Category Archives: world war two in europe

Never Again: Holocaust Remembrance Day 2014

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Dachau 

On January 27th 1945 the Soviet Red Army liberated the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, the centerpiece of the Nazi Death Camp machine. Though it did not end the Nazi genocide against the Jews it was only a matter of time before the horror would end.

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Auschwitz 

It is a day that we should never forget. The horrors perpetrated by the Nazi regime, all in the name of “race purity” and the extermination of the Jews and others deemed by the Nazis to be “sub-human” or untermenschen is something that is hard for most to imagine.

The Nazis had begun their persecution of the Jews shortly after Hitler took power in 1933. Later in the year the Enabling Act gave Hitler and his henchmen the legal means to begin their persecution of the Jews and others. These were followed by the Nuremberg Laws and other laws that targeted the Jews. Persecution increased throughout the 1930s, and sadly most countries refused to accommodate increased Jewish immigration.

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Kristallnacht

Nazi persecution became more pronounced during Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, when on 9-10 November 1938, a series of orchestrated attacks on Jewish businesses, Synagogues, institutions and individuals. On that night close to 200 synagogues, 7000 Jewish businesses and 29 major department stores were destroyed or damaged. Over 30,000 Jews, mostly en were arrested and sent to concentration camps, 91 people were killed outright, and several thousand died in the aftermath.

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The order to executed the Kristallnacht progrom from SS Gruppenfuhrer Heydrich is chilling in its bureaucratic attention to detail:

TO ALL REGIONAL AND SUB-REGIONAL GESTAPO OFFICES 1:20AM, November 8, 1938

SUBJECT: MEASURES AGAINST THE JEWS THIS NIGHT

That only such measures were to be taken that would not endanger German lives or property  Businesses and residences of Jews may be damaged but not looted. Particular care is to be paid in business sections and surrounding streets. Non-Jewish businesses are to be protected from damage under all circumstances. Police are to seize all archives from synagogues and offices of community organizations, this refers to material of historical significance. Archives are to be handed over to the SS. As soon as possible, officials are to arrest as many Jews especially wealthy ones – in all districts as can be accommodated in existing cells. For the time being, only healthy male Jews of not too advanced age are to be arrested.


Reinhard Heydrich, SS Gruppenführer

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The Jews were made to bear the costs of the assault on them and their institutions. Hermann Goering, in charge of the German economic program was not in favor, though he and his contacts in the German banking industry, major corporations and businesses took full advantage of the situation to “Aryanize” Jewish businesses, stripping Jews of businesses that had been in their families for generations.

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Goering

After the war began the persecution became worse and in July 1941, not long after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Hitler ordered that the the “Endlosung” or Final Solution of the “Jewish problem” begin. Georing entrusted the task to SS Gruppenfuhrer  Reinhard Heydrich. His order read:

Berlin, July 31st 1941

To: Gruppenfuhrer Heydrich

Supplementing the task assigned to you by the decree of January 24th 1939, to solver the Jewish problem by means of evacuation and emigration in the best possible way by according to present conditions, I hereby charge you to carry out preparations as regards organizational, financial, and material matters for a total solution (Gesamtlosung) of the Jewish question in all the territories of Europe under German occupation.

Where the competency of other organizations touches on this matter, the organizations are to collaborate.

I charge you further to submit to me as soon as possible a general plan of the administrative material and financial measures necessary for the carrying out the desired final solution (Endlosung) of the Jewish question.”

Goering

When Goering wrote Heydrich, the head of the Reichssiecherhiethauptampt (RSHA) in July 1941 it seemed that Nazi victory in Europe was all but assured. Goering’s words were businesslike. Early measures to rid Germany and the annexed Austria ha been reasonably successful of their Jews through emigration and evacuation. However with the occupation of most of Europe following the Nazi military success and the looming occupation and subjugation of the Soviet Union the process of giving the Jews a chance to emigrate to lands outside Nazi control had come to an end. In fact the Nazis occupied the countries that may Jews had found refuge. The Nazi leadership decided that its race war against the Jews needed to forge ahead.

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Rudolph Höss and his Officers 

Within weeks SS commanders at various concentration camps were devising means to exterminate Jews more efficiently. It was a matter of pride and efficiency for them. As Rudolph Höss the Commandant of Auschwitz said at Nuremberg “the camp commandant at Treblinka told me that he had liquidated 80,000 in the course of one half year. He was principally concerned with liquidating all the Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto. He used monoxide gas, and I did not think that his methods were very efficient. So when I set up the extermination building at Auschwitz, I used Zyclon B….” Hoess estimated that some 2.5 million people were exterminated at Auschwitz at rates as high as 10,000 a day.

In the Soviet Union four Einsatzgruppen followed each of the German Army Groups and systematically began to massacre the Jews of every city and village which German soldiers captured. Over a million and a half Soviet Jews were killed by the Einsatzgruppen, Ordungspolizei battalions, Army Security Divisions and locally recruited units.

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Heydrich

Less than six months after he received the directive from Goering, on January 20th 1942 Heydrich summoned representatives from various Reich agencies were called for what turned out to be a brief, two hour meeting which decided the fate of the Jews. The meeting was held at an estate located in the suburbs of Berlin, called Wansee. Organized by Heydrich’s deputy Adolph Eichmann, involved Heydrich, Eichmann and 13 mid level representatives from various economic, governmental, justice and police entities.

At the conference Heydrich established his authority through Goering’s directive to overcome the bureaucratic and personal attempts of various attendees to take control of the Final Solution process. Despite objections from some attendees who favored sterilization and the use of Jews in the war armaments industries, Heydrich made it clear that the Final Solution would be a campaign of extermination. He was quite clear:

“Approximately 11 million Jews will be involved…in large single sex labor columns, Jews fit to work will work their way eastward constructing roads. Doubtless the large majority will be eliminated through natural causes. Any final remnant that survives will doubtlessly consist of the most resistant elements. They will have to be dealt with appropriately, because otherwise by natural selection, they would form the germ cell of a new Jewish revival.”

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Himmler talked to the SS Leaders responsible for the mass killings:

“I also want to mention a very difficult subject before you here, completely openly. It should be discussed among us, and yet, nevertheless, we will never speak about it in public…I am talking about the “Jewish evacuation” the extermination of the Jewish people.”

It is One of the things that is easily said. “The Jewish people is being exterminated,” every Party member will tell you, “perfectly clear, it’s part of our plans, we’re eliminating the Jews, exterminating them, ha!, a small matter.”

But then along they all come, all the decent upright Germans and each has his decent Jew. They all say: the others are all swine, but here is a first class Jew. And none of them has seen it, has endured it. Most of you will know what it means when 100 bodies lie together, or when there are 500 or 1000. And to have seen this through, and –with the exception of human weaknesses– to have remained decent, has made us hard and is a page of glory never mentioned and never to be mentioned….”

Whether the words are those of Goering, Heydrich, Höss or Himmler, there is a certain businesslike banality to them. But these men, and many others like them orchestrated a campaign of genocide and race hatred unmatched in history. Yes, there have been other genocides, the Turks killing the Armenians during the First World War and the Hutu and Tutsi slaughter in Rwanda but neither they or the politically motivated campaigns of mass slaughter conducted by the Soviets, the Chinese Communists and the Khamer Rouge killing fields can match the systematized extermination campaign waged by the Nazis against the Jews.

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The truly terrifying thing about the Nazi perpetrators of the Holocaust to me is that most of the men at Wansee, men that commanded the Concentration camps and the Einsatzgruppen were very ordinary men who simply believed that they were doing their jobs. Very few could be described as psychopathic killers by nature. They were lawyers, doctors, career police officials, businessmen, and bureaucrats who carried out an extermination campaign that killed by their own numbers between 5.5 and 6 million Jews, not to mention others deemed to be subhuman including the handicapped, the mentally ill, homosexuals, and other non-Jewish minorities like the Gypsies not to mention the wide variety of those considered political enemies. But it was the Jews that bore the most tragic fate.

Auschwitz began as a work camp, notoriously harsh in its treatment of its prisoners but a work camp, picked because of its proximity to rail lines and isolation. By the summer of 1941 it was the largest camp in the Concentration Camp system. Within months the process of turning Auschwitz into a factory of mass murder began, quite accidentally when members of the camp staff discovered that a chemical used for the delousing of barracks known as Zyklon-B also worked on large animals, and therefore people.  It was tested on Russian and Polish POWs in September 1941.

As the Nazi desire for efficient extermination grew and early death factories showed their limitations and the “experiments” at Auschwitz resulted in it being selected as a death camp. The camp was expanded and its first gas chamber, the former camp morgue began its operations in February 1942. Other more massive chambers were built, chambers that could hold up to 2000 victims per cycle. By the time the operation was shut down in the weeks leading up to the camp’s liberation Rudolf Höss the Commandant of Auschwitz estimated that 2.5 million people, mostly Jews were exterminated in it. Höss boasted d that his camp could exterminate 10,000 people in a 24 hour period. Other estimates are lower, but still in the millions.

