said Ms. Suarez, whose four children have been urging her to leave the profession. “I keep hearing kids screaming and gunshots in my head.”

Here in Tamarac, the union meeting was wrapping up.

Jim Gard, in cargo pants and a union polo, stood outside, amid palm trees. At 58, he has been a teacher for 36 years, he said, and works at Stoneman Douglas. When the shooting broke out, he was in math class, not far from where many were shot. He had taught Mr. Cruz, as well as two of the dead.

“You know, if I go through my college transcripts — master’s degree, doctorate courses, all that — I know for sure there are no courses that say: ‘Shooter on Campus 101,’” he said.

The Broward County school district announced on Monday that staff members would return to Stoneman Douglas at the end of the week. Classes are expected to resume on Tuesday, Feb. 27.

Mr. Gard said many of his colleagues were struggling with the idea of returning.

And yet, he said, “I want to go back. I want to go back to my kids. I want to go back to my classroom. I want to see the kids, I want to teach the kids — and that’s the bottom line.”

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/19/us/teachers-school-shootings

Here’s a recent article from the Museum Teacher Fellowship Program at the USHMM. Many friends, so dedicated to this mission we are all on. Thanks Josh.

Museum Teacher Fellows

MR.June 2017 cropped
Interview and Article by:
Josha Sietsma, Netherlands (MTF 2016)

For Matt Rozell (Granville, NY; MTF 2008), the term ‘retired’ doesn’t define his state of being. A real teacher never stops teaching. Writing books that educate, and with a bigger audience than ever, Matt talks to us on his connection with the Museum and connecting survivors with liberators: “I think [also] it is true that our work as educators is never ever done”.

To start, what are your tools of trade? What is essential to your work, your performance.
A passion to connect to history using real people. When I begin to speak about the history, Holocaust or otherwise, there is a level of excitement and passion that just flows out of me and engages my audience, be it high school students or senior citizens listening to one of my presentations. And it has been with me since my earliest days…

View original post 1,496 more words

Soon after liberation, surviving children of the Auschwitz camp walk out of the children’s barracks. Poland, after January 27, 1945.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

I study this photograph,

and so it begins.

Seventy-three Years Later.

The war comes to a devastating conclusion.

The discoveries unfold:

Eyewitness encounters with the most horrific crime in the history of the world.

Battle-hardened tough guys cry.

They stomp their feet in rage, and get sick,

but the lost are lost.

The Survivors ‘carry on’.

The Soldiers ‘carry on’.

Some will be lost for the rest of their lives.

Now, it is Seventy-plus Years.

But it is not over,

because ‘closure’ is a myth,

and seven decades is but a blur.

The barracks door opens slowly. New tracks form in the snow

but how is life supposed to go on?

And now for the rest of humanity-

Just what have we learned,

Or have we just allowed ourselves to forget?

Is it even important, for us to stop and think

about snowflakes on little boys?

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-m.a.rozell-

See the Altantic’s photo essay here.

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Matthew Rozell is a teacher who has studied at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Authority. His second book,  A Train Near Magdeburg, is on teaching and remembering the Holocaust.

2017. Another year down.

I have not posted a lot since I “retired” but here is one I wanted to sneak in before the new year dawns. Actually I should have done it a long time ago, but the fact is it only came to light last spring. Deep in a filing cabinet, a copy of the very first yearbook of our school district emerged- exactly 100 years later. So I scanned it and here it is, in its entirety. Our yearbook staff used some of it in the 2017 Hudson Falls CSD yearbook. Thanks to some eagle-eyed staff members, it’s safe in the district vault now as well. There are actually two copies known now to exist. Believe me, I searched for them for years. The earliest I could find in the vault was 1919.

I could ramble on about its significance to our community, but I will let the pages speak for themselves now.  Most of the folks who get this notice in their email inbox signed up to learn more about the Holocaust, or WWII, or the importance of teaching history. But this is the community that raised my dad, and me and my brothers and sisters, and that my mom became a big part of. It’s the school that produced yours truly and many fascinating people. It’s where I spent my career, and did the things you come here for. It’s also a snapshot of an American small town 100 years ago. And for my ‘former’ school community, this is me, Mr. Rozell, still here, charging up the parapet on the last day, and holding the fort.

Hermes. The messenger of the gods. I hope you enjoy it-I compressed it to 10MB I think- Have a wonderful 2018, but here is to 2017, and 1917.

Click on the cover photo, or here to download. Catch you on the rebound. Have a great 2018!

 

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.

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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!

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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.