Friday, July 22, 2011

WW2 Heroes

I ran on the Mall at noon today when it was 97 degrees and the heat index made it feel like 117 degrees because of the humidity. The temperature was in triple digits by the time I finished over an hour later.

I ran from my office near Union Station intending to go to Lincoln and back but I only made it to WWI before I turned back near the half-hour mark. I did a lot of walking on the way back. I lost 4 pounds during the outing.

As I ran, I thought of my Dad who fought at Peleliu in WW2 when the temperatures often rose above 115 degrees. Those Marines were tough. I could (and did) quit anytime I wanted. He couldn't. Of course he was 19 then, not 59.

I also thought of my Uncle who passed in April. He was a Marine in the Pacific too, a shipboard gunnery officer. I will be attending his grave side service in his hometown of Winona Minnesota next week, the last of my father's and mother's generation related to me to pass. They're all gone now.

Every man I knew, practically, when I was growing up was a WW2 veteran. The Dads of all my friends had been over there somewhere.

In this frame of mind, on my way back I stopped at the WW2 Memorial. I wanted to tell my cousin, my Uncle's daughter, next week that I stopped in and saw her father's battles etched in stone upon the memorial. When her Dad died she started reading all of his contemporaneous WW2 handwritten notes and sometimes she asks me for context as she knows I know history. He won a bronze star for heroism.

I was glad to take a break from my sweltering run and walk respectfully through the imposing memorial. I asked the ranger why the Pacific column was on the south side and the Atlantic column was on the north side. He didn't know, saying I was the first person who had asked him that question.

I went to the Pacific column and read the battle names carved into the base of the fronting pool. I traced the Peleliu and the Okinawa inscriptions, the two battles where my father fought, and thought of him. I lost him a quarter century ago today, to lung cancer. During WW2 they included three cigarettes in each K-ration pack.

I traced the Battle of the Philippine Sea and the Japan Carrier Air Strikes inscriptions and thought of my Uncle.

I traced the Manila inscription and thought of my Uncle Bill.

I went over to the Atlantic column. I traced the Sicily inscription and remembered my Uncle Bob.

I traced the Battle of the Bulge carving and thought of my friend's father, a laughing man whom I met once before he passed recently. This veteran told a story with a twinkle in his eye of getting a coveted D-Day pin because he was at sea on June 6, 1944, a raw rookie on a troop transport who happened to be going from America to England on that day. He saw the elephant later that year with Patton's Third Army at the biggest battle in history.

Then I ran/walked back to the office. I mostly walked so did I consider my run to be unsuccessful? Not at all, it was a very satisfying, successful run.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Major Reno

I'm going to be at the battlefield of the Little Big Horn in just a few days. Custer's Last Stand, this battle involved a thousand or two combatants, in which a few hundred died, stands in the top three most famous battles in North America, along with Yorktown (world turned upside down) and Gettysburg (the last best hope of mankind). Heady company.

Little Big Horn has it all, a villain, Major Reno (his men survived), a savior, Captain Benteen (he disobeyed orders and left the doomed men under Custer to their fate by joining Reno and saving his command) and an enigma, General Custer (the greatest Indian fighter of the day who got all of his men killed). Their ferocious opponents, the Sioux and Cheyenne, were protecting their children, women and elderly and their way of life, with Crazy Horse as their tactical leader and Sitting Bull as their spiritual leader.

I have always been a Reno fan and a Custer detractor. Lately, research has "shown" that Reno was drunk throughout the battle and that maybe, Custer could have won and destroyed the Indian village if Reno had been steadfast when his 110 troopers charged the village containing 1,500 or more warriors, allowing Custer and his doomed 210 troopers to swing around and strike a hammer blow upon Reno's anvil.

Here's how Mari Sandoz in 1966 in her book The Battle of the Little Bighorn explained Reno's bizarre behavior on the field of battle against overwhelming odds when, in the white hot heat of battle he issued confusing orders that ultimately saved two thirds of his command:

"The major [Reno] stopped beside the Ree [Indian scout Bloody Knife] to ask by sign where the Indians would concentrate their thrust, to help [Reno] plan the run for the river and the heights beyond. Before the scout could answer, a new burst of bullets ripped though the torn foliage. One of them struck Bloody Knife, blowing his skull open and spattering the handsome black kerchief with blue stars that Custer had given to his once-favorite scout--spatterings that reached Major Reno standing beside the Ree. For a moment the hardened campaigner was as sickened as the rawest recruit. Plainly the Indians were everywhere, penetrating everywhere ... ."

The horrified Reno issued a series of contradictory commands that led to the salvation of most of his command (something akin to, Every Man for Himself!]. What would you have done?

Meanwhile, according to recent research, Custer watched Reno's desperate battle from the heights across the river and commented that Reno must fight his own battle. He didn't ride to Reno's aid, rather Custer rode in the other direction seeking glory and finding it, but at a high price for everyone else.