Höss, and other functionaries such Adolf Eichmann, who coordinated the massive effort to exterminate the Jews of Europe following the Wansee Conference of January 20th 1942 approached their jobs dispassionately. This was a common attitude among the civil service, military and police officials that oversaw the Holocaust. They simply did their jobs and followed the law.

Hannah Arendt wrote of Eichmann:

“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.”

This was what made the Holocaust committed against the Jews of Europe by Nazi Germany a phenomenon different than other genocides. Many of the perpetrators were not driven by centuries old hate as in the Balkans, tribal blood lust as occurred in Rwanda, or the products of Soviet Communism or Communist Chines Maoist regimes.

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Einsatzgruppen 

It was the racial ideology of the Nazis which deemed the Jews and other non-Aryans to be sub-human. That ideology undergirded the German treatment of the Jews, and the conduct of the war, especially in the East. But the execution of the plan required the bureaucratic, administrative, technical and legal skills brought to the table by ordinary men. Men who sought promotion, advancement and economic security for their families. Individually many would have never killed, but in their positions they ran the rail network, the factories, the banking and finance industries and supported the war effort, most not thinking much about the evil that they abetted or if they did finding a way, be it social, scientific, religious, patriotic, legal or simply in the name of efficiency.

That is what makes the evil committed by them so terrifying. It is the product of “normal” people in an advanced Western nation. Make no bones about it, their actions were evil. They aided and abetted the genocide of the Jews, the disabled, other “sub-human” races, particularly Slavs, as well as those that they deemed less than suitable.

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Ordinary Men of Reserve Police Battalion 101

I think that the most chilling thing about the Holocaust was that the greatest atrocities were committed by ordinary men, sometimes well educated, decent family men. These were men who simply executed orders and often went home at night. Hannah Arendt wrote that “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” She was right, there was an ordinariness to the evil perpetrated by the Nazis.

It is important that we do not forget the Holocaust. It is also important to recognize that the instruments of that horror were on the whole “ordinary” men who as they saw it were simply doing their job. It is something that everyone needs to remember.

Primo Levi wrote:

“Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.” 

That is the real problem with atrocities committed by human beings.

In the classic film Judgment at Nuremberg Spencer Tracy reads the verdict at the end of the Judges Trial. His words are timeless:

“Janning, to be sure, is a tragic figure. We believe he loathed the evil he did. But compassion for the present torture of his soul must not beget forgetfulness of the torture and the death of millions by the Government of which he was a part. Janning’s record and his fate illuminate the most shattering truth that has emerged from this trial: If he and all of the other defendants had been degraded perverts, if all of the leaders of the Third Reich had been sadistic monsters and maniacs, then these events would have no more moral significance than an earthquake, or any other natural catastrophe.

But this trial has shown that under a national crisis, ordinary – even able and extraordinary – men can delude themselves into the commission of crimes so vast and heinous that they beggar the imagination. No one who has sat through the trial can ever forget them: men sterilized because of political belief; a mockery made of friendship and faith; the murder of children. How easily it can happen. There are those in our own country too who today speak of the “protection of country” – of ‘survival’. A decision must be made in the life of every nation at the very moment when the grasp of the enemy is at its throat. Then, it seems that the only way to survive is to use the means of the enemy, to rest survival upon what is expedient – to look the other way. Well, the answer to that is ‘survival as what’? A country isn’t a rock. It’s not an extension of one’s self. It’s what it stands for. It’s what it stands for when standing for something is the most difficult! Before the people of the world, let it now be noted that here, in our decision, this is what we stand for: justice, truth, and the value of a single human being.”

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Never Again: Bergen Belsen 

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Christmas at the Front 2013: A Look at Christmas Now and in Military History

German Bundeswehr army soldiers decorate a fir tree imported from Germany for Christmas eve in the army camp in Kunduz

German Bundeswehr Soldiers decorating for Christmas in Afghanistan 

Today as on so many Christmas Days in days gone by military personnel serve on the front lines in wars far away from home. Today American and NATO troops engage a resourceful and determined enemy in Afghanistan. American Marines are working to safeguard the lives of Americans in South Sudan while French troops are intervening in Mali and the Central African Republic to attempt to prevent genocide. In many corners of the globe others stand watch on land, at sea and in the air. Unfortunately on this Christmas wars continue and most likely will until the end of time as we know it.

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It is easy to understand the verse penned by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his song I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day after the death of his wife and wounding of his son in the US Civil War:

And in despair I bowed my head

“There is no peace on earth,” I said,

“For hate is strong and mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

I have done my time in Iraq at Christmas on the Syrian-Iraqi Border in 2007 with our Marine advisors and their Iraqis.  That was the most memorable Christmas and the most important Christmas Masses that I ever celebrated. Since returning home have thought often of those that remain in harm’s way as well as those soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen, American and from other nations that have spent Christmas on the front lines. Some of these events are absolutely serious while others display some of the “light” moments that occur even in the most terrible of manmade tragedies.

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Christmas 1776 at Trenton

In American history we can look back to 1776, of course we could go back further but 1776 just sounds better. On Christmas of 1776 George Washington took his Continental Army across the Delaware to attack the British garrison at Trenton. Actually it was a bunch of hung over Hessians who after Christmas dinner on the 24th failed to post a guard which enabled them to be surprised,  but it was an American victory.

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In 1777 Washington and his Army had a rather miserable Christmas at Valley Forge where they spent the winter freezing their asses off and getting drilled into a proper military force by Baron Von Steuben.

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The Eggnog Riot

While not a battle in the true sense of the word the Cadets at West Point wrote their own Christmas legend in the Eggnog Riot of 1826 when the Cadets in a bit of holiday revelry had a bit too much Eggnog and a fair amount of Whiskey and behaved in a manner frowned upon by the Academy administration. Needless to say that many of the Cadets spent the Christmas chapel services in a hung over state with a fair number eventually being tossed from the Academy for their trouble.

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The Battle of Lake Okeechobee

In 1837 the U.S. Army was defeated at the Battle of Lake Okeechobee by the Seminole Nation, not a Merry Christmas at all.  In 1862 the Army of the Potomac and Army of Northern Virginia faced each other across the Rappahannock River after the Battle of Fredericksburg while to the south in Hilton Head South Carolina 40,000 people watched Union troops play baseball some uttering the cry of many later baseball fans “Damn Yankees.”

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Blue and Grey Christmas Baseball

In 1864 the Army of the Potomac and Army of Northern Virginia faced each other again in the miserable trenches of Petersburg while General William Tecumseh Sherman enjoyed Christmas in Savannah Georgia after cutting a swath of destruction from Atlanta to the sea. He presented the city to Lincoln who simply said “nice, but I really wanted Richmond.”

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Napoleon had something to celebrate on December 25th 1801 after surviving an assassination attempt on Christmas Eve and 1809 he was celebrating his divorce from Empress Josephine which had occurred on the 21st of December.

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The Christmas Truce 

In 1914 “Christmas Truce” began between British and German troops and threatened to undo all the hard work of those that made the First World War possible.  Thereafter the High Commands of both sides ensured that such frivolity never happened again. The movie Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas) does a wonderful job in bringing home the miraculous truce.

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General and Montgomery and his Staff, winter 1942

World War II brought much suffering. In 1941 after Pearl Harbor the Japanese forced the surrender of Hong Kong and its British garrison while two days later the Soviets launched their counterattack at Moscow against Hitler’s Wehrmacht. In Libya the British were retaking Benghazi from the Afrika Corps after a brutal series of tank battles in Operation Crusader.  A year later the Americans were clearing Guadalcanal of the Japanese. General Montgomery’s 8th Army was pursuing Rommel’s Afrika Korps into Tunisia as American and British forces under General Dwight D. Eisenhower were slogging their way into Tunisia against tough German resistant.  In Russia the Red Army was engaged in a climactic battle against the encircled German 6th Army at Stalingrad. At Stalingrad a German Physician named Kurt Reuber painted the famed Madonna of Stalingrad.

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Kurt Reuber’s Madona of Stalingrad

The drawing which was taken out of Stalingrad by one of the last German officers to be evacuated now hangs in the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin. Reuber drew another in 1943 while in a Soviet POW campbefore his death from Typhus in early 1944. Reuber wrote to his wife of painting in Stalingrad:

“I wondered for a long while what I should paint, and in the end I decided on a Madonna, or mother and child. I have turned my hole in the frozen mud into a studio. The space is too small for me to be able to see the picture properly, so I climb on to a stool and look down at it from above, to get the perspective right. Everything is repeatedly knocked over, and my pencils vanish into the mud. There is nothing to lean my big picture of the Madonna against, except a sloping, home-made table past which I can just manage to squeeze. There are no proper materials and I have used a Russian map for paper. But I wish I could tell you how absorbed I have been painting my Madonna, and how much it means to me.”

