Category Archives: world war one

Honesty and Leadership: The Example of Field Marshal William Slim

Field Marshal William Joseph Slim, 1st Viscount Slim, KG, GCB, GCMG, GCVO, GBE, DSO, MC (6 August 1891 - 14 December 1970).   Photo possibly taken in Burma where in March 1942 he was given command of 1st Burma Corps (or BurCorps) which was being attacked by the Japanese.  He was a British military commander and the 13th Governor-General of Australia. He fought in both World War I and World War II and was wounded in action three times during his career.  ©TopFoto

Field Marshal William Slim

“Leadership is of the spirit, compounded of personality and vision.”

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have been thinking about leadership and moral courage lately and came to remember a British general from the Second World War whose example of both is all to often forgotten even in military circles. I hope you enjoy.

Peace

Padre Steve+

Field Marshal William Slim was one of the most brilliant commanders of the Second World War. He gets little press and there are not a lot of books written about him. Slim was one of those unique officers who served on the periphery of the British Empire as an office in the British Indian Army. He was a clerk in a factory who attended the University of Birmingham and commissioned as a reserve officer through its reserve officer training course; he did not attend Sandhurst, the British equivalent of the U.S. Military Academy.

Slim was commissioned in 1914 and assigned to the Indian Army. He served at Gallipoli and Mesopotamia in the First World War and was wounded three times. At Gallipoli Slim saw the immense waste of human life which led him in his future commands never to sacrifice his men in senseless operations. Between the wars he served in India with the Gurkhas and also spent a significant time as a student and an instructor. His career between the was was marked by slow promotion, but eventually he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and given command of a battalion at the age of 46. One of his students remembered:

“We had a most able and later highly distinguished batch of instructors and we were all of the opinion that Slim was one of the best. He tackled every subject in a down-to-earth manner and presented it in a simple, straightforward language. He also had the knack of making any lecture interesting by introducing enough of the personal side and by including a sufficient degree of humour. In the Mess he was always natural, affable and tremendously interesting on all kinds of subjects other than military. I don’t think I have ever learned more from anybody.”

However, during the war a man who many would have considered an outlier rose from battalion to brigade and then Division command and became a general through wartime promotions all the while remaining a Colonel on the regular list as he served in the British campaign against the Italians in the Sudan and the invasion of Iraq.

When Britain’s fortunes were at war were at their lowest point, and British forces were collapsing against the relentless Japanese advance in Burma Slim was called upon to stem the tide. He was assigned to command the Burma Corps which eventually became the British 14th Army. The army was sometimes better known as the “Forgotten Army.” He took command and had to conduct a 900 mile withdraw under desperate conditions. His Army was emaciated, poorly equipped and beaten, but his leadership during that retreat saved his army and kept their spirit alive.

But it was his indomitable leadership that turned the Army around, stopped the Japanese advance and then conducted an amazing campaign to drive the Japanese out of Burma. But unlike many commanders, Slim was honest about his own mistakes and shortcomings. In recounting one battle he noted:

“Like so many generals whose plans have gone wrong I could find plenty of excuses but only one reason–myself….”

Slim has some of the most brilliant insights into leadership and I am just going to throw out one here.

“Morale is a state of mind. It is that intangible force which will move a whole group of men to give their last ounce to achieve something, without counting the cost to themselves; that makes them feel they are part of something greater than themselves. If they are to feel that, their morale must, if it is to endure–and the essence of morale is that it should endure–have certain foundations. These foundations are spiritual, intellectual, and material, and that is the order of their importance. Spiritual first, because only spiritual foundations can stand real strain. Next intellectual, because men are swayed by reason as well as feeling. Material last–important, but last–because the very highest kinds of morale are often met when material conditions are lowest.”

This is something that is really important and something that I think that we have lost all sense of in the West and why we struggle against insurgents who are inferior to us in every military aspect. We focus on the material first, technology has become our God, and it is our answer to everything. Likewise we often fail to emphasize the intellectual aspects of the military profession, the need to keep an open mind, to carefully examine doctrine and if it is not working to change it. Sadly, we all to often emphasize formulas, templates or abstract principles that that are hard to apply in the real world.

Likewise we often adhere to doctrines that do not apply to the wars that we are currently engaged, or which might break out. Instead policy makers and strategists often try make the reality fit our templates rather than taking the time to really learn, and much of what we have to learn is not related to tactics or technology. With all our technological marvels we have also lost much of the sense of personal leadership where senior leaders actually know their soldiers.

Slim understood the reality of these leadership principles because he took the time to know his soldiers. Because of the, his troops, in spite of the incredible hardships that they faced, knew that Slim understood them and would not sacrifice them needlessly. Slim trained his men hard in the tactics that would be needed to drive the Japanese from Burma and his leadership would pay off. His ability to hold leaders accountable for the welfare of their soldiers and his ability to relate to all kinds of soldiers made him one of the most unique and successful commanders of the war.

