And Then There Were None.

Harry Patch has died.

He was born in 1898, trained as a plumber at age fifteen, was conscripted into the army of Great Britain in 1916 and was the last living combatant of the First World War. There are three other men still alive who served, but Harry was the last who actually fought. A soldier who, on the day of his nineteenth birthday, entered the trenches for the first time to experience something that no one alive today can fully understand. It’s not possible that we could.

He had a good idea of what lay ahead of him. Not only did he have an older brother who had already been wounded in the conflict that would reshape much of Europe and lay the groundwork for yet another, far bloodier war, but also, this was not 1914 anymore either. By 1917 when he had completed his training, citizens of all nations understood the meat grinder that they were throwing their teenagers and young fathers into. By then, the enthusiasm for glory was diminishing daily. It was understood by all except the embroiled governments that there was no real glory to be had but rather, death, dismemberment, mental anguish that would last a lifetime, reducing men to shadows of their former selves. The wide eyed, naivety and excitement that so commonly clouds the minds of otherwise sensible individuals had been mostly scoured away in the mud of no-man’s land and blood of millions of young men.

Harry was trained as machine gunner, an invention that was used to such effect in those years it became the signature weapon of the Great War. The device, invented years before the outbreak of war, was perfected in this conflict and refined to a point where even for the next generation, designs were near duplicates and carried once again to the fields of France to fight in the war after “The War to End All Wars.”

Machine guns were feared by all on both sides and as such, were prime targets to be taken out as quickly as possible. This was to be the fate of the gun crew Harry was attached to. As they lay in the slime of Passchendaele, a shell exploded over the team. Three, out of the five man team were blown apart. Harry suffered a wound from the flying shrapnel but lived. With a visit from a battlefield medic, a run on a stretcher to an aid station and then to the rear and out of France, he made it back to the Isle of Wight where he would convalesce. Later, still in England, as he drilled on a rifle range, preparing to return to the front, he would receive the news that the Armistice was signed.

stretcher

The war was over. The lives of over eight and a half million soldiers had been lost. Over twenty one million had been wounded. Far more had wounds that did not show outwardly. It took Harry over eighty years before he could bring himself to talk about it. In 2007, he found the strength to return to the fields of Flanders and see the land again where so many men were unlucky enough to not be wounded like himself, but instead mingled with the soil, unseen even to this day.

That one battle alone consumed over 850,000 men.

One battle.

I am a student of history. I have a thirst to know and find awe and respect in the items that have been carried and cared for by those who have held these things; who have lived or just as often, not lived through the fires of past conflict. I am not alone.

Collectors of history cover the globe and the hunt for the right helmet, the correct rifle or the authentic letter spurs on a lively commerce. What worries me is the disconnect that can occur with these items and the stories that refuse to cling to them. An object can’t tell you the story of it’s owner and with the death of those who knew, we loose that human element, and it is a loss. The bayonet that is snapped up at an antiques show that might have ruined the life of a family a century ago. The canteen for sale that once was filled but never drank from. The extra overcoat that was ordered but shipped back unworn. We can’t forget where these things come from or whom they might have touched. We should, however, care for them since we can no longer care for their one time owners. They are not ours, however. We are only stewards and need to teach why there are items of humanity. Why they are special.

In 1914, the European youth were electrified with the promise and thrill of war. There had been a long wait between conflicts and the populace had forgotten that glory was a lie. It wasn’t glorious. It was riding into the jaws of Death and hoping to be the survivor, even as your friends die all around you. The elders of state ordered them to go and they did their duty.

Lions led by Asses.

We can debate the argument if the Great War was inevitable or avoidable. We can question who actually started it and where the fault lies.We can point fingers at incompetent commanders and mourn those who died due to the idiocy of suicidal orders handed out with no care or strategy. What we cannot do, should never do, is think for a moment that the Great War was that. Great. It was a charnel house. We should never for a moment confuse that with glory.

Good night to you Harry Patch, you and all those who saw the war of 1914-1918 with their own eyes. There are yet three more who were there, but you were the last to raise arms against an enemy you barely knew.

The fields are quiet now except for the sounds of traffic and tractors. The memories you shared are written in the annals of history.

May we never forget the price we as men paid to hear them.

“I met someone from the German side, and we both shared the same opinion: We fought, we finished, and we were friends. It wasn’t worth it.”

~Harry Patch

HarryPatch

Thank You.

Arlington

Movie Night

So, the kids are in bed and Action Girl won’t be coming home tonight due to a late night at work and an early morning shift that precludes getting back to our island home. Lulu Belle’s put me through the ringer this evening and Short Stack is freshly tucked in bed and hopefully drifting off. I’m pooped. It’s been a heck of a day. I should probably go to bed too, but I just can’t. I’ve always been a night owl and need a good distraction before I’m ready to turn in.