“The picture looks like this: the mother’s head and the child’s lean toward each other, and a large cloak enfolds them both. It is intended to symbolize ‘security’ and ‘mother love.’ I remembered the words of St.John: light, life, and love. What more can I add? I wanted to suggest these three things in the homely and common vision of a mother with her child and the security that they represent.”

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Christmas Concert at Guadalcanal 

In 1943 the Marines were battling the Japanese at New Britain while the Red Army was involved in another major winter offensive against the Wehrmacht. In 1944 Christmas found the Russians advancing in Hungary.

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Bastogne Christmas 

In December 1944 the Americans were engaged in a desperate battle with the Germans in the Ardennes now known as The Battle of the Bulge. On Christmas day the leading German unit, the 2nd Panzer Division ran out of gas 4 miles from the Meuse River and was destroyed by the American 2nd Armored Division.

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As that was occurring the embattled 101st Airborne Division at Bastogne was relieved by General George Patton’s 3rd Army. Patton had his Chaplain pen this Christmas prayer:

“Almighty and most merciful Father, we humbly beseech Thee, of Thy great goodness, to restrain these immoderate rains with which we have had to contend. Grant us fair weather for Battle. Graciously hearken to us as soldiers who call upon Thee that, armed with Thy power, we may advance from victory to victory, and crush the oppression and wickedness of our enemies and establish Thy justice among men and nations.”

In the Philippines Douglas MacArthur’s forces were fighting hard to liberate Leyte, Samar and Luzon from the Japanese. At sea US and Allied naval forces fought off determined attacks by Kamikazes.

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USO Christmas Show in WWII

During the war the USO sponsored many entertainers who went to combat zones to perform Christmas shows, among them was Bob Hope.

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Bob Hope Christmas Show on USS Ticonderoga CVA-14 off Vietnam 

In the years following the Second World War Christmas was celebrated while armies continued to engage in combat to the death. Christmas of 1950 was celebrated in Korea as the last American forces were withdrawn from the North following the Chinese intervention which the 1st Marine Division chewed up numerous Red Chinese divisions while fighting its way out of the Chosin Reservoir.

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Bob Hope with 1st Infantry Division in Vietnam

In 1953 the French garrison of Dien Bien Phu celebrated Christmas in primitive fashion unaware that Vietnamese General Giap was already marshaling his forces to cut them off and then destroy them shortly after Easter of 1954.   In 1964 the U.S. committed itself to the war in Vietnam and for the next 9 years American Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and Airmen battled the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong with Marines fighting the North at Khe Sanh during Christmas of 1967. A hallmark of that war would be Bob Hope whose televised Christmas specials from that country helped bring the emotion of Christmas at the front back to those at home.

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In the years after Vietnam American troops would spend Christmas in the Desert of Saudi Arabia preparing for Operation Desert Storm in 1990, in Somalia the following year and in the Balkans. After September 11th 2001 U.S. Forces spent their first of at least 12 Christmas’s in Afghanistan. From 2003 thru 2011 US and coalition partner troops spent 8 years in Iraq, that was my war.

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Christmas with Bedouin on Christmas Eve (above) and Christmas games at COP North Al Anbar Province Iraq 2007 (Below)

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Christmas Services at COP South Al Anbar Province, Iraq 2007

Today Americans and our Allies serve around the world far away from home fighting the war against Al Qaeda and its confederates and some may die on this most Holy of Days while for others it will be their last Christmas.

Please keep them and all who serve now as well as those that served in the past, those that remain and those that have died in your prayers.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under civil war, faith, History, iraq,afghanistan, Loose thoughts and musings, Military, Religion, world war two in europe, world war two in the pacific

Christmas in the Cauldron: Kurt Reuber and the The Madonna of Stalingrad

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Kurt Rueber was a theologian, pastor and medical doctor. A friend of Albert Schweitzer he was conscripted to serve as a physician in the Germany Army. By November 1942 he was a seasoned military physician serving with the 16th Panzer Division, part of the German 6th Army, which had been fighting in the hell of Stlaingrad. When that division along with most of 6th Army was surrounded by the Soviets, cut of from most supply and without real hope of relief he continued to serve the soldiers committed to his care.

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A Self Portrait 

However that care also included spiritual matters. Rueber was also an artist and pastor and as such he reflected on the desparation of the German soldiers in the Stalingrad pocket. He wrote to his family.

“I wondered for a long while what I should paint, and in the end I decided on a Madonna, or mother and child. I have turned my hole in the frozen mud into a studio. The space is too small for me to be able to see the picture properly, so I climb on to a stool and look down at it from above, to get the perspective right. Everything is repeatedly knocked over, and my pencils vanish into the mud. There is nothing to lean my big picture of the Madonna against, except a sloping, home-made table past which I can just manage to squeeze. There are no proper materials and I have used a Russian map for paper. But I wish I could tell you how absorbed I have been painting my Madonna, and how much it means to me.”

“The picture looks like this: the mother’s head and the child’s lean toward each other, and a large cloak enfolds them both. It is intended to symbolize ‘security’ and ‘mother love.’ I remembered the words of St. John: light, life, and love. What more can I add? I wanted to suggest these three things in the homely and common vision of a mother with her child and the security that they represent.”

The picture was drawn on the back of a captured Soviet map and when he finished it he displayed it in his bunker, which became something of a shrine. Reuber wrote:

“When according to ancient custom I opened the Christmas door, the slatted door of our bunker, and the comrades went in, they stood as if entranced, devout and too moved to speak in front of the picture on the clay wall…The entire celebration took place under the influence of the picture, and they thoughtfully read the words: light, life, love…Whether commander or simple soldier, the Madonna was always an object of outward and inward contemplation.”

As the seige continued men came to the bunker for both medical care and spiritual solace.  On Christmas Eve Reuber found himself treating a number of men wounded by bombs outside the bunker. Another soldier lay dying, just minutes before the soldier had been in the bunker singing the Christmas hymn O Du Froeliche.  Reuber wrote:

“I spent Christmas evening with the other doctors and the sick. The Commanding Officer had presented the letter with his last bottle of Champagne. We raised our mugs and drank to those we love, but before we had had a chance to taste the wine we had to throw ourselves flat on the ground as a stick of bombs fell outside. I seized my doctor’s bag and ran to the scene of the explosions, where there were dead and wounded. My shelter with its lovely Christmas decorations became a dressing station. One of the dying men had been hit in the head and there was nothing more I could do for him. He had been with us at our celebration, and had only that moment left to go on duty, but before he went he had said: ‘I’ll finish the carol with first. O du Frohliche!” A few moments later he was dead. There was plenty of hard and sad work to do in our Christmas shelter. It is late now, but it is Christmas night still. And so much sadness everywhere.”

On January 9th 1943 with all hope of escape or reinforcement gone Reuber gave the picture to the battlaion commander.  The officer was too ill to carry on and was one of the last soldiers to be evacuated from the pocket.

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German POWs walking out of Stalingrad

Reuber was taken prisoner and survived the harrowing winter march to the Yelabuga prison camp. In late 1943 Reuber wrote his  Christmas Letter to a German Wife and Mother – Advent 1943. It was a spiritual reflection but also a reflection on the hope for life after the war, when the Nazi regime would be defeated, and Germany given a new birth.

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Reuber operating on a wounded soldier above and drawing below

Reuber wrote:

“The concatenation of guilt and fate has opened our eyes wide to the guilt. You know, perhaps we will be grateful at the end of our present difficult path yet once again that we will be granted true salvation and liberation of the individual and the nation by apparent disappointment of our “anticipation of Advent”, by all of the suffering of last year’s as well as this year’s Christmas. According to ancient tradition, the Advent season is simultaneously the season of self-reflection. So at the very end, facing ruin, in death’s grip – what a revaluation of values has taken place in us! We thus want to use this period of waiting as inner preparation for a meaningful new existence and enterprise in our family, in our vocation, in the nation. The Christmas light of joy is already shining in the midst of our Advent path of death as a celebration of the birth of a new age in which – as hard as it may also be – we want to prove ourselves worthy of the newly given life.”  (Erich Wiegand in Kurt Reuber, Pastor, Physician, Painter, Evangelischer Medienverb. Kassel 2004. )

Reuber did not live to see that day. He died of Typhus on January 20th 1944, not long after writing this and just a few weeks after painting another portrait of the Madonna, this one entitled The Prisoner’s Madonna. He was not alone, of the approximately 95,000 German POWs taken at Stalingrad only about 6,000 returned home. 