After the war Slim retired from active duty, but in 1948 Slim was called out of retirement by Prime Minister Clement Atlee to replace Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery as the Chief of the Imperial General Staff. He was the first officer from the Indian Army to hold that position, and indeed a rare feat for a man who began his career as a factory clerk.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, leadership, Military, world war one, world war two in the pacific

Flush Decks and Four Pipes: The Classic Wickes and Clemson Class Destroyers

USS Ward 1919

USS Ward DD-139

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have so  much I could write about right now but instead I am going to go back to the well and dredge up an older post about some iconic warships. I guess that you can say that I am kind of taking a bit of a break from the present to remember the past, but be assured, a lot of stuff is percolating in my mind, so be expecting some new material sometime soon, but for the next few days, unless something really dramatic happens I will be continuing to re-pubish some older articles about historic warships that I find fascinating. 

Have a great day,

Peace

Padre Steve+

USS_Pope_(DD-225)

USS Pope DD-225

The destroyers of the Wickes and Clemson classes defined the destroyer force of the U.S. Navy. In 1916 with the advent of the submarine as an effective weapon of war the Navy realized that its pervious classes of destroyers were insufficient to meet the new threat. Likewise the lack of endurance of earlier destroyers kept them from vital scouting missions since the U.S. Navy unlike the Royal Navy or Imperial German Navy maintained few cruisers for such missions.

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USS Paul Jones DD-230 late war note 3 stacks and radar

The Naval Appropriation Act of 1916 included the authorization of 50 Wickes Class destroyers to compliment 10 new battleships, 6 battlecruisers and 10 light cruisers with the goal of building a Navy second to none. The new destroyers were designed for high speed operations and intentionally designed for mass production setting a precedent for the following Clemson class as well as the destroyer classes built during the Second World War.

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USS Boggs DMS-3

The Wickes Class had a designed speed of 35 knots in order to be able to operate with the new Omaha Class light cruisers and Lexington Class Battlecruisers in the role of scouting for the fleet. They were flush-decked which provided additional hull strength and their speed was due to the additional horsepower provided by their Parsons turbines which produced 24,610 hp. They were 314’ long and had a 30 foot beam. Displacing 1247 tons full load they were 100 tons larger than the previous Caldwell class ships. They were armed with four 4 inch 50 caliber guns, one 3” 23 caliber gun and twelve 21” torpedo tubes.

uss crosby apd 17

USS Crosby APD 17

Although they were very fast they proved to be very “wet” ships forward and despite carrying an additional 100 tons of fuel they still lacked range. Due to the realization the U-Boat war required more escorts the order for Wickes Class ships was increased and 111 wear completed by 1919.

The Wickes Class was followed by the Clemson Class which was an expansion of the Wickes class being more tailored to anti-submarine warfare. They had a greater displacement due to additional fuel tanks and mounted the same armament had identical dimensions and were capable of 35 knots but had a larger rudder to give them a tighter turning radius. 156 ships of the class were completed.

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Honda Point Disaster 

In the inter-war years a number of each class were scrapped and 7 of the Clemson Class from DESRON 11 were lost in the Honda Point Disaster of September 8th 1923.

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Many of the ships never saw combat in either war as numerous ships were scrapped due to the limitations of the London Naval Treaty. Of the 267 ships of the two classes only 165 were still in service in 1936. As new destroyers were added to the navy in the 1930s a number of ships from each class were converted to other uses. Some became High Speed Transports (APD) and carried 4 LCVP landing craft and a small number of troops, usually about a company sized element. Others were converted to High Speed Minelayers (DM) or High Speed Minesweepers (DMS). A few were converted to Light Seaplane Tenders (AVD). Those converted to other uses had their armament reduced with dual purpose 3” 50 caliber guns replacing the 4” guns and the removal of their torpedoes. Those which remained received 6 of the 3” guns to replace their original gun armament and lost half of their torpedo tubes. During the war all would have light additional anti-aircraft armament and radar installed.

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USS Stewart DD-224 after return from Japanese service

In 1940 19 of the Clemson Class and 27 of the Wickes Class were transferred to the British Royal Navy under the Lend Lease program. Some of these would see later service in the Soviet Navy being transferred by the Royal Navy serving after the war with those ships being scrapped between 1950 and 1952.

uss pope final moments

The ships of these classes performed admirably during the Second World War despite their age. The USS Ward DD-139 fired the first shots of the war when it engaged and sank a Japanese midget sub outside of Pearl Harbor. The 13 ships of the Asiatic Fleet’s DESRON 29 took part in six engagements against far superior Japanese Navy units while operating in the Philippines and then in the Dutch East Indies as part of the ABDA Command including the Battle of Balikpapan where the USS John D Ford DD-228, USS Pope DD-225, USS Paul Jones DD-230 and USS Parrot DD-218 sank 4 Japanese transports. During that campaign 4 of these gallant ships were sunk in battle and a 5th the USS Stewart DD-224 was salvaged by the Japanese after being damaged and placed in a floating drydock at Surabaya following the Battle of Badung Strait. She was placed in service as a patrol ship by the Imperial Navy. She was discovered by U.S. Forces after the surrender and returned to the U.S. Navy.

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HMS Cambeltown (ex USS Buchanan DD-131) at St Nazaire

Whether in the Atlantic or the Pacific the ships contributed to the Allied victory. The former USS Buchanan DD-131 which had been transferred to the Royal Navy where she was re-named the HMS Campbeltown and used in the Saint-Nazaire Raid. For the raid she was altered in appearance to look like a German Möwe class destroyer was rammed into the only drydock on the Atlantic capable of holding the Battleship Tirpitz. The mission was successful and the drydock was unusable by the Germans for the rest of the war.