Normally, I’d be in the kitchen cleaning up the wreckage that two little kids and a their dad make around the dinner hour and possibly making something chocolaty and gooey for tomorrow, but Lulu’s got me spooked. Her room is right off the kitchen and after the hour and a half of screaming that she put in after I put her down for bed… for the third time… there is NO WAY I’m willing to risk dropping a pot or clanking a plate and reawaken the tiny, pink beastie. No way.

Plan “B” for nocturnal distraction is to head to my basement lair to make ammo for the ridiculously odd and ancient firearms I collect. Many of them require ammunition no longer readily available in commercial hunting supply stores, so I make it my self. It may sound like a lot of tedious work, but just like any other solitary and repetitive task such as knitting, whittling, or fishing, it can be very rewarding and calming. Two problems present them selves tonight. Firstly, I’m out of bullets. I have shells, primers and powder, but without the actual projectile, there’s not a lot of point in starting a new batch this evening. The other issue is that I’ve locked the cat down there after his incessant meowing threatened to wake up the kids. The same kids I just spent the last hour and a half getting to finally drift off to Dream Land. The cat isn’t allowed out side, so to the basement he goes. The second I open the door, he’d blast by me like he was fired from a cannon.

cat-cannon

What to do? I can’t make noise in any way and since we own no TV, I don’t have the option of turning my brain to mush the tried and true American way. I’m feeling lazy. I want to be entertained.

I need a movie.

I truly miss having Action Girl home in the evenings, but her current schedule has her gone about half the week. The one bright spot in being solo for the night is that the viewing choice is mine. ALL MINE! When movies are concerned, my wife and I have limited crossover interests. True, she does have a thing for Chow Yun Fat and that means a lot of good shoot ’em up movies. She’s also is willing to see most of the comic book inspired films that seem to be coming out of Hollywood faster than the actual comics are being drawn. The line is drawn very definitely however, at war movies.

I’m not sure why watching gunplay and explosions interests her so long as uniforms aren’t involved, but there you are. This means that on nights like this, I reach for some old standbys as I warm the couch on my own. Casting around in our disheveled video collection, I paw past the ancient VCR tapes and look longingly at my double tape, directors cut of “Patton.” My VCR has long since died and gone to a better, landfill-ier place and as I said, I have nothing to hook one up to anyway. I wonder sadly if I’ll ever get to watch it again. Then my eyes fall on a DVD, still in it’s cellophane.

“Midway”

midway

Now THAT’S a classic! This was a gift from one guy to another and I, for one, am thrilled to have it. “Midway” was one of those movies that I first saw years and years ago on television. Probably, it was some lazy Sunday afternoon when I should have been out playing in the sun but instead, managed to get some time clicking the dial around and around until I spotted dive bombers making their runs on the Japanese carrier fleet. Being the airplane junkie that I am, I stopped to watch.

Since that day, I’ve caught the movie being rebroadcast at least a half a dozen times. I remember parts of it in perfect detail and love stumbling upon it and I’m always blown away at the cast: Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda, Hal Holbrook, Toshiro Minfune, Glenn Ford, Robert Mitchum, James Coburn, Erik Estrada, Tom Selleck, and Pat Morita, just to name a few. It was a bizarre fusing of the old Hollywood and the new and they threw in just about everyone they could get their hands on. The score was by a new and untried composer named John Williams. Perhaps you’ve heard of him?

One night, just before Christmas, we were over visiting my folks for dinner. As I walked through the living room and glanced at the TV, a familiar movie caught my eye. “Midway” was just starting. Frozen in my tracks with a goofy smile on my face, I paused to catch a few minutes of history, Hollywood style. As my Father came over to deliver my drink I commented on how, though I’ve seen this movie so many times before, I seriously doubt that I’ve ever watched it from beginning to end. Whenever it seems to be on, I either come in half way through or get to start it and am then called away. That night was no exception. Dinner was already laid out on the table and the kids needed to go right home afterwards and get tucked into bed. Oh well.

A month or so later on Christmas day, I unwrapped a small rectangular present from Dad and happily thanked him. My copy of the movie has been sitting since then, waiting for the right moment. The house is quiet and mercifully, Lulu Belle has tossed in the towel and seems to be sleeping happily. Short Stack must be snoozing now too. As quietly as I can, I peel off the wrapper and pop the DVD into the laptop and pop in the headphones. The acting is stiff by today’s standards and let us not even talk about the “special effects.” Parts of the film look almost amateurish in their lack of glitz and method acting, but I love it nonetheless. In some ways, it’s almost like watching a play. It isn’t about making the pilots look like they are actually flying a plane or seamlessly cutting in real gun camera footage. It’s about the story, and I find that pretty refreshing.

I like old movies, and old war movies are even better, in my opinion. They may not be Action Girl’s cup of tea, but that’s fine. There are lots of movies that she likes that I wouldn’t go near with a ten foot pole.