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His paintings survived the war and his family gave The Madonna of Stalingrad  to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin when its ruins were restored as a symbol of hope and reconcilliation. Copies are also displayed in Coventry Cathedral and the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Volgagrad, the former Stalingrad. A copy of The Prisoner’s Madonna is now displayed at the Church of the Resurrection in Kassel. 

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I have a print of the Madonna of Stalingrad in my office. It has become one of the most meaningful pictures I have since I returned from Iraq in 2008. To me they are symbols of God’s presence when God seems entirely absent.

Praying for an end to war.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Character Sacrifice, Service in the Face of Blatant Racism and the Dream that Cannot be Stopped: Brigadier General Benjamin O Davis Sr and Lieutenant General Benjamin O Davis Jr.

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“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Last Friday, October 25th was the 73rd anniversary of the promotion of Colonel Benjamin O. Davis to the Rank of Brigadier General in the United States Army. In 1940 as the nation prepared for war many experienced officers were being promoted, some to Flag or General Officer rank. However, Colonel Davis was different, he was black.

Seldom do we take the time to remember that it really wasn’t that long ago that African Americans were for all practical purposes less than full citizens. Jim Crow laws, discrimination, segregation and impediments to voting were the norm in much of the country. Separate but equal was that mantra of racists in power. Blacks no matter how educated, how patriotic or how successful were discriminated against, held back and in far to many cases the target of hatred, violence and even murder. It was in such a climate that Benjamin O Davis served as an officer in the US Army.

While American History would not be the same without the life, work and prophetic ministry of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. much of his hard fought success was brought about by men and women who served in the military, or for that matter played the game of baseball in an exemplary manner in an otherwise whiter than white bread world.

Dr. King was born in a time when most of the country was segregated when “separate by equal” was simply façade to cover the lie that in no way did African Americans have equal rights or privileges in the United States. Something some leaders attempt today through the use of voter purges that target Blacks, hispanics and other minorities. Sad to day that some things don’t change. Racists are still racists.

In 1922 Carrie Williams Clifford published the poem The Black Draftee from Georgia which alluded to to the lynching of Wilbur Little, a soldier and veteran of the First World War  who was lynched by a mob for wearing his uniform after being warned not to:

What though the hero-warrior was black?
His heart was white and loyal to the core;
And when to his loved Dixie he came back,
Maimed, in the duty done on foreign shore,
Where from the hell of war he never flinched,
Because he cried, “Democracy,” was lynched.

 Dr King was born less than 60 years after the secession of the Southern states from the Union and the beginning of the American Civil War. Though that blood conflict had freed the slaves it had not freed African Americans from prejudice, violence and discrimination.  When Dr. King began his ministry and was thrust upon the national stage as the strongest voice for equal rights and protections for blacks the discrimination and violence directed towards blacks was a very real and present reality in much of the United States.

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 Buffalo Soldiers in the 1880s 

However there were cracks beginning to appear in the great wall of segregation in the years preceding Dr. King’s ascent to leadership as the moral voice of the country in the matter of racial equality. In baseball Jackie Robinson became the first African American player in Major League Baseball opening a door for others who would become legends of the game as well as help white America begin its slow acceptance of blacks in sports and the workplace.

Likewise the contributions of a father and son Brigadier General Benjamin O. Davis Sr. and General Benjamin O. Davis Jr. were advancing the cause of blacks in the military which eventually led to the desegregation of the military in 1948.  The impact of these two men cannot be underestimated for they were trailblazers who by their lives, professionalism and character blazed a trail for African Americans in the military as well as society.

Benjamin O. Davis Sr. was a student at Howard University when the USS Maine exploded and sank in Havana Harbor.  He volunteered for service and was commissioned as a temporary 1st Lieutenant in the 8th United States Volunteer Infantry. He was mustered out of service in 1899 but enlisted as a private in the 9th United States Cavalry one of the original Buffalo Soldiers regiments.

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 Buffalo Soldiers in the Philippines 

He was initially the unit clerk of I troop of 3rd Squadron and was promoted to be the squadron Sergeant Major. He was commissioned while the unit was deployed to the Philippines counterinsurgency campaign and assigned to the 10th Cavalry.

Early in his career Davis was assigned in various positions including command, staff and instruction duties including as Professor of Military Science and Tactics in various ROTC programs.  He reached the rank of rank of temporary Lieutenant Colonel and Squadron Commander of 3rd and later 1st Squadron 9th Cavalry from 1917-1920 in the Philippines before reverting to the rank of Captain on his return as part of the post World War I reduction in force.

He continued to serve during the inter-war years and assumed command of the 369th Infantry Regiment New York National Guard in 1938. He was promoted to Brigadier General on 25 October 1940 becoming the first African American elevated to that rank in the United States Army and was assigned as Commander 4th Brigade 2nd Cavalry Division. He later served in various staff positions at the War Department and in France and was instrumental in the integration of the U.S. Military. He retired after 50 years service in 1948 in a public ceremony with President Harry S. Truman presiding. He was a member of the American Battle Monuments Commission from 1953-1961 and died in 1970.

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Colonel Davis with his son Cadet Benjamin O Davis Jr.

His son Benjamin O. Davis Jr. was appointed to West Point in 1932.  He graduated and was commissioned in 1936 graduating 35 out of 278, the fourth African American graduate of West Point. During his time at the Academy most of his classmates shunned him and he never had a roommate.  Despite this he maintained a dogged determination to succeed.  The Academy yearbook made this comment about him:

“The courage, tenacity, and intelligence with which he conquered a problem incomparably more difficult than plebe year won for him the sincere admiration of his classmates, and his single-minded determination to continue in his chosen career cannot fail to inspire respect wherever fortune may lead him.”

He was denied entrance to the Army Air Corps because of his race and assigned to the Infantry first to the all lack 24th Infantry Regiment at Ft Benning where he was not allowed in the Officers Club due to his race. Upon his commissioning the Regular Army had just 2 African American Line Officers, 2nd Lieutenant Davis and his father Colonel Davis. After completion of Infantry School he was assigned as an instructor of Military Science and Tactics and the Tuskegee Institute.

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Benjamin O Davis Jr in WWII

In 1941 the Roosevelt Administration moved to create a black flying unit and Captain Davis was assigned to the first black class at the Tuskegee Army Air Field and in March 1942 one his wings as one of the first 5 African Americans to complete flight training.  In July 1942 the younger Davis was assigned as Commanding Officer of the 99th Pursuit Squadron which served in North Africa and Sicily flying Curtiss P-40 Warhawks.

He was recalled to the United States in September 1943 to command the 332nd Fighter Group. However some senior officers attempted to prevent other black squadrons from serving in combat alleging that the 99th had performed poorly in combat. Davis defended his squadron and General George Marshall ordered an inquiry which showed that the 99th was comparable to white squadrons in combat and during a 2 day period over the Anzio beachhead the pilots of the 99th shot down 12 German aircraft.

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Colonel Benjamin O Davis Jr (left) with one of his Tuskegee Airmen

Davis took the 332nd to Italy where they transitioned to P-47 Thunderbolts and in July 1944 to the P-51 Mustang which were marked with a signature red tail. During the war, the units commanded by Davis flew more than 15,000 sorties, shot down 111 enemy planes, and destroyed or damaged 273 on the ground at a cost of 66 of their own planes. Their record against the Luftwaffe was outstanding and their protection of the bombers that they escorted was superb with very few bombers lost while escorted by them men that the Luftwaffe nicknamed the Schwarze Vogelmenschen and the Allies the Red-Tailed Angels or simply the Redtails. Davis led his Tuskegee Airmen to glory in the war and their performance in combat helped break the color barrier in the U.S. Military which was ended in 1948 when President Truman signed an executive order to end the segregation of the military. Colonel Davis helped draft the Air Force plan and the Air Force was the first of the services to fully desegregate.

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Lieutenant General Benjamin O Davis Jr

 Colonel Davis transitioned to jets and let the 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing against Chinese Communist MIGs in the Korean War.  He was promoted to Brigadier General in 1954 and served in numerous command and staff positions. He retired in 1970 with the rank of Lieutenant General and was advanced to General while retired by President Clinton in 1998.  He died in 2002 at the age of 89.

The legacy of Benjamin O. Davis Senior and Benjamin O. Davis Junior is a testament to their character, courage and devotion to the United States of America. They helped pioneer the way for officers such as General Colin Powell and helped change this country for the better.  During times when discrimination was legal they overcame obstacles that would have challenged lesser men.

Benjamin O. Davis Junior remarked “My own opinion was that blacks could best overcome racist attitudes through achievements, even though those achievements had to take place within the hateful environment of segregation.”

Such men epitomize the selfless service of so many other African Americans who served the country faithfully and “by the content of their character” triumphed over the evil of racism and helped make the United States a more perfect union. Today many African Americans as well as members of other minorities including racial minorities, women and gays serve with distinction in the military. What they do today is in many part a direct result of the courage, character and convictions of men like Benjamin O Davis Sr and Benjamin O Davis Jr.