During the war they served in every major campaign and when no longer fit for front line service were used in escort roles in rear areas as well as in a variety of training and support roles. By the end of the war the surviving ships of both classes were worn out and a number were decommissioned and some scrapped even before the end of hostilities. Those that survived the war were all decommissioned by 1946 and most scrapped between 1945 and 1948.

During Second World War 9 of the Wickes Class were sunk in battle, and 7 were sunk or destroyed in other ways. 5 were later sunk as targets and the remaining ships were all scrapped. A total of 20 of the Clemson Class were lost either in battle or to other causes including those lost and Honda Point.

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USS Peary Memorial

The brave Sailors that manned these ships in peace and war become fewer in number every day as the Greatest Generation passes. It is a sad testimony that none of these ships were preserved as a memorial; however the Australians have a memorial at Darwin dedicated to the USS Peary DD-226 which was sunk with 80 of her crew during the Japanese raid on that city’s port on 19 February 1942. The memorial has one of her 4” guns pointed in the direction of the wreck of the Peary. A memorial to the USS Ward which showcases her #3 4” gun which sank the Japanese midget sub is located on the Capitol Grounds in St. Paul Minnesota.

The ships of the Wickes and Clemson classes were iconic, and their crews were heroic. Though none are left we should never forget the valiant service of these ships during both World Wars.

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Filed under History, Navy Ships, US Navy, World War II at Sea, world war one

Watershed Days


D-Day, June 6th 1944

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today I am posting just a relatively small thought. For those that do not know, the next few days are full of amazing historical events.

On June 3rd 1940, the British finished the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force and some French forces from Europe, though defeated, the British action preserved the British Army and kept Britain in the war. 


Midway 

 From June 4th through June 6th 1942 a small American fleet defeated a much larger, more experienced and better equipped fleet at the Battle of Midway. The battle did not end the war, but it ensured that Japan never could win the war against the United States in the Pacific. It was a turning point. It has rightly been called an “Incedible Victory” as all the elements that make war what it is, the element of chance, the element of friction, and the  element of surprise all broke the American way. The Japanese leaders, and for that matter many if not the vast majority of their soldiers and sailors were full of hubris, believing themselves invincible they were decisively defeated. 

Two Years later on June 6th 1944, Allied forces landed on the Normandy Peninsula of France to begin their long awaited attack on Nazi occupied Europe. The invasion, code named Operation Overlord did not end the war, but coupled with the Soveit offensive against the German Army Group Center which began just two weeks later, Operation Bagration, it was the beginning of the end for Hitler’s Germany. 

Twenty-six years earlier, two-regiments of U.S. Marines turned back the Germans at the Battle of Belleau Wood near Chateau-Thierry France. The effort blocked a German drive on Paris, giving the Allies the time to begin a counter-offensive that would end the war. 


Senator Robert F. Kennedy lays Mortally Wounded after being shot by Sirhan Sirhan 

But in addition to the battles other important events shook the world, in 1919 the Congress passed the 19th Amendment, which when ratified gave women the right to vote. In 1968, Senator Robert F. Kennedy was gunned down by the assassin Sirhan Sirhan in Los Angeles after winning the Democratic Party primary. He would have been the odds on favorite to defeat Republican Richard Nixon in the general election. On June 8th 1789 James Madison introduced twelve amendments to the U. S. Constitution, of which ten were ratified by the states to become known as the Bill of Rights. On June 8th 1967, the USS Liberty, a surveillance ship, was attacked by Israeli ships and aircraft during the Six Day War, the attack resulted in the death of 34 American sailors and the wounding of 171 more. 

Of course there are numerous other events that took place, some which were very important, and others which are Interesting but less important in world history, though they were important in certain countries or regions. I’ll be tacking some of these events in the coming days. 

Have a great day,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, world war one, world war two in europe, world war two in the pacific

Reading, Reflecting and Verdun


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It is now Wednesday following the long Memorial Day holiday weekend. As I mentioned I did not do much writing the past few days, instead I spend the time with Judy, our two Papillons, and friends. Likewise I did a lot of reading and reflection and took the time to watch the classic film A Bridge Too Far and the first four episodes of the HBO series  Band of Brothers.

But anyway…

It was good to take some time that was not directly related to the research and writing of my Civil War and Gettysburg text, even though some of my reading prompted me to do some more research and writing on that text which should prove beneficial to the end product, but as always I digress…


Gun turret at Fort Douaumont 

Over the weekend I caught up on some reading. I was able to read Colonel Andrew Bacevich’s book, The Limits of Power,  Alistair Horne’s Hubris: The Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century, Nate Braden’s American Renegade Marine: The Life and Times of Smedley Butler USMC, and I re-read Eric Hoffer’s classic work, The True Beleiver, and Walter Lord’s classic history of the Battle of Midway, Incredible Victory. All of these books are well worth weeding regardless of one’s political or ideological viewpoint because they deal with the human condition. Of course I have a number of other works in the que and will continue to read simply because all of these works help me make sense of the incredibly nonsensical world that we live in.