Whatever Custer did led to his command's complete annihilation. Perhaps Custer, a teetotaler, should have drunk of the same cup as Reno.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Running will do that for you

It's another sweltering July in DC; running on the Mall during the noon hour leaves me literally reeling from the soupy heat by the fifth mile. This morning I got up a 4:30 A.M. to run 5 1/2 miles and although it went better, still for an hour afterwards I left behind little pools of sweat wherever I paused for moment.

But I'm glad to be back to running, although my troublesome ankle is still giving me trouble despite the cortisone shot a few months ago. I guess its effect is wearing off, leaving me with only the surgical option if my chronic tendinitis disables my running again.

This week I finally hit 20 miles, running my new-normal four times a week (I used to run five times a week). Although I am much slower than I used to be, running 10:10 miles now instead of 8:50s, and my conditioning (endurance) still sucks, miles is miles as I tell my running buddy at work as we jog down the Mall getting passed by everybody.

Next week I'll be in Minnesota attending a grave side service for my uncle who passed away a few months back, and I'm sure the many cousins who will be present will be checking each other out to see how we're all weathering our fifties. Fortunately I'm not as roly-poly as I was at the beginning of the year, as I have dropped 26 pounds in the last 13 weeks thanks to my return to running.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Big Sky

On June 25, 1876, Custer, having brought his isolated column of 660 Seventh Cavalry troopers over a divide into the Big Horn Valley in a night march, intended to lay up all day under cover and attack the large Indian village in the distance below them along the Little Big Horn River the next day after rest and proper reconnaissance by his 40 Crow and Arikara scouts.

These Indian scouts had already seen that the faraway hillside of greasy grass beyond the river was alive with the slow undulating movement of a huge pony herd, indicating thousands of warriors. To the unseeing white officers training their spyglasses on the far distant bank in the morning haze they urged, "Look for the worms crawling on the grass."

Behind them, smoke from the troopers' breakfast fires curled into the air, giving away the soldiers' presence. Custer's encampment was soon spotted by some hunters from the Sioux and Cheyenne village and Custer decided to attack immediately, counting on the adrenaline of battle to offset the fatigue of his sleepless troopers and give his attack the proper esprit de corps.

First he divided his force into four unequal parts and dispersed them on their separate tasks. One part he assigned to guard the slow-moving pack train bringing forward the reserve ammunition, another 150 men under Captain Benteen went to reconnoiter the southwest and prevent any Indians from fleeing in that direction, three companies under Major Reno were to charge the lower end of the village and provoke panic and confusion, while he took the lion's share, 250 men in six companies, across the river bluffs to approach the upper end of the huge encampment.

A world famous battle would unfold over the next two days, highlighted by a thirty-minute whirlwind of death for all of Custer's troopers that afternoon, a half hour that also sounded the death knell for the old way of life for the battle's free roaming Native American participants. I'll be walking those very grounds where heroes tread under the Big Sky next week.

Sunday, July 17, 2011


Next week I am visiting the site of the Battle of the Little Big Horn in Montana. On June 25, 1876, on the bluffs leading down to the Little Big Horn River, General George Armstrong Custer and all 210 troopers under his command from the Seventh Cavalry were annihilated by an overwhelming number of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors from a huge Indian encampment they were trying to attack.

Custer split his forces four ways in the face of a superior enemy, a fatal mistake. The other three parts of the Seventh, about 450 men, eventually coalesced around his second in command, Major Marcus Reno, on a hilltop about four miles away in a separate fight and survived after two days of battle.

There is no good way to get to the battlefield as it is about 800 miles from Denver, Seattle or Minneapolis, so I am flying to Minneapolis and driving across the northern plains in a rented car to the national monument. Along the way there and back, I plan to visit my sister's yarn store, travel through two states I have never been in (North Dakota and Montana), attend a baseball game at the Minnesota Twins new ballpark, see minor league baseball games in St. Paul and Sioux Falls, go to Wall Drug Store, determine whether the 5-8 Club or Matt's Bar makes a better Jucy Lucy (Juicy Lucy), visit my best friend from freshman year in high school whom I haven't seen in four decades (he contacted me this month on Facebook), see many cousins, attend my Uncle's memorial service and visit my parents' graves.

I have been boning up on Custer history in preparation for the trip and I recommend these half-dozen books on the subject in the order I enjoyed them or found them informative: The Last Stand by Nathaniel Philbrick (Custer came close to winning); A Terrible Glory by James Donovan (a good portrayal of the last chaotic hour of the "massacre," relying on often-ignored Native American sources); Son of the Morning Star by Evan Connell (outstanding literature, pure and simple); The Battle of the Little Bighorn by Mari Sandoz (despite having read it decades ago, I still remember her description of Reno becoming unnerved by being spattered with the blood and brain matter of the Indian scout he was talking to at the instant the scout was shot dead early in Reno's fight); Troopers With Custer by E.A. Brininstool (a terrific series of Indian-fighting accounts from participants of the battle); and Custer by Jay Monaghan (an excellent biography of this vainglorious soldier who got all of his men killed).