Unfortunately the struggle for equality is never over and current generation will have to work just as hard to ensure that the freedoms won at so great a cost are not lost. General Colin Powell, the first Black man to serve as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State commented in 1994:

“I stand here today as a direct descendant of those Buffalo Soldiers and of the Tuskegee Airmen and all the black men and women who have served the nation in uniform, I will never forget my debt to them. I didn’t just show up. I climbed on the backs of those who never had the kind of opportunity that I had.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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D-Day: Brigadier General Theodore “Ted” Roosevelt III Lands at Utah Beach

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“Courage, above all things, is the first quality of a warrior.” Carl Von Clausewitz

By the standards of military service on the front line the man was ancient. He was 56 years old, had arthritis and a history of heart problems, but he was his father’s son.

The oldest man to land on the beaches of Normandy was the son of a President, Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt who had taken leave of his office as Assistant Secretary of the Navy at the outset of the Spanish-American War. With the help of his friend Colonel Leonard Wood, Roosevelt formed the legendary First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, the “Rough Riders” and led them in the fight at the Battle of San Juan Hill.

The son of the President entered the business world and then served as a Reserve officer and since he had received prior military training was commissioned as a Major when the United States entered World War One. He volunteered for overseas service and served as a battalion commander and later as commander of the 26th Infantry Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division. Leading from the front he was wounded and gassed at Soissons in 1918. For his service he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the French Chevalier Légion d’honneur.

After the war he helped found the American Legion and entered politics and was elected to the New York State Assembly. However while serving as Assistant Secretary of the Navy in the Harding Administration he was linked to the Teapot Dome Scandal and though cleared of any wrongdoing his name was tarnished. Opposed by his cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt his political fortunes in elected offices floundered. However he was appointed as Governor of Puerto Rico and later Governor-General of the Philippines a post that he served until 1935 when he returned to the United States and the business world serving as an executive with American Express.

Between the wars “Ted” continued his Army Reserve service attending his annual training periods as well as attending the Infantry Officer Basic and Officer Advanced Courses as well as the Command and General Staff College. When war came to Europe he again volunteered for active service, attended a refresher course and was promoted to Colonel in the Army Reserve. Mobilized in April 1940 he was given command of his old 26th Infantry Regiment assigned to the First Infantry Division and was promoted to Brigadier General in late 1941 becoming the Assistant Division Commander.

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He served well in that role in North Africa and Sicily and earned citations for bravery being constantly on the front lines with his soldiers. However his association with the Division Commander, the unorthodox Terry Allen earned the enmity of George Patton and Omar Bradley. Patton disliked Allen and hated the way both Allen and Roosevelt eschewed “spit and polish” and “dressed down,” often wearing unauthorized uniform items. After Bradley assumed command of 7th Army he relieved both officers, believing that they were guilty of “loving their division too much” something that he admitted was one of the hardest decisions that he made in the war. Roosevelt served as a liaison officer with the Free French Forces in Italy before returning to England to assume duties as Assistant Division Commander of the 4th Infantry Division. Allen would go on to command the 104th Infantry Division in an exemplary manner during the command’s in France and Germany in 1944-45 with even Bradley praising him and his new division as one of the best in Europe.

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Roosevelt constantly trained with the troops and asked his commander, Major General Raymond “Tubby” Barton for permission to land with the first wave in the invasion. After being denied twice Roosevelt put his request to Barton in writing:

“The force and skill with which the first elements hit the beach and proceed may determine the ultimate success of the operation…. With troops engaged for the first time, the behavior pattern of all is apt to be set by those first engagements. [It is] considered that accurate information of the existing situation should be available for each succeeding element as it lands. You should have when you get to shore an overall picture in which you can place confidence. I believe I can contribute materially on all of the above by going in with the assault companies. Furthermore I personally know both officers and men of these advance units and believe that it will steady them to know that I am with them.”

Barton reluctantly approved the request not expecting Roosevelt to survive the landings. Roosevelt was in the first wave of assault troops at Utah Beach. On landing he discovered that the first wave was about a mile off course. Armed with a pistol and supported by a cane Roosevelt led a reconnaissance to find the causeways off the beach. He briefed the battalion commanders and then ordered an attack from where the troops had landed telling his officers “We’ll start the war from right here!” a moment immortalized in the film The Longest Day in which Henry Fonda played Roosevelt.

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Henry Fonda Portrays Brigadier General Theodore “Ted” Roosevelt III in “The Longest Day”

His actions were key in the success of the Utah Beach landings and he was recommended for the Distinguished Service Cross by General Barton. Just over a month after the invasion after continuously leading his troops in Normandy Roosevelt died of a heart attack on July 12th 1944, the very day he had been selected for his second star and promotion to Major General and had orders to take command of the 90th Infantry Division. His award was upgraded to the Congressional Medal of Honor which was posthumously awarded on September 28th 1944. He was buried in the American Cemetery in Normandy, the remains of his younger brother Quentin who had been killed in the First World War were exhumed and interred next to his in 1955.

The Medal of Honor citation reads:

For gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty on 6 June 1944, in France. After 2 verbal requests to accompany the leading assault elements in the Normandy invasion had been denied, Brig. Gen. Roosevelt’s written request for this mission was approved and he landed with the first wave of the forces assaulting the enemy-held beaches. He repeatedly led groups from the beach, over the seawall and established them inland. His valor, courage, and presence in the very front of the attack and his complete unconcern at being under heavy fire inspired the troops to heights of enthusiasm and self-sacrifice. Although the enemy had the beach under constant direct fire, Brig. Gen. Roosevelt moved from one locality to another, rallying men around him, directed and personally led them against the enemy. Under his seasoned, precise, calm, and unfaltering leadership, assault troops reduced beach strong points and rapidly moved inland with minimum casualties. He thus contributed substantially to the successful establishment of the beachhead in France.

Roosevelt’s story is quite amazing. In the modern wars of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries few commanders as senior as Roosevelt would ever be in the first wave of an invasion or offensive operation. The personal courage and example set by Roosevelt in both World Wars, leading from the front and maintaining relationships with the troops that he commanded in combat is something that we talk about a lot in various military leadership classes but often seems to be smothered by business models promoted by think tanks and others with money to be made.

Likewise, a commander suffering from Roosevelt’s infirmities would not be allowed to command troops in combat today. But in the Second World War when many other American Generals failed miserably and often could not be found near the front and were relieved of command for incompetence and cowardice the old, crippled and infirm Roosevelt led from the front. He made decisions on Utah Beach on D-Day that helped ensure that the landings were a success. Bradley, who had fired Roosevelt after the Sicilian Campaign with Allen said that the most heroic act that he had seen in combat was “Ted Roosevelt on Utah Beach.”

Roosevelt was an exception to Clausewitz’s axiom that “boldness becomes rarer, the higher the rank.” I think that even if a General wanted to lead in the manner of Roosevelt today that he would be punished by the institution for risking himself.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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June 5th 1944 the Eve of D-Day: Rommel Goes Home for a Birthday Party

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Rommel Inspecting German Positions in Normandy

At Chateau La Roche Guyon on the River Seine Field Marshal Erwin Rommel bid farewell to his staff. The weather was miserable and it looked as if the Allies under General Eisenhower would be forced to postpone any invasion of France for several weeks. Rommel, who had been constantly at war away from his wife Lu and son Manfred for most of the preceding five years decided to take a few days of leave, after all June 6th was Lu’s birthday and he decided that he would spend it with her. He had even purchased a pair of shoes in Paris to give as a gift.

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General Hans Speidel

His Chief of Staff, General Hans Speidel bid Rommel, his aide de camp and driver farewell as they drove off in his Horch staff car. Of course it was the correct decision. The weather appeared completely unfavorable to an invasion, however the Germans, deprived on long range weather forecasts for the loss of ships and weather stations in the Atlantic and Greenland did not know that the Allies had discovered that the weather would moderate for about 24 hours beginning the night of the 5th and morning of the 6th. Eisenhower made the decision to invade on the 6th of June. The Germans, continued normal planning and training in anticipation that the long awaited invasion would not occur for two to three weeks. Many other German commanders were either on leave or involved in war games and exercises away from their headquarters.

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In the early morning hours of June 6th Allied paratroops from three Airborne Divisions, the 1st British and American 82nd and 101st began landing in Normandy. At dawn on June 6th troops from 6 Allied Divisions began amphibious landings at five invasion beaches, Gold, Juno and Sword in the British sector and Omaha and Utah beach in the American sector.