I also did some reading about the Battle for Verdun in the First World War and plan on re-reading Horne’s book on it, The Price of Glory. That battle began in 1916 and lasted 303 days. During that time about 750,000 French and German Soldiers were killed, wounded, or missing. Other more recent estimated place that number at 976,000 with about 1.25 million lost there during the course of the war. When it appeared that the Germans might take the forts surrounding the city and break the French line, General Petain issued the order “they shall not pass.” The battle made a tremendous impact on the French military and political psyche after the war, due to the French policy of rotating units through Verdun during the battle close to three-quarters of the French Army served there. Those who did never forgot the hell that was Verdun. 


If you go there you will find a battlefield unlike any other, it has a significance in France like Gettysburg, but unlike Gettysburg there are not legions of monuments dotting the battlefield commemorations men or units dotting an otherwise pristine battlefield. Yes, there are some, but what impresses is the fact that the land itself, a century after the battle still bears the scars of it. The landscape is still cratered by the immense number of artillery shells fired there. There are areas that are off limits because of the amount of unexploded ordnance, and residue of Mustard Gas. In the areas one can visit there are the remains of the great forts, two of which, Fort Douaumont and Fort Vaux can be toured. The village of Fleurey, which changed hands sixteen times during the battle can be walked through. A path paved with small pieces of shrapnel goes through a quit wood, small markers denote where each house, or shop in the village stood. At the center of the town, a small chapel built from the bricks and stones of destroyed buildings stands as a reminder. 

There are other monuments on the battlefield such as the Trench of Bayonets where the tips of rifles with bayonets affixed to them mark the location of a French squad buried when the trench collapsed. Of course there are the cemeteries, including one that contains the bodies of thousands of Algerian Muslim troops. But then there is the ossuary, a massive structure in the center of the cemeteries. Crowned by a tower shaped like an artillery shell which serves as a place where one can survey the battlefield, it has a great hall commemorating the units tha fought there. Underneath that great hall are interred the bones of about 130,000 unknown soldiers who were pulverized by the artillery. More are added every year, in fact while shuffling my feet around Fort Vaux in 1984 I unearthed what appeared to be part of a tibia. I contacted one of the staff so it could be properly interred. 


Fort Vaux 

Verdun has become a symbol of reconciliation between France and Germany over the years. It is a place where French and German leaders come, to honor the dead and to pledge themselves to continued reconciliation and peace. Last weekend President Hollande and Chancellor Merkel renewed that pledge. 

When I visited Verdun I was a young Army Second Lieutenant stationed in Germany, constantly training and preparing for the day the Soviets would cross the Fulda Gap and bring about a war that would have devastated Europe, and maybe led to a nuclear holocaust. The battlefield, the vast cratered landscape where little grows; dotted by forts, gun turrets, wire, pillboxes, ruins, cemeteries, and occasional monuments is still etched in my mind some thirty-two years later. To read the accounts of the men who fought a Verdun is to see the fact that war is brutal and dehumanizing, the sights, and smells of death, of rotting flesh, of men shattered, is sobering. I have been to war, I have seen those sights, smelled those smells, thankfully not on such a scale, for what I did see and experience in Iraq changed me for life, but I cannot imagine carnage and death on the scale of Verdun. 

So anyway, until tomorrow, 

Peace,

Padre Steve+



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Filed under History, Military, world war one

Why We Keep Memorial Day

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

This is Memorial Day Weekend, a weekend where we remember those who died in the service of our country. It is not a day to thank the living veterans, that day is Veteran’s Day. Nor is it the day to thank those men and women who currently wear the uniform and fight the wars of our country. This weekend I am reposting a number of articles from past years to remind my regular readers and those new to my writings about how important this remembrance is, not just to me, but to all of us. I do not say that lightly. Memorial Day is the offspring of the families of the American Civil War dead, when people who lost loved ones in the cause of liberty and the defense of the Union honored their loved ones.

No matter what your political views, ideology, or religious beliefs, please take time to remember the high human cost of freedom this weekend, especially on Monday when we observe Memorial Day.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Oliver Wendell Holmes 

“even if those who come after us are to forget all that we hold dear, and the future is to teach and kindle its children in ways as yet unrevealed, it is enough for us that this day is dear and sacred…”

Nearly 20 years after the Civil War, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. then serving as Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court spoke on Memorial Day 1884 in Keene New Hampshire at a gathering of veterans. He recalled an incident not long before where he had heard a young man ask “why people still kept up Memorial Day. The question was one that he pondered before his speech and that he attempted to find an answer, not to his fellow veterans who certainly understood their shared memories of war “but an answer which should command the assent of those who do not share our memories.”

3rd Infantry Places American Flags At The Graves Of U.S. Soldiers

I think that having an answer for the question is as timely now as when Holmes first pondered it. Though his war was twenty years past and had torn the nation apart, there were still many men on both sides who had served in that terrible time and but even so many people were not only forgetting the war and the sacrifices made by so many but intent on becoming rich. Something that he would directly state in a Memorial Day address to the graduating class of Harvard University in 1895:

“The society for which many philanthropists, labor reformers, and men of fashion unite in longing is one in which they may be comfortable and may shine without much trouble or any danger. The unfortunately growing hatred of the poor for the rich seems to me to rest on the belief that money is the main thing (a belief in which the poor have been encouraged by the rich), more than on any other grievance. Most of my hearers would rather that their daughters or their sisters should marry a son of one of the great rich families than a regular army officer, were he as beautiful, brave, and gifted as Sir William Napier. I have heard the question asked whether our war was worth fighting, after all. There are many, poor and rich, who think that love of country is an old wife’s tale, to be replaced by interest in a labor union, or, under the name of cosmopolitanism, by a rootless self-seeking search for a place where the most enjoyment may be had at the least cost.”