I’m looking at you, Romantic Comedy.

I’m looking at the clock now and just realized that there is no way I’ll be able to finish “Midway” before I need to get to bed tonight. At least I can stop it and pick it back up when I want. Action Girl will be home tomorrow night, so it will have to wait a while. If I start watching now, I think I can just make it to the part where the American’s break the Japanese code.

Once again, I’m thwarted at seeing it all the way through in a single sitting.

I’m okay with that, though. Why mess with tradition?

Tomorrow’s History

(Written on the morning of November the 4th 2008)

While I could hardly call this morning an “Indian Summer” day, it is pleasant for November. Mild in temperature with bright sun forcing its way through a thin haze while a chilly, light breeze keeps you aware that winter is not far away. This morning, I have taken the opportunity given me by the warm weather to do some writing out of doors. The shamanism of technology, giving me a wireless connection as I sit on a rock ledge that emerged form the ground, who knows how long ago.

It’s a historical day today. Not just because it’s November 4th and an election year, but I mean that for me, it’s one of those days when I can feel history flow. It’s strong in the air and I feel its weight. The little park I’m sitting in is like so many that you’ll find scattered around the world. It’s pleasantly green, dogs run freely through it, peeing on anything that doesn’t move and the pigeons have designs on the half a doughnut that I’ve set down next to my coffee mug.

As I look up and to my left, a massive piece of steel looms overhead and points out over the shipping channel that leads south, in the direction it came from where it found it’s way, from it’s temporary tomb. It’s a piece of high powered ordinance from a long gone era, now perched atop a cement pedestal, never to fire again. Once, it was the height of war making technology, now it rusts away and collects bird droppings. This is no ordinary piece of artillery, however. This is a naval gun that, though never fired in battle in the heat of battle, set the fire for one of our countries most questionable wars. This is one of the deck guns from the USS Maine.

On the night of February 15, 1898, the USS Maine was sitting quietly at anchor in Havana harbor. She had been sent there to guard U.S. interests during a time of political upheaval in Cuba, as a revolution brewed, threatening the Spanish colonial hold in the Caribbean. The Warship was, in short, there as a show of force.

uss-maine

At 21:40, a massive explosion ripped the ship apart killing much of her crew as they slept in their berths. To this day, and after three different investigations spanning more than a century, no one knows for sure what happened. What we do know is that her destruction was quickly and expertly blamed on Spain and was the match that ignited the Spanish-American war. A piece of mostly forgotten history that only made America the dominant power in the western hemisphere. “Remember the Maine and to Hell with Spain”, was a cry that would resonate with an American public fed on at best, dubious and at worst, out right fabrications of what was happening in the world.

Without descending into a long and detailed history lesson, the destruction of the USS Maine was blamed on a Spanish mine. An “infernal device”, as it was described in the day. The Spanish government denied any doing and rather, blamed it on the ship’s coalbunkers igniting. Not an unheard of occurrence, back then. This possibility didn’t stop the race to battle that was unforgivably whipped along by The Hurst and Pulitzer news services. A massive distortion of the available facts in an effort to boost sales of their papers and extend their circulation would later be graced with a special moniker; yellow journalism.

In the end, the war went well for the U.S. and very badly indeed for Spain. They lost Puerto Rico, their hold on Cuba and all their holdings in the Pacific. In only about a year, America had successfully beaten an aging colonial power and completed a land grab that, for the most part, we still hold a good chunk of to this day. It was a different time. It could never happen again. Well, perhaps it could never end like that again.

As I look over my right shoulder from my quiet, moss-speckled perch, I can see a newer monument. A black and highly polished memorial, wrapped in a stone American Flag. No weaponry is displayed here. It’s more about the lives lost than the moment made in history. “In Memory of those who died in the rescue efforts on September, 11 2001”

As I cast my eyes around the park, I see a World War II memorial looming in the distance, flags lazily sauntering in the early morning breeze and at the top of the hill to my back, two field cannons, engineered in the time of the American Civil War, but just missing their day in the sun by one year, being cast in 1866. These cannons, like the deck gun from the USS Maine, likely never fired a shot in battle.

I am not a pacifist, and do not make the argument that war is unnecessary. The Monuments that are scattered around where I sit are, in my mind, are testament to wars both unavoidable and reprehensible. Causes of righteous indignation and blatant manipulation for alternate goals. Within each war, with its lives lost and deeds done, both good and bad erupted from each tumult. That can not be refuted. There is no black. There is no white. Life, so far as I have been able to discern, doesn’t work that way. We work with what we are dealt and hopefully, work towards the good of all.

Today is a historic day, no matter what the outcome. Every day is. The weight of decisions made now will have ramifications that we cannot accurately guess until we wait to see the cards turned over. Tomorrow’s history is yesterday’s future. I wonder what it will bring.