Speidel called Rommel at his home early on the 6th of June to inform him of the landings. Hitler had limited Rommel and other German commander’s ability to respond to an invasion by keeping the authority to commit the German armored reserve to himself. By the time Rommel arrived back at La Roche Guyon on the night of June 6th tens of thousands of Allied troops from six Infantry and three Airborne Divisions were reinforcing their beach heads and supported by overwhelming naval and air forces were driving inland. The forces that Rommel immediately commanded were sufficient to slow the Allied advance but not to throw the invaders back into the English Channel.

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The campaign for Normandy would devolve into a war of attrition that would end with the Allied breakout at St Lo in July. That event coincided with Rommel being severely wounded in an Allied air attack on July 17th and the attempt on Hitler’s life July 20th. In the succeeding days with their command structure paralyzed by Hitler’s retribution against those or implicated in the attempt on his life, who included many commanders and staff officers in France fighting the Allies.

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Rommel’s Wife Lucy and Son Manfred at his Funeral

Rommel would also be implicated in the attempt on Hitler’s life and would die at his own hand on October 17th 1944 after being offered the choice between suicide or a trial in which he would be found guilty and his family endangered.

One wonders what might have happened had Rommel been present in Normandy when the Allies landed. Perhaps history would have unfolded in a number of different ways. The results might have been the same, perhaps the Germans under Rommel would have succeeded in throwing the Allied forces back into the sea, and perhaps the victor of Normandy might have been able to help overthrow Hitler and end the war. Of course we will never know.

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What we do know are the facts. Rommel spent a few hours with his wife on her birthday before having to travel back to Normandy without getting the chance to try to persuade Hitler to change the command arrangements that might have changed the outcome of the invasion. We know that deprived of the ability to control all of the key forces in his operational area, especially the Panzer Divisions and without the Luftwaffe being able even to contest Allied air superiority that Rommel, the legendary Desert Fox was condemned to fight a desperate defensive struggle against an enemy who control the seas, the skies and seemingly had unlimited resources. We also know that he was involved in the plot to kill Hitler and paid with his life for his involvement.

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Rommel with his Wife and Son

Rommel is one of those tragic figures in history. A man caught up in the excesses of his era who discovered how the leader that he had sworn a loyalty oath to had betrayed his country and millions of his fellow soldiers. Rommel discovered the lies of his leaders too late. He like many soldiers in so many wars assumed that they could be trusted. When he discovered that they could not he took the chance to oppose them and was murdered by them.

Of course Rommel had flaws. He was an opportunist at times and did not oppose Hitler in the early years. In fact much of his fame was due to the propaganda of Josef Goebbels who exploited Rommel’s military success in Africa. However it was in Africa that Rommel began to see the truth about Hitler, the seeds of which led to his involvement with those who plotted Hitler’s death and lead him to his own death. Rommel, like so many military leaders before and after him had feet of clay.

Disillusionment with the lies of my leaders that took my country to war is something that I experienced between the attacks on September 11th 2001 and my return from Iraq in February 2008. As such, as a man who has spent the bulk of the last 11 1/2 years of war away from his wife who discovered that his leaders lied about wars and their cost, moral, physical and economic I feel a certain kinship with Field Marshal Rommel. I can understand why he took the chance to take a few days of leave to spend it with his wife.

War is a terrible thing.

Peace

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The Last Battle of the Bismarck

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Battleship Bismarck

The torpedo from the Swordfish from the HMS Ark Royal that struck the mighty Bismarck in her stern and jammed her rudders doomed that ship and her crew. It was an astounding turn of events. The Bismarck had sunk the legendary British Battle Cruiser HMS Hood in minutes and had she persisted could have sunk the new Battleship HMS Prince of Wales. Instead, Vice Admiral Gunther Lutjens in command of the Bismarck and her consort the Heavy Cruiser Prinz Eugen decided to break off contact and make for safety in the French port of Brest.

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Bismarck slipped her pursuers and allowed Prinz Eugen to escape. It seemed that nothing that the British could do would stop her from gaining the safety of the French port and with it the knowledge that she had sunk the most powerful ship in the Royal Navy and gotten away. Then out of nowhere Bismarck was spotted by a Royal Air Force Coastal Command PBY Catalina seaplane piloted by an American Naval Officer. Then a relatively small and slow torpedo dropped from an obsolescent Swordfish torpedo bomber, a “stringbag” hit the Bismarck in perhaps the only place that could have changed the developing narrative of a great German naval victory.

As darkness fell on May 26th, Bismarck, unable to steer towards Brest due to her damage and the following seas steered toward the oncoming British armada at a reduced speed. Her crew, now exhausted from countless hours on watch and at their battle stations knew that they were doomed.

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Swordfish returning from attacking Bismarck

Despite this they still labored trying in vain for a way to repair their ship. As Bismarck’s engineers and damage control personnel sought at way to repair the damage on that dark night Royal Navy destroyers under the command of Captain Phillip Vian harassed her, closing to fire torpedoes and keep the exhausted crew of the mighty German ship engaged at their battle stations throughout the long night.

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Bismarck under Fire from King George V and Rodney

As light broke on the morning of the 27th the remaining heavy units from the Home Fleet, the Battleships HMS King George V and HMS Rodney along with the Heavy Cruisers HMS  Norfolk which had been part of the pursuit since the first day and HMS Dorsetshire which had broke from its convoy escort duties on the 26th closed in for the kill.

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Bismarck from Dorsetshire

At 0847 the British Battleships opened fire on Bismarck, which replied with accurate salvos straddled Rodney. However British shells hammered the Bismarck, 16” shells from Rodney destroying the command center of Bismarck and her main fire control stations. Within 30 minutes the mighty guns which had sunk the Hood were silent and the British ships pounded Bismarck from point blank range with 16”, 14”, 8” and 6” shells as well as torpedoes.

painting28 The end of the Bismarck

The British ships scored at least 400 hits but though they had silenced Bismarck the ship was still afloat, burning and certainly doomed but undaunted. Finally, with their adversary obviously doomed and their own fuel supplies dangerously low Admiral Tovey ordered the battleships to break off the action even as the cruisers continued to fire their guns and torpedoes.

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Bismarck Survivors being hauled aboard Dorsetshire

Even so the Bismarck’s senior surviving officer, her First Officer Fregattenkapitan (Commander) Hans Oels ordered her Chief Engineer Korvettenkapitan (Lieutenant Commander) Gerhard Junack to prepare the ship for scuttling and ordered the crew to abandon ship. The watertight doors were opened and scuttling charges fired. At 1039 the Bismarck slipped beneath the waves.

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HMS Dorsetshire 1941

Hundreds of survivors bobbed about in the cold waters of the North Atlantic. 110 were rescued by British ships, mostly by Dorchester. Then lookouts spotted the periscope of a U-Boat and the British ships broke off their rescue operations leaving hundreds more survivors to die of exposure or their wounds in the Atlantic. A few more were rescued later by German ships or U-boats but about 2200 German sailors went down with their ship or died awaiting rescue that never came. 2 officers and 113 men survived the sinking of the Bismarck.

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Artist’s image of the Wreck of the Bismarck

Subsequent investigations would show that all the British shells and torpedoes could not have sunk the Bismarck and that it was indeed the scuttling charges that sent her to the bottom of the Atlantic. Even so, she was doomed and the damage would have sent her to the bottom within 12 to 24 hours had Oels not order Junack to scuttle the ship. Within a year the Ark Royal, Prince of Wales, and Dorsetshire would also lie at the bottom of the seas. Prince of Wales sunk by Japanese land based bombers off Malaya in 1941, Dorsetshire by Japanese Carrier aircraft in April 1942 and Ark Royal by the U-Boat U-81 in November 1941. Of the destroyers that harassed Bismarck the night before her sinking only one, the Polish Destroyer ORP Piorun would survive the war.

The tragedy of mission of the Bismarck is that nearly 3700 sailors died aboard the two mightiest ships in the world, the Hood and the Bismarck died in battles that though now legendary did not alter the course of the war. Hood’s loss though tragic did not alter the strategic equation as more new battleships of the King George V class entered service and German capital ships, harassed and damaged by RAF bomber sorties and attacks by the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm confined to ports in France, Germany or Norway slipped into irrelevance as the war progressed and the German U-Boat force took the lead in the Battle of the Atlantic.

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The Mighty Hood

As one who has served at sea on a cruiser at war which came within minutes of a surface engagement with Iranian Revolutionary Guard patrol boats in the Northern Arabian Gulf in 2002 I have wondered what would happen in the event of an engagement that seriously damaged or sank our ship. Thus I have a profound sense of empathy for the sailors that perished aboard both the Hood and the Bismarck in the fateful days of May 22-27 1941.

In hopes that no more brave sailors will have to die this way.