However his message to his fellow veterans, mostly men from his own former regiment, the 20th Massachusetts was quite personal and something that they could find meaning in. Holmes understood war, he had seen much action and had been wounded at Ball’s Bluff, Antietam and Chancellorsville. He talked of the shared experience of war, something that those who have fought in our nation’s wars, as well as combat veteran soldiers in other countries can understand far more than people that have only known peace, even while their countrymen are at war.

Memorial Day Series

Holmes’s remembrances of the war and the comrades that he and those present had served with, those living and those dead is powerful. Many of us who have served in the wars that began on September 11th 2001 have lost friends in either Iraq or Afghanistan, and many more who are wounded or maimed in body, mind and spirit. Many survivors of wounds today would have died in previous wars.

Likewise his descriptions of the memories of war, triggered by “accidents” are real to those that have experienced war and combat.

“Accidents may call up the events of the war. You see a battery of guns go by at a trot, and for a moment you are back at White Oak Swamp, or Antietam, or on the Jerusalem Road. You hear a few shots fired in the distance, and for an instant your heart stops as you say to yourself, The skirmishers are at it, and listen for the long roll of fire from the main line. You meet an old comrade after many years of absence; he recalls the moment that you were nearly surrounded by the enemy, and again there comes up to you that swift and cunning thinking on which once hung life and freedom–Shall I stand the best chance if I try the pistol or the sabre on that man who means to stop me? Will he get his carbine free before I reach him, or can I kill him first?These and the thousand other events we have known are called up, I say, by accident, and, apart from accident, they lie forgotten.”

We all have our memories of our wars, those of us who remain, be we veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan, Somalia, Desert Storm, Lebanon, Vietnam, Korea or World War II. It is hard to believe that so few remain from World War II and Korea, and that even the Vietnam veterans are aging rapidly, most now in their 60s or 70s. In as much as the wars of the past decade have been fought by a tiny minority of American citizens fewer and fewer will understand the bond that we share through our memories of the living and the dead. We have been set apart by our experiences, even though the wars that we have fought differ in many ways.

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As such we should whenever possible take the time to meet and remember. That might be as groups of friends, unit associations or perhaps local chapters of Veterans organizations. We do this to remember but also to remind ourselves that we cannot live in the past alone, for the present likewise calls us to action, even after our service is complete.

Holmes put it well: “When we meet thus, when we do honor to the dead in terms that must sometimes embrace the living, we do not deceive ourselves. We attribute no special merit to a man for having served when all were serving. We know that, if the armies of our war did anything worth remembering, the credit belongs not mainly to the individuals who did it, but to average human nature. We also know very well that we cannot live in associations with the past alone, and we admit that, if we would be worthy of the past, we must find new fields for action or thought, and make for ourselves new careers.”

We remember the past, we remember our fallen and we remember the families who have lost loved ones in these wars as well as those whose lives have been changed and maybe even torn apart by the changes that war has wrought in their loved ones who returned different from war. In our service we have been set apart and as such as Holmes so well states we have the duty to “bear the report to those who will come after us.” His words carry forth to us today, we few we happy few as Shakespeare so eloquently wrote.

“nevertheless, the generation that carried on the war has been set apart by its experience. Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing. While we are permitted to scorn nothing but indifference, and do not pretend to undervalue the worldly rewards of ambition, we have seen with our own eyes, beyond and above the gold fields, the snowy heights of honor, and it is for us to bear the report to those who come after us.”

I will remember my time in Iraq and those that I served alongside. I will also remember friends who served in other units who did not return as well as those Marines, Sailors and Soldiers that I see every day in our Naval Hospital suffering from the physical, psychological and spiritual wounds of war.

This weekend I will remember and on Monday, that sacred day that we set aside to remember the fallen I take some time at noon to join in that time of remembrance and pray that maybe someday war will be no more.

That is why I think that we should remember Memorial Day even if others forget.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under civil war, History, iraq,afghanistan, Military, News and current events, shipmates and veterans, vietnam, world war one, world war two in europe, world war two in the pacific

Fighting Germans and Jim Crow: African-Americans in the First World War

Harlem_Hell_Fighters

Harlem Hellfighters in Action

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

One of the things about history is that we tend to forget the sacrifices of men who fought for the ideals of liberty, even when they were denied it themselves. That was the case with the African American men who served in the Army after the Civil War and well into the 1960s, fighting the external enemies of the United States, while being subject to the discrimination of Jim Crow and the Black Codes at home.

They were Americans who in spite of prejudice and in spite of intolerance and persecution loved their country. They were men who labored under the most difficult circumstance to show all Americans and the world that they were worthy of being soldiers and citizens of the United States of America.