Normandy, with Grandpa

On the year of the 49th anniversary of the D-Day landings, I got to walk the beaches with my Grandfather.

He hadn’t been there all those years ago, you understand. His war had taken the young New Hampshire boy to much stranger fields of battle. His war had been going on for years. His war was full of malarial mosquitoes and sunstroke. His war was mostly ignored, or so it seemed to him.

On June 6th, 1944, Tech Sgt. N.B.H. was most likely floating off the shore of New Guinea watching B-25’s making bombing runs on the Owen Stanley mountains and wondering where the next landing would be. He was the skipper of various landing type craft, sometimes LCI’s like you see on the beaches of Normandy, but more often LCM’s or LST’s. Those are the big boats for getting machinery and tanks into the landings. His boats were often the first ones in and some of his battle ribbons, which he gave me years ago, hold bronze stars.

He had signed up in 1942, waiting until he had finished high school before joining the army. He had picked the army because he was a hunter, confident in his ability with a rifle and was comfortable in the woods. He knew little about airplanes, so stayed away from the Air Corps. and didn’t like the idea of being in the Navy. His logic was that if his ship was hit, there was little he could do about it. He’s a hands on person and relies on his own judgment and wits as they rarely let him down.

So, off to the Army he went. Then they found out that he grew up on a lake. Next they found out he could run a boat. before he knew it, he was off to lake Pontchartrain, being schooled in the art of running landing craft. His leadership qualities quickly sent him to the wheelhouse and his athletic abilities got him sent to the Combat Engineers.

The Combat Engineers were often the guys who went in ahead of the landing to get it ready for the infantry and the marines or to fix a degrading landing. These were the guys who got shot at first or under the worst conditions. They were specialists and his unit badge sported a shield with an eagle, anchor and tommy gun, meaning that they would get there by air, sea or foot, and they did.

He survived the war, but just barely. His only physical injuries came from falling through a hatch, carelessly left open by a green replacement, a partially crushed finger from a 55 gallon drum of oil that fell on him, a concussion from a falling signal light that was shot off his mast, and a case of sunstroke that nearly killed him. He made it though though, and he’s still around to this day.

He mostly tells you the funny stories. The painful ones he keeps to him self. The men he talks about were the ones who came home with him. I’ve never heard him mention the name of a single friend who was killed in action, and there must have been many. Where he was, it was inevitable. If I press for more than the five or six stories he tells and retells, he’ll go off on a line about how there are millions of stories out there from millions of people and that his don’t matter. I disagree, but it’s not my place to argue that. The memories are his, and he is entitled to share them or not. I just make sure that I’m there to listen.

When we walked the beaches in Normandy all those years later, I had the chance to watch an old man learn something new. He had always sort of talked down the European war. In many ways, I think he resents the coverage and interest it gets, while his conflict remains little more than a foot note. For years, when ever he saw footage of the D-Day landings he would speak disparagingly about how the men had to wade, if not swim to shore. “We never did that! If we brought you in, you had dry boots!”

Standing on the bluffs in the old German positions, this old man looked down and saw the beach with the eyes of a military landing craft captain. After a few minutes he remarked that now he understood.

“This is a hell of a place to land. Look, there are at least six sand bars that you’d have to plow through before you’d hit beach. You’d never have the momentum to get past the fourth one. This is an awful place to bring them in. No wonder they had to swim.”

Later that night, it started to rain as we all went out for dinner. There were thirteen of us in the group and it wasn’t easy to find a place where we could all fit. We finally found a nice little restaurant and nearly filled it with our family. As the evening came to a close, the owner came out to our tables to ask if we had enjoyed our meal. When he spotted the white hair on my Grandfather’s head, he asked if he was a veteran. “Yes, but not from here. I ran landing craft in the Pacific.”

The two old men chatted a while and as the bill came out, the owner grabbed it quickly and removed the cost of my grandparent’s meal. My grandfather objected but the owner insisted. “It is my gift to you. Wait one moment, I have something else.” The owner disappeared into the back for a few minutes and emerged, holding a labelless, corked wine bottle. “This is sand from the beach. I picked it up my self just a few days after the invasion. It has the blood of American soldiers in it. I want you to have it. I remember. Here, in Normandy, we all remember.”

I’ve never seen my grandfather so much as tear-up, and to be honest, I don’t know if he did just then. I know I would have. I had to look away. It was too much to see.

It’s June 6th today. A day of loss for so many families. Many dreams stopped forever on a long stretch of beach or on the cliffs over the French coast. So many more dreams however, were made possible by the loss. We remember that day for the heroism and loss on those beaches but I’ll try to think of my Grandfather, all those miles away, floating on a steel deck in the Pacific, wondering when it will all be over so he can finally go home.

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