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Sunday, November 24, 2013

Citizen Soldiers

In Citizen Soldiers – The U.S. Army From The Normandy Beaches To The Bulge To The Surrender Of Germany author Stephen Ambrose tells the story of the American foot soldier's experience in Europe.  Ambrose, one of my favorite military historians also wrote my favorite history book. It was Undaunted Courage the story of the Lewis and Clark expedition And what a story it is,  all from the point of view of the men who did the actual fighting.  Down and dirty….

This point of view is somewhat new and fresh considering the thousands of books published on this war by and about  the leaders and politicians whose perspective was from the top down.  Mr. Hull’s review in the New York Times gives us a hint of why this is so.

By Michael D. Hull

One chilly morning in November 1944, Lieutenant General Brian Horrocks, commander of the British XXX Corps, climbed into a jeep and was driven to the front to "smell this new American battlefield." The untested U.S. 84th Infantry Division had been placed under his command for the attack on Geilenkirchen, north of Aachen, on the Dutch-German border. When he reached the division area, Horrocks was halted abruptly by an American sentry, who leaped out from behind a tree, pointed his rifle menacingly at the general's stomach and shouted, "Who the hell are you?"

Horrocks got out of the jeep gingerly and replied, "I am a Britisher–and what's more, your division has just been placed under my command."

The GI looked at him incredulously and asked his rank.

"A three-star general," answered Horrocks.

"Holy Moses!" said the soldier. "We don't see many of them up here."

Horrocks reported later that he was "able to meet and chat to a number of these fine-looking young soldiers." And he soon discovered a front-line problem that reminded him all too much of his grim World War I experiences in the trenches.

"It soon became obvious that, with the exception of the U.S. paratroop divisions, whose commanders literally lived with their forward troops (and, of course, with the exception of Patton), the normal U.S. corps and divisional commanders rarely, if ever, visited their forward troops," recalled Horrocks. "This was something I had to put right without delay, because of the appalling wintry conditions which the 84th were likely to meet in this their first experience of battle, opposed by experienced, battle-hardened German troops."

Horrocks ordered the 43rd Wessex Division, the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry, and artillery and specialized tank units to support the Americans. He also ensured that the U.S. troops received hot food and dry socks, in order to boost morale.

The 84th Division secured its objectives in the Battle of Geilenkirchen, one of the hardest fought actions at the battalion, company and platoon level in the European theater. General Horrocks said he was "filled with admiration for the extreme gallantry displayed by the raw GIs."

The problem of commanders being out of touch with their troops was becoming endemic throughout the U.S. Army forces in the European Theater of Operations (ETO), says Stephen Ambrose in Citizen Soldiers (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1997), his compelling foxhole-level history of the soldiers' war from Normandy to the German surrender. Not even battalion commanders were going to the front. It was humiliating, Ambrose says, that a British general had to order American staff officers and their commanding officers to go check on their soldiers. The American officers' absence was costly, for tens of thousands of young Americans and Germans died that November in battles–most notably in the Hürtgen Forest–that did little to hasten the end of the war and should have been avoided.

The hardships endured by American troops in the hedgerows and foxholes of northwest Europe–and the courage, resilience and adaptability with which they faced them–are chronicled vividly in this masterpiece of historical narrative. It is a stunning account–affectionate, yet honest–of ordinary men learning to beat a stubborn, well-trained foe at his own game. From Omaha Beach to St. Lô, and from Bastogne to Cologne, they marched, shivered, fought, groused, bled, died and triumphed magnificently.

One of the most articulate and informed historians writing today, Stephen Ambrose has distilled in brilliant clarity the essence of the American character that helped to preserve global freedom. Without doubt, his book will enthrall every veteran, scholar and general reader.

When the GIs sailed for Europe, as the author points out, they were going not as conquerors but as liberators. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme Allied commander, told them their mission in his June 6, 1944, order of the day: "The destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world."

The U.S. troops accomplished their mission. And, in the process, they helped to liberate the peoples of France, Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg and the Germans living west of the Elbe River.



Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Apple Orchard

The recent visit of the grandchildren from Arizona took us to a local orchard for a wagon ride and some caramel  apples. What fun!!!


Sunday, November 10, 2013

One Summer: America 1927

For years reading friends had urged me to check out bestselling travel writer Bill Brysons  (“A Walk in the Woods”) humorous writing.  A note from our town librarian Diane that his latest book, a New York Times best seller was available sent me into town to get it.  That book One Summer: America 1927 has  the author, a now traveling through time, taking us back to perhaps a high point or maybe a  low point, depending on your point of view to  the “Roaring 20’s.  I like the book and I didn’t like the book. And on that ambiguous note, I’ll try to explain why….

This is history as you may never have read it. It’s filled with famous and infamous people and  events, amazing coincidences and trivia.  We meet the real Babe Ruth, Charles Lindberg, Al Capone, Silent Calvin Coolidge, Henry Ford   and the  “It” girl Clara Bow.  Bryson writes prose clear as crystal often makes us or shocks us into incredulity taking the heroes of the age down more than a peg.   

For instance, Bow, in addition to being the most celebrated Hollywood icon of her era, was also famously promiscuous, Bryson notes. She had a slew of boyfriends, many of them at the same time. Bryson tells of one boyfriend who arrived at her house only to realize that another man was hiding in the bathroom. The aggrieved boyfriend, Bryson tells us, demanded that the hidden man “come on out so I can knock your teeth out!” When the bathroom door opened, heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey sheepishly appeared. The aggrieved boyfriend wisely kept his fists to himself, and the hulking Dempsey

The rise of radio and tabloid provide a look back at the seed of our own  pop and celebrity culture  which I  found appallingly reminiscent of our own times.

There isn’t a whole lot of deep thinking or interesting conclusions in Bryson’s account beyond cutting remarks and characterizations (often deserved). 

All in all,  the book is a fun read about what proved to be in the authors words….. “one hell of a summer.”
A few of the cast:

Tuesday, November 5, 2013


It was Christmas Eve 1949. My cousin Prudy and I stood proudly in front of the Christmas tree, in my grandmas house in St. Paul, holding up our presents for all to see. Mine was an 027 gauge Lionel electric train. It doesn’t get any better than that. Thus began a lifelong interest in trains. I still have it on display in our basement.

Flash ahead a few years to the early fifties. I lived with my parents and two brothers in a new home on the East Side in St. Paul. It’s was the Daytons Bluff area. Below the bluff lay the Mississippi river and lots of railroad tracks and two "railroad yards." They belonged to the Milwaukee Road and the "Q" (Burlington & Quincy)

Our next door neighbor, Art, was a yard engineer for the Milwaukee Road. He didn't drive, so he walked to and from work every day, except on Saturdays. That's when my father picked him up at work. A trip to downtown St. Paul followed to cash his paycheck and pick up a case of an "adult beverage." I got to tag along.
More often than not on these Saturday afternoons, I was invited to climb up into the cab of the steam engine. Art would wave me aboard. It was a steep climb up into the cab.

Each and every time the excitement built. There was a cord hanging down, which when you pulled it, the steam whistle sounded so loud they must have been able to hear it miles away. A bin of coal was behind the engineers seat. I usually got to take a few shovels full, after opening the boiler door, and pitch it into the flames. It’s was very hot.

The biggest thrill of all was to back the train onto the "turntable." This was a revolving platform which turned to align each train into its own stall. I was ten or eleven years old and pretending to be Casey Jones. The neighborhood kids played in Indian Mounds Park high on the bluffs above the river. I can still picture that river, the airport beyond it and the railroad tracks far below. There were passenger trains like the orange and yellow Hiawatha of the Milwaukee and the silver bulleted Zephyr of the Burlington Road speeding by on their way to faraway places.

The steam engines are  long gone now except for a few touristy amusement rides. The sound of the diesel and later electric engines wasn’t nearly as exciting as the huff and puff of the steamers. Still, I’m left with fond memories of my Dad, Art the engineer, and those Saturday afternoons of boyhood enchantment.