They were all volunteers and many of them were veteran soldiers had already served full careers on the Great Plains. They were the Buffalo Soldiers, and when the United States entered the First World War, they were not wanted. Instead, the veterans were left on the frontier and a new generation of African American draftees and volunteers became the nucleus of two new infantry divisions, the 92nd and 93rd.

However in the beginning they too were kept out of action. These men were initially regulated to doing labor service behind the lines and in the United States. But finally, the protests of organizations such as the NAACP and men like W.E.B.DuBois and Phillip Randolph forced the War Department to reconsider the second class status of these men and form them into combat units.

Despite this the leadership of the AEF, or the American Expeditionary Force of General John Pershing refused to allow these divisions to serve under American command. Somehow the concept of such men serving alongside White Americans in the “War to end All War” was offensive to the high command.

Instead these divisions were broken up and the regiments sent to serve out of American areas on the Western Front. The regiments of the 93rd Division were attached to French divisions. The 369th “Harlem Hellfighters” were first assigned to the French 16th Division and then to the 161st Division.

The 370th “Black Devils” were detailed to the French 26th Division and the 371st and 372nd Infantry Regiments were assigned to the French 157th (Colonial) Division, which was also known as the Red Hand Division.

These units performed with distinction. The 371st was awarded the French Croix de Guerre and Légion d’honneur and Corporal Freddie Stowers of the 1st Battalion 371st was the only African American awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in the First World War. The 372nd was also awarded the Croix de Guerre and Légion d’honneur for its service with the 157th Division.

The 157th (Colonial) Division had suffered badly during the war and been decimated in the unrelenting assaults in the trench warfare of the Western Front. It was reconstituted in 1918 with one French Regiment and two American regiments, the Negro 371st and 372nd Infantry. On July 4th 1918 the commanding General of the French 157th Division, General Mariano Goybet issued the following statement:

“It is striking demonstration of the long standing and blood-cemented friendship which binds together our two great nations. The sons of the soldiers of Lafayette greet the sons of the soldiers of George Washington who have come over to fight as in 1776, in a new and greater way of independence. The same success which followed the glorious fights for the cause of liberty is sure to crown our common effort now and bring about the final victory of right and justice over barbarity and oppression.”

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While many white American soldiers depreciated their French hosts and attempted to sow the seeds of their own racial prejudice against the black soldiers among the French, Southerners in particular warned the French of  the “black rapist beasts.” However the French experience of American blacks was far different than the often scornful treatment that they received from white American soldiers.

“Soldiers from the four regiments that served directly with the French Army attested to the willingness of the French to let men fight and to honor them for their achievements. Social interactions with French civilians- and white southern soldiers’ reactions to them- also highlighted crucial differences between the two societies. Unlike white soldiers, African Americans did not complain about high prices in French stores. Instead they focused on the fact that “they were welcomed” by every shopkeeper that they encountered.”

Official and unofficial efforts by those in the Army command and individual soldiers to stigmatize them and to try to force the French into applying Jim Crow to laws and attitudes backfired. Villages now expressed a preference for black over white American troops. “Take back these soldiers and send us some real Americans, black Americans,” wrote one village mayor after a group of rowdy white Americans disrupted the town.”

Stowers

The citation for Corporal Stowers award of the Medal of Honor reads as follows:

Corporal Stowers, distinguished himself by exceptional heroism on September 28, 1918 while serving as a squad leader in Company C, 371st Infantry Regiment, 93d Division. His company was the lead company during the attack on Hill 188, Champagne Marne Sector, France, during World War I. A few minutes after the attack began, the enemy ceased firing and began climbing up onto the parapets of the trenches, holding up their arms as if wishing to surrender. The enemy’s actions caused the American forces to cease fire and to come out into the open. As the company started forward and when within about 100 meters of the trench line, the enemy jumped back into their trenches and greeted Corporal Stowers’ company with interlocking bands of machine gun fire and mortar fire causing well over fifty percent casualties. Faced with incredible enemy resistance, Corporal Stowers took charge, setting such a courageous example of personal bravery and leadership that he inspired his men to follow him in the attack. With extraordinary heroism and complete disregard of personal danger under devastating fire, he crawled forward leading his squad toward an enemy machine gun nest, which was causing heavy casualties to his company. After fierce fighting, the machine gun position was destroyed and the enemy soldiers were killed. Displaying great courage and intrepidity Corporal Stowers continued to press the attack against a determined enemy. While crawling forward and urging his men to continue the attack on a second trench line, he was gravely wounded by machine gun fire. Although Corporal Stowers was mortally wounded, he pressed forward, urging on the members of his squad, until he died. Inspired by the heroism and display of bravery of Corporal Stowers, his company continued the attack against incredible odds, contributing to the capture of Hill 188 and causing heavy enemy casualties. Corporal Stowers’ conspicuous gallantry, extraordinary heroism, and supreme devotion to his men were well above and beyond the call of duty, follow the finest traditions of military service, and reflect the utmost credit on him and the United States Army.

Corporal Stowers is buried at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery. The award of the Medal of Honor was not made until 1991 when President George H. W. Bush presented it to Stowers’ two surviving sisters.

The contrast between the American treatment of its own soldiers and that of the French in the First World War is striking. The fact that it took President Harry S. Truman to integrate the U.S. Military in 1948 is also striking. African Americans had served in the Civil War, on the Great Plains, in Cuba and in both the European and Pacific Theaters of Operation in the Second World War and were treated as less than fully human by many Americans.

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Men of the 371st and 372nd Infantry Regiments of the French 157th Division Awarded the Croix d’Guerre

Even after President Truman desegregated the armed forces in 1948, African Americans, as well as other racial minorities, women and gays have faced very real discrimination. The military continues to make great strides, and while overt racist acts and other types of discrimination are outlawed, racism still remains a part of American life.

Today things have changed, and that in large part is due to the unselfish sacrifice in the face of hatred and discrimination of the men of the USCT and the State Black Regiments like the 54th Massachusetts and the Louisiana Home Guards who blazed a way to freedom for so many. Those who followed them as Buffalo Soldiers and volunteers during the World Wars continued to be trail blazers in the struggle for equal rights. A white soldier who served with the 49th Massachusetts wrote “all honor to our negro soldiers. They deserve citizenship. They will secure it! There would be much suffering in what he termed “the transition state” but a “nation is not born without pangs.”

Unfortunately racial prejudice is still exists in the United States. In spite of all the advances that we have made racism still casts an ugly cloud over our country. Despite the sacrifices of the Buffalo Soldiers, the leaders of the Civil Rights movement and others there are some people who like the leaders of the AEF in 1917 and 1918 cannot stomach having blacks as equals or God forbid in actual leadership roles in this country.

A good friend of mine who is a retired military officer, a white man, an evangelical Christian raised in Georgia who graduated from an elite military school in the South, who is a proponent of racial equality has told me that the problem that many white people in the South have with President Obama is that “he doesn’t know his place.” Yes racism is still real and rears its ugly head all too often.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Joyeux Noël: I Belong Here with those in Pain Who have Lost Their Faith

 

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

As a veteran who served in the badlands of Al Anbar Province during Christmas of 2007 I can relate to Father Palmer, the British priest and chaplain in the film Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas) when he makes the comment “I belong with those who are in pain, and who have lost their faith, I belong here.”

I again watched that film last night. The film is the story of the amazing and exceptional Christmas Truce of 1914. It is a film that each time I see it that I discover something new, more powerful than the last time I viewed it. It reminds me of serving in Iraq, at Christmas from my perspective as a Chaplain, and thereby giving voice to those who serve now, as well as those who served God’s people in hellish places before me. It reminds me of how much I hate war, and how much I often hate the clergy who are all too often, bloodthirsty cheerleaders for war.

 

As a Chaplain I am drawn to the actions of the British Padre in the film, who during the truce conducts a Mass for all the soldiers, British, French and German in no-man’s land, who goes about caring for the soldiers both the living and the dead. His actions are contrasted with his Bishop who comes to relieve him of his duties and to urge on the replacement soldiers to better kill the Germans.

As the Chaplain begins to provide the last Rites to a dying soldier the Bishop walks in, in full purple cassock frock coat and hat and the chaplain looks up and kisses his ring.

As the chaplain looks at his clerical superior there is a silence and the Bishop looks sternly at the priest and addresses him:

“You’re being sent back to your parish in Scotland. I’ve brought you your marching orders.”

Stunned the Priest replies: “I belong with those who are in pain, and who have lost their faith, I belong here.”

The Bishop then sternly lectures the Priest: “I am very disappointed you know. When you requested permission to accompany the recruits from your parish I personally vouched for you. But then when I heard what happened I prayed for you.”

The Priest humbly and respectfully yet with conviction responds to his superior: “I sincerely believe that our Lord Jesus Christ guided me in what was the most important Mass of my life. I tried to be true to his trust and carry his message to all, whoever they may be.”

The Bishop seems a bit taken aback but then blames the Chaplain for what will next happen to the Soldiers that he has served with in the trenches: “Those men who listened to you on Christmas Eve will very soon bitterly regret it; because in a few days time their regiment is to be disbanded by the order of His Majesty the King. Where will those poor boys end up on the front line now? And what will their families think?”

They are interrupted when a soldier walks in to let the Bishop know that the new soldiers are ready for his sermon. After acknowledging the messenger the Bishop continues: “They’re waiting for me to preach a sermon to those who are replacing those who went astray with you.” He gets ready to depart and continues: “May our Lord Jesus Christ guide your steps back to the straight and narrow path.”

The Priest looks at him and asks: “Is that truly the path of our Lord?”

The Bishop looks at the Priest and asks what I think is the most troubling question: “You’re not asking the right question. Think on this: are you really suitable to remain with us in the house of Our Lord?”

With that the Bishop leaves and goes on to preach. The words of the sermon are from a 1915 sermon preached by an Anglican Bishop in Westminster Abbey. They reflect the poisonous aspects of many religious leaders on all sides of the Great War, but also many religious leaders of various faiths even today, sadly I have to say Christian leaders are among the worst when it comes to inciting violence against those that they perceive as enemies of the Church, their nation or in some cases their political faction within a country.

 

“Christ our Lord said, “Think not that I come to bring peace on earth. I come not to bring peace, but a sword.” The Gospel according to St. Matthew. Well, my brethren, the sword of the Lord is in your hands. You are the very defenders of civilization itself. The forces of good against the forces of evil. For this war is indeed a crusade! A holy war to save the freedom of the world. In truth I tell you: the Germans do not act like us, neither do they think like us, for they are not, like us, children of God. Are those who shell cities populated only by civilians the children of God? Are those who advanced armed hiding behind women and children the children of God? With God’s help, you must kill the Germans, good or bad, young or old. Kill every one of them so that it won’t have to be done again.”

The sermon is chilling and had it not been edited by the director would have contained the remark actually said by the real Bishop that the Germans “crucified babies on Christmas.” Of course that was typical of the propaganda of the time and similar to things that religious leaders of all faiths use to demonize their opponents and stir up violence in the name of their God.

When the Bishop leaves the Priest finishes his ministration to the wounded while listening to the words of the Bishop who is preaching not far away in the trenches. He meditates upon his simple cross, takes it off, kisses it hand hangs it upon a tripod where a container of water hangs.

The scene is chilling for a number of reasons. First is the obvious, the actions of a religious leader to denigrate the efforts of some to bring the Gospel of Peace into the abyss of Hell of earth and then to incite others to violence dehumanizing the enemy forces. The second and possibly even more troubling is to suggest that those who do not support dehumanizing and exterminating the enemy are not suitable to remain in the house of the Lord. Since I have had people, some in person and others on social media say similar things to what the Bishop asks Palmer the scene hits close to home.

When I left Iraq in February 2008 I felt that I was abandoning those committed to my spiritual care, but my time was up. Because of it I missed going with some of my advisors to Basra with the 1st Iraqi Division to retake that city from insurgents. It was only a bit over a month after I had celebrated what I consider to be my most important Masses of my life at COP South and COP North on December 23rd as well as Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. In fact they were really the last masses that I felt the mystery and awe of the love of God that I used to so much feel.

When I left the new incoming senior Chaplain refused to take my replacement leaving our advisers without dedicated support. He then slandered me behind my back because what I was doing was not how he would do things and because I and my relief were under someone else’s operational control. It is funny how word gets back to you when people talk behind your back. Thankfully he is now retired from the Navy and I feel for any ministers of his denomination under his “spiritual” care. So I cannot forget those days and every time I think about them, especially around Christmas I am somewhat melancholy and why I can relate so much to Father Palmer in the movie.

It has been eight years since those Christmas Masses and they still feel like yesterday. In the intervening years my life has been different. Just a year later I was walking home from church where my wife was to sing in the choir during the Christmas vigil mass. I couldn’t handle the crowds, the noise, and I felt so far away from God. That night I walked home in the dark looking up into the sky asking God if he still was there. If there had been a bar on the way home I would have stopped by and poured myself in.

Since Iraq I have dealt with severe and chronic PTSD, depression, anxiety and insomnia were coupled with a two year period where due to my struggles I lost faith, was for all practical purposes an agnostic. I felt abandoned by God, but even more so and maybe more importantly by my former church and most other Chaplains. It was like being radioactive, there was and is a stigma for Chaplains that admits to PTSD and go through a faith crisis, especially from other Chaplains and Clergy. It was just before Christmas in late 2009 that faith began to return in what I call my Christmas Miracle. But be sure, let no one tell you differently, no Soldier, Sailor, Marine or Airman who has suffered the trauma of war and admitted to PTSD does not feel the stigma that goes with it, and sadly, despite the best efforts of many there is a stigma.

Now that faith is different and I have become much more skeptical of the motivations of religious leaders, especially those that demonize and dehumanize those that do not believe like them or fully support their cause or agenda. Unfortunately there are far too many men and women who will use religion to do that, far too many.

As for me, I thought that I was in a better place a year ago. I had the floor kicked from out from under me in the summer of 2014 and it has been a hard fight and while I am beginning to get back to some sense of normal it is a day to day thing. I still suffer the effects of the PTSD, especially the insomnia, nightmares and the nightmares which came back with a vengeance last summer. I also still have the anxiety in crowded places and bad traffic, but working with my new therapist I am coming up with some effective coping mechanisms. As for faith, I do believe again, though at the same time I doubt. I would have to consider myself a Christian Agnostic who echoes the cry of the man who cried out to Jesus, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief!” I believe and yet, I don’t.

Like the Priest in Joyeux Noel I know that my place is with those who are “in pain, and who have lost their faith.” For me this may no longer be on the battlefield as I will retire from the Navy in a few years. However, that being said I will strive to be there for those that struggle with faith and believe, especially those who struggle because of what they saw and experienced during war and when they returned home.

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Likewise I expect that I will do my best to speak truth to those in power and those whose faithfulness is more a product of their comfort with the God that they create in their own mind rather than the Crucified God wise death on the Cross s a scandal. For many Christians the scandal of the cross is too easy to avoid by surrounding ourselves with pet theologies that appeal to our pride, prejudice and power. The kind of malevolent power represented by the bishop in Joyeux Noel. Thus I take a measure of comfort in the words of Simone Weil who said “He who has not God in himself cannot feel His absence.” 

Thus, like Paul Tillich I have come to believe that “Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful.”  In other words to become a complete pain in the ass until the day that I die.

Praying for Peace this Christmas,

Padre Steve+

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