Peace

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Stringbags Versus Leviathan: Royal Navy Fairy Swordfish Attack the Mighty Bismarck

Alan Fearnley; (c) Alan Fearnley; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

This is the second article in a series that I am writing on Operation Rheinubung and the sinking of the German Battleship Bismarck. The first article in the series was written about two years ago and focused on the Bismarck sinking the HMS Hood. This article looks at the attempts by the Fleet Air Arm Squadrons of Fairy Swordfish Torpedo Bombers flying from the HMS Victorious and HMS Ark Royal to slow down the Bismarck and allow heavy fleet units to catch the the mighty German battleship. 

h69721Bismarck photographed from Prinz Eugen at the beginning of Rheinubung

On May 24th 1941 the German Battleship Bismarck had sunk the celebrated Battlecruiser HMS Hood in the Denmark Strait and had seriously damaged the new Battleship HMS Prince of Wales. The news of the disaster stunned the Royal Navy and every warship available began to concentrate on the Bismarck which was being shadowed by the heavy cruisers HMS Norfolk and HMS Suffolk. To the east the ships from the Home Fleet under Admiral John Tovey was moving at the fastest possible speed to intercept the Bismarck while to the far southeast “Force H” comprised of the carrier HMS Ark Royal, Battle Cruiser HMS Renown and light cruiser HMS Sheffield were ordered to leave their convoy escort duties and proceed to the Northwest to join the hunt.

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HMS Ark Royal with Swordfish in 1939

With the Bismarck loose the North Atlantic Convoys on which Britain depended for her survival were vulnerable. The previous year the commander of the Bismarck task force Admiral Günther Lütjens with the Battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had wreaked havoc on the convoys. All of Britain was on edge and when the Mighty Hood, the largest and most powerful ship in the Royal Navy destroyed with the loss of all but three crew members every effort was directed to find and sink the Bismarck.

gallbismlastdays01 Bismarck photographed from a Swordfish from 825 Squadron

Accompanying the Home Fleet was the brand new Aircraft Carrier HMS Victorious with 825 Naval Air Squadron embarked under the command of LCDR Eugene Esmond. The squadron, like many in the Fleet Air Arm was equipped with Fairy Swordfish Torpedo Bombers. The squadron had seen action aboard other carriers in the North Atlantic, the Norway Campaign and in the Mediterranean before being assigned to the Victorious. On the night of 24 May 1941, in foul North Atlantic weather the Victorious launched nine Swordfish from a range of 120 miles in a desperate attempt to slow the Bismarck down. Esmond’s squadron scored one hit amidships on the Bismarck which did no serious damage.

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825 Squadron Swordfish on HMS Victorious

About 6 hours after the attack Bismarck shook her pursuers and disappeared into the mists of the North Atlantic as her consort, the Heavy Cruiser Prinz Eugen escaped to the northwest. Not knowing the location or course of the Bismarck the Royal Navy frantically searched for the German Leviathan. Most of the ships nearest to Bismarck’s last reported position were low on fuel and others seemed too far away to be of any importance in the search.

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Bismarck, bow on view

However the British were able to intercept and decode some German communications indicating that Lütjens had orders to steam to Brest, in German occupied France for repairs. Although the British had an understanding that the Bismarck could be headed toward Brest it could not be sure and as each hour passed the chances of finding and bringing the might German ship to battle diminished. For nearly 36 hours the British searched in vain for the Bismarck, then at 1030 on the 26th of May a Royal Air Force Coastal Command PBY Catalina piloted by US Navy Ensign Leonard Smith found the Bismarck. Once Smith transmitted Bismarck’s location every available ship converged on her location even though chances bringing her to battle diminished by the hour. The only heavy forces close enough to successfully engage Bismarck, the battleships HMS King George V and HMS Rodney were too far away unless Bismarck changed course or could be slowed down. Force H to the south did not have the combat power to survive a surface engagement with the Bismarck should they encounter the Bismarck without other heavy fleet units.

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820 Squadron Swordfish returning to Ark Royal after the attack on Bismarck

The situation was desperate, if Bismarck could not be slowed down she would be in range of heavy Luftwaffe Air support as well as support from U-Boats and destroyers based in France. Unless something akin to a miracle occurred Bismarck would join the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in Brest and form a surface squadron strong enough to devastate British shipping in the Atlantic.

The aircraft from Ark Royal were the last hope of slowing down Bismarck before she could effect her escape and emerge from the Atlantic after having dealt the Royal Navy a devastating blow. The strike aircraft available on Ark Royal were not what many people would consider capable of completing such a mission. Ark Royal’s 820 Squadron, like Victorious’ 824 Squadron was equipped with Fairy Swordfish Mk 1 Torpedo Bombers. These were biplanes with a crew compartment open to the weather. Introduced to the Navy in 1936 the aircraft was an antique compared with most other aircraft of its day. The Mark XII 18” torpedo carried by the aircraft was smaller or slower and equipped with a less powerful warhead than comparable torpedoes used by other navies. Despite their limitations the venerable Swordfish had performed admirably during the early part of the war sinking or damaging three Italian battleships at Taranto in November 1941 and providing inspiration to the Japanese for their attack on Pearl Harbor.

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Bismarck steering erratically after the torpedo hit to her stern

With that in mind Vice Admiral James Sommerville in command of Force H sent HMS Sheffield ahead to shadow Bismarck as his carrier, HMS Ark Royal closed to launch her Swordfish against Bismarck. A first strike, unaware Sheffield had advanced to a location near Bismarck mistakenly attacked the British Cruiser. Thankfully, the new design magnetic detonators failed to detonate causing the torpedoes to miss Sheffield. The aircraft returned to Ark Royal where rearmed with torpedoes equipped with contact fuzes and refueled 15 Swordfish took off for a final attack on Bismarck before night fell and Bismarck would steam into the protection of German air and naval units.

As darkness began to fall 15 Swordfish from 820 Squadron descended through the clouds attacking from all points of the compass. Bismarck twisted and turned and fired at the attacking aircraft with every weapon available, even firing her main battery into the ocean ahead of the Swordfish. Bismarck successfully avoided all but two torpedoes, one which struck her amidships causing minimal damage. However a second torpedo, launched by a Swordfish piloted by Lieutenant John Moffat hit Bismarck in her stern jamming her port rudder enabling Tovey with King George V, Rodney, the Heavy Cruiser Norfolk and Dorchester as well as a number of destroyers to catch up with and eventually sink the Bismarck.

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The attacks of the antiquated Swordfish on the Bismarck achieved results that no one in  the Royal Navy expected. When reports indicated that Bismarck had reversed course following the torpedo attack Tovey could not believe them. It was only when Sheffield confirmed the reports from the Swordfish that Tovey realized that Bismarck must have been damaged and unable to maneuver. Now with the chance he would take the opportunity presented to sink the Bismarck and avenge the Hood.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Remembering the Holocaust

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“For the dead and the living we must bear witness.” Ellie Wiesel

Berlin, July 31st 1941

To: Gruppenfuhrer Heydrich

Supplementing the task assigned to you by the decree of January 24th 1939, to solver the Jewish problem by means of evacuation and emigration in the best possible way by according to present conditions, I hereby charge you to carry out preparations as regards organizational, financial, and material matters for a total solution (Gesamtlosung) of the Jewish question in all the territories of Europe under German occupation.

Where the competency of other organizations touches on this matter, the organizations are to collaborate.

I charge you further to submit to me as soon as possible a general plan of the administrative material and financial measures necessary for the carrying out the desired final solution (Endlosung) of the Jewish question.”

Goering

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It is hard to believe that 70 years ago the gas chambers and crematoria of Auschwitz and many other extermination factories were in high gear. Specially formed units of the SS, Police and their Foreign auxiliaries, the Einsatzgruppen were exterminating Jews and others, people the Nazis termed Untermenchen (subhumans) across Europe.

When Herman Goering wrote Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the Reichssiecherhiethauptampt (RSHA) in July 1941 it seemed that Nazi victory in Europe was all but assured. Goering’s words were businesslike. Early measures to rid Germany and the annexed Austria ha been reasonably successful of their Jews through emigration and evacuation. However with the occupation of most of Europe following the Nazi military success and the looming occupation and subjugation of the Soviet Union the process of giving the Jews a chance to emigrate to lands outside Nazi control had come to an end. In fact the Nazis occupied the countries that may Jews had found refuge. The Nazi leadership decided that its race war against the Jews needed to forge ahead.

Within weeks SS commanders at various concentration camps were devising means to exterminate Jews more efficiently. It was a matter of pride and efficiency for them. As Rudolph Hoess the Commandant of Auschwitz said at Nuremberg “the camp commandant at Treblinka told me that he had liquidated 80,000 in the course of one half year. He was principally concerned with liquidating all the Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto. He used monoxide gas, and I did not think that his methods were very efficient. So when I set up the extermination building at Auschwitz, I used Zyclon B….” Hoess estimated that some 2.5 million people were exterminated at Auschwitz at rates as high as 10,000 a day.

In the Soviet Union four Einsatzgruppen followed each of the German Army Groups and systematically began to massacre the Jews of every city and village which German soldiers captured. Over a million and a half Soviet Jews were killed by the Einsatzgruppen, Ordungspolizei battalions, Army Security Divisions and locally recruited units.

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Less than six months after he received the directive from Goering, on January 20th 1942 Heydrich summoned representatives from various Reich agencies were called for what turned out to be a brief, two hour meeting which decided the fate of the Jews. The meeting was held at an estate located in the suburbs of Berlin, called Wansee. Organized by Heydrich’s deputy Adolph Eichmann, involved Heydrich, Eichmann and 13 mid level representatives from various economic, governmental, justice and police entities.

At the conference Heydrich established his authority through Goering’s directive to overcome the bureaucratic and personal attempts of various attendees to take control of the Final Solution process. Despite objections from some attendees who favored sterilization and the use of Jews in the war armaments industries, Heydrich made it clear that the Final Solution would be a campaign of extermination. He was quite clear:

“Approximately 11 million Jews will be involved…in large single sex labor columns, Jews fit to work will work their way eastward constructing roads. Doubtless the large majority will be eliminated through natural causes. Any final remnant that survives will doubtlessly consist of the most resistant elements. They will have to be dealt with appropriately, because otherwise by natural selection, they would form the germ cell of a new Jewish revival.”

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“I also want to mention a very difficult subject before you here, completely openly. It should be discussed among us, and yet, nevertheless, we will never speak about it in public…I am talking about the “Jewish evacuation” the extermination of the Jewish people.”

It is One of the things that is easily said. “The Jewish people is being exterminated,” every Party member will tell you, “perfectly clear, it’s part of our plans, we’re eliminating the Jews, exterminating them, ha!, a small matter.”

But then along they all come, all the decent upright Germans and each has his decent Jew. They all say: the others are all swine, but here is a first class Jew. And none of them has seen it, has endured it. Most of you will know what it means when 100 bodies lie together, or when there are 500 or 1000. And to have seen this through, and –with the exception of human weaknesses– to have remained decent, has made us hard and is a page of glory never mentioned and never to be mentioned….”

Whether the words are those of Goering, Heydrich, Hoess or Himmler, there is a certain businesslike banality to them. But these men, and many others like them orchestrated a campaign of genocide and race hatred unmatched in history. Yes, there have been other genocides, the Turks killing the Armenians during the First World War and the Hutu and Tutsi slaughter in Rwanda but neither they or the politically motivated campaigns of mass slaughter conducted by the Soviets, the Chinese Communists and the Khamer Rouge killing fields can match the systematized extermination campaign waged by the Nazis against the Jews.

The truly terrifying thing about the Nazi perpetrators of the Holocaust to me is that most of the men at Wansee, men that commanded the Concentration camps and the Einsatzgruppen were very ordinary men who simply believed that they were doing their jobs. Very few could be described as psychopathic killers by nature. They were lawyers, doctors, career police officials, businessmen, and bureaucrats who carried out an extermination campaign that killed by their own numbers between 5.5 and 6 million Jews, not to mention others deemed to be subhuman including the handicapped, the mentally ill, homosexuals, and other non-Jewish minorities like the Gypsies not to mention the wide variety of those considered political enemies. But it was the Jews that bore the most tragic fate.

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Primo Levi said it well:

“Monsters exist, but they are too few in numbers to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are…the functionaries ready to believe and act without asking questions.”

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Let us work to ensure that nothing like this happens again. We owe it to those who died in the Holocaust and to humanity now and in the future. Never forget.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Challenger: 27 Years Later

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“We risk great peril if we kill off this spirit of adventure, for we cannot predict how and in what seemingly unrelated fields it will manifest itself. A nation that loses its forward thrust is in danger, and one of the most effective ways to retain that thrust is to keep exploring possibilities. The sense of exploration is intimately bound up with human resolve, and for a nation to believe that it is still committed to a forward motion is to ensure its continuance.” James A. Michener 1979

It is still hard to believe. But then Space Shuttles don’t blow up every day, but the Space Shuttle Challenger just beginning mission STS-51L on that cold and sunny Florida morning.

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Challenger’s crew

I guess that events like the explosion of Challenger remain with those that viewed them because they were unusual, historic and most of all, tragic. Yes we remember events of triumph as well, and they too make an imprint on our memories, but tragedies that impact a nation and the world touch us in a different and often more powerful way. I think this is because they expose to us our own mortality and vulnerability to things that we cannot control.

I know that I, like many others of my generation had grown up with the triumphs of the NASA manned space program. We had seen the incredible success of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs.  Success and triumph were associated with the program. Even the tragic fire which consumed the command module of the Apollo I mission on January 27th 1967 during a launch pad test killing Astronauts Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee did little to quench our belief in the program.

In 1972 as the Apollo program wound down a new program was developed to be a more affordable means to continue space travel and scientific study. The program became the Space Shuttle program built around reusable orbiters of which Challenger was the third built for the program.

By the time Challenger was being prepared for STS-51-L we had become to Shuttle missions being routine. NASA was launching a mission every two to three months.  Challenger was the second of two missions in January 1986, her sister Columbia having returned from a 6 day mission just 10 days before her launch.

This familiarity with the routine of the Shuttle program and expectation of success made many of us forget that space travel is inherently dangerous and that complex vehicles like the Shuttle were not indestructible.

The STS-51-L mission was to be the 10th for the Challenger in under three years of service. The mission had been delayed due to weather on the 22nd and rescheduled several times due to weather or in one case due to problems with an exterior access hatch.

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Challenger takes off on January 28th 1986

The morning of the launch the weather was predicted to be at or below the 31 degree minimum safe launch threshold. Engineers from the builder of the Challenger’s Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) Morton Thiokol contacted NASA with their concerns that the O-Rings which sealed the joints on the SRBs which they believed might not seal properly.  NASA engineers argued that even if the primary O-Ring failed that the secondary O-Ring would be sufficient even though this was an unproven theory. Eventually Thiokol management overruled their engineers influenced by NASA management which demanded that Thiokol prove that it was not safe to launch rather than prove that it was safe to launch. Considering it was a “Criticality 1” component meaning that there was no backup in case of a failure of both joints. It was a clear violation of protocol but the later Rogers Commission would show that NASA managers frequently ignored or evaded safety regulations to meet their very ambitious mission schedule. This decision doomed Challenger and her crew of seven.

On the 28th of January 1986 I was a young commander of the 557th Medical Company (Ambulance) in Wiesbaden Germany. I had heard about the scheduled launch of the Shuttle but paid it little regard, despite the presence if Christa McAuliffe, the first “teacher in space.” That evening was hoping to close out the day by 7PM which was early for me as well as most officers in the 68th Medical Group and 3rd Support Command of what we commonly called the Imperial Army on the Rhine, the US Army Europe.

I had a stack of work in my inbox, NCO evaluations, criminal investigations, maintenance reports and upcoming missions, not to mention trying to get a head start on my Unit Status Report. Most of my soldiers except those on duty had finished for the day.

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Challenger’s last moments

About 20 minutes to Six my senior duty person at the company, the Charge of Quarters or CQ in Army parlance came to my door which was at the far end of the hallway from where the CQ was stationed. Specialist Lisa Daley was a solid medic and outstanding soldier who had a great personality that caused her to be well liked in the company.  She came to my door and blurted out “Lieutenant Dundas! The Space Shuttle just blew up!”

I looked up from my desk and I remember my words to this day. “Specialist Daley, Space Shuttles don’t blow up.” She then said, “No sir they do, it’s on TV right now!”

I was stunned by her pronouncement. I got up and followed her as she told me what had happened. While I reached the CQ desk I saw the small television which she and her assistant CQ were watching. There was a live feed from CNN replaying the disaster, the twin plumes of smoke careening across the screen marking the spot where 73 seconds into the flight Challenger exploded. I stood there in shock, the images of the divergent plumes of smoke being etched into my mind.

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Atlantis landing on her final mission

It is hard to forget. 17 years later I was waiting for the arrival of General Peter Pace, then the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to arrive at Naval Station Mayport Florida for the Battle of Hue City Memorial weekend hosted by the USS HUE CITY. I got to the ship early and while drinking coffee in the Wardroom saw the news of the breakup of the Space Shuttle Columbia. It brought back the images of the Challenger disaster. General Pace was delayed as the Joint Chiefs and National Security Council held an emergency meeting and arrived several hours late and when he arrived he spoke of the Challenger disaster along with the Columbia.

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The Shuttle program ended with the final mission of the Shuttle Atlantis in July 2011. As one that still dreams of the stars and manned space exploration I do hope that NASA is able to return to manned space missions and go beyond what we have done before. I hope that future programs including the Orion program and maybe manned missions to Mars and beyond can fulfill that ever hopeful opening dialogue of Star Trek: “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.” 